Schools, Development Top Issues During ADC Debate
All fourteen Democratic candidates participate in the first of two forums put on by the Alexandria Democratic Committee.
Bob Gibson, executive director of the Sorensen Institute at the University of Virginia, served as moderator. The rapid-fire debate format gave all 14 candidates a chance to address a variety of topics and even ask questions to each other.
The candidates are squarring off for six nominations that will be determined June 12 in a citywide primary.
Here is some of what each candidate had to say on Wednesday night:
A lifelong Alexandrian and currently a school administrator in Fairfax County, Chapman said improving the city’s education system and making positive changes in affordable housing are two pillars of his campaign.
“As an educator, I think the biggest issue we have is capacity, we have too many kids in buildings that are too small,” Chapman said. He mentioned pursuing public-private partnerships to improve the infrastructure within Alexandria City Public Schools. He also said such partnerships could help solve affordable housing issues, mentioning the work of some Alexandria churches to create housing projects.
Chapman said the city doesn’t engage the citizenry well enough. He said Alexandria’s young professionals are a group “waiting to be taken and hugged and used in every way they can.”
To ensure the futures of young professionals, Feld said the city must better engage the group through social media and streamline the process for starting businesses in the city so creativity isn’t stifled.
To alleviate transportation, Feld said she believes the city can work with its budget to “re-evaluate rush-hour flow” and re-examine the heavy points and times of traffic growth. She mentioned widening Duke Street and cutting down cut-through traffic to ensure safe streets. She said building housing around transit is key to increasing foot traffic as well as business activity.
Feld, a mother of two ACPS students, said one of the biggest issues facing the school system is the age of some of its buildings. “Half our schools are over 50 years old,” she said. “If you want to do some renovations, you need to set some money aside.”
Fossum, a 30-year resident of Alexandria, said ensuring public safety, improving transportation and maintaining affordable housing in the West End are priorities for her.
She said Alexandria needs to solidify and strengthen its bond with Arlington. “Arlington is our neighbor, and has to be a chief partner in everything we do,” she said. “There’s a natural alliance, and we have to work with them on all the issues.”
Fossum said there is “a layer of issues in the school system.” She said ACPS must work to tailor education to each student. She said students should be able to attend schools in other districts, like Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. She said Alexandria should work toward having its own school specializing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Fossum said there’s too much competition between neighborhoods on different issues. “We’re all fighting for the same city,” she said. “My hope is that we all can be here working cooperatively.”
Hepburn mentioned “creating a pathway for success” for Alexandria’s children and creating affordable housing through smart growth. He also said he would like to work toward ensuring safe streets and empower small businesses.
With the school system, Hepburn said there needs to be a strong partnership among City Council, the School Board and the public. “We’re all in this together,” he said.
To improve transportation, Hepburn said pursuing bus rapid transit is smart and that “streetcars are something to look at.” He said the city will have to look into its budget and might consider raising taxes for transportation funding.
He said he’d like to pursue a dedicated funding source to maintain affordable housing in the city.
Holihan said there needs to be more oversight of ACPS and its Capital Improvement Program budget. “We need to elect progressive Democrats and not people like [current Republican Councilman] Frank Fannon” to make sure education funding doesn’t get cut, he said. He said he wants people to feel good about the city’s schools.
He said Alexandria needs to get on top of issues facing its aging population. “We have to make a longterm investment to make sure we take care of our aging population here before it’s too late,” he said. He said the city’s “most vulnerable” residents will be moved out of the city “if we don’t get out in front and work with developers.”
Holihan said the city should utilize online tools to improve planning and transparency, mentioning platforms currently in place in cities like San Francisco and Oklahoma City. “It’s not wild and crazy,” he said. “We can open the process to a lot of people who don’t have the time to sit in on a nine-hour meeting.
He said Alexandria has a hard time attracting the creative class, losing several businesses to Arlington County in recent years. “Arlington shouldn’t be eating our lunch,” he said.
A former member of City Council, Lovain said the pillars of his campaign are making a commitment to smart growth and making sure ACPS gets the resources it needs.
He said transit needs to be the first consideration in any development decision in the city. The city needs to make cutting down the waiting list for pre-K “a budget priority,” he said.
In terms of affordable housing, he said market forces are making it hard to keep units at a low rent. “I think we need to focus on existing units, more bang for buck and work with nonprofits,” he said.
When asked about the Beauregard Small Area Plan, Lovain said, “on balance, it’s a plan worth supporting.”
Menjivar, the first Latina to run for City Council, said Alexandria should be a city “where all can thrive.” She said she is focused on issues of affordable housing and “creating a political culture where all people can participate and be heard.”
Like Fossum, Menjivar said she believes Alexandria should create its own STEM school like Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson.
She said development is a good thing, “but we need to be cautious.” She said the city has to look into funding affordable housing and that it should negotiate with developers for a higher number of affordable housing units.
She spoke against the Beauregard plan because of her belief that it would have a negative impact on the city’s working class, displacing many residents. “People should be put before profits,” she said.
Moshenberg said Alexandria’s waterfront is “a precious resource but not a goldmine.” She believes the city learned its lesson on the waterfront about involving the community and understanding the goals of citizens.
She said property taxes shouldn’t be the only way to raise revenue in Alexandria. “We’re talking about a free [trolley] to Del Ray,” she said. “Instead of it being free, charge 25 cents or 50 cents. There are plenty of ways to change our revenue.”
When asked about GenOn, she said the announcement of the power plant’s closure “was a real triumph for every citizen. It tackled a public health problem and an environmental problem.” She said she would like the plant site to one day be a new park or mixed-use development with affordable housing, “but the first thing is assessing the environmental situation [of the site] and that’s going to be costly.”
Peabody, currently a member of the Alexandria School Board, said the city needs to take a step back on issues of transportation and see if some of the proposals are in fact useful. “Just because we call it smart growth doesn’t mean it is, in fact, smart,” he said.
He said it’s very important that the city have a “consensus view” on its future. The lack of that has created a lot of controversy on development projects, he said.
He referred to Old Town “as a treasure” and said efforts should be made to preserve its uniqueness, like promoting more small businesses.
When asked about the city’s recently passed budget, he said he wished ACPS was funded to the full amount but that the city cannot promise everything to everyone.
Pepper, one of two incumbent Democrats running for re-election, said she wants to maintain affordable housing and create commercial development to balance the city’s residential tax base.
Pepper said she’d like to increase the number of DASH buses and routes. She said she was happy to see the expansion of the city’s motorized trolley into Del Ray.
Pepper said it is critical to keep class sizes small at ACPS. “This is the only way our teachers know their students have really got the message,” she said.
She said she believes her “experience and vision” on council will be helpful in implementing new small area plans “in a way that’s fair, balanced and sensitive to all of our stockholders.”
Silberberg said she is “a passionate advocate for affordable housing” and that through creating a “core vision” for the city would help improve communication with the citizenry and make them more engaged. “We have to be a place that’s vibrant and livable for all,” she said. “We have to maintain open space and our historical and natural beauty.”
She said Alexandria is “very blessed” to have a fairly low crime rate, but that she’s concerned city employees haven’t received a cost of living adjustment in five years.
Silberberg said it’s important to build density around mass transit and would support smart growth around transit hubs. “Density in and of itself is not a bad thing,” she said.
She said she was “relieved” that there is now talk of bringing the Mt. Vernon Avenue trolley into Arlandria.
Smedberg, the other incumbent Democrat seeking re-election, said he is focused on implementing the city’s small area plans and balancing residential and commercial development.
He said he supports the construction of a Metro station at Potomac Yard and wants to fully fund DASH. “I want to make sure transportation is key to our small area plans,” he said.
He said he thinks Alexandria does an excellent job “minding our fiscal house. … I think we do a great job budgeting.” He said maintaining the city’s AAA bond rating is very important.
Smedberg said serving on council has been “a very special opportunity and an honor” and that he likes interacting with people to solve problems. “I have a record of doing that,” he said. “I believe very deeply our city has an exciting future. I want to continue our tradition of good government.”
Walker, one of the leaders of the citizen movement against the city’s waterfront redevelopment plan, said transportation and development are major focuses of his campaign.
Like the waterfront, Walker said he is opposed to the Beauregard plan, saying there needs to be “more consensus” before moving forward. He said if there were any dividing line among candidates, it was between those who are “pro development and those who are for careful development.”
He said he has asked the city for a cost estimate on a streetcar connecting with Arlington County in the Crystal City-Potomac Yard corridor. “We need to connect regionally to be part of the economy,” he said. “We need to connect with Arlington by streetcar.”
Walker said he agreed with Fossum that Alexandria students should be able to attend Jefferson. “It’s not a brain drain to send 10 kids to TJ,” he said.
He said he would like to see better park maintenance and more activities in city parks.
Wilson, another former councilman, said his focus is on protecting Alexandria’s fiscal infrastructure and improving transportation. He said he feels the recently adopted city budget has put future councils in a tough spot. “There was a lot of one-time money, and I think that’s irresponsible,” he said.
He said he is for the construction of a Potomac Yard Metro station and called it the “biggest economic development driver in the city.” He said he believes development should be created around existing transit infrastructure, like Van Dorn Street and Braddock Road Metro stations. “Development can happen to us or we can have a hand in it,” he said.
Wilson said increasing the level of commerce in the city is important in creating jobs. “If you take out [the U.S. Patent and Trade Office] and BRAC, we haven’t increased jobs in the city in 10 years,” he said.
While campaigns are usually fought on “big plans and big visions,” Wilson said the reason he is running to get simple issues resolved for citizens. “I got that trashcan for you,” he said. “I got that park cleaned up. … That’s the reason why I am running.”