Alexandria’s 14 Democratic candidates squared off once again shoulder-to-shoulder at the final Alexandria Democratic Committee debate before the June 12 primary.
Candidates expressed concern with challenges faced by many jurisdictions in Northern Virginia—education, fiscal responsibility, transportation and traffic, density and development, infrastructure and affordable housing, among other topics.
Sorenson Institute Executive Director Bob Gibson moderated the panel at George Washington Middle School before a packed house that spilled over into the auditorium’s balcony. Some of the questions were generated through a partnership with ACTion Alexandria, where participants could submit questions online in advance.
Most candidates when asked to name the city’s top three capital spending priorities, answered schools, infrastructure such as sewers and flood control, public safety and transportation.
Building and density is a long-simmering issue in Alexandria and most candidates took a stand when asked: “How would you balance increased development with quality of life issues?”
“As we grow, our needs are going to become greater,” said school administrator John Chapman, adding that the city needs to ensure that it develops “smart” and near transit areas with citizen input.
Preservationist Boyd Walker added: “We need to negotiate better with developers to make sure we get what we need” while Victoria Menjivar, an advocate for underserved communities, said don’t assume that with increased development, lives improve.
“We need to include people such as low-income communities in the discussion,” she said.
Sean Holihan said better development could mean increased quality of life. “I have to cross King Street three times” to get to a shopping center, he pointed out. “Should we build densely in Old Town? No. But in Potomac Yard we have an open canvas.”
Councilman Paul Smedberg extended that idea by saying the city has tremendous opportunities to “create the new Old Towns, the new Del Rays or the new Rosemonts, but they will be based around transit centers with public amenities.”
He added later in response to a question about the Patent and Trademark Office that the city has the opportunity to get the “next PTO” and get some “big wins” but there’s increasing competition to do that.
Small business owner Melissa Feld and Holihan agreed the city needs to be smart about figuring out ways to grow its revenues so that it can give more to operate schools and other key parts of the community.
Michael Hepburn said City Council has a “great responsibility to provide resources” to Alexandria City Public Schools, “one of the most vital assets that we have.”
Transportation planner Tim Lovain said smart growth can reduce car traffic. He advocated proper mixed-use development and transit-oriented development as well as complete streets welcoming to pedestrians and bikes.
Sammie Moshenberg said quality of life includes funding for the arts and paying more attention to the city’s diversity, including racial diversity.
Justin Wilson said it’s up to the community whether its members want to think of development as something that “happens to us” or something that “we as a community can shape.”
“We hear development should be around Metro stops, but we see the challenge of BRAC,” Peabody said.
Donna Fossum, a member of the Planning Commission, highlighted the Beauregard Plan as an example of good quality of life on the way, saying it was helpful that stakeholders could talk directly with developers for transparency and dialogue.
Councilwoman Del Pepper agreed that the Beauregard development with its 40 acres of open space, 800 units of affordable housing and transparent planning process shows development can be good.
The candidates also tackled the issue of citizen engagement and some, such as Wilson and Feld, said evening Council meetings could try offering childcare so that more people could attend. Additionally, Lovain said the city could try more use of the Internet, electronic town meetings and webinars.
“Maybe citizens could go to the Internet on Sunday and submit questions that could be discussed at a Tuesday night Council meeting," he said, adding that current meetings are "staff giving speeches to citizens” and vice versa with no real dialogue, he said.