Planning Commission shows disdain for residents

Planning Commission shows disdain for residents

To the editor: 

As a child, I loved the myths and fairy tales that are part of youth. But, as an adult, I prefer data-based realities, especially when it comes to public policy decisions that affect us all. As former Rep. Barney Frank often said, “You are free to have your own opinions, but not your own facts.” 

After listening to five-and-a-half hours of testimony before the Planning Commission on November 1, I was struck by the lack of reality and the complete disdain the Commissioners had for the citizenry. 

There were 52 people who testified – roughly half were for the 132-page, staff-driven report and half were not. The dissenters were invisible to the chair and to his colleagues. And, at times, Planning Commission Chair Nate Macek even ignored relevant and critical questions from his own members, as he and his colleagues steamrollered ahead. 

How can you make decisions without answering these critical inquiries from your own board, much less not give any recognition to those generated by the in-person and Zoom audiences? 

Half of the attendees pleaded with the Commission to delay this vote until the outstanding questions were resolved. But Commissioners refused to even delay it by one week. City Council should NOT vote reflexively on November 28 on a plan with more holes than Swiss Cheese. 

Council must demand factual answers, not myths or fairy tales. Ironically, one of the commissioners who attended via Zoom for the entire five-and-a-half hours, did so without a single comment. How odd is that for a crucial debate? Why did she join a voluntary, unpaid Commission, if she had nothing to say? 

A foretaste of the outcome of the Nov. 1 hearing was provided by Commissioner Stephen Koenig on October 23 when he spoke to a standing-room only session of Agenda Alexandria. He unabashedly declared he had “no intention” of reading the entire 132-page staff document, “line by line.” And Koenig said he had “no qualms” about voting for it in its entirety, without reading it. 

Why did Council willingly appoint people who appear to have no time or interest to participate in the process? None of the seven should be assumed to be representing all citizens, in a neutral, thoughtful, questioning manner. They were more like lobbyists for the staff. 

That attitude was enforced by the fact that the city disclosed it had spent $100,000, working against the residents, with billboard signs throughout the West End that they were “creating” a whole new part of town – with a bullying tone of intrusion and not inclusion. 

At no point in the hearing was there any disclosure about what individual(s) are spearheading this perceived false urgency to rush this through. Nor was it disclosed who had pushed this crisis mentality. Does the Council of Governments run Alexandria, and are the taxpayers merely an invisible component? 

Amazing throughout the hearing was the lack of any transparent support for the presumed goal: affordable housing. The most enthusiastic of the 26 supporters for erasing Single Family Zoning had no realistic ideas on how this goal would be accomplished. By knocking down houses? There is a myth that many “new” units will arise from the ashes, like the Phoenix. 

“Housing for All” is like the concept of “Healthcare for All,” and the goal of “May your children be smart and good-looking.” But these are aspirational goals, not stable and substantive ones and proponents have no clue what it will cost and who will pay for it. 

Similarly, some supporters of upending regulations on zoning, density and height restrictions, repeatedly voiced the “wish” to create a “Walkable City” in Alexandria, where everyone would ban cars and walk or bicycle or scooter to their distant destination. This may be possible in parts of Old Town or in segments of Del Ray, but not in a city that already has the highest density in the state. The city plan presumes everyone is in excellent health and can walk miles. It ignores the fact that many people do not have public transit access to work, school, child care, grocery shopping and daily destinations. 

Because members of the Planning Commission are appointed, they do not have to be held accountable to the public for their votes. But incumbent members of the City Council must stand before voters in 2024 elections and justify these appointments – and their own votes on this issue. 

City Council members and city staff need to make time for a thoughtful review and perspective, which was totally lacking by the Planning Commission on November 1. 

-Kathleen Burns, Alexandria