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Letter: What’s Best For the City

To the Editor:

It is clear that an antidevelopment bloc has developed among the Democratic candidates running for City Council.

It is equally clear that these candidates have a limited understanding of city development policy and strategy.

Land use planning often involves complicated, difficult issues — and controversy.

It’s important that citizens understand more clearly the significant legal and financial constraints that the city faces when dealing with redevelopment proposals.

The first key reality is that property owners often have substantial legal rights to redevelop their properties at higher densities, as is the case in the three development parcels in the waterfront plan.

Second, in many cases, developers have few legal obligations to take actions to mitigate the effects of redevelopment or provide public benefits. For example, the city is legally prohibited from requiring a developer to provide affordable housing.

In response to this situation, the city in recent years has pursued a strategy in which it provides additional development rights in return for significant public benefits — amenities that the city often can’t provide without raising taxes.

By pursuing this approach, the city effectively takes control of the development process, steering it in a direction aimed at putting the city first, not the developers.

The city staff has become quite sophisticated in negotiating these public-benefit packages. The package varies in each proposal, determined to a large degree by what citizens want. In the case of the Beauregard plan, citizens requested more affordable housing.

But there are problems with this approach. The main problem is that citizens may have a difficult time determining whether the benefits are fair and outweigh the costs of additional development. Citizens recognize that their neighborhood will get the new development, but are skeptical that they will get the benefits. They thus opt for the status quo.

But there are risks of accepting the status quo as well. In the case of the Beauregard plan, allowing development to proceed by right would have locked in the existing development pattern, including the problems of car dependency and separation of uses. The approved plan will include much-denser development but also much more and much better open space, better integration of land uses, a more pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly environment, and other improvements — all without a tax increase.

The city approach of trading more development for public amenities also pays off in another way. It increases tax revenues, which the city has used to provide additional spending for children from disadvantaged or lower-income families in our public schools. The extra revenue has also helped support a range of other social services for less advantaged and lower-income residents in the city.

This is something that residents expressing concerns about the loss of affordable housing have failed to understand or appreciate.

Thus, given the challenges the city faces vis-‡-vis development, we need City Council members who take a pragmatic and realistic approach to these issues. Among the Democrats who are running in the June 12 primary, these include incumbents Paul Smedberg and Del Pepper; former Council members Tim Lovain and Justin Wilson; and newcomers Sean Holihan, Donna Fossum, Melissa Feld, and John Chapman, although Chapman made some unfortunate comments about the Beauregard plan.

Among the newcomers, Fossum has by far the most experience on development issues, given her long service on the Planning Commission, although the other candidates mentioned here can be counted on for a sensible approach to this often-thorny issue.

Bill Hendrickson

Alexandria