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

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On Obituaries

Old Town Alexandria died today at the age of 268.

The cause of death was a self-inflicted wound from the City Council, aided by volumes of misinformed opposition. A dedicated corps of successful business owners sought to revive the area by creating a Business Improvement District to better maintain its streets and trees, market the district as a regional shopping destination, and program events in its parks and open spaces attractive to youth and families from Alexandria and the entire region. The proposal was rejected by a City Council that couldn’t plan a two-car funeral if you spotted them the hearse, voting to once again kick the can down the road.

While pedestrian-scaled outdoor shopping areas have returned to vogue in recent years, the City of Alexandria did little to invest in its Old Town beyond the occasional purchase of new wayfinding signs and holiday lights on the street trees. A BID proposal more than 10 years ago sought to reinvigorate the district, but was rejected by Council at the time. The 2017 proposal, which followed two years of study by various City organizations, sought to create a business-directed body to shepherd investment in the district, attract more commerce, and broaden the City’s tax base.

Old Town was predeceased by businesses that died through no lack of trying, including Why Not?, Hanelore’s of Old Town, Old Town Coffee Tea & Spice, Bittersweet Café, the Old Town Theater, Pendleton Shop, and Austin Grill. The restaurant Carluccio’s, which opened in Old Town in 2015 after an extensive renovation of 100 King Street, permanently closed just this week.

Old Town is survived by several thriving business districts in neighboring jurisdictions, all of which have a BID, including Ballston, Crystal City, and Rosslyn in Arlington County, Virginia and Adams Morgan, Anacostia, Capitol Hill, Capitol Riverfront, Downtown, Georgetown, Golden Triangle, Mount Vernon Triangle, NoMa, and Southwest in Washington, DC. Distant survivors include downtowns Richmond and Norfolk, both of which have BIDs that have helped fuel commercial investment. Other survivors include the major developer-curated shopping district at National Harbor, Maryland, connected to Old Town by frequent water taxis.

Services will be held at Alexandria City Hall on Tuesday, June 27, 2017 at 7:00 p.m., the honorable Mayor Allison Silberberg presiding. Pallbearers include Vice Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilmembers Del Pepper, Paul Smedberg, Tim Lovain, John Taylor Chapman, and Willie Bailey. Visitation will be held prior the memorial service from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. on King Street. A wake will be held following the service at one of the few bars in Old Town open past 11:00 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, the residents of Alexandria request that you send donations to any 2018 candidates for City Council who will support reinvestment in Old Town and other business districts in the City.

In the event that Council resuscitates the BID proposal by providing constructive feedback to move the concept forward, funeral services will be postponed until a later date.

– P.C. Publius

June 24, 2017

On Absences and Returns

After a long winter (fine, and fall, and spring) of solitude and reflection, current events in our fair city once more stir my pen. There is no graceful way to break a lengthy silence, so rather than apologize or explain I’ll instead ride directly at the fence. I was gone. I have returned. No doubt you missed me.

And I rejoin civic life in a city awash in the hallmarks of progress. Since I last put pen to paper, City Council addressed a Gordian knot of fiscal issues—overcrowded schools, sewer outflows, deferred capital maintenance and an operating budget shortfall—each, if not dealt with, threatening the bright future of our city. The planning and political courage required to tackle all of them in one year is to be commended. Each of these difficult decisions also required from you, my fellow Alexandrians, the courage to say yes to the tough but necessary solutions advanced by our elected leaders. Yet to be sure, each of these achievements must represent the start of something, not the end.

Indeed, ever a place of one step forward, two steps and a pratfall backward, Alexandria stands on the precipice of a monumental unforced error by closing our eyes to the consideration of an Old Town Business Improvement District (BID) before it even sees the light of day.

If you’re a local elected official, why would you be against this? You’re not being asked to approve any money for a BID yet—just the chance to develop a thoughtful business plan for consideration. So why give in to the Chicken Little lobby and kill the BID before a group of stakeholders can even develop a plan?

And if the BID organizers clear that threshold and develop a tangible plan that has the support of the business community, a BID could let us recruit and retain the ideal mix of independent local shops and restaurants side-by-side with desirable regional brands. The BID could program and maintain shared public spaces in Old Town in a way that the City currently cannot, yet that all of us desire and demand. The BID could preserve and uplift the historic core of our city and ensure that it remains a destination of national acclaim that visitors want to return to again and again. What of any of this could you reasonably oppose?

To be sure, the mayor is not up for this challenge. She is wringing her hands about the process, and fretting about the troubles facing these restaurants and retailers, all the while looking right past the threat of the District’s Southwest waterfront which will open in October. Cobblestone street, Hank’s Oyster Bar, Water Taxi, local celebrity chef Cathal Armstrong—no we’re not talking about Alexandria—all of this is going to be at the Wharf in DC, along with a mile of public waterfront, a major outdoor concert venue, 550 boat slips, and 10 acres of parks and greenspace.

Make no mistake, DC is coming to eat Alexandria’s lunch. This is the moment when we ensure Old Town’s future. This is the moment when we reach out and grab what can be. This is the moment that we loudly and in no uncertain terms say that Alexandria is a place that values businesses and wants them here. Old Town is a cultural, historic and experiential destination but we need to give ourselves the necessary tools to ensure that people like what they see, for now and for years to come.

So, honorable leaders of our fair city, as you pack your sunscreen for summer getaways, take a moment to think about what you could return to in the fall. A vote to postpone or deny the creation of a BID proposal guarantees a return to more of the same- our key business district, devoid of representative governance and a plan to survive and grow. If you vote to move on to the next step in creating a BID, you will return to a proposal and budget from an organization representing all of the business and commercial entities in Old Town, focused on maintaining and increasing services in the district.

Inaction will not make our competition go away. They continue forward, growing and improving every day, watching our missteps with glee. Now is not the time to meekly roll over and accept some backwater status. Now is the time to fight, with every tool at our disposal.

As I write this, I can look out my window and see a City of Alexandria flag shifting languidly in the breeze, the tall ship in our seal seeming to try and sail beyond the nylon borders confining it. Because that’s the thing about ships- they may be safe in their harbor but that’s not what they are for. Ships are meant to sail, to voyage forth, often to places unknown and uncertain.

It’s time to sail the damn ship.

– P.C. Publius

June 19, 2017

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