Alexandria City Council election haunted by land-use decisions

The past few years have been contentious ones in Alexandria’s civic life.

The surprise decision by the Defense Department to move 6,000-plus employees to a quiet neighborhood far from public transit alarmed many in Alexandria, and they were unhappy when local officials were unable to stop it.

The city's waterfront development plan sparked a grass-roots uprising, lawsuits and several political campaigns.

Many Hispanic residents of Arlandria felt ignored when the City Council voted to approve an apartment building they fear will drive up their rents.

Months later, the council agreed to the redevelopment of the Beauregard area, where many working-class residents live. The council wrested 800 units of affordable housing from the developers, but that did not calm residents’ anger.

Some civic activists say the decisions show that city officials do not listen to the community and are beholden to developers. City officials, and those who support them, say they made changes in each project in response to residents’ concerns, and those who continue to object are a small minority who refuse to deal with the reality of growth, the demands of the housing market and the laws that limit what local governments can do.

Now many of the council members who participated in those decisions are up for election. Those controversies, in addition to the normal concerns about school quality, taxes and spending, have dominated this election season, where 12 candidates, including four incumbents and two former incumbents, are running for six seats.

Alexandria City Council races have long attracted multiple contenders, between 10 and 15 each election. But this is the first year that the city’s local elections will be held in November, during the high-turnout general election. Large numbers of newly registered voters and voters who didn’t participate in the May local elections are expected.

Fourteen Democrats ran in the primary, and the winners have since been joined by three Republicans, two independents and a Libertarian. About 200 residents have turned out for each of the four candidates’ forums held so far. (A final one is scheduled for Wednesday night at Minnie Howard School.)

Alexandria is traditionally Democratic, but it’s not a one-party town. Republicans Frank H. Fannon IV and Alicia R. Hughes upset expectations three years ago when they replaced Democrats Timothy B. Lovain and Justin M. Wilson on the council. All are running again this year. Democratic incumbents Redella S. “Del” Pepper, the longest-serving elected official in Alexandria, and Paul C. Smedberg, who often voted with vice mayor Kerry J. Donley and state Del. Rob Krupicka, are the other veterans on the ballot.

Newcomers include Democrats John Taylor Chapman, former president of the local chapter of the NAACP, and Allison Silberberg, chairwoman of the local Economic Opportunities Commission, and Republican John R. “Bob” Wood, a retired Army lieutenant general who was serving as a top strategic planner at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

Libertarian Robert S. Kraus and independents Glenda B. Davis and Jermaine A. Mincey fill out the ballot. None has run for office before this.

While opinions differ on most of the controversies, no one defends the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decision that brought so many federal employees to the West End.

“We got rolled,” admitted Lovain during the first debate. The city, he said, advocated “vociferously” for an Eisenhower Avenue site near public transit. Based on assurances from city staff and federal negotiators, “we thought we had it in the bag,” Lovain said. Then the Mark Center bid came in $200 million lower, and the federal government chose the cheaper property, even though it is far from Metro.

Fannon, who is running on a record of fiscal restraint and his opposition to the commercial “add-on” tax, charges that when the council was all-Democratic, it was “out of control” on spending. He says he was a leader in establishing an ethics policy for city employees.

Wood started his run for council after serving as co-chairman of the Waterfront Plan Work Group last year. He ultimately opposed the plan, and has vigorously attacked Democratic incumbents for a widespread “abdication of leadership.” “People responsible for that [BRAC] decision need to be held accountable,” he charged. Wood said that the city is “pleading” with developers for basic services such as firehouses and schools because of poor financial decision-making.

Hughes, the other Republican incumbent, won her seat three years ago by 168 votes. She positions herself as a fiscal conservative. Opponents said her vote to reject federal funds reflected national Republican priorities, a charge she has declined to address. She collected signatures in June to run for the city school board, but arrived at the voter registration office too late to file. She then decided over the summer to run for reelection to council.

Troubled by personal financial difficulties before her election, Hughes continues to have legal woes, including five speeding or driving-without-registration tickets in Maryland in 2011, three traffic citations in Virginia in 2011 and a 2010 ticket in Alexandria for driving an uninspected vehicle, according to public records.

Smedberg, a nine-year veteran of the council, and Pepper, a council member for 27 years, voted with the majority on the waterfront, Arlandria and Beauregard decisions. Both were leaders in the decade-long fight to close the GenOn (formerly Mirant) coal-fired power plant in north Old Town.

The former incumbents who lost their seats three years ago, Lovain and Wilson, both work in transportation fields and support “smart growth” policies that integrate transit with mixed-use development. Both have been aggressive at the debates, and have taken verbal blows for their roles during the BRAC controversy and for their votes supporting a tax rate increase just before that 2009 election.

Wilson noted that it took place during the national economic crisis, when the city was laying off employees, reducing borrowing and cutting expenses. Since property values dropped precipitously, the small tax rate increase did not result in higher taxes for most residents.

Lovain unsuccessfully attempted to reduce the city’s reserves to avoid the tax rate increase, but when that didn’t work, he voted for it. Both say they believe in fiscally responsible budgeting.

Silberberg, a communications consultant making her first run for office, opposed those development decisions and calls for a shared community vision before other major changes happen. Chapman, who grew up in Alexandria’s public housing and says his family was perilously close to homelessness when he was a child, has argued for the importance of improved schools, affordable housing and economic growth.

The Libertarian, Kraus, has stuck to his focus of promising to restore spending to 2007 levels, pledging to cut $2 for every additional dollar of spending and reevaluate the waterfront project.

The two independents, Davis and Mincey, have argued for closer connections between the elected leaders and citizens.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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