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Tenants, Cabbies Dominate Council Attention

The Virginia Department of Transportation went to City Council Tuesday with hat in hand and faced tough questions from members of Council.

VDOT will give tenants at Hunting Terrace Apartments more time to leave their homes so that ceilings can be repaired. Residents at the waterfront apartment complex woke up last Sunday morning to find a notice under their doors from their landlord, VDOT. It said that they would need to leave their homes within 48 hours because there is a concern that pile driving, which is part of the construction of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project, might cause ceilings to collapse.

“We were perhaps not as aware of the needs of the tenants as we might have been,” Russell Fuhrman, Potomac Crossing Consultants, told the City Council. “We could have communicated with everyone a little better.”

Fuhrman spoke to Council at the request of the mayor and other members. “I understand that VDOT is the landlord here and that the project needs to move forward but this was handled poorly,” said Mayor William D. Euille. “None of us was aware that this was happening until these notices were put under residents’ doors. I think VDOT owes all of us an explanation.”

Councilwoman Joyce Woodson was not satisfied with the explanation that she received. “I have just two words for VDOT’s behavior,” she said. “Negligence and arrogance. You must have engineers on a project of this size and they must be professionals. Surely they must have been able to foresee that, with the age and structure of these buildings, there might be a problem with pile driving.”

VDOT has agreed to give residents until April 12 to leave their apartments. “We will move them to other apartments or to hotels,” Fuhrman said. “We will also give them a $51 a day for meals. In addition to that, they will not be charged rent while they are out of their homes,” Burman said.

“I should hope not,” said Vice Mayor Redella S. “Del” Pepper. “This whole thing is ridiculous.”

The city manager agreed. “VDOT is a private landlord and the inspections for the bridge project are being handled by the State,” said Philip Sunderland. “We will have our Tenant/Landlord people there to make sure that things go as smoothly as possible but that’s really all we can do. VDOT needs to communicate with all of us better. We had no idea that this was happening until the tenants found out.”

VDOT will conduct a pile-driving test some time next week. At that time, tenants must leave their homes for six hours. On April 12, 104 units must be vacated until repairs are made and the buildings are deemed safe.

CABBIES CHALK ONE UP

Taxi drivers in Alexandria have won a victory of sorts. City Council has agreed to reopen discussions about changing the taxicab system in the city.

The previous City Council reviewed and discussed this issue for more than a year and finally decided late last year to leave things essentially as they have been for some time. Companies were left with the ownership of the certificates and drivers operate taxis for the companies.

On Tuesday night, Council held a work session to further discuss the matter because drivers have continued to complain about their treatment by the companies and the lack of customer service.

Recently, the telephones and dispatch system at Yellow Cab and Diamond Cab were out of service for more than a day.

“People couldn’t call them and taxis couldn’t be dispatched,” said Cathleen Henry, a staff member at the Tenant and Workers Support Committee who works with AUTO, the drivers’ organization. “Something clearly needs to be done.”

The vice mayor made the motion to do something. “We recognize that there needs to be changes to the system,” she said as part of the motion.

A consultant for the city will work with members of a working group to look at the issue once again in light of new information. That group will then make recommendations to Council some time later this spring.

OPEN SPACE

Second Presbyterian Church property was also discussed by Council, although that discussion was not part of the docket. Pepper asked that the Planning Commission not to review the site plan for the property until Council can discuss the matter further. The previous Council made a decision last year not to purchase the property for open space. The five-acre site is valued at, what some city staff estimates, to be over $6 million.

“I want us to have a thorough discussion and talk with the steering committee about this site before it is subdivided and the Planning Commission and Council members are put in an untenable position,” Pepper said. “Therefore, I am requesting that this not come before the Planning Commission until June instead of May when it is scheduled to be discussed.”

Councilman Paul Smedberg objected to the manner in which the issue was brought to Council. “This is about process,” he said. “I did not receive one telephone call or e-mail to tell me that this matter was coming forward tonight. If this is such an important issue, I believe that we should have had some warning that this was coming forward.

“I understand that there are some people who believe that this should be open space. However, there are those who do not believe that we should have a dedicated funding stream for anything. I do believe that having such a dedicated funding stream for open space is fine, but I do believe that there are other priorities and that not everyone in the city believes we should be spending this much taxpayer money for this piece of property,” he said.

Councilwoman Joyce Woodson also posed a question. “What gives us the right to discuss a piece of property that is in private hands and which has been sold to another private entity,” she asked. “Can or should we legally interfere in the private sale of property?”

City attorney Ignacio Pessoa answered, saying, “The planning director has the right to docket the site plan review when it is complete,” he said. “Whether we decide to purchase the property or take it through eminent domain is a separate matter. We can consider one and then consider the other as two separate issues. I would think that if we decided to purchase all or part of the property, however, the new owners might decide not to come forward with the site plan as it is currently. If they do, then we should deal with that as a separate issue,” he said.

After discussing the matter with planning director Eileen Fogarty, it was deferred until the April 13, Council meeting. “That will still give us time to send out notices and leave it on the May Planning Commission docket,” said Mayor Euille.

Councilman Rob Krupicka was not convinced that the matter should be deferred until the June Planning Commission meeting. “I don’t see what we lose by going forward with this,” he said. “Perhaps between now and April 13, Vice Mayor Pepper can convince me, but right now I think it should go forward to Planning Commission and then we should hear it.”

Council will receive a recommendation from the city manager for the April 13 meeting. A work session on the issue of this property is scheduled for April 20.

EMINENT DOMAIN was also a topic of conversation concerning a right-of-way for a large sewer in the Eisenhower Valley. Council passed a resolution to proceed to negotiate a right-of-way that would allow a sewer to be built for the Mill Race development on property that is owned by the Hoffmann Company.

“I do not like using eminent domain,” said Sunderland. “I believe that it is one of the two greatest powers that we as a government have. However, this is about two property owners who are not being reasonable. This involves a 200 square foot piece of property that would be occupied for about a month.

“This is important to the city because the Mill Race development needs to move forward and the street grid system is an important component of that development. Eventually, the city will own and maintain this sewer. People need to behave like adults,” Sunderland said.

Euille hopes to be able to resolve this matter. “I have spoken to the parties involved and believe that if we all sit down together maybe we can work something out,” he said. “I don’t like for us to get involved in private disputes between property owners so I hope that we can do something short of using our power of eminent domain. We will move forward with the resolution so that we can proceed if we need to but we will all meet first,” he said.

The sewer will serve Mill Race and other development that is planned for Eisenhower East.