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Letter: Growth That Isn’t Smart

To the Editor:

If elected mayor in November, I will change the kind of planning process that brought us the waterfront plan, Beauregard plan and the proposed $500 million Potomac Yards metro station. The current approach assumes growth is always good and more growth is even better, and that all new development will make Alexandria more livable.

I am a conservationist, and I’m not opposed to all development. However, I am quite concerned about what Alexandria’s current mayor and planners call smart growth. The development plan for the area around the Winkler Preserve that Council approved on Saturday has too many uncertain and incompletely studied benefits — and costs — to be called a sustainable roadmap for our future by any objective measure.

Supporters say that without more density — a mere 6 million more square feet — we will also lack the additional tax revenue needed to help pay for 800 units of affordable housing, a new transit system, more parks, more trees and a new fire station. If it sounds too good to be true, I think it is. Residents have clearly shown that many of the community benefits, like the transit improvements and plan to preserve affordable housing, are unlikely to work very well. For instance, if we can't negotiate some short-term relief for lower income residents, then many will be forced out within the next 13 months or so. For another, congestion is likely to increase significantly, despite the improvements, including a multi-million dollar traffic circle at the intersection of Seminary and Beauregard, and state-funded HOV ramp designed to link I-395 with BRAC-133.

Yet this is supposed to be a transit-oriented project that will make the area greener and more livable than it already is. Isn’t that the goal? Many residents though aren’t so sure that the improvements will actually improve what is already a green urban oasis, and when they voice their concerns, as they did on Saturday, the response from the mayor and other council members was: So, what you suggest we do? As mayor, I would start by making sure that these issues are examined more thoroughly, with the support and input of the community.

Time and time again, the City says that taxpayers will have to pay little or nothing for all these new “benefits,” which will be paid for incrementally with new tax revenue generated by the density. I think poorly planned growth like Beauregard is likely to be a net drain on the City’s general fund that will require us to either to raise taxes or cut services, or both.

The City is addicted to density because it appears to pay for the benefits we either want or need, like a new park or a new grocery store, if the population rises, and not add to our unsustainable debt levels. But if we are not careful, all it may do is make Alexandria a lot less livable. We must be much more careful about what we expect from developers and what the real costs and benefits are to every taxpayer in Alexandria.

Density by itself is not a vision for the future. Nor is smart growth, if the objectives are not clearly defined, and the community is shut out of the planning process. So, how about we start doing some real long-term planning that includes the community? How about we stop pushing density and take a hard look at all the assumptions behind this rush to grow bigger? How about we elect some new members of Council who won’t rubberstamp any more of this smart growth?

Andrew Macdonald

Independent for Mayor of Alexandria