Opponents of Potomac Yard arena want chance to speak out

Opponents of Potomac Yard arena want chance to speak out
Residents have expressed confusion with the format of public engagement. (Rendering/JBG Smith)

By James Matheson | jmatheson@alextimes.com

Opponents to the proposed $2 billion arena project at Potomac Yard have voiced dissatisfaction with the city’s approach to the public speaking on the project since its announcement in December 2023.

Citizens said they feel as though they are not being permitted to wholly express their concerns at informational sessions, town halls, City Council meetings and pop-up events at businesses and buildings across the city. Chief complaints are a lack of transparency from city officials and a restrictive means by which residents are permitted to ask questions.

“Transparency, this is one of the most upsetting aspects of this whole process. Seven weeks ago, this was dropped in our laps,” Robert Tetrault, a 12-year Alexandria resident, wrote in an email to the Times. “Up until the last [listening session], the only way we could ask a question was to write it down on an index card.”

The traffic meeting, held on February 1, was a virtual meeting in a series of listening sessions hosted by the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership. The meeting presented transportation planning and traffic management priorities based on the analysis of state-hired Kimley-Horn, an engineering, planning and design consulting firm.

The hour-long listening session – and the two that preceded it – consisted of approximately 30 minutes of an informational presentation, followed by a second half of panelists answering questions submitted through an online chat. All unanswered questions from each session will eventually be provided answers, according to Stephanie Landrum, AEDP president and CEO.

Mayor Justin Wilson said these meetings, along with town halls hosted by City Council, work in tandem to accomplish the city’s approach in providing answers to the community. The listening sessions give experts an opportunity to share the plans for the project while town halls place Alexandria policymakers in front of their constituents.

“This is kind of a new thing for City Council,” Wilson said. “We actually go out, take questions and have the whole Council there. All of us, sitting there and answering questions, whatever we receive from the community.”

Town halls are structured so Council answers resident questions via index cards. Wilson poses the question to the entire Council and either one or multiple Councilors answer the question.

“I’ve certainly heard a lot of appreciation from the community for the fact that we do this,” Wilson said. “We’ve always had public hearings every month where people can come, testify and say whatever they want for three minutes. But Council is not answering [at public hearings], we don’t typically answer there.”

Audrey Clement – an Arlington resident with a Ph.D. in political science – was caught off guard by this format when she attended the town hall meeting on January 27 to learn more about both sides of the debate.

Clement had prepared a two-minute spoken comment and a question to deliver to City Council, asking if a study or analysis of the proposed project had been completed by any independent firm not hired by the city or the Commonwealth.

“I went in there to sign up to speak and they said, ‘You can’t speak. You can ask a question, you can write a question on a three by five card.’ I was shocked,” Clement said. “I thought that this town hall was for the purpose of hearing from the public. Why else would you have a town hall?”

Clement left the Charles Houston Recreation Center and instead delivered her remarks outside at a rally hosted by the Coalition to Stop the Arena at Potomac Yard and Don’t Mute D.C., activist groups that actively oppose the arena proposal. She said her frustrations were acknowledged and shared by those in attendance.

Citizens like Shannon Curtis, a Del Ray resident and board member for the Stop the Arena Coalition, have joined in the discontent.

“Aside from the lack of opportunity for meaningful input on this proposal, when the city and AEDP do take questions, they seem woefully unprepared to answer them,” Curtis said. “They can’t answer what happens to Potomac Avenue. They can’t provide details on why this proposal is so ‘unique.’ They can’t provide any transparency as to what we should be relying on to get us to these huge revenue numbers.”

According to Wilson, the city is taking note of all such comments from the public: those in favor, those against the project and those who want to learn more before coming to a conclusion.

The mayor encouraged all residents who want to express their thoughts to do so at the monthly public hearings.

“The City Council has a public hearing every single month and we have [done this for] forever,” Wilson said. “The community is always welcome to come and speak to us about any issues or issues on the docket.”