Council Candidates Address Schools, Waterfront and Transportation Issues
In a 14-person forum, council candidates outlined their views on some of the city's top issues.
Fourteen candidates for City Council sat elbow-to-elbow Wednesday night, offering highlights of their accomplishments and snapshots of their positions on Alexandria’s waterfront, school system and transportation issues.
The event, held at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, was hosted by the Taylor Run Civic Association and moderated by association board member Michael Cook.
Candidate Michael Hepburn was unable to attend due to suffering an asthma attack earlier and incumbent Councilwoman Alicia Hughes declined to attend via a statement in which she said, among other things: “the Democratic Party slate should be settled before jumping into any candidate mix.”
Mayoral candidates Bill Euille, the current Democratic mayor, and Andrew Macdonald, who is running as an independent, were in the audience.
Here’s what the participating candidates said, in alphabetical order. The candidates are linked to Patch profiles where available.
John Chapman noted he’s a member of the Taylor Run board and the head of the local chapter of the NAACP. “As an educator, I want to see us invest in our pre-K programs,” he said, adding that affordable housing is key to the community’s future and he grew up in the city’s public housing.
On Transportation: We need to push to get more Alexandrians out of cars and onto bikes and Metrorail.
On the city’s Waterfront Plan: I would have voted for it. The waterfront plan is an opportunity to maximize revenue that it would bring in.
On Schools: We have the highest per pupil cost in our region and investing in pre-K will bring down our dropout rate.
Frank Fannon is an incumbent councilman who runs the SunTrust mortgage office on the corner of Duke and Henry streets. Fannon, the only Republican in the debate, urged for a balanced government and noted that there are significant challenges in the school system lately. “We are responsible for protecting taxpayer dollars,” he said.
On Transportation: Twenty-three percent of Alexandrians take public transit to work. The potential streetcar service is not necessary and would be an “economic disaster” to the city.
On the Waterfront: I voted against the plan. We don’t need vacant buildings, he said, adding that the city can address the development through parcel-by-parcel special use permits.
On Education: Our role at council is to appropriate money to our schools. We appropriate 30 percent of our budget when 12 percent of households have kids in the school system. We’ve dealt with the dropout rate and we’ve set up opportunities for students who need non-traditional hours.
Melissa Feld said transportation and congestion in the city is a pressing issue. “I have worked in government, solved problems and budgeted with taxpayer dollars,” she said, adding that she has children in the city’s school system and is a small business owner.
On Transportation: Council needs to look at transmodal options, increasing bus routes and other ways of moving people to and from Metros.
On the Waterfront: I would have supported the plan. The waterfront is an embarrassment and many people see development as an opportunity to create jobs in the city.
On Schools: I walked away from a PTA meeting this week feeling good. We pay our teachers the highest in our region, but the problem is we don’t have enough room for the students.
Donna Fossum highlighted that she’s been a member of the Planning Commission for 22 years and said she is concerned about land-use planning. “We’ve got development coming at us at every direction,” she said, adding that currently the city is “second rate” and that there needs to be a renewed focus on the city’s burgeoning senior population. (Editor's Note: Fossum later clarified that she believes the city's emergency service is second rate, not the city.)
On Transportation: My approach to city government is let’s sit down, take out the maps and roll up our sleeves. “If Fairfax County had its druthers, we’d be an 18-lane highway on the way to D.C.”
On the Waterfront: We can’t have by-right development at the waterfront. We need more public amenities. I would have supported the plan that passed council.
On Schools: The school system works in its own world and City Council works in its own world. We have to join those two worlds. She also suggested using the highly educated population of Alexandria to help teach the children.
Sean Holihan said he has spent his career making the city and state a “more progressive place. … I know what it’s like to fight for the underdog.” He added that he’s in a fight against the Republicans’ war on women and seeks to preserve the city’s affordable housing.
On Transportation: We are a top 10 growing area in white-and blue-collar jobs, he said. “We need to develop density around Metro areas and get people out of their cars.”
On the Waterfront: I support the plan as it passed council. The current waterfront doesn’t do the city justice with an empty food court, underutilized buildings and barbed wire. “We cannot use fear tactics and smear people on council.”
On Schools: Schools are the top issue people want to discuss. Holihan called for better oversight on the Capital Improvement Plan, adult education and called for better partners for teachers. “I’ll never vote for a budget that cuts education.”
Tim Lovain served on council from 2006 to 2009 and noted that his day job is as a transportation policy professional. Alexandria needs to “make it easy for people to walk to things they need,” he said, adding that he knows his way around a budget.
On Transportation: There are ways to do traffic calming naturally such as through the presence of pedestrians or by planting foliage near curbs—both of which make people slow down.
On the Waterfront: It may have overreached at the beginning, but improved. “I would have voted for it in the end” partly due to it addressing open space and flood control.
On Schools: ACPS faces challenges that not many districts face—there’s a one-third turnover rate in the student population. He added that his children have had “great experiences” largely thanks to great teachers. Lovain also suggested adding parenting classes for those parents who may not be ready to take on that role.
Victoria Menjivar is originally from El Salvador with two children in Alexandria City Public Schools. She has been involved in the “struggle for affordable housing” and called the issue “a crisis ... The accent that you hear right now is the voice that’s missing at the decision-making table.”
On Transportation: Traffic problems have been created by City Council and by choices in development.
On the Waterfront: I oppose it. It’s bad for our environment. It will pollute our river and cause more traffic problems. “The waterfront is not a place for high density.”
On Schools: Investing in our schools is a must. We need to be creative in finding ways to address the achievement gap, she said, noting that she worked to create the modified calendar at Mount Vernon Community School.
Sammie Moshenberg said she has been a community activist in Alexandria for 29 years, worked for affordable housing and to raise the standards of living for workers. “Today our city is fast becoming an enclave for the elite” with families being pushed out due to “ill-conceived development.”
On Transportation: Traffic problems are the logical conclusions of high density and dumb growth. High density is going into residential areas that are already affected by BRAC.
On the Waterfront: I would have opposed the plan. We need more public-private partnerships. “We are rushing these developments too fast without proper consultation.”
On Schools: Finding money we need for schools is going to be a challenge, but there’s very little that’s more important. Moshenberg said she’s a former public school teacher with a master’s in education.
Arthur Peabody said traffic, density and development are the key issues for the city. “Just because we label these projects as ‘smart growth’ doesn’t mean they’re smart,’” he said, adding that the city needs a better process for public transportation and more transparency. He’s also a member of the School Board and said he called for recent audits there.
On Transportation: Traffic should be a priority and right now we’re behind.
On the Waterfront: I oppose the plan. The discussion of commercial uses overshadows the park aspects and density would increase. “How many people can you stuff into Old Town?”
On Schools: I’ve been a leader for change in our schools for the last five years. Do we want to keep doing the same thing over again at great expense that fails students? He commented that T.C. Williams is now in the top 10 percent of Virginia schools in the language arts and math scores are at an all-time high.
Del Pepper is an incumbent councilwoman who has lived in Alexandria for 40 years, has a son who has gone through the school system and during her last term represented council on 10 boards and commissions. Pepper said she is proud of her role in bringing about the closing of the GenOn facility, which is on track to shutter in October.
On Transportation: Traffic calming solutions have been cut back due to the recession and new solutions need to be found.
On the Waterfront: "I voted for the plan. I felt that I wanted something interesting to happen on the waterfront… what came out at the end turned out to be a pretty good plan.”
On Schools: We are still hearing complaints about how much T.C. cost [to rebuild]. We have so many schools that need replacement or expensive maintenance. “How to manage this with already a third of our budget going to the schools?”
Allison Silberberg said: “If our beloved city is going to survive another 400 years, we have to have a core vision. Lately that core vision has been missing.” She said affordable housing, job creation and the school system are keys to the city’s future.
On Transportation: We need smart, creative development around mass transit hubs, she said, adding that the city should make it reasonable so people think it’s a no-brainer to get out of their cars.
On the Waterfront: I felt that plan wasn’t visionary enough. I tried to build bridges of understanding between the warring factions. The plan is not ready for prime time.
On Education: “We’re a great city and we deserve great schools” and the city needs to own up to its problems. “If the School Board can’t fix it, then we need to look at it from a council point of view.”
Paul Smedberg is an incumbent councilman, saying that “public service is a responsibility” and he believes he brings a “balanced, thoughtful approach to my service.” He cited his involvement with getting the GenOn plant on track for closure, his leadership at the helm of the testy Waterfront Plan Work Group, among other leadership roles within the city.
On Transportation: I support traffic calming as long as it’s done in a coordinated fashion. When I lived on Powhatan, we created a boulevard instead of bump-outs by having the community work together.
On the Waterfront: I support the city’s waterfront plan with its connectivity, wide setbacks and things in place that will protect the residents. “I didn’t want to see by-right development. Change is coming... I’ve worked to make sure we had a plan in place.”
On Schools: The next council will have to address priorities in the capital budget. We’re going to have to build two new schools while maintaining infrastructure. This issue hits at the heart of the next election.
Boyd Walker noted that he’s a native Alexandrian, wasn’t on council when the bad decision was made to allow the BRAC development in the West End, he opposes the city’s plan to redevelop the waterfront and supports creating a pedestrian area on lower King Street. Additionally, he said “City Council can’t continue to pass the buck to the School Board when it comes to the schools.”
On Transportation: The trolley service should start at Braddock Metro and he is against widening Beauregard Street.
On the Waterfront: I’m a co-founder of Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan, the city should not rezone and should create a “friends of the Alexandria waterfront group” which would help bring activities to the area and promote tourism.
On Schools: He commented that he signed his daughter up to attend the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams and the city should reinstate the money for the Head Start program at the new Jefferson-Houston building.
Justin Wilson said his family has a long-term commitment to the city and he seeks to enable his children to come back to Alexandria later and be able to buy their first home, such as he did. Wilson said, as a daily mass transit rider, he knows that transportation issues and a robust pre-K program are also important to a healthy city.
On Transportation: “I’m so proud we revived the dream of the Potomac Yard Metro Station,” he said. “We need to change the conversation about traffic calming—it’s about complete streets.”
On the Waterfront: The city had three imperfect choices—by-right development allowing townhomes and less public access, purchasing expensive property for open space in a time when we need to build two new elementary schools or a public-private partnership in exchange for flood mitigation. “Of three imperfect options, the third was the best.”
On Schools: Our city has serious capital needs and capacity needs. There’s a bulge working its way through the system. We have a lot of kids in the system and more kids coming. We have to deal with this.
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