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Alexandria's Sustainability — By What Standard?

Are the Work Group's assumptions sustainable under scrutiny?

This fall City Council will be asked to take action on the final report of the Mayor's "Economic Sustainability Work Group." That action and its reverberations into the next decade and beyond could well determine whether Alexandria seriously preserves its history rich heritage or evolves into just another economic generator serving a multi-tasking society.

As any psychologist, personal or social, will attest, there is always a choice. The determining factors are the driving forces behind the decision making process.

Established by Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille in June 2006, following an Economic Summit in January 2006, the Work Group is tasked with suggesting ways for the city to improve its economic viability. Although, that mission is assumed to cover all elements of the city's past, present and future, the group's primary focus, as evidenced by the language of it preliminary report, is overwhelmingly economic in the purest sense.

Even though this would seem to be an obvious tack, given the first word of its title, "Economic," Alexandria, like other areas rich in historic significance, is a dualism. Ignore the historic preservation, and the regulatory mechanisms necessary to sustain that character, and Alexandria becomes just another business hub. Go the opposite direction and the possibility of economic collapse begins to materialize.

The trick is the balance. Does the Work Group's report achieve that or does it pay only lip service to Alexandria's place in American history while taking a near Pavlovian approach to future money possibilities?

This second part of the series will spell out various statistics and recommendations cited by the Work Group.

ON THE PLUS SIDE:

* Alexandria unemployment is low, 2.2 percent, roughly half the national average.

* Income is high, $57,224 per capita, nearly 20 percent higher than the rest of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

* The population is well educated with more than 50 percent having at least one college degree, which would bode well for the high tech future of American society

* Crime is low and falling, at least when the preliminary report was written. Violent crime is down 50 percent from 1996, according to law enforcement statistics

* The tax base has grown significantly, doubling in the past five years. However, as noted by the report, so has local government spending.

* Services are abundant as is service spending which is now twice the 1997 level.

ALL THIS BEING SAID, the group has concluded, "Alexandria is not well positioned for the future." The reasons they give are:

"Businesses and jobs have gone elsewhere. Job growth has been flat during the recent boom." However, they did not define that so-called "recent boom" or seem to take into account the long slow climb back from the ripple effect of 9-11 and the Pentagon strike That deflated tourism, particularly those traveling by air. They also claim that the U.S. Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure Report (BRAC) of 2005 will cost the city 7,200 jobs by 2011 when BRAC implementation is scheduled for completion. This is not verified and all BRAC speculation, good or bad, is subject to variables which may or may not occur for Alexandria as well as Fairfax and Arlington counties.

"The residential party appears to be over — home prices likely to fall or be flat this year." The latter part of that prediction is contrary to analysis by all five real estate associations in the metropolitan area. During a meeting at the National Press Club, those associations noted that time on the market for residential properties had definitely elongated, back to their more traditional time frame of 70 to 85 days, but that prices were holding up. The commercial market was still fairly hot, according to those association representatives. The latest statistics, released just this week, describe the Washington area real estate market to be strong, defying the national trend. In fact, an area-wide shortage of nearly 850,000 residential units is predicted over the next 20 years due to accelerating population growth.

"Commercial property not picking up the slack — hotel occupancy off six percent this year — office vacancy at 12.2 percent." Office vacancy is up. However, several major hotel chains have recently acquired properties in Alexandria. Some are planning or already undergoing major, expensive renovations. Do they know something the Work Group doesn't?

"Meanwhile, the competition has charged ahead — Pentagon City, Tysons Corner, Bethesda, National Harbor/Gaylord." Are these really Alexandria's competition? And, if so, in what respect? Where's the history in Pentagon City and Tysons Corner? Do shoppers, potential residents, businesses, associations, academic institutions really balance Alexandria against Bethesda, or vice versa, when making location or personal decisions? Will National Harbor be the tourism boom some in Alexandria envision or will it be a self-contained mecca for its visitors once complete? Will its owners really want those potential dollars, needed to fuel its restaurants and shops, to wander offsite, whether to Alexandria or elsewhere? And, if visitors do venture off what kind of tourists will they be — the kind that have a real love of history or the T-shirt, bobble head doll collectors with the potential of changing Old Town's colonial atmosphere to one of honky tonk vendorism.

IN ORDER TO COUNTER these perceived defects the Work Group makes "Two major observations and recommendations." One is to leverage existing assets such as Alexandria's close-in location to both the District of Columbia and Reagan National Airport and the availability of Metro.

Addressing Metro the Work Group maintains, "Our Metrorail is underutilized." That applies to all four City stations, they stated.

The Eisenhower Station is the second lowest used station in Metro's network, according to the report. They attribute the general underutilization to the following:

* Using suburban station designs in an urban setting;

* A poor return on investment;

* The need for denser development near Metro stations thereby encouraging more ridership; and

* Updated names for existing stations such as "Old Town-King

Street" and "Landmark-Van Dorn."

However, if passengers took the latter literally they better be very good, in shape hikers.

They also call for filling in unserved areas such as the newly developing Potomac Yard and the gap between the Eisenhower and Van Dorn stations with new stations. In the case of Potomac Yard it has been determined a Metro station for the foreseeable future is not likely. Thus, Potomac Yard is to be served by a Rapid Bus Transit system that will connect with the existing Braddock Road Metro Station.

The second is to restore the commercial balance to the City's overall tax distribution. They site a Fiscal Year 2008 tax revenue income of $505.6 million. That is divided into the following categories accordingly.

* Residential Real Property 31.7 percent

* Commercial Real Property 22 percent

* Other local taxes 30.2 percent

* Inter-government 10.2 percent

* Non-tax revenue 6 percent

As noted in part one of this series, the Work Group's recommendation is to restore the real estate tax base revenue production to its once established 50/50 ratio — commercial to residential. The over dependency on residential real estate taxes invites fiscal disaster, particularly when that market corrects to its normal parameters. Or, even worse, if it truly slumps.

The end result of a top-heavy reliance on a residential real estate revenue source was evidenced in this year's City budget deliberations and proposals. Belt tightening was the rule of the day across the board.

In the words of the preliminary report, "We took a common sense approach — no cherry picking." This declaration lead to what the Work Group envisions as potential solutions. However, it also perpetuates the underlying question — Whose Alexandria is this anyway? That will be addressed in the third and final part of this series.

During the production of part one of this series. part of the story appeared out of order. The story was written to begin with the wording "Of the money" which appeared as paragraph two. The misplaced lead paragraph of the first story should actually have appeared as the seventh paragraph immediately preceding the wording "Although historic preservation