On Light in the Darkness

2020 was not a good year.

We were struck by a viral pandemic and ravaged by an incompetent and indifferent federal response. Four hundred years of Black men and women on our shores was marked by the four hundredth year of state sanctioned violence against them. A choked and wheezing planet burned some places and drowned others, sending cyclonic winds and droughts to anywhere spared the fires and floods. Our democracy was splintered to the point of shattering by weak and grasping men in thrall to a venal grifter and the fear-enriched media empires looming behind him.

2020 was, for these reasons and countless others, not a good year.

Alexandria has hardly been spared. By the end of December, we had climbed past 7,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 85 deaths, numbers that tragically continue to rise even as you read this. The public health crisis sparked a recession that has fallen harshly on our bars and restaurants, decimated our tourism and hospitality sector, and impoverished city residents from all walks of life. Our schools remain closed as ACPS leadership stumbles from one half-formed plan to another, spending more time on utterly inscrutable powerpoint slides than on addressing widening learning disparities and families drifting away from the system.

But even in a year of kaleidoscopic crises folding in on and compounding one another, there were clear glimpses of the city that I remain immeasurably proud to call my home.

2020 was a year in which we opened a rebuilt and renewed Carpenter’s Shelter, a handsome building that doesn’t try to hide services for our neighbors in need in some tucked away corner of town but instead greets all southbound visitors to Alexandria with an example of this community’s commitment to embracing all those who live here. The shelter and affordable housing project—a 60-bed shelter, 87 affordable apartments, and 10 permanent supportive housing units—is a partnership between Carpenter’s Shelter, the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation (AHDC), and the City and is hopefully a model for future efforts in this regard.

2020 was a year in which partnerships between developers, the City, and major institutions kick-started projects that will bring world-class facilities to the city, catalyzing long-term elements of the City’s master plan. Virginia Tech received approval for the first buildings in its Innovation Campus, just steps from the new Potomac Yard-VT Metrorail station now under construction. Inova Health System announced a new ambulatory care center in Oakville Triangle in March and a new home for Inova Alexandria Hospital at the shuttered Landmark Mall in December. Each of these projects will beneficially change the face of our city for generations.  

2020 was a year when this city’s nonprofits rose to the challenge of the moment, none more so than ALIVE! and Casa Chirilagua. ALIVE! has been working to make sure that nearly 14,000 Alexandrians per month don’t go hungry; they’ve delivered close to 200,000 pounds of food since the start of this crisis. They doubled the amount of funding in their family assistance program that distributes up to $500 per household for rent, utilities, medical expenses, and other emergency needs. Casa Chirilagua created learning hubs to provide learning and emotional support for dozens of students and delivered food and financial assistance for hundreds of families. Their efforts were recognized with a $25,000 grant from Bloomberg philanthropies to help them deliver additional wireless connectivity to the community they serve.

2020 was a year to be inspired by the youth of this city and the inclusive future they represent. Even as adults that should have known better dragged their feet and rended their garments over taking the name of a racist segregationist off our high school, it was the students in that high school that spoke loudly with actions like covering the sign in front of the school and sharing their painful stories of personal experiences with discrimination and racial inequity. School district leaders will surely take a victory lap and look for accolades now that the name change decision has been made, but we will remember that it was the students that acted while the adults took face-saving half measures and waited for an easy answer.

2020 was a year when the City of Alexandria’s fiscal prudence and long-term planning bore massive benefits as we weathered an era-defining financial downturn, suffering sharp but not terminal reductions to city services and workforces. What’s more, the City showed a degree of creativity and resilience in its support of retail, restaurants, and early childhood education providers that ensured many of these places were able to limp on, bowed but not broken. The City cut red tape to facilitate curbside, takeout, and outdoor dining, and finally made room for pedestrians on the 100 block of King Street. Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) worked with the City to distribute CARES Act funding through the Alexandria Back to Business (B2B) grant program. Now in its second round, the first round of ALXB2B grants helped over three hundred small businesses in the city reopen or rescale their operation. Businesses in every zip code in the city received grants, and 40% of the awards went to businesses that are minority-owned.

It has been a hard, exhausting, tragic year. It has been a year that indelibly marked many in our community, driving changes that will not soon be reversed. But through it all ours has been a city that looked inward and found a wellspring of strength, and determination, and love. Even as a small handful of our neighbors groused online about small inconveniences that must stand as proof of some nefarious civic conspiracy, far more of us extended grace and compassion and solidarity to neighbors and public servants alike.

2020 was not a good year. Yet Alexandria endured, and will continue to endure. The strength of this community has been tested at previous times over our two and a half centuries on the banks of the Potomac and it has never been found wanting. And it will not be found wanting now.

2020 was not a good year, but we’ll pass through it soon enough. And the things that guided us through this storm—those shining examples of the best of us in the darkest times—they will be there to light our way in the tomorrows to come.

– P.C. Publius

December 28, 2020

On Doing This All Over Again

Election day has come and gone for reality-based Americans, and with it the end of the bruising, interminable 2020 campaign cycle. But even as the rest of the nation gets to enjoy a period of time free from mailboxes choked with glossy campaign lit of politicians playing with their dogs, here in Alexandria we have to confront the distressing truth that our next citywide election day is less than 11 months away, on November 2, 2021. Moreover, the race for mayor and City Council is likely to heat up as soon as the new year, with a Democratic primary to choose nominees fast approaching this summer. With Councilwoman Del Pepper’s recently announced retirement, there will be at least one new face on Council in 2022.

City elections aren’t on most of our radar screens yet, but they’re certainly on the minds of the self-appointed civic guardians whose letters to the editor and social media posts aim to save Alexandrians from the tyranny of their City government. This group is the MAGA crowd of Alexandria, aiming to “Make Alexandria Great Again.” But like the national gaggle of red-hat-wearing Trump supporters, their view on the issues that matter in this election is a caricature of the real challenges the city faces:

  • Stopping bike lanes instead of safer, less congested streets
  • Limiting the size of school buildings rather than providing adequate educational facilities to meet growing enrollment
  • Saving individual trees instead of preserving open space and enhancing and recreational facilities.
  • Preventing accessory dwelling units rather than creating more inclusive and affordable housing
  • Blaming development for, well, practically everything, including flooding in neighborhoods built in a flood plain 100 years ago

Their views inhabit an alternate reality in which there’s no pandemic ranging, no fiscal crisis facing our state and local governments, no economic challenges facing our small businesses, no oppression by systemic racism, or a myriad of other important issues that have been front and center in civic debates this year.

Their volume outpaces their numbers—as is always the case with civic complainers—but the result still fills the ears of City Council with noise and a few members who seem to play to that audience with “vaguebook” social media posts about city issues.

This group will certainly aim to support a challenger to Mayor Justin Wilson next year, in either the primary or the general election. The most likely candidate is “The Honorable” Allison Silberberg, the former mayor who recently came out of hibernation to author a richly-worded essay on hunger in Alexandria that, in her typical fashion, is laden with anecdotes but short on solutions. Just this past week, she entered the fray on social media offering a long-winded take on the horrors of felling a tree on the Maury Elementary schoolyard, only slightly moderating her tone when she learned the tree was diseased and the need for its removal was widely communicated to the surrounding neighborhood two months ago. (She has seldom exhibited such passion for the children attending the school).

There is likely to be a slate of MAlxGA candidates running in the Democratic primary for Council next summer, and possibly Republicans and independents on the ballot in the fall. In Alexandria local politics, party identification signals little about the issues that motivate each candidate, requiring careful attention by voters seeking to make a progressive choice.

As we head into local election season in 2021, it’s more important than ever to know who’s on top of the issues that matter. Seek out information from reliable sources. Learn candidate’s positions on the issues you care about. Most importantly, tune into not just the race for mayor, but also for City Council. After all, in our city government, the mayor is just one of seven votes on council. Make certain that candidates that share your views about the real issues that matter to you and your family have your vote.

Even if a vaccine essentially ends the pandemic between now and the election, the next Council will have to deal with the economic fallout for years to come. If we are not careful voters—who seek to educate ourselves and our fellow citizens—we may wind up with council members more focused on thwarting progress than making it. In 2021, may Alexandrians have the wisdom and integrity to elect a mayor and City Council candidates who understand the depth of city issues, and offer pragmatic solutions to the serious challenges confronting us.

– P.C. Publius

December 7, 2020

On Memory

History and memory are not the same thing.

This is not a complicated idea, yet disagreement about this fundamental truth gets us most of the way to understanding the swift and dark undertow in the currents of the national mood. There is an unruly sentiment abroad in the Republic that by choosing to lift up previously disregarded perspectives and parts of our past—a past that, as history, will forever remain unchanged—we are ignoring and abdicating our responsibility to celebrate our “real” history.

But history and memory are not the same thing.

When a statue is pulled down it does not change the history of our seditious Alexandrian forefathers who took up arms to preserve for-profit human bondage, but it does change who we say we are and what we are striving to be. When a high school is renamed it does not change the history of discrimination and diminution of opportunity by race that once stalked its halls, but it does change how today’s students see themselves and the type of future they can have.

These actions change what we as a community choose to remember. And memory is just as real—and powerful—as history.

Indeed, memory remains on the march long after history has been driven from the field, as we just saw in Fairfax County when John R. Lewis joined that proud American tradition of visiting stinging defeat upon Robert E. Lee, on Virginian soil no less. Our neighbors in Fairfax choose, quickly and decisively, the kind of memory that is needed to shape and sustain the community they have become and wish to remain.

In Alexandria, predictably, the powers that be formed a committee to discuss what we might want to remember, eventually, maybe, if that’s not too much trouble. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. And infuriating.

If only the high school had been named Affordable Infill Housing, we’d have it renamed tomorrow.

It is important to understand the full arc of what has happened in recent weeks. Community activism—in response to the Movement for Black Lives and the national reaction to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many more at the hands of the state—revived the decades-long effort to remove the name of avowed racist segregationist Thomas Chambliss Williams from our city’s only public high school. These activists put the challenge to the School Board to remove the name immediately and the Board responded, predictably, by agreeing that maybe something should be done about the name, just not by them, not now, and perhaps not at all.

Showing considerably more character and backbone than most members of this cautious Board, students responded by tastefully draping Titan-pride red and blue fabric over the segregationist’s name on the sign outside the school. This action was met with patently absurd charges of “defacing school property” and threatened consequences by the person responsible for maintaining good “school and community relations.”

In truth I have not yet retrieved my jaw from the floor where it fell when I read the audacious words of our high school principal—in a letter shared with the community—parroting the ACPS line that this behavior was out of bounds and that acceptable protest takes the form of a pre-approved agreement between the powerful and the aggrieved. What a ghastly thing to model for the righteous youth of 2020. If John Lewis had been similarly advised on his march to Montgomery, he’d still be standing in Selma on the western approach to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, waiting for his paperwork to clear.

I can think of no greater tell that you believe in the permanent primacy of The Way Things Must Be Done than to suggest it is necessary to seek permission from those in power prior to disagreeing with them. That’s not protest, that’s performance. You’re essentially saying the kids can have a little civil disobedience, as a treat.

As I’ve sorted through my feelings of anger and frustration and bafflement at the words and actions of various ACPS leaders throughout this sordid debacle, what I keep returning to is that this is the hill they chose to die on. Not the wheezing, crumbling school buildings choking our system to death; not the vision-less, consultant-driven plan for mitigating an over-enrolled high school; not the dual public health crises of viral spread and systemic racism locking in permanent equity gaps; but this. The insistence on a long and deliberate process regarding the memory of an unreconstructed racist. A can kicked into slow orbit around the sun.

And even this obstinate disregard for the moment wasn’t enough! Worse still was when ACPS chose not to lead—and that mantle necessarily fell to the students in their charge—they sought to slap it from their hands as well.

Memory is an active and ongoing choice. The choices of a prior generation about what must be passed down—what stories we tell about ourselves and about our city—do not need to be our choices. It is the proper and healthy action of a community to continually revisit and renew our collective memory of who we are and who we wish to be.

We do this not only with excision and subtraction, but with the addition and inclusion of new memories as well. We can choose to remember those who shrank from this moment when the bright light found them. We can choose to remember the students with the courage to see justice when the adults around them saw only inconvenience. We must choose to remember our Black neighbors—Blois Hundley and countless others—on whom the shadow of this man’s name has too long fallen. And yes, members of this current School Board—several of whom seem to be in thrall to a constituency that lives primarily in the back pages of the local tabloid rag and nowhere else—we can and will choose to remember you too.

History and memory are not the same thing; in the end, only one of them is a dustbin.

– P.C. Publius

July 28, 2020

On Opinions

I don’t know about you, but there is one thing there will be no shortage of around our Thanksgiving table: opinions. About everything from football (is $4 too much for a ticket to see the local team?) to which sides are better (garlic mashed potatoes, please) to the state of the world today (don’t even get me started). One thing is certain, everyone at the table will understand that each has a different view. Yet somehow, we can sit at the same table, enjoy a meal, and generally indulge in this most American of holidays together.

Contemplating the upcoming feast and its opinionated participants made me think of recent events in our little hamlet. In the event you have been ignoring the local NextDoor posts, listserv screeds, and local papers’ opinion sections, let me explain.

Over the last decade or so, the city adopted a Transportation Master Plan, a Complete Streets plan, and a Vision Zero plan. All of them together amount to this: in our 14.9 square-mile corner of the world, the streets should be safe for multiple modes of transportation. In short, one should be able to safely get around Alexandria on foot, on bike, on scooter, or in a car. The implementation of these plans involves a variety of things, from the relatively simple like adding a stop sign or adjusting pedestrian signal timing to the more complex like adding sidewalks and re-configuring traffic lanes. Where changing the road configuration is required, the city implements such changes as roads come up for repaving. It’s a fiscally prudent move, but it means the plans cannot be implemented at once.

That brings us to the latest tempest in our replica colonial teapot: changes to a slightly less than one-mile stretch of Seminary Road. If you want to read the background on the various proposals, public meetings, and the Council hearing, go for it. But to summarize, the city is changing the road from four lanes to three. Doing so creates a traffic pattern with one lane in each direction and a center turn lane. It also allows the addition of a bike lane, which provides a buffer between vehicular traffic and the sidewalk.  The changes are consistent with the various adopted plans. As with any change to anything, there were opinions – quite strong ones – both for and against the changes. And, as often happens on issues where there is a fair amount of civic shouting, the council vote was a close one.

And in the aftermath, a now-familiar Alexandria script has played out: those whose view did not prevail in front of Council have accused our elected representatives of “not listening to the people” and their fellow citizens of being “outside special interests.” They have fomented about the lack of sway civic associations carry despite the fact that civic association membership is a mere fraction of the populace. They insist that somehow there is a conspiracy at play here. Someone is on the take! Someone is trying to destroy our city! The people are against it! Those fellow citizens for it are outsiders or in the pocket of… Big Bicycle? the Pedestrian Industrial Complex? Whatever the case may be, it’s clear they cannot be real Alexandrians!

There is always a group out there yelling that “the people” are of one mind on a given topic. Not sure who needs to hear this, but in the spirit of the holiday here goes: there are as many opinions as there are people in this city. Just because the vote does not go your way does not mean you were not heard. Chances are there were just as many fellow citizens–residents of Alexandria in full-standing their ownselves–who had an opposing view. And our democratically elected Council is not in fact The Party of Orwellian imagination, nor for that matter Palpatine’s Empire.

Elected representatives make the decisions they believe are best for the city as a whole, taking into account not just varied citizen opinion but also technical data, opinions of a variety of professionals, and local, state, and national studies on the impacts of various proposed changes. We elect them to use their best judgment on our behalf.

Change is never easy. And piecemeal change, while the responsible fiscal decision, is particularly difficult. But railing against change by insisting that no Alexandria resident could possibly be in favor of it without somehow being corrupt is insulting to your fellow citizens at best.

We’re all at this big 160,000-person table together. Maybe we should agree that no one opinion is more privileged than any other

Now, please pass the gravy.

– P.C. Publius

November 27, 2019

On Saying Yes

The very first essay published on this site was a paean to inclusive public spaces, written in response to those seeking to neuter the activation of Waterfront Park. And while the ensuing years have not seen us successfully drive the NIMBYs from Alexandria as Saint Patrick drove the snakes from the 32 counties of Ireland, we have gotten a wonderfully vibrant Waterfront Park and that is victory enough for now.

If you haven’t yet made it down to see the reborn and re-imagined front porch of Alexandria, make time on the next nice weekend to experience its sun-drenched glory. Waterfront Park is more than just a place to gather and relax, a place to kick up your heels or kick off your heels. It is a physical monument to the perseverance of the best possible vision of what Alexandria can be.

Gone is the blighted private building that long loomed over the foot of King Street like a two-story KEEP OUT sign. You’re greeted now by an expansive view of the water, anchored with public art that encourages curiosity and interaction. You’ll have to navigate children and families running and playing as you make your way across the broad lawns—both real and plastic—to sit and swing and watch the boat traffic come and go.

City staff deserves a tremendous amount of credit for how they’ve programmed and activated Waterfront Park. Barely a weekend goes by without some festival or other opportunity for outdoor drinking taking place. Clutch those pearls tight- this park has already hosted live music, off-leash dogs, food trucks, and strollers as far as the eye can see. And crucially, all this activity has been a true public/private partnership: some events like Portside In Old Town were put on by the City and others like the Old Town Beer Wine and Dogs Festival and the Old Town Festival of Speed and Style were independently planned and executed.

This is the Alexandria I want to live in! The willingness of the City to just try stuff in Waterfront Park has been revelatory. And nearly all the stuff they’ve tried has been fantastic! There was a pop-up beer garden. An Irish culture festival. Next month, the return of the Portside in Old Town festival. Right now, at this very minute, there is an airstream trailer selling tacos on the Alexandria waterfront. Let me repeat that again in case those in the back couldn’t hear me- there is an AIRSTREAM TRAILER SELLING TACOS ON THE ALEXANDRIA WATERFRONT. Truly we live in an age of miracles.

The larger point here (as if there could be a larger point than airstream trailer tacos but stick with me) is that this didn’t happen by accident. This happened because the vision documented in the Waterfront Plan was supported by our local electeds, delivered by City staff, and defended in the court of public opinion by people like you and me (and also defended in, uh, actual real-life court).

So come enjoy Waterfront Park. And if you like what you see, know that people fought for it. Fought hard for it. For years. Inertia is the most powerful force in the universe and absent the committed efforts of people who want to see growth and change and vibrant inclusiveness—that inertia will reproduce and replicate private privilege, stifling and lifeless.

We cannot ignore the power of our collective voice as we drag Old Town and the rest of Alexandria into the 21st century. In the coming months and years we’ll consider things like a pedestrian plaza along King Street, a reinvigoration of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, and a creative revisioning of our City Hall. Looking beyond Old Town there’s the critical projects at Landmark Mall and Cameron Run, both still on the horizon but getting closer every day. All of these initiatives are just as likely to encounter stiff-necked opposition as Waterfront Park did.

So I’ll close by repeating the refrain I wrote nearly 40 months ago. No longer can this be the city of the hidebound and the chicken-littles. This city is not theirs; it is ours. Ours is a city that says we want progress. Ours is a city that says we want public spaces that hum and bustle with laughter and music and enterprise. Ours is a city that says we can try things.

Ours is a city that says yes.

– P.C. Publius

September 23, 2019

On Civic Engagement

Rejoice fellow Alexandrians, for I bring news that our long civic nightmare is over. After months of debate, nearly 100 speakers at a public hearing, and around 8 hours of deliberation, City Council has at last (narrowly) voted to solve one of the most vexing problems in our city. Was it affordable housing, you ask? Or perhaps over-crowded schools? No wait- it must be small business health and competitiveness! Nope. All wrong.

City Council made a decision on how to paint lines on Seminary Road.

Granted, the four Councilmembers who voted in favor of the complete streets measures are on the correct side of this issue. Choosing an alternative that turns the busy four-lane street into a safer design with one vehicle lane and one bike lane in each direction and a center turn lane is the responsible decision, backed by volumes of scientific evidence and a proven track record on King Street, Janney’s Lane, Slaters Lane and other roadways throughout Alexandria that have experienced a road diet.

The point here is not to take a victory lap on behalf of road diets (even the simple act of typing those words feels small and sad) but rather to examine how this episode revealed important truths about the march of progress in the Port City.

For starters, many of the city’s civic associations have been unmasked as something akin to the man behind the curtain. Thirteen civic associations, united by the Federation of Civic Associations, voted to oppose the complete streets on Seminary Road, claiming that translated into residents’ monolithic opposition to the proposal. Meanwhile, some informal probing by Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker presented at the Council meeting found that only about 30% of Seminary Hill residents opposed the complete streets proposals. Moreover, the opinion of many civic associations represented only the views of an executive board, as most did not reach out to members for their opinions on this issue. About that membership: In many cases, the dues-paying members are just a handful of the population the associations claim to represent. And the largest and most vocal of the civic associations in the center of the city, the Seminary Hill Association, actively discriminated against condo owners and apartment renters by restricting membership to residents of single family homes until just this month. Rather than a vast and powerful voice of the people, many civic associations appear to be the collective voice of a few private individuals. We should keep this in mind as we consider their positions on future issues.

Second, the case exposed the poor judgment of the Traffic and Parking Board in rendering its opinion on complete streets. Despite a proposal consistent with the Transportation Master Plan, Vision Zero Action Plan, and Complete Streets Policy and Design Guidelines adopted by the City—as succinctly outlined in a thoughtful letter by the Transportation Commission—the chair of the Traffic and Parking Board testified (video at 1:18:00) that he places the views of adjacent residents and business interests above the standing policies adopted by the City. This illustrates a blatant disregard for the policies residents and Council members have worked to adopt, turning TPB hearings into a private dispute resolution process among those who testify at meetings rather than a policy-informed decision on how to deploy civic infrastructure in the public’s interest. The City Council should provide guidance to the TPB advising that its opinions should be based on the standards and principles outlined in adopted policies—or seek to seat new members on the board.

Third, city staff showed poor judgment in creating a process for Seminary Road that seemed designed to create more heat than light. From the start, this was headed for conflict with a meandering process ending with a City Council public hearing. An effort that started by evaluating three alternatives—including one, Alternative 3, that most closely aligned with the city’s complete streets policies—was muddied by staff’s introduction of a hybrid alternative that appeased no one. At the hearing on Saturday, city staff presented a conflicting front, with the Fire Department recommending Alterative 3, Transportation & Environmental Services staff delivering a presentation that all-but made the case for Alternative 3, but a staff recommendation to Council to adopt the four-lane option advanced by the TPB. In the end, nearly a year’s time was expended on an effort that most cities and counties would have addressed with a few weeks of staff time and a public open house.

City Council members should truly be appalled by the time and resources wasted on this single case. Most of them campaigned to solve big issues confronting the City, and while safe streets are important, the configuration of lane markings on a 1-mile stretch of road is not an issue a city council should need to address. Yet three members of Council voted against this proposal because they wanted to spend more time and effort studying what to do.

With a population of more than 150,000, Alexandria is not a small town. It has major issues to address. We can’t saddle our City Council with small-time problems—and Councilmembers themselves need to understand where to focus their time and attention. We need effective decision making by advisory boards like the Traffic and Parking Board, managed by staff through a process appropriately scaled to the decision at hand. Without properly gearing the input to the relative importance of the output, we won’t have the capacity to address the bigger challenges confronting our city.

This last point is not a trivial one. When we swamp our civic engagement mechanisms in the service of relatively trivial matters we diminish the ability of those mechanisms to function properly in genuine moments of need. If we sound the alarm on everything, we effectively sound the alarm on nothing. The boy who cried wolf is not a story about the triumphant power of overwrought and insistent engagement with your neighbors. The boy is not some plucky underdog, speaking truth to power in the face of a system determined to ignore him. The boy who cried wolf is a story about how being a self-centered child will get you eaten by a wolf.

It’s time we stop feeding the wolves, Alexandria.

– P.C. Publius

September 17, 2019

On Going to the Polls

You may have noticed that it’s election season in Alexandria. Even by our own illustrious standards this cycle has been… challenging. A contentious mayoral race has been paired with a city council primary that can field nearly two full baseball teams worth of candidates. So it has just been a lot. A lot of mail. A lot of door knocks. A lot of op-eds. A lot of sound and fury and surprisingly little substance (we’ll return to this shortly).

In the mayoral race, a cottage industry has sprung up of local media outlets writing profile pieces of the contrasting candidates. She’s warm and fuzzy, he’s data-drivenShe likes trees, he’s like a websiteShe’s meandering, he’s direct! She’s Oscar, he’s Felix! She’s Riggs, he’s Murtaugh! And so on, and so forth.

These profiles though a lot of fun (especially the Beaujon piece) come dangerously close to missing the point. It is wrong to cast this race as a choice between two equal but opposing styles. If the current mayor was quirky but competent, sure, give me 3,000 words on her musings about the relative health value of Mexican food. But that’s not what’s happening here.

One candidate (the current mayor) is profoundly lacking the core competencies demanded by this role. She takes credit for building schools she didn’t vote to fund, for affordable housing she didn’t vote to approve, and for smart growth she didn’t vote to develop. She cannot run a meeting, she cannot grasp nuanced public policy, and she cannot make decisions unless they leave everyone involved pleased. The other candidate (the current vice mayor) is a mildly abrasive know-it-all who is superhumanly responsive to constituent service requests and extremely good at conducting the necessary business of running a council responsible for 150,000 residents. There is no choice here. This is not a homeowners association where you can sit around and dicker about what color people should be allowed to paint their house and when the Christmas lights must come down. This is a serious endeavor impacting the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people and we have to start treating it as such.

This election matters. Our city is dealing with once in a generation infrastructure projects like the combined sewer outfall remediation in Old Town and the construction of (some of the) Potomac Yard metro station. We face a schools capacity crisis that has seen our system add 1,000 additional students these past three years. City services have been continuously reduced in the face of budget shortfalls stemming from revenue that relies far too much on property taxes, yet a citizenry that howls every time someone picks up a shovel or keeps a business open past sundown.

Yet, we are barely talking about these issues. In the Council race, the major candidate forums so far have been: Socialism, How Does It WorkThe Residents Of Old Town Invite You To Stay The Hell Off Their Lawn; and then a PTA forum that was actually quite good. Over the course of these three forums there have been no questions about the Potomac Yard metro station or the Dominion power line project. No questions about the meals tax. No questions about congestion or cut through traffic or an Eisenhower connector. No questions about Landmark Mall or the Amazon headquarters pursuit.

All of these, and more, are hugely important issues that are going undiscussed and unremarked upon and I am left wondering what if anything many of these Council candidates know about the weighty things they will have to immediately set about resolving.

There are some obvious candidates of substance in this race. Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Dak Hardwick, John Chapman, and Paul Smedberg seem like serious people who have offered ideas and solutions in line with our city’s needs. Del Pepper is (checks notes) a person that is still on council. The remaining candidates in the field can be grouped into the following categories: 1) nice but much too inexperienced for the urgency of the moment; 2) vanity candidate running to protect their property value; 3) obvious sock-puppet for local gadflies; and 4) still more or less anonymous.

With the Alexandria Democratic Committee on the sidelines trying to blend in with the drapes for some unknowable reason, there has been no coordinated attempt to focus this race and to elevate the dialogue. Into this void has stepped the hilariously biased Alexandria Times, and a fly-by-night political action committee with utterly inscrutable political cartoons. (Seriously, what the hell is the deal with those cartoons. Are the talking mice… part of it?) The point being, there has not been a sufficient accounting of the race and ordinary citizens have been left to sort this mess out for themselves, with our future in the balance.

Even as you read this June 12th slouches ever closer, its hour soon come. It holds the promise of three years of opportunity and growth and rising to the challenges of this moment. Or it holds the crippling stagnation of the rest of the region leaving us behind with our open-mics and our tree canopy.

I plan to vote to move this city forward. I plan to vote for a council that will let me write about achievement and success.

I plan to vote for our future.

– P.C. Publius

May 29, 2018

On Paying Attention

What in the entire f*ck is happening in Alexandria right now.

I’ll get to the election (believe me, I’ll get to the election) but first we need to talk about the Potomac Yard metro station. Or rather, the half of it that’s left.

If you, like many in our region, had muted phrases like “Metro delay” and “Metro fails to meet” and “Metro apologizes” in your twitter feed, you may have missed last month’s news that Metro and the city no longer plan to build the Potomac Yard metro station as designed.

They are saying that they are “scaling back” the station, much in the same way that a disgraced politician retires to “spend more time with my family.”

This is an eight-figure screw up. There’s no other way to slice it. When you factor in spending nearly the full amount of money to build not nearly the full amount of station plus the lost economic activity around the southern entrance, the full scope of this mistake becomes clear.

And this is to say nothing of the breach of public trust by the City Manager and involved city staff. They mistakenly(!!) thought they were bound by confidentiality to say nothing to the community until after the decision to kill the southern entrance was made. Which means this decision was made with no public input and no transparency around the choices that led to keeping the northern bridge-to-nowhere entrance and not the southern entrance serving two entire city neighborhoods.

Even more disappointingly no current member of Council has stepped forward to demand accountability from the City Manager. No current member has pushed to engage in the type of oversight of city staff that is quite literally the fundamental purpose of their being on Council. This is not a whoopsie! This not a  “nice try sport, get ‘em next time”! This was the single most important public infrastructure project in the city and it seems as though no one was minding the store.

To make matters worse, this news follows close on the heels of WMATA cheerfully announcing that they cannot possibly be bothered to operate trains in the city of Alexandria throughout the entire summer of 2019. As near as I can tell, the plan is to close our stations and shore up their crumbling concrete platforms with actual bricks of cash from the dedicated funding for Metro recently passed by Virginia (which, if we’re being honest, might actually be a more efficient use of the money than typical in a WMATA-led infrastructure project).

Aside from some perfunctory tut-tutting and a few pro-forma “deeply disappointed”s our Council was nowhere to be found on this one either. I mean, what’s a lost tourist season among friends. I’m sure we can make up that lodging tax revenue shortfall by shaking down restaurant owners one more time. Taken together with the goat rodeo in Potomac Yard, a picture emerges of local leaders who have fundamentally lost the thread of what matters, and of what their job is supposed to be.

I can’t help but wonder what the mayor and other members of council were doing when they should have been paying attention. Because while they may not have been paying attention, we were.

And June 12th draws closer every day.

– P.C. Publius

May 24, 2018

On Governing

As I sit here looking out into the gloaming of American democracy it can be hard to imagine the return of the light. The smothering darkness of authoritarianism and ignorance advances steadily, concealing the brilliance of the Founders that long illuminated a path winding back through generations to an autumn day in Yorktown.

We have discovered, perhaps too late, that this path was not lit by an eternal flame but rather a flickering candle, buffeted by the cruel winds of factionalism and tribal identity. We have learned, perhaps too late, that enlightenment is not self-sustaining but instead endures only through a shared commitment to a common good and common purpose.

Into these dim days the 2017 elections flashed across the landscape, a beacon of the renewal that could yet come. It is fitting that it was here, in the Commonwealth, that we saw an overwhelming and uniform rejection of creeping demagoguery and the embrace of a public dialogue that emphasizes the welfare of all. It is fitting that it was here, in the Commonwealth, that we saw a return to the foundational purpose of the American experiment.

Here in the Commonwealth, we have returned to governing.

In examining the cohort of new public servants heading to Richmond it is easy, and indeed laudable, to talk about their diversity. They are diverse in ideas, diverse in identity, and diverse in their lived experiences. They have voices and perspectives that have too long been absent from the public square—an absence not of accident or disinterest but rather the intentional result of enforced white male hegemony—and our collective voice is now lifted by their inclusion.

But to look only at their diversity misses a profound insight into this election. These candidates ran, first and foremost, on the issues. They ran on traffic congestion and better schools. They ran on health care costs and zoning concerns. They ran on the everyday issues that mattered to their constituents and the promise to go to Richmond with the aim of making these things better, for everyone.

They ran, in other words, on governing.

What does this mean for us here in Alexandria? It means that we can see the emerging contours of our 2018 local elections, a race that already features a contested Democratic primary for mayor and early jockeying for two open seats on Council. This race should, and will, be a referendum on intent to govern. And it could not come any sooner.

The current council, though generally well-meaning, has struggled to maintain a plausible level of function and efficiency. Meetings drag on interminably as trivial matters like brick choice are chewed over with an undeserved gravity and granularity. Meaningful policy decisions, like the future of our primary business district, are avoided and deferred.

This group has had real successes, but when they’ve stumbled it has been in face of genuinely hard choice – yet hard choices abound. Once again, the city needs to close a significant budget gap and we have long since passed the point that cutting a staff position here and trimming a service there will suffice. We must tackle the hard issues like revenue growth and maintenance of public facilities; by doing so, we can address our critical need to generate the revenues required to fund school facilities, build affordable housing, and pay for a full-service government. We can no longer tolerate unprepared mediocrity, quick with empty platitudes about our treasured, historic city yet clueless when it comes to meaningfully addressing the challenges faced by our city.

As we look toward the primary season, and then on to a general election nearly a year from now, will our city, as did our Commonwealth, choose the path of governing? We can be certain that the field of candidates for Mayor, City Council, and School Board will continue to grow. Candidates with varied backgrounds and degrees of experience will step forward. And as these women and men raise their hands to be chosen for service, they’ll ask us to evaluate them on a wide range of criteria.

But as we, the citizens of Alexandria, consider how we make our choices next year we need to ask ourselves who is ready to lead? Who is ready to make hard but necessary choices that are rarely met with universal acclaim? In other words, our single criterion should be this: who is ready to govern? This, more than anything else, must be the guiding principle for our 2018 election.

This choice, even as the shadows lengthen, is still ours. We can choose to sustain the light or we can choose to stand by, indifferent, as it fades.

I choose the light.

– P.C. Publius

November 29, 2017

On Champions

The Old Town Business Improvement District is dead.

Despite best efforts to warn of the consequences of failure to act, City Council sought to jettison a thoughtfully-crafted proposal two years in the making in favor of a half-hearted “compromise” that proved wholly unworkable. In a nutshell, Council gutted the volunteer working group’s proposal, requested many thoroughly researched issues be restudied, and then asked the same volunteer group to continue working to solicit support from Old Town business and property owners—even though the definition of the revised BID was unclear.

The BID would have provided funding to activate the Waterfront and the King Street corridor and attract more regional visitors to Old Town. More visitors not only means more revenue for Old Town restaurants, merchants and the City itself, but a better downtown experience for Alexandrians increasingly drawn to other newly competitive business districts in the region, at National Harbor, Shirlington, Capitol Riverfront, even Crystal City—and soon, The Wharf.

The BID’s demise is emblematic of a much larger issue with this City Council, that none of its members champion a comprehensive vision for the city.

Certainly, the City has a strategic plan, a bloated, 37-page document adopted in January by City Council, with nary a councilmember’s pet issue overlooked. At Mayor Allison Silberberg’s insistence, the document begins by stating that “the city has a small-town feel.” It’s a fitting statement for a mayor who’s skeptical of any extended hours, special events, creative uses, live entertainment, and generally having fun, because, where will everyone park? In actively speaking against an Old Town BID proposal, she’s demonstrated that she’s content for the business district to rest on its laurels, without active engagement to better activate and promote it.

In reality, Alexandria is a medium-sized city with real urban issues: Affordable housing. School capacity. Transportation. Sewer infrasturcture. We don’t solve those problems thinking like Mayberry.

The Mayor’s proclivity to miss the forest for the trees (this being both a metaphor and a literal statement about her fixation with trees) would not be a problem if the rest of the City Council were capable of executing its own vision for the City. But this year, this Council has aided and abetted the Mayor’s agenda. Despite most of the rest of Council publicly professing support for a BID, the city nonetheless will not have a BID. This Council simply cannot get past the mayor’s intransigence. The Vice Mayor certainly tries, but others members urge caution so often that it jeopardizes the effectiveness of City government.

Instead of plotting a vibrant future, City Hall is where good ideas go to die. City volunteers are sapped of enthusiasm. There is limited desire for entrepreneurship by City staff. Good concepts are shelved for lack of funding, vision, or both.

This wasn’t the case a few years ago, when Alexandria had different leaders in the mayor’s office who actively worked to champion the success of initiatives they supported. As the BID fiasco illustrates, nobody on Council today seems to exhibit that leadership.

We need champions. Who’s up for the challenge?

– P.C. Publius

September 19, 2017