As president of the Del Ray Citizens Association, Justin Wilson said he felt like a "mini mayor." If someone’s garbage hadn’t been picket up, he heard about it. If someone had a problem with a nearby business, he was asked how to fix it. If there were rats in someone’s alley, he was expected to figure out how to get rid of them. In the streets of Del Ray, Justin Wilson is a first among equals.
"Del Ray has a special place in my heart," said Wilson, taking a break from calling potential voters at the Democratic Party headquarters last week. "For me, the best part is being able to make the small stuff happen."
As the treasurer of Mayor Bill Euille’s reelection campaign last year — and the recipient of the mayor’s support during the Democratic caucus — Wilson also resembles the mayor in other respects. Like Euille, his base of support is in Del Ray, and he hopes to succeed a long line of neighborhood leaders who moved on to leadership positions in the city. It’s a list that includes Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), former City Councilman Lonnie Rich, former Sheriff Jim Dunning and current City Councilman Rob Krupicka.
"There must be something in the water," said Rich. "I think the Del Ray association will help him because he’s running against someone who has been a fixture in Alexandria for a long time."
A NATIVE OF Cheverly, Md., Wilson’s family hopped from the District of Columbia to Virginia to Florida then back to Virginia. Raised in a Democratic family, Wilson got the political bug early. As a 13-year-old, he traveled to Richmond to be a page for then-Lt. Gov. Don Beyer. Wilson said spent most of his time on the Senate floor, running messages to officials and fetching coffee for the lieutenant governor. It was an unforgettable experience, one that he said forged a spirit of public life and service to community.
"In my mind, Don Beyer was the model for an elected official, and I never saw the negative side to politics until later," he said. "It was a little hard to go back to school after that."
Wilson later returned to Richmond, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business information systems from Virginia Commonwealth University. He moved to Alexandria in 2001 and immediately became active in city politics, joining the Alexandria Democratic Committee and becoming involved in the Del Ray community. Wilson also volunteered with the city, joining the city’s budget advisory committee and becoming chairman of the city’s DASH bus system. As a senior information technology systems engineer in his professional life, Wilson is a believer in public transportation as well as a daily user.
"Mass transit is a passion of mine, and I am a daily mass-transit user," said Wilson, who uses DASH buses and Metro trains during his daily commute to Union Station in Washington. "We have four Metro stations in Alexandria, and I think that they are underutilized."
UTILIZING THE CITY’S Metro stations to their fullest capacity will require high-density development near the stations, Wilson said. Yet the tension between preserving existing neighborhoods and approving high-density development has created disagreement, particularly in Parker Gray — the city’s historically black neighborhood. Situated to the east of the Braddock Road Metro station, the neighborhood is in the midst of a transformation as six-story condominium buildings are being built next to historic two-story townhouses. Earlier this year, the planning process for the future of the neighborhood was halted when city planners clashed with neighborhood residents about what the area should look like.
"If transit-oriented development is such a wise course of action, then why did Del Ray or why did Old Town forgo the earlier options for Metro service?" said Sarah Becker, a longtime resident of the Parker Gray neighborhood. "For the record, the Braddock Road Metro — as it is now — is the second highest utilized of Alexandria’s four Metro stations, " Becker said.
Wilson said the city missed an opportunity to locate a new Metro station at Potomac Yard, and his campaign has repeatedly called for more transit-oriented development as a solution to building new roads. In public speeches and campaign materials, Wilson has supported doubling the city’s bus fleet, using smaller neighborhood buses and using alternative fuels for public-transportation carriers. He said that he was glad that the Parker-Gray planning process was halted so that neighborhood residents and city planners could find a way to bridge their differences.
"There needs to be transition between existing buildings and new development," said Wilson. "The City Council has got to re-engage the community and find out what the people there want."
AS A MEMBER of the city’s budget-advisory committee, Wilson has a long list of economic reforms he would like to see implemented. For example, he thinks the city should be setting aside more money for retiree health-insurance plans to avoid problems in the future. He wants to abolish the city’s personal-property tax stickers, which currently have a mandated appearance on Alexandria windshields. And he thinks the city should consider using a technique called "tax-increment financing" that would use potential future gains in tax revenue to finance current improvements to the Landmark Mall area.
"There is some amount of risk that’s involved in this," he said. "But Landmark Mall has slid into oblivion, and it has become a burden on residential property taxpayers."
Wilson said he would like to see the City Council become more aggressive in developing a coordinated plan for economic development. Potential ideas for accomplishing this, he said, could include appointing an "economic development czar" to oversee the coordination, creating a series of metrics to track activity and streamlining the special-use process for small businesses. Although he declined to be specific about which projects he would like to jettison, Wilson said that the city’s capital-improvement plan should be downsized.
"We’re going to have to take some things off that list," said Wilson. "But it won’t be fun."