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Media Staging Area Approved at Federal Courthouse

Alexandria Planning Commission's meeting Tuesday night played out somewhere between a Greek tragedy and Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Or, in more modern terms, damned if they did and damned if they didn't.

The perplexing question before them was whether or not to approve a request for a Special Use Permit (SUP) to create a media staging area at the Federal Court House for the upcoming terrorist trials. The applicant was the City of Alexandria and City Manager Philip Sunderland. In the end, the media will get its staging area.

For more than two and one half hours residents of Carlyle Towers and the surrounding area pleaded with the Commission not to approve the SUP. Their primary arguments were basically two fold:

* This is not the city's responsibility. It is the responsibility of the media and the Federal Government.

* If Alexandria is perceived to be excessively user-friendly to the media and cooperative with the Federal Government's selection of this venue, there will be no incentive to move future terrorist trials elsewhere.

Sunderland's counter argument was, "The whole idea behind this is to get control of a bad situation as much as we can. The government has not handled the media so we stepped into the void."

HE ALSO EMPHASIZED that "The whole world is going to be watching these trials" and cautioned the Commission that the image of Alexandria is at stake. It was the image question and the question of responsibility that seemed to perplex the Commission and ignite the resentment of the residents.

As one resident stated, "The establishment of a trailer parking area will send a message to the Federal Government that the city wants the terrorist trials held here." And another noted,"We can cooperate with the Federal Government without taking over a responsibility that is solely theirs."

Robert Uttenweiler, a Carlyle Tower resident, put it more bluntly in his testimony. "The fact that the current federal administration seems determined to bring terrorist trials into this atmosphere indicates a callous and deliberate disregard for the safety and security of the residents and businesses in and around the Federal Courthouse."

IN SEEKING THE SUP, the city proposes to establish a media staging area directly in front of Carlyle Towers in a now vacant lot bounded by Jamieson and Ballenger avenues and Courthouse Square. They also are proposing a 120 car parking lot just off Mill Road next to the homeless shelter.

Barbara Gordon, City Public Information Officer, emphasized in her initial testimony for the SUP, "The courthouse will not supply media space within the building. Journalists from 50 media companies have already applied for credentials. More than 1,000 journalists from all over the world are expected."

The SUP application states, "The media center will provide office space, restroom facilities, and food service space ... as well as a "stand-up" platform. Utilities needed by the media will be provided, including fiber optics and electricity. The city will charge the media a fee to use the media center and plans to recoup all costs associated with both the center and the parking area."

The main objection by the residents, in addition to security concerns, was that, as stated in the application, "Most of the facilities at the media center will be provided in trailers. The city estimates there will be between 10 and 15 office trailers." Each will be 10 feet by 40 or 48 feet in size.

IT IS THEIR contention this will turn the Carlyle Towers area into a trailer park. It will also increase congestion and hamper security, in their view. They insisted there are other options that have not been fully explored such as encouraging the use of hotels throughout the area and securing potential office space along the Eisenhower corridor.

After the residents had expressed their frustrations, most of the Commissioners joined the chorus in feeling trapped by a situation they didn't like but felt helpless to stop. That frustration was best summarized by Commissioners Donna Fossum and J. Lawrence Robinson.

"The city is caught between a rock and hard place. Where is the Justice Department on this. They just thrust this on us," Fossum said. Robinson noted, "I have great difficulty in finding any other solution if we are to keep some control over this."

Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn did have another solution but was voted down in a five to two split with Commissioner Ludwig Gaines siding with him. Dunn's solution was to stop worrying about Alexandria's image to the world media and do only that which is necessary to enhance security and provide aid to the legal mechanisms associated with the upcoming trials.

"The only issue we have tonight is whether or not to provide facilities for the press. The message we want to convey is that we will work for security but we don't want to send the message that this is the place to have future trials. There is nothing in the First Amendment that requires the city to provide for the press."

WHEN DUNN FIRST made his motion to deny the requested SUP he was abruptly cut off by Commission Chairman Eric R. Wagner. After additional input from the other Commissioners, Dunn again made his motion to deny and encouraged Sunderland to find other solutions.

His motion was seconded by Gaines, who stated, "I think Commissioner Dunn has hit the nail on the head. The people who will be impacted the most are the residents in the immediate area." He then seconded Dunn's motion. It was defeated five to two with only Dunn and Gaines voting in favor.

Commissioner John Komoroske then moved for approval of the SUP with three minor conditions. This was seconded by Commission Vice Chairman Richard Leibach. It passed on the same five to two split. It will now be up to City Council to approve or disapprove the plan and live with the consequences — good or bad.

One of the elements pushing the Commission was the fact that Council only has this month to act on the recommendation before their summer break. Fossum summarized this tight time frame in her comment, "I would like to defer this matter. But, then it would not get to Council in time."

During the course of the discussion, both the citizen speakers and members of the Commission, urged Sunderland to push for pooling of media personnel. It was their combined opinion that if this was imposed there would be no need for a staging area.

Uttenweiler, in his testimony, stated that pooling was a very viable option and is instituted by the Federal Government in many instances. He noted that both the technical capabilities and the precedent were in place for this and it in no way adversely impacted the media's First Amendment rights.

WHEN FOSSUM questioned Sunderland and Gordon on what had been done about pooling, Gordon stated, "The press has stated they need one on one." This brought cynical laughter from the standing-room-only audience in the Council Chamber.

Several Commissioners expressed the desire that no further terrorist trials be held in Alexandria after the two initial ones are completed. It was noted that Congressman James Moran was attempting to secure this concession from the Federal Government but most of those present, both residents and Commissioners, were skeptical of the success of his efforts.

The approved SUP has an expiration date of October 1, 2003. But there is an escape clause which states, "unless extended by Council."

Sunderland explained that this wording was incorporated to prevent the need to come back to the Planning Commission if the trials become extended. The motion to approve grudgingly left this wording in the SUP.