On Resolutions

Happy holidays from the Alexandria City Council! As we close out 2016 and think about our resolutions for 2017, let’s look back on the important civic issues our Council chose to prioritize this week.

On Tuesday evening, December 13th , two members of Council, Mayor Allison Silberberg and Councilwoman Del Pepper, nearly derailed a citywide Arts Master Plan for the personal benefit of Torpedo Factory artists by attempting to insert a sentence regarding the facility’s future governance. Nevermind that a public engagement process is planned for 2017 so the entire Alexandria community may weigh in on appropriate ways to reinvigorate the city facility with the most untapped potential. Nevermind that it’s a citywide arts plan that focuses on more just the Torpedo Factory and offers creative ways to bring art to all corners of Alexandria. Thankfully on Saturday, the rest of the Council objected and adopted the Arts Commission’s original recommendation, but not before wasting nearly two hours over two days on the issue.

Also on Tuesday, December 13th, the full Council also voted unanimously to empower a working group to review whether the City should institute a veterans commission. Nevermind that the City has 70+ commissions already. Nevermind that veterans issues, per se, are not a primary function of local government, and the rationale for the proposed commission has yet to be made. Nevermind that even as staff resources are thin and city budgets are tight, the Mayor proclaimed that it would be “an honor” for overworked city employees to staff a new committee of marginal value.

During a cavalcade of public speeches at Saturday’s public hearing, Mayor Silberberg personally responded to nearly every speaker during the “open mic” portion of the meeting, delaying debate on the business at hand during a meeting twice delayed because of inclement weather. Council spent more than hour and a half (rather than the allotted half hour) on pop-up items not even on the agenda, including items that will soon be addressed at other meetings—a Taco Bell, traffic issues, Torpedo Factory governance, and on and on.

Council dawdled on a case to grant a special use permit for a new diner on Duke Street because of an adjacent church with complaints about parking—a case that by all measures, should have been handled administratively by staff months ago. As the discussion started, it seemed Council was willing to let the church have its way—before it even heard from the restaurant. They flirted with requiring the restaurant to remain closed on Sunday mornings. The flirted with traffic calming. They flirted with deferring the application for the neighbors to reconcile their differences, even though a similar deferral by the Planning Commission a month ago failed to achieve anything meaningful. After more than an hour of hearing and debate, Council basically adopted the staff recommendation, but not before asking the applicant to reduce its hours of operation from 5:30 a.m. to 6:00 a.m., in the “spirit of the holidays,” as the Mayor put it. It’s more Scrooge than Santa from the City Council for a small business trying to make a go of it.

To be fair, Saturday’s hearing had its highlights: approval for new affordable housing and a homeless shelter at the Carpenter’s Shelter site, and the go-ahead for a new Patrick Henry K-8 school. Yet even in adopting measures our community should be proud of, Council dithered over the sufficiency of parking at the Patrick Henry site (which required approval to build more parking than the city code requires).

As Council begins 2017, we can only hope that members will focus their precious time and attention on issues that matter. Saturday public hearings should not be allowed to be commandeered by any crowd with an axe to grind. Keep the public comment, but move it to the end of the agenda. And if the Mayor doesn’t have the good sense to avoid extended colloquy with each and every speaker instead of simply moving on, the other members of Council should have the courage to speak out and keep meetings on track.

More importantly, Council must redouble its efforts to focus on the major issues. Too much time is wasted on pet issues like King Street Christmas lights and red brick architecture, while our schools burst at the seams with new students, homicides reach a 9-year high, and budgets suffer from an imbalanced tax base. Given the quality and competence of City staff, Council must not wallow in the finer details of development proposals better left to their expert advisors. A key characteristic of leadership is trusting when to rely on the recommendations of others. Council would be wise to consider this, to free themselves from the minutia, and focus on the bigger picture. And we would be wise to help them, by resolving ourselves to demand such focus.

For 2017, here’s hoping Council—led by Mayor Silberberg, with the urging of all of her colleagues—will be resolved to focus more on the City’s major challenges, and less on the small stuff.

In other words, more forest, and less tree canopy.

– P.C. Publius

December 20, 2016

On the Cornerstone of Democracy

As I am reminded by my still-lingering hangover, last week we discussed some issues of weighty importance facing Alexandria. Among the issues driving that bourbon-fueled bender was the immediate and pressing concern of capacity constraints in our schools. Enter the Alexandria City Public Schools, with the always confidence-inspiring middle of the night press release.

Alexandria Superintendent Announces Plan to Solve Seating Capacity Issues Across All Grade Levels.

Woah, hey, this is great news! They’re taking the necessary and urgent action that we so desperately need and they’re obviously a satisfied reader of this here website. Win-win! I mean, this news couldn’t possibly be bett…. Wait. That wasn’t the full headline?

Alexandria Superintendent Announces Plan to Solve Seating Capacity Issues Across All Grade Levels by 2027.

Oh.

I see.

By 2027.

(sound of jaw clenching and unclenching)

Ok, listen. I get it. New schools don’t appear by magic. A lot has to happen to get new schools: sites identified, redistricting (or, I guess, re-redistricting) needs to occur, etc. It would have been an unfair expectation for the capacity crisis—and make no mistake, a crisis it is—to be resolved overnight. But TEN YEARS? That’s not bold leadership, that’s kick-the-can in the proudest tradition of our federal friends across the river.

And boy does it kick the can.

This moment calls for immediate action, yet a child in second grade today will graduate from TC Williams High School before this plan is fully realized. A newborn child today will be in sixth grade—middle school!—before this issue is fully addressed. This plan solves a crisis that exists today a half-generation from now, which is unacceptable. Also, don’t tell me what you’re going to do in ten years without the City Manager or the City Council standing right next to you. It’s their credit card you’re using.

It is undeniably sobering that our path out of this morass of crowded and aging school facilities is being measured in decades not years. It should be instructive too, by highlighting the consequences of putting off proactive infrastructure planning – much like other projects currently under consideration by the city. These bills will always come due, and it’s shameful that we’ve allowed this particular bill to land in front of our kids in the form of challenging learning conditions.

School overcrowding matters. It matters a lot. Several years back, researchers at Berkeley studied the Los Angeles Unified School District and found that elementary students moving from a severely overcrowded school to a new facility experienced achievement gains equivalent to an additional thirteen weeks of instruction. Even the students remaining behind in the older, yet now uncrowded, facility experienced achievement gains compared to the average student. Separate earlier studies have shown that school design features like light, good air flow, and a safe, comfortable learning environment correlate with stronger student engagement and achievement.

But even setting aside evidence of why more new schools are necessary for the students themselves, realize also that building these facilities is a crucial engine of economic growth. We are not going to convince families and businesses to move to our city and pay the high (weeps quietly while watching House Hunters in Small City, Wherever) cost of living if we can’t also promise a superlative educational experience for their children. Without those families and business paying taxes we’ll enter a spiral of decline that we may never pull out of. Just this week Washington Business Journal ranked area high schools and, while fully acknowledging that these rankings are mostly a function of racial and economic homogeneity in certain communities in our region, it’s striking to see all our immediate neighbors highlighted but not us. This reputational gap, very much driven by our facilities shortfall, will fester and worsen if left untreated.

And how about some options to pay for all of this? Identifying the need and proposing a solution is easy. Paying for it is much, much harder. Proposing a solution without even one word about what it will take to pay for such an ambitious infrastructure “plan” is disheartening. Is it tax increases? Is it more bonds? Is it cooperation with the private sector? It is more development and growth? Yes, ACPS has a responsibility to the students to ensure they are well educated. It also has a responsibility to lay out to the public and to the City Council what it thinks are the steps necessary to finance the need. Without a reasonable financing roadmap, the plan is, at best, incomplete. At worst, it’s a shot-across-the-bow wish list that can be easily ignored by City Council since it’s not based in fiscal reality.

To be sure, the sorry state of our elementary and secondary school capacity stems in part from the engagement imbalance in Alexandria civic affairs that we’ve previously discussed in these pages. If the most frequently heard voices have grown children and a fixation on halting the proliferation of bikeshare stations in Old Town, it gives the mistaken impression that Alexandrians writ large are not urgently concerned with real issues like school overcrowding. We all need to do better about speaking up on these issues that truly matter for the future of our city.

A proud son of the Commonwealth once said that the cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate. That we Alexandrians have allowed our foundation to crack and crumble is an indelible stain on a populace as collectively well-resourced as we are. We can do better. We will do better. We must do better, to rebuild this foundation and sustain generations of city residents to come.

– P.C. Publius

October 28, 2016

On Trifectas

(pours bourbon)

I grew up watching the Kentucky Derby. The Run for Roses. It was a blast. I would always be invited to these big Derby parties and remember the great jockey outfits, hats, bow ties, derby pie, and the twin spires of Churchill Downs. As I got older, I learned many more traditions of the Derby, namely mint juleps, bourbon, and of course, betting on the horses.

It’s from the Derby I first learned about the trifecta. Pick all the horses in their order of finish and you win more money. Easy, right?

No way.

When I bet on the horses, I never win the trifecta. I typically get a win, place or show, but can never line up all three horses in order. Anyone who knows anything about betting on horses will tell you if you hit a trifecta, you’re doing pretty well. Count your blessings, collect your winnings, have a few (more) bourbons, and walk away happy.

In Alexandria, we’ve hit the trifecta. Only in this trifecta, when you walk up to collect your winnings from the teller, you actually have to hand over more money. A lot more money. Because you actually lost. Luck be a lady? I don’t think so.

What is Alexandria’s trifecta?

(pours bourbon)

It’s the school capacity crisis, raw sewage dumping into the Potomac River after each rainstorm, and a city budget that struggles to meet (and in some cases can no longer meet) all of the demands of the citizenry. The first two are huge bills our city has to find a way to pay. The third is the reality that the cost of good government is quickly outpacing the money available to pay for everything we want.

This is definitely a trifecta we didn’t want to win, but we won it anyway. Big time. Lucky us.

(pours bourbon)

Let’s look at each of the horses that won our trifecta. First, school capacity. Let’s not mince words here – our school system is in a full-blown facilities crisis. It is literally bursting at the seams with students. We have reached a point where school facilities can no longer accommodate the number of students that want to attend our schools. School population is growing and growing with no end in sight. Teachers are teaching in closets and hallways.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Closets and hallways.

Any reasonable person will tell you teachers can overcome most obstacles to get their students to learn. They spend their own money on classroom supplies and dedicate countless hours to make sure their students walk out of school ready to take on the world. But what teachers can’t do is build more classrooms. Even the School Board can’t do that alone. That duty (and it is a duty) falls to our city government. And while the City Council and some members of the community debate the finer points of the location of open space and trees on school property, Alexandria’s students – our future – are relegated to closets, hallways and trailers to get an education.

What can we do about this? Acknowledge we’ve reached a crisis and fix the problem. Now. By the end of this budget cycle, let’s have a five-year plan that shows the schools that need to be built combined with the redistricting needed to equally distribute students across the entire system. Let’s also include recreational centers in our school planning in order to get the most use out of these significant, community investments. Interest rates are at the lowest they have been in history and we need to leverage our stellar bond rating to build schools. Because if we’re not using our bond ratings to meet basic citizen needs, then all of our work to get those bond ratings is simply for Council to point at them and say how great we are. This crisis is real.

(pours bourbon)

Second, if you haven’t heard lately, Alexandria likes to send raw sewage into the Potomac River after some big rains. As you can imagine, our friends that are downstream, not to mention the EPA and Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, don’t think too highly of that practice. The City calls it a Combined Sewer Overflow, or CSO. This is how it works.

The sewer and stormwater systems in some of Old Town (and only Old Town, mind you) are combined together. Under normal operations, stormwater and sewage both go to the water treatment plant. However, when the big rain comes, the system gets overloaded because it can’t handle the deluge of water. The resulting overflow of stormwater and raw sewage that can’t be processed heads straight into the Potomac. The system is incredibly outdated and is in need of replacement, for no other reason than dumping raw sewage into the Potomac is, well, gross.

The problem is cost. Some estimates have a CSO replacement system costing over $150 million – and maybe more. Since the City doesn’t have a printing press in the basement at City Hall pumping out brand new Treasury notes, the fine people of Alexandria will have to pick up the tab. Our friendly City Council says there may be some money from our generous and completely respectable elected officials in the General Assembly to help offset the full CSO fare. I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to simply hand over millions of dollars to one of the wealthiest cities in the Old Dominion. Anyone want to take bets on that?

There are no good options to fix the CSO in Old Town. It’s expensive and has to be done. Unlike citywide stormwater management, which has a potential solution in a proposed fee that would bring in more payers to meet federal obligations, we really can’t shift the CSO cost to anyone else. That’s why the CSO is the second trifecta issue for the City. It is a must-pay infrastructure bill that’s coming due and unless there’s free money from somewhere else, we all get to pay for this sh*t. Let’s hope the General Assembly gives us a few shillings.

(pours bourbon)

Finally, we have our city budget. City budget watchers will tell you Alexandria’s financial picture is under strain not seen in a generation. But don’t take it from just anybody on this one. The City Manager, who sees the trends and is trying to plan for the future, has asked city departments to analyze what services they would be able to provide if the departments (in theory) only had 90 percent of the approved funding in fiscal year 2017. Essentially the City Manager wants to know how departments would operate if they had 10 percent less funding.

Again, let that sink in for a minute.

10 percent less funding.

What we see here is a city that is slowly, painfully retreating from its current community service level. That means government will, in fact, do less with the same or more. Costs are rising faster than money coming in. It’s that simple.

Alexandria’s budget woes will continue. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. They’re not leveling with you. And there is no more room for pet projects or “nice to dos.” Those days are long over. What the Mayor and Council should do is be honest with its citizens and tell us what the top priorities really are.

(pours bourbon)

The Alexandria trifecta is reality and will take committed, focused leadership to solve. We can’t hide from it. It’s here. And it’s time to level with all Alexandrian’s about the costs, challenges, and options to tackle these issues head on.

I’m now on my sixth bourbon and it’s probably only taken you about five minutes to read this. If I keep this up, I won’t need to win the trifecta. The trifecta will own me. And that’s what we’re all trying to avoid.

(hits floor)

– P.C. Publius

October 18, 2016

On Brevity

Let’s be honest. Who really likes meetings? Do you like meetings? I don’t. I loathe them. But, I accept them as a necessary part of life. And since I loathe meetings but know they’re a necessary evil, wherever possible, I try to make them fast, efficient, and successful, because there’s no need to run a marathon when a sprint will do. Essentially, I want all my meetings to be like Usain Bolt.

Which leads me to our happy athletes on the Alexandria City Council. For arguments sake, let’s say they don’t like meetings any more than you do, but they tolerate them more because that’s where business is done. Well, where business is supposed to be done. So, they train for meetings. Lots of meetings; lots of training. And after only two meetings in the new Council session, we find our intrepid Councilmembers eschewing the fast and efficient sprint, gloriously skipping over the marathon, and heading right toward the Ironman triathlon.

Here’s the problem: they’re taking all of us with them. And I don’t know about you, but I haven’t trained for this distance. I can’t keep up. Dear God, I’m cramping up just thinking about it.

Running analogies aside, you may say that the torturous length of Council meetings really has no impact beyond the seven members of Council, the city staff, and the civic groupies (full disclosure: I’m a recovering civic groupie) who follow their every move. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

See, in Alexandria, there are those that train for meetings right alongside the Councilmembers and can attend every meeting. They come early, stay up late, sync their personal calendars with the Council schedule, and follow the Councilmembers around like they were figuring out who to draft for their fantasy football team. They don’t care about how long the meetings are. They’re groupies, that’s what groupies do. And that is dangerous for the Port City.

Longer meetings only favor those who can devote the time to train for that level of endurance. If you can devote the time to the meetings, chances are you’ll be able to influence our City Council (and city staff) more than someone who can only afford to sprint. Meetings that drag on long past their scheduled time and arrive hours late at certain agenda items are anathema to public engagement. If a single-mother wants to come offer testimony on a project that has meaning to her, how can she coordinate child care if she has no reliable way of knowing when her turn to speak will come? If a business owner needs to address Council regarding a special use permit and their docket item ends up delayed by hours, what does that say about how seriously the City takes them or their investment?

Overly long and poorly run City Council meetings will also have the effect of discouraging our next wave of good public officials. Talented members in our community considering a future in elected office—the type of people we need to generously volunteer their time to ensure a continually prosperous city—will watch these meetings and say NO WAY. This is to say nothing of those currently on the dais quitting out of fatigue or frustration.

Finally, meetings that run to nearly 11pm on a weeknight are grossly unfair to our city staff, many of whom have families and young children of their own. Having this happen occasionally when crucial issues arise might be tolerable, but having it become an expected and standard part of your work week? I could hardly blame them if they were looking at opportunities with other municipalities in the region that may treat them and their families with more respect.

When, exactly, did Council meetings get to be so. damn. long? I lay much of the chronic protraction of Council meetings at the feet of the person charged with running the meeting, Mayor Allison Silberberg. Bless her heart, she doesn’t seem to know that you can just say “thank you, next speaker” and move the meeting along. In her well-intentioned pursuit of making people feel heard, each piece of public or staff testimony seems to elicit in her some recollection or anecdote that she is compelled to share, leading to lengthy digressions on each and every docket item.

I say this not to wound the Mayor – truly I don’t. But there is widespread agreement that Council meeting management is (dare I say it) deplorable. It is a legitimate issue that must be dealt with, because these embarrassingly unfocused meetings, which have now also become legendary outside of Alexandria, aren’t just a charming quirk that we can suffer through, tolerate, or shrug off. Having better meetings matters. It actually matters a lot.

It’s not lost on me that I should propose some solutions for the public’s consideration. So let’s start small. How about some timed agendas? It’s not a revolutionary concept, but meeting management 101 employed by thousands of organizations across the globe and should be good enough for our small(ish) enclave. Simple, right?

Next, let’s make a distinction between Council meetings and town halls. Council meetings are not town halls or a “Mayor on Your Corner” event. Council meetings are for business, for action, for progress. They are not, and should not be, treated as a vehicle for every complaint voiced by the same civic groupies at every turn. That is disrespectful to the Council members, to the city staff, and to the general public who want to be engaged but are so disgusted by the monthly open mic ritual as to turn away from civic life and declare it a brutal waste of their time.

Longer meetings and constant colloquies don’t encourage open and ethical government. They do the opposite. They run off the people who only have limited time and favor those who have the wherewithal to suffer (and I do mean suffer) through endless anecdotes, Council faux anger as they play to the cameras, and talking for the sake of hearing yourself speak.

With the Council session just starting, and so many different issues to tackle in the next 10 months, there’s no way that our Council, our staff, our citizens – our CITY – can keep this up. Something has to give. Not everyone has the endurance for endless Ironmans. For the sake of the future, let’s start small and make our Council meetings, the place where the people’s business is to be conducted, the most efficient and productive that we can. Let’s do timed agendas and, if we absolutely need to, schedule separate town halls away from City Hall.

If we do some small, basic things, we can all be like Usain Bolt and cross the finish line grinning from ear to ear.

– P.C. Publius

September 23, 2016

On Retail

As you may have heard ‘round these parts, The New York Times—America’s newspaper of record, the Gray Lady herself—recently weighed in on development and change in Old Town. The article’s closing paragraph struck a chord; according to one small business owner: “We used to have a very strong identity. This is a very historic town. But now, some people say that that is being abandoned to be trendy.” By this account, forward-looking Old Town development is to blame for a business district that has lost its retail quirkiness, driving up rent and driving out small businesses.

The temptation to identify a singular culprit responsible for retail woes along King Street—real and imagined—is understandable, but in this case reductive. The reality, however messy, is that a complex mix of market forces caused by real estate pressures, consumer preferences, and a changing economy in general is buffeting retail throughout the city—and around the world. From Old Town, to Carlyle, to Mount Vernon Avenue to Landmark Mall, Adam Smith’s invisible hand extends a single vulgar finger toward the health of retail districts throughout the city. But with appropriate support from City Hall and the public at large, we can still draw and sustain the mix of retail needed in order to be a thriving and attractive city.

Let’s take Old Town. Just a few short decades ago, Alexandria’s downtown was left for dead as Northern Virginians flocked to new suburban shopping centers like Seven Corners, Tysons Corner, Bailey’s Crossroads, and our own Landmark Mall. A few enterprising small businesses saw potential to attract tourists transiting between Washington, D.C. and Mount Vernon, and a new industry—based on the City’s rich history and outstanding architecture—was born.

Old Town Alexandria transitioned from a business district that primarily served local residents to one also focused on visitors, albeit with charms that continue to delight the locals. Without that transition, Old Town would have become a boarded up slum decades ago with City tax revenue going down with it. Despite calls for Old Town to exist in a “bubble,” the reality is that its retail health depends on outside investment by visitors. The mix of small businesses in Old Town simply cannot survive on purchases from Alexandrians alone.

To help Old Town continue to thrive, a concerted effort to market and manage the quality of the business district is required. The City has made strides by encouraging outdoor dining and streamlining approval requirements for small businesses. Business organizations have formed to tackle joint marketing and event creation, supported by efforts of citywide (and City funded) organizations like Economic Development, Visit Alexandria and the Small Business Development Center. The Chamber of Commerce continues to advocate and provide networking citywide. But to fully compete with the region’s other business districts, a Business Improvement District (BID) focused on the economic success of Old Town is overdue.

Alexandria business centers outside of Old Town face other challenges. At Landmark Mall, we must incentivize development that will attract new retail to create a regional shopping and entertainment destination. In Carlyle, we need to balance the mix of land uses, including commercial, office and residential, to help draw retailers to the district’s many vacant storefronts. In North Potomac Yard, small area planning now underway must account for the significant impact that big-box retail—and the associated sales taxes paid by consumers—has on the City’s tax base. On Mount Vernon Avenue, in both Del Ray and Arlandria, we must nurture the unique mix of businesses that create places “where Main Street still exists.”

We must recognize that retail has changed in recent years, driven most significantly by internet commerce. In many cases, trips to brick-and-mortar stores have forever been replaced by one-click online shopping. That’s an issue nationally, and will likely result in less big-box retail over time. Healthy business districts will react by providing dining, activities, and retail experiences that simply can’t be enjoyed by shopping online. That’s what makes businesses like Alexandria’s Fibre Space, Olio Tasting Room, Escape Room Live, and Stitch Sew Shop, so special. The city needs to continue efforts that provide flexibility in permitting for these new and different “active” retail uses.

We’re not alone in our fight to attract more people to the business districts we know and love. Georgetown isn’t Old Town’s only challenger anymore, with stiff competition from H Street NE, 14th Street NW, U Street NW, Shaw, and downtown DC, plus Clarendon and Shirlington in Arlington County. Other districts face competition from Springfield, Pentagon City, and strip malls along Richmond Highway and Leesburg Pike. Alexandria has one of the oldest and most authentic urban waterfronts in the Washington area, but there are new waterfronts throughout the region, from National Harbor to the District’s $2.5 billion dollar Wharf development on the Southwest Waterfront and the new Capital Riverfront along the Anacostia River near Nationals Park. Each of these places offers somewhere new, unique and exciting for people to spend their money—instead of shopping here.

If we don’t work to keep our retail mix attractive, our local commerce will wither on the vine. It’s happened before in Old Town, it’s happened in Landmark, and if we’re not careful, it will happen again. And when that happens, we’ll lose the friendly, eclectic, walkable commerce that drew so many here in the first place. We need both trendy and unique retail for our City to thrive. That’s why we need to do more than just shop local (to keep those sales taxes in the City’s coffers) by supporting BIDs, targeted investment, special events, marketing campaigns, best practices in parking management, and other tools to encourage retailers to invest here, and visitors to shop here.

The Gray Lady’s statement on Alexandria’s quirky small businesses need not be the last word. Smart and supportive policies can help retailers to be in the black. It will take some green to do this, and—being Alexandria—some will see red at any attempt to attract more visitors to town. But we must act to provide blue skies for retail growth.

Will you need a bag for that?

– P.C. Publius

September 16, 2016

On Endings and Beginnings

As the end of this intermittently habitable summer draws to a close, it’s exciting to know that our friends at Kings Dominion have graciously permitted us to resume our ongoing conversation about this tree sanctuary we call home. It’s an invigorating time of year, with schools reopening (and parents rejoicing), official Washington returning to work(ish), and the Alexandria City Council returning to the dais.

When we last left our intrepid band of local pols in June, they had a list of 2016 accomplishments that included things critical to the progress of our city—advancing the Potomac Yard Metro station, approving new affordable housing at the Ramsey Homes site, and tackling outstanding city infrastructure needs through the FY17 budget—as well as things less critical, like the passage of a (needlessly duplicative) transparency resolution and a shuffling of deck chairs regarding street tree species, brick colors, and streetlight specifications.

Since the Council adjourned, Alexandria has received a renewed AAA bond rating, ground was broken on the waterfront for the new Old Dominion Boat Club, the award-winning Port City Brewing Co. worked with the City and Commonwealth to stay here and grow, and the New York Times discovered that we exist. All encouraging signs of the exciting things the near-term future holds for us.

Work remains to be done this fall, however, to preserve this hard-earned momentum. City staff will conduct real estate assessments, which will frame the tax rate debate for the duration of the year. Robinson Terminal North returns to the drawing board after the hotel market proved inhospitable to developers’ ambitions. Old Town North and North Potomac Yard small area plans will move closer to adoption, while Eisenhower West joins the list of recently-adopted plans being actively implemented. Our Chief of Police will retire and a new chief installed. The Alexandria City Public Schools will release new enrollment numbers, which will certainly add new urgency to the conversation about school capacity concerns. And even as work is completed on the FY17 budget, the cycle begins anew as Council provides FY18 budget guidance to the City Manager this fall.

Outside of our borders, the environment will continue to change and challenge us. Our city will welcome a new neighbor – a multi-billion dollar casino and resort complex immediately across the Potomac. In the District, the Southwest Waterfront will continue to rise along the river’s edge, challenging all regional waterfronts—including Alexandria—to meet its grandeur. Metro SafeTrack will continue to cause significant disruptions in the region’s most important transit system, creating transportation headaches for weeks and months on end. And the Silver Line will continue to reach into western Fairfax and Loudoun counties, luring major employers further from the urban core of the region. How we respond to these challenges will say a lot about our elected leadership, our citizenry, and the future of Alexandria.

As regular order resumes in our city, it would be disingenuous to say that we stand on any sort of precipice regarding our future. But in the shadow of a national election that carries sweeping implications for the kind of nation we want to be, we here in Alexandria should not squander the opportunities before us. Even if our national leaders can’t see beyond the next election, it is our duty—and our responsibility—to make hard choices and emphasize priorities that ensure a growing and inclusive community. If we can do that, as citizens of Alexandria, then we can rightfully claim a place of pride as the best our region has to offer and a true exemplar of what we mean by a Commonwealth.

Let us begin.

– P.C. Publius

September 7, 2016

On Community

There is a wildness abroad in the republic. White-eyed and snarling, we saw it last week in Baton Rouge, in Minnesota, and in Dallas. Before that Orlando, and before that Charleston, and on down through a roll call of terrorized American cities. Alexandria, though steeped in history and privilege, is no more immune to this wildness than any other corner of America, with two recent tragedies in the Braddock neighborhood weaving themselves into the shroud of this hot and bloody summer.

This wildness is born of a toxic political and cultural dialogue that too often encourages us to look into the face of a neighbor and see not ourselves but some frightening Other. And in this we find the root cause of our current troubles- an abdication of what it means to live in a community.

A community is a shared place, a coming together of different people with the common bond of co-location. A community is not us and them. A community is not my interests set against yours. A community is being able to look over the fence or down the block or across the way and fundamentally accept that the person you see there, while different perhaps in the superficial specifics, has the same investment and dedication and love for this place that you do.

In community then, we find the answer to these troubles because the very notion of Other is antithetical to true community.

Communities come together to lift up one of their own. When TC Williams’ Noah Lyles competed in Oregon last weekend at the United States Olympic Trials for track and field the level of interest and encouragement on social media and elsewhere was remarkable. He set a high school national record and inspired a legion of local fans.

Communities greet adversity shoulder to shoulder. When Al’s Steakhouse burned last week, on the day it re-opened no less, neighbors and businesses in Del Ray responded with an outpouring of support for the Breedings and planned a fundraiser with other local restaurants to help them through this challenging time.

Communities consider the needs of even those with the least of means. After a months-long and occasionally contentious debate, City Council finally decided to advance the redevelopment and improvement of the Ramsey Homes, bringing much-needed relief to residents that have long-endured substandard living conditions there. In making this decision Council has rightfully indicated these residents are owed the same type of opportunity and attention the rest of us expect and receive.

When I despair for the state of the republic, and I do despair, I look around Alexandria and see the communities—the community—that we have and know the hour is not yet so long as to be lost.

Our challenge then is to each do our part in the care and maintenance of this city, this community. It means making our collective voices heard to will into being the things that bring communities together. Shared spaces like the longed-for Colosanto Pool in Del Ray. Activities that unite us like RPCA’s outdoor movie nights held at parks throughout the city. Hubs of enterprise and opportunity like the once and future Landmark Mall.

During the first week in August we will all come together across Alexandria to participate in National Night Out, the perfect crystallization and demonstration of what community is and should be. I’ll be there- and you should be there too.

At a recent City Council meeting a citizen was heard to remark that what Old Town needed was a bubble dropped over it, to protect it from the sundry indecencies of modern life like a viewshed-ruining bikeshare station. This anecdote, however eye-roll worthy, stands as an appropriate denouement of this discussion because a bubble is a perfect contrast to the idea of community. Bubbles separate us, define the Other, make it clear that you are welcome There but not Here. A community cannot exist in a bubble because communities constantly grow and change in wonderful ways that we can never fully predict.

It is incumbent upon all of us to foster this growth and change because here’s the thing about bubbles- bubbles pop.

Communities though, endure.

– P.C. Publius

July 14, 2016

On Getting From Here to There

Welcome one and all to Alexandria’s own Metroshambles, an event already in progress, with no service into the District on the Blue Line, and Yellow set to join Blue on the bench in a little more than a week’s time. That we have arrived at this point is a story too long and sordid for the space we have available here (read Washingtonian for an excellent summary) but suffice to say the slow motion collapse of our region’s heavy rail system owes largely to a combination of financial turpitude and physical neglect.

Complaining about the various indignities visited upon us by this swamp-carpeted death trap we tolerate as a primary commuter artery has been a regional pastime for years now, but this rolling series of complete station shutdowns has a gravity and a finality that elicits a somber response from even those of us otherwise inclined to gallows humor.

Given that preamble, you might expect this essay to be a thorough dressing down of Metro and its deficient management. And while that would certainly prove cathartic, I’d instead like to use this space to offer one specific piece of praise – for Metro as well as the City of Alexandria. Because while those rattling tin monuments to 1970s taste and technology have failed our city, the sparkling new Metroway bus rapid transit line down the median of Route 1 has not. Far from failing, it now stands poised to rescue us all. Residents of North Old Town and Braddock and Rosemont and Del Ray that may not have had prior reason to use Metroway will likely use it in droves between now and the end of July, and it’s just possible that many of them will continue to use it once these Metrorail disruptions have passed.

As it turns out, advocating for, funding, and constructing the Metroway was smart long-term planning on the part of the City. More than ever our city needs a diverse transportation infrastructure – and it’s a shame that it takes a Metrorail crisis to make a critical mass of city residents aware of the various options available to them. It’s a long list that includes more than a dozen DASH bus routes, standard Metrobus service, Capital Bikeshare, and Virginia Railway Express. And during the SafeTrack closures in Alexandria, Metro and the City will smartly be providing free shuttle services to and from Braddock Road Station, additional bikeshare docks and bicycles, and additional DASH bus service to the Pentagon.

Returning now to Metroway, it is generally held that bus rapid transit routes are a savvy transportation investment. They’re a fraction of the cost of expanding a heavy rail subway line or adding light rail (to wit, the enormous sums being spent on the Silver and Purple lines respectively), they’re faster to build and they make more efficient use of public roadways. Given all that, it’s mystifying why investment in bus routes is often looked down on by elected officials, but I suspect the answer lies somewhere close to the romanticism we’ve long attached to rail travel, compared to the proletarian bus.

In Alexandria’s case, the City government—including staff and City Council—had the vision and foresight to adopt a Transportation Master Plan in 2008 calling for three bus rapid transit corridors and construction of the Potomac Yard Metrorail Station, backed by revenue from a soft dedication of 2.2 cents per $100 of assessed value on real property to support transportation investments.

The Metroway should not be the end of City efforts in this regard. The West End is in desperate need of investment in transportation infrastructure and a bus rapid transit line connecting the Van Dorn Metro Station with Landmark, Mark Center, Shirlington, and the Pentagon could be just the answer. With the Route 1 Metroway hopefully minting new riders and new advocates for this type of project we can use that momentum to spread success to another part of the city, such as the Duke Street Corridor.

Alexandria, it turns out, is a regional leader in this regard. While Arlington dithered over whether to build a streetcar connecting Columbia Pike to Pentagon City and Crystal City, in Metroway Alexandria was building the first dedicated bus rapid transit corridor in the Washington Region. Metroway has since been extended into south Arlington, other bus rapid transit corridors are planned for Route 1 Richmond Highway south of Alexandria, the I-270 corridor in Maryland, and various major streets in the District.

In addition, the City is poised to support the first bus connection across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, with a new route proposed to connect the King Street Metrorail Station with National Harbor and the new MGM Casino beginning this fall.

Innovative bus service should be something we all embrace and support- and vocally advocate for its funding to be included and preserved in future budgets and capital programs. Each of us should take an opportunity to ride a bus, and in doing so demonstrate firsthand the utility of these investments. And in turn, Alexandria should ensure that residents get maximum value from these investments by doing all that they can to integrate its rapid bus services with our surrounding jurisdictions, because travel and commerce do not stop at the city limits.

As a region, we will continue to need a broad and functional Metrorail network to provide major transit arteries. But increasingly, smart investment in buses will provide the mobility needed to stitch together our neighborhoods, and in turn, our city.

We’ve got the seats on the bus. Let’s get on and fill them.

– P.C. Publius

June 28,2016

On Priorities

Imagine you’ve got a to-do list that’s a mile long. It runs the gamut from “fix leaky roof” to “do the laundry,” from “buy groceries” to “get a pedicure.” Where do you start? Where do you focus your time and attention? If you’re like most people, you’ll begin with the items that are the most urgent, or the most time sensitive. You’d spend the most time on the highest priority items, and you’d gather the most information about the items of greatest consequence.

That’s how government ought to run too, right? Put the time and effort into the most important decisions. But over the last six months, Alexandria City Council meetings have seemed to prioritize the minutiae over the meaningful.

The Saturday, June 18th public hearing is an exemplary case in point. On a gorgeous summer day, our councilors holed up in City Hall for a 6 hour, 23 minute meeting. Council surely must have had pressing business to justify such a long and laborious meeting!

The better part of an hour was spent discussing a Capital Bikeshare station recently situated in an innocuous location near the Safeway in the southeast quadrant of Old Town, in response to a citizen’s complaint during the public comments section of the agenda. The mayor, in particular, was adamant that there must be additional outreach to situate future stations, despite extensive past public meetings that established plans for future Bikeshare locations and monthly Traffic and Parking Board hearings for new on-street locations. The mayor, sympathizing with a speaker who said Old Town should be preserved in a bubble, called for more process and more debate on, what are essentially, bike racks. It brought to mind the full hour Council spent discussing streetlamp styles at the May 24 legislative meeting.

Nearly three hours of the June 18th hearing was occupied by a public hearing to extend the City’s lease of Cameron Run Regional Park to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority for a 20-year period, hitched to the acquisition of an unrelated 18th century livery house in Old Town. This was an issue that appeared to be premature for Council’s consideration. The agreement under discussion was reached with no public input and little to no analysis of alternative uses in a city starved for park and recreation space. Unlike food trucks, replacement streetlamps, an interim park, or a litany of other topics, there were no online surveys regarding this item on the City’s own feedback tool, Alex Engage. There were no public meetings, or even consultations with the various bodies charged with advising Council on parks and open space, historic resources, or budgetary impacts. Bowing to the exhortations of the numerous Park and Recreation Commission members aghast at the devil’s bargain before Council, the item was deferred for further study and additional public input.

Another item, to modify the zoning ordinance to facilitate small businesses, ultimately passed Council on a 6-1 vote, but not without a winding discussion and abortive attempts to explain to the mayor why permitting more low impact uses (such childcare homes with up to nine children, small restaurants, and health clubs) without public hearings would facilitate commerce in the city. The mayor ultimately voted against the package. Most troubling, a proposal to allow non-development special use permits to receive approval from the Planning Commission without a Council hearing will not be further studied, as Councilors expressed reservations about delegating the least significant special use permit approvals off of their plate. By doing so, the Council has now actively chosen to remain focused on the trees (including, in some instances, the specific species of tree and the exact GPS coordinates where those trees are planted) rather than the forest.

If Saturday’s meeting made anything clear, it’s that City Council needs to seriously examine how their meetings are conducted. They are poorly chaired, with the mayor leading long colloquies between each public speaker. She asks lengthy follow-up questions to provide more speaking time to those with whom she agrees, and treats parliamentary procedure as a confusing hindrance rather than a tool to facilitate fair and effective debate.

The time Council spends on less meaningful issues, like year-round Christmas lights on King Street, selecting streetlamps for the waterfront promenade, or quibbling over the hours a small-time pizzeria will be open for delivery, directly reduces the time available to debate the significant issues facing the City.

Fortunately, over the next few months City Council will adopt a new Strategic Plan, a general framework outlining the broad priorities Council will emphasize in developing future budgets, directing future planning efforts, and debating future policies. The strategic plan will serve as a useful and timely tool and provides the opportunity for Council members to be high-minded in their governance of the City.

When Council members return from their (unnecessarily long) summer hiatus in September, they would be wise to keep their debate focused on that strategy instead of wallowing in the trivial. The City has a capable and professional staff that should be expected to manage the details. Council should reconsider opportunities to delegate to advisory bodies like the Planning Commission, while retaining the ability for citizens to appeal decisions to Council. They should provide ample opportunities for review and comment on the important topics (like re-leasing Cameron Run Regional Park), but not turn decision making on extraordinarily minor things (like situating bike racks) into endless opportunities for citizen filibuster. And the entire Council, with the mayor in the lead, should facilitate discussion on big picture items by developing the skills required to run more efficient and effective meetings.

There are a host of big issues that City Council members’ time is better spent addressing, like affordable housing, school capacity, infrastructure investments, and long-range planning. And at the moment, Alexandria’s to-do list isn’t getting any shorter.

Where do we begin? City Council can start by fixing the leaky roof.

– P.C. Publius

June 22, 2016

On Losing Sorely

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before- success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. A well-worn expression, trite in a way (and sexist to be sure), but with a true-north sense of the communal desire to share in victory. It is cliché in that it reflects a universal piece of the human condition; universal, but for the exception of recent behavior right here in Alexandria. Here, in our city, failure is far from an orphan; it has in fact become a cottage industry.

A disquieting trend has emerged wherein projects advanced by the City over the protestations of the intransigent neighborhood of no do not actually earn the right to be implemented. Surprisingly, it seems that projects which manage to pass the Board of Architecture Review, the Planning Commission, and the City Council are still viewed as lacking validity and sufficient public engagement by these amateur historians standing athwart progress with their arms spread wide yelling “PARKING!!”

And rather than accept these decisions as, correctly, the public will, this small but well-resourced and vexingly un-time-constrained rabble has taken to our court system out of vindictive spite. Their response to losing the battle of public opinion (time and time and time again) is to ensure that new hotels, restaurants and public spaces arrive years late, battered and bloodied from a court fight.

Take for example, the “Iron Ladies,” and their long quest to undo portions of the City’s Waterfront Plan. Their case sought to subject a zoning ordinance text amendment to a supermajority vote of City Council, subverting the will of the majority to the tyranny of the few. They appealed their case multiple times, which twice was considered by the Virginia Supreme Court. Council even passed the text amendment a second time with a supermajority vote. In the end, the courts found the City’s case was ironclad, and the Iron Ladies’ nothing but rust- but not without causing years of uncertainty for a city eager to jumpstart its Waterfront Plan.

Even today, court battles by obstinate neighbors are holding up projects eager to break ground. One case seeks to stop La Bergerie from operating a small inn and restaurant on commercial North Washington Street, for fear of rodents or the masses parking as far as three blocks away (never mind that the restaurant has contracted to provide free parking across the street). More than a year after a special use permit was approved by City Council, La Bergerie’s owners await the outcome of a court case (and its likely appeal) before the fate of their venture is known.

Another case seeks to withhold a Board of Architecture Review Certificate of Appropriateness for the proposed Robinson Landing development in the 300 block of South Union Street. Despite more than a dozen public hearings and an appeal to City Council, the proposed architecture does not appeal to neighbors of the development, including a lead plaintiff whose own home greets the street with the blank wall of a garage door. While the City is likely to prevail, the case adds time and complexity to a vital project that is key to creating public improvements that will make the Waterfront somewhere everyone wants to be.

To put a fine point on it, what this insistent litigiousness says is- we know better than you. We know better than you, citizen of Alexandria that voted to elect a City Council. We know better than you, resident of the West End that hopes to enjoy a world-class waterfront. We know better than you, small business owner striving to serve our community and lift residential tax burdens. We know better than you- and we are on a march to the sea to prove it.

I wish we could ignore this. I wish it was possible to let them have their tantrums and rend their garments over the loss of boat clubs and tradition in the face of progress and inclusion. But these lawsuits are having an undeniable chilling effect on the perception of Alexandria as a place to live and do business (simply browse the comments on this post for a sample of this sentiment).

We cannot continue to tolerate a public planning process that includes the foregone expectation of a scorched earth insurgency against any decision to build and grow and prosper. We cannot continue to tolerate the ongoing extortion of our tax dollars as the City is forced to spend huge sums of money on this litigation. We will lose businesses, new and existing, to Arlington. We will lose residents, new and existing, to Fairfax County. We will lose the vibrant, thriving city that so many of us work tirelessly to ensure. And make no mistake, this is their clear intent- to dictate to us all who and what conforms to their exclusionary vision of Alexandria.

So what can you do? You can speak up, make your voice heard. The next time a friend or neighbor wonders why a long-awaited project hasn’t materialized, tell them about this. The next time you’re frustrated that you can’t eat in a restaurant you’ve been anticipating, contact city council and let them know you support that project- a broad depth of public sentiment and support is valuable ammunition in court. The next time you read a letter to the editor that is nothing more than a thin gloss on “we don’t want this thing or these people here” write your own letter that says “actually, we do.”

Do not orphan our successes Alexandria. Do not accept the continued taking of hostages by legal brief. Be instead a father or mother of our city’s progress, as we are countless in number.

And our day in court is now.

– P.C. Publius

June 15, 2016