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What is the State of the City?

Mayor’s annual speech prompts questions about the city’s present state and future expectations.

During his annual State of the City address during a meeting of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce last week, Mayor Bill Euille paused to interject the expression “great expectations” into the text of his written speech as if to underscore his boundless sense of optimism. As a conceptual theme, the interjections tied the speech together. Yet their broad strokes also left several key questions unanswered.

Euille’s great expectations revolve around a perception of a city on the rise, one in which a sense of boundless opportunity is created by low unemployment (2 percent as compared to the state's 3 percent and the nation's 4 percent) and rising commercial property values (13 percent of the rise was from new construction and appreciation). In his annual address he praised the city’s initiative to create the first citywide wireless Internet connection in the region, noted that Alexandria’s office-vacancy rate is near the national average, 11 percent, and extolled the virtues of development potential near the Braddock Street Metro station. Calling the Mirant power plant a “major source of unacceptable pollution,” he said that City Council will continue efforts to shut down the coal-fired plant. And he told attendees that City Manager Jim Hartmann’s proposed $509-million budget was a sensible response to the city’s emerging financial situation.

“Alexandria continues to be a very desirable place to locate, and a number of major development projects are underway. City Council’s challenge is to balance budget needs and requests with our constrained revenue growth,” Euille said in the nearly hour-long speech. “The slowdown in the residential housing market and its impact on city revenues means we must broaden and diversify our economic base and lessen our dependence on the residential real-estate tax base.”

After mentioning some possible ways to expand the economic base such as redevelopment of Landmark Mall and revitalization of the retail section of King Street, Euille took a moment to address the disparity between the School Board’s proposed budget and the city manager’s approach. In January, the Alexandria School Board passed a controversial $162.3-million budget, which exceeded the target by $6.8 million. Now that Hartmann has presented a proposal that mirror’s City Council’s $155.5 million target, Euille said that he would be working with school officials to forge a compromise between their requested appropriation and the city’s willingness to fund it.

“City Council and the entire community will have the difficult task of reconciling this request with available resources,” said Euille. “We have asked the School Board to review their budget to find other reductions, and the City Council and School Board will meet together in March to discuss the school budget.”

Toward the back of Commonwealth Ballroom, School Board members breakfasted on omelets and bacon as the mayor outlined the city’s financial situation. After he was finished, board member Yvonne Folkerts said that she looked forward to working with the mayor to find a solution that would be acceptable at both City Hall and the Beauregard Street school administration headquarters. As one of the three members who voted against the School Board’s budget, she reiterated her desire to put together a spending plan that met the needs of the city’s children while simultaneously exercising fiscal restraint.

“It has to end up at a place where we meet the needs of the students,” said Folkerts, who chairs the board’s budget committee. “At this point, I’m not sure if that will be closer to the School Board’s budget or the city manager’s budget.”

RESPONDING TO THE new National Harbor development on the other side of the Potomac River is one of the most vexing issues now before the city. Development plans call for Fairfax-based firm Peterson Companies to build a 300-acre complex in Maryland near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, including 4,000 hotel rooms, a 470,000-square-foot convention center, 2,500 residential units, 500,000 feet of office space, 10,000 parking spaces and four piers.

“Together with the Chamber and our other economic development partners, we are working on plans to attract National Harbor hotel guest to Alexandria,” said Euille during the speech. “We will be starting on the Waterfront Plan shortly and this important community planning process will provide the opportunity to create a plan and a vision for the Alexandria waterfront.”

The next day, during a public hearing at City Hall, City Council took the first step toward responding to the rapidly emerging development, which is set to be open for business on April 1, 2008. The council voted unanimously to approve a license agreement for a new water shuttle service from Alexandria to National Harbor. The nonexclusive arrangement would allow the Potomac Riverboat Company the right to launch two 99-passenger boats from the berth where the Miss Mallory is currently docked — immediately adjacent to a ticket booth near the Torpedo Factory.

“This is a team effort between the Chamber of Commerce, the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association, the Old Town Civic Association, Founders Park Community Association, National Harbor and, of course, city staff,” said Charlotte Hall, vice president of the Potomac Riverboat Company. “We’re very excited about it.”

The agreement approved by City Council refers to the berth as an “interim location,” and no arrangement has been formed to create a welcome center for visitors. Lonnie Rich, a former council member and former chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, said that the current reaction to National Harbor leaves a number of important questions unanswered: What will the waterfront look like from the river? How much more lighting will be needed to see Old Town from the other side of the river? How will water-taxi passengers get to the Metro station, and where will they use the restroom?

“I think it’s critical that the city have some sort of welcome center where people can get in out of the rain, use the bathroom and receive some brochures,” said Rich after the mayor’s Friday morning speech. “We’ll have about 20 minutes to get their attention, and a welcome center on the waterfront would be the best way to let people know about what they can do and see in Alexandria.”

DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES near the Braddock Road Metro station are emerging as the most controversial part of mayor’s agenda. In his speech, the mayor advocated allowing bonus density and encouraging “transit-oriented development.” Continuing a theme from last year, Euille said that that the city should be willing to allow for increased levels of development near Metro stations.

“Last year, I talked to you about making a paradigm shift to maximize our development potential and to take full advantage or our underutilized Metro stations,” said Euille. “This is the direction we need to move in.”

But Euille’s paradigm shift is not universally welcomed, especially in the Inner City neighborhood near the Braddock Road Metro station. Many neighborhood residents there have become increasingly dissatisfied with the size and scale of recent condominium projects that are now being built. During a Feb. 24 public hearing, several neighborhood residents spoke against a new 146-unit condominium on Payne Street between Pendleton Street and Wythe Street. Some say that the historically black neighborhood is being unfairly targeted for increased density when areas such as Del Ray and Potomac Yard won’t have the kind of increased scale that the mayor is currently encouraging in the Inner City.

“Density around the Braddock Road Metro is driven by the city’s want for additional revenues,” said Sarah Becker, past president of the Inner City Civic Association, after the six-to-one vote in favor of the Payne Street Condominium project. “But it’s an unconvincing argument because high-density development does not go 360 degrees around the Metro. It’s limited to one particular neighborhood.”

For others, the argument for increasing density in the Inner City is a matter of attracting more people to Alexandria. Lavern Chatman, president of the Northern Virginia Urban League said that the city needs to strike a careful balance between responding to the needs of the existing community and planning for the future.

“Any time you talk about increasing density, there’s going to be pushback,” said Chatman after Friday’s speech. “That’s a common reaction, but isn’t going to be able to attract young professionals to Alexandria without increasing density — especially near the Metro stations.”