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Votes

How Would City Council Candidates Have Voted on the Waterfront Plan?

Candidates for office take sides in debate on controversial waterfront proposal.

The waterfront plan increases density at three sites and allows hotels.

The waterfront plan increases density at three sites and allows hotels. Photo courtesy of the Waterfront Plan Work Group

Would Have Voted Yes

  • John Taylor Chapman
  • Donna Fossum
  • Michael Hepburn
  • Sean Hollihan
  • Tim Lovain
  • Charles Sumpter
  • Justin Wilson

Would Have Voted No

  • Phil Cefaratti
  • Arthur Peabody
  • Allison Silberberg
  • Boyd Walker

Undecided

  • Melissa Feld

The waterfront is no longer a partisan issue. As more candidates throw their hat into the ring to run in the election for Alexandria City Council, a broader field of possibilities is opening up to voters. The issue has polarized city politics in the last year, with partisans on both sides of the issue. At stake is the future of three sites slated for redevelopment along the waterfront, where city planners want to add 150,000 square feet of allowable density.

“The waterfront is a post-partisan issue,” said Dak Hardwick, chairman of the Alexandria Democratic Committee. “Look at the people who spoke for and against it and you’ll see there are Democrats and Republicans on both sides of this.”

That may be so, but City Council members cast a party-line vote in January. All of the Democrats voted in favor of the plan, including Mayor Bill Euille, Vice Mayor Kerry Donley, Councilman Rob Krupicka, Councilman Paul Smedberg and Councilwoman Del Pepper. The two Republicans on the City Council were united in their opposition, with Councilman Frank Fannon and Councilwoman Alicia Hughes voting against the upzoning. Republicans are eager to frame the waterfront issue as part of a broader argument about a council unwilling to listen to concerns from the Beauregard small-area plan to redevelopment in Arlandria.

“There’s a widespread current of discontent in this city,” said Tom Fulton, chairman of the Alexandria Republican City Committee. “We are the party of change.”

WHEN ASKED ABOUT the waterfront plan, candidates give a range of answers. Some were reluctant to say how they would have voted, although answered when pressed. Others have strong feelings about the issue and participated in the public hearings that culminated in the January vote. Perhaps none of the candidates identifies with the issue as strongly as Democratic candidate Boyd Walker, who helped create an organization known as Citizens for an Alternative Alexandria Waterfront Plan. He has since resigned from the group to focus on his campaign, but his opposition to the plan has not diminished.

“Would I have voted for it?” asked Walker. “How many ways can you spell no?”

On the other side of the debate is Democratic candidate Sean Hollihan. During the debate on the waterfront plan, he became active with a group created to support the proposal known as Waterfront For All. He spoke in favor of the plan at the January public hearing, and he remains a strong advocate for boutique hotels such as Kimpton on the waterfront. When asked about how he would have voted, Hollihan said he would have enthusiastically cast his lot with the other Democrats on the council in support of increased density along the waterfront.

“I’d rather have a Kimpton than an abandoned lot surrounded by barbed wire,” said Hollihan.

This week, two new Democrats entered the race who are opposed to the plan. School Board member Arthur Peabody said he would have voted against the plan, which he described as lacking vision and adding too much density to Old Town. Allison Silberberg said she would have also voted against the plan, which she said lacked a spirit of compromise. During the debate on the waterfront, she offered a compromise measure that would have added one 100-room new hotel to the waterfront in addition to a bandshell on the north end of Oronoco Bay Park. When asked about the increased density, Silberberg said she wasn’t sure if that was a good idea or not.

“I realize that the city staff and council worked hard on the plan,” said Silberberg. “But I wanted the council to continue to hone its plan, to first have a vision and then to seek a compromise.”

Unlike the Democratic candidates who are divided on the issue, Republicans stand united in opposition. The two Republican incumbents have already voted against the plan and continue to oppose it in various procedural votes. Although he has not yet officially entered the race yet, Phil Cefaratti said this week that he is likely to put his name on the Republican ballot once again. Cefaratti ran an unsuccessful campaign for council back in 2009, and he’s on the verge of making an announcement soon about this year. Like Fannon and Hughes, Cefaratti is opposed to the waterfront plan.

“There was a lot of dischord in the populace about this,” said Cefaratti. “In my opinion, it just wasn’t complete.”

THE TWO FORMER City Council members both say they would have voted for the plan had they remained members. Tim Lovain said that the original version of the plan, which was released in February 2011, was a flawed document. But the Planning Commission removed a building that would have been constructed on Waterfront Park and reduced the number of rooms that could be considered a “boutique hotel.” At the last minute, Councilwoman Pepper changed the allowable number of hotels from three to two. He said he understands the concerns about increased density, but he said the move was needed to provide revenue.

“There are always trade-offs with density and what you get for it,” said Lovain. “Hopefully, the city can implement it in a way that’s sensitive.”

Former Councilman Justin Wilson says he would have also voted for the plan. He said part of his logic for increasing density would have been a lawsuit brought by the Washington Post challenging the existing zoning. City planners say that lawsuit created the origin of the plan to increase density along the waterfront, giving the land owners an increased value for their property in exchange for open space and developer contributions.

“I think we were in a situation where the city attorney was saying it was legally indefensible to keep the existing zoning,” said Wilson. “We’re talking about a relatively modest amount of density.”

Planning Commission member Donna Fossum voted against the plan last year, although she said the proposal has since been changed to ease her concerns about eminent domain. Fossum said that she thinks the increased density could be very beneficial to Old Town if it’s concentrated in a way that reduces traffic congestion. She also said that much of the discussion of the plan has overlooked an important feature of the proposal, which is that it would address persistent flooding in Old Town.

“The core of this plan is flood mitigation,” said Fossum. “But that’s kind of been lost in the shuffle.”

SEVERAL OF THE CANDIDATES struggled for the right words to capture their feelings about the waterfront plan. When asked how he would have voted, Democrat John Taylor Chapman said yes. But when asked about his reasoning, the candidate paused for a time. He said he disagreed with those who were concerned that increased traffic congestion and parking problems would undermine the quality of life in Old Town.

“It’s not going to ruin the neighborhood, although it will change it,” said Chapman. “I think it will change it for the better in terms of making the waterfront more appealing to Old Town and throughout the city.”

Democrat Charles Sumpter said he would have voted for the plan, describing the increased density as the best way to move forward. Democrat Michael Hepburn said he would have voted for the plan at the time, although he acknowledged that his listening tour has revealed more discontent with the proposal than he knew about at the time. Democrat Melissa Feld said she’s unsure how she would have voted.

“I just don’t know enough about it,” she said.