The Alexandria City Council had just won a round in its fight against a huge, unpopular real estate development, and Mayor James P. Moran Jr. was talking tough.
"They wanted a nod and we gave them nothing," Moran said after developers of the proposed Potomac Greens project near National Airport dropped a lawsuit against the city several weeks ago. "We didn't budge."
The controversy surrounding Potomac Greens, a proposed giant office complex, is not over. Alexandria officials expect the developers to submit a modified proposal for the site later this year. But Moran's tone and the willingness of his colleagues on City Council to take the battle to court demonstrate a new, more skeptical attitude toward development that has been evolving in Alexandria.
According to activists in the city's business, political and civic circles, Alexandria has recently adopted controls on growth and traffic that are the toughest in Virginia.
During the past two years, the City Council has hired aggressive new administrators, including a city attorney and planner, who have helped win court battles such as the one against Potomac Greens. The council also adopted an ordinance that forces developers to cut the amount of traffic they create. In some cases developers have paid to help subsidize the city's mass transit system.
The policies are expected to influence this spring's campaigns for mayor and council seats, preventing a repeat of the emotional antidevelopment crusade that swept Fairfax County's local elections last November. "I don't see us as analogous to Fairfax," said Alexandria City Manager Vola Lawson. "We're way ahead of the curve compared to them" on growth and traffic issues.
"We're not antigrowth or antidevelopment," she said. "But the city wants quality growth in quality places, not growth in places where it will cause problems. I think City Council has recognized the problem and has turned to a number of creative solutions."
Added Moran, a Democrat who is being challenged by Republican City Council member Carlyle C. (Connie) Ring, "This council has been more aggressive than any of our surrounding jurisdictions in dealing with growth. We grabbed the bull by the horns."
Ring and Moran have some differences on growth issues. Ring has questioned the city's "very costly litigation" against developers, while Moran has supported it. But even Moran characterizes Ring and other city Republicans as "moderate in their approach" to growth issues.
According to local officials and politicians, the City Council is grappling with economic trends that are changing Alexandria's fundamental character. Once a quiet suburb, the city now has a high-rise "condo canyon" in its West End, and historic Old Town has sprouted modern office complexes that are transforming Alexandria into a regional employment center.
One measure of this workplace boom is the number of trade associations and lobbying organizations that are headquartered in the city. Seven years ago Alexandria was home to 42 of these groups, according to the city Chamber of Commerce. Today there are 163, an increase of 300 percent.
A study conducted by the city Planning Department last year predicts that this rapid office growth will continue, perhaps accelerate. It also found that current zoning ordinances allow far more expansion than the city's road network can handle.
Another problem -- one that Alexandria officials cannot control -- is the continued growth of Fairfax County. Many residents of southeastern Fairfax drive through Alexandria on the way to work in Crystal City, Rosslyn or Washington. Increasing commuter traffic, particularly along Rte. 1, threatens to turn Alexandria's rush hour into daily gridlock.
To contend with these forces, the council has taken several steps. The most significant is an ordinance passed last year that requires developers of all major office and residential projects to reduce by 30 percent the amount of additional rush hour traffic they will generate.
This ordinance, which requires developers to submit a traffic management plan to the City Council, is the only one of its kind in Virginia. The council already has approved a plan that requires developers to discourage people from driving to work by charging for parking. Other developers have agreed to buy city buses that will serve their projects.
"The proposal was initially met with a great deal of hostility and opposition" from developers, said Alexandria Planning Director Sheldon Lynn. "But since it passed, everybody is looking for a way to live with it."
G. Barton Middleton, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said that though there are still some complaints about the ordinance, developers have accepted it. "There is a certain consensus that we want to do things together to help the traffic flow," Middleton said. "Council is trying to do the right thing."
Along with the traffic management ordinance, the council is pursuing a "get tough" legal policy with recalcitrant developers.
Three times during the past year the city has gone to court against developers whose projects it opposed; twice it has won significant victories, the biggest being the Potomac Greens case.
The city's aggressive approach is personified by Lynn and City Attorney Philip G. Sunderland, both of whom were hired within the past two years. Council members say both were chosen in large part because of their willingness to challenge developers.
"Phil has a more activist view," said Alexandria Democratic Chairman Lonnie Rich. "He was been willing to afford council more discretion. When you do that you risk litigation. But the council has been looking for greater options."
Middleton said that "the business community is concerned about the antigrowth attitude" it feels is behind the lawsuits, adding, "we can find better things to do with our tax money" than pay lawyers. But council candidates have no doubt that the city's recent attitude toward development will play well with most voters.
"People are seeing their city changing by the month, seeing their streets become more and more congested," said council member Redella S. (Dell) Pepper, a Democrat. "I have a solid record in favor of controlled growth, and it's going to play a big role in my campaign."
Ring, the GOP mayoral contender, said, "The electorate is going to press the candidates on what they're going to do about growth and traffic. I'm not sure the public is going to be satisfied with someone just saying, 'I'm going to lick the traffic problem.' They're going to ask, 'How?' "
So far, no particular project or problem has created a citywide outcry, and politicians do not expect a focal campaign issue to emerge before the election. Perhaps the city's most difficult growth-related question involves development of the Eisenhower Valley, an isolated and largely vacant strip of land that parallels the Capital Beltway along Alexandria's southern border. But no action is expected on that subject before Election Day.
"I don't see the polarity you had in Fairfax County" last year, said Mike Hicks, president of the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations. "In the current atmosphere, I don't see much difference between the Democratic attitude and the Republican attitude toward growth."