Alexandria: City Council Candidates Go West

Alexandria: City Council Candidates Go West

Candidates debate future of the West End.

City Council candidates at the West End debate.

City Council candidates at the West End debate. Photo by Vernon Miles.

Landmark Mall. BRAC 133. Overcrowded schools. Crumbling infrastructure.

The West End has a different set of problems from Old Town. Before they can win a spot on the City Council, the 11 candidates need to prove to the residential core of the city that they can address some of these problems. The format of the Sept. 17 was a little different from the others; different candidates were mostly asked specific questions, meaning not every candidate was able to address the same topics.

The Republican and Democrat divide was less apparent at the West End Civic Associations’ debate at Ramsay Elementary School. It was the second candidates’ debate that day, the first held by the Chamber of Commerce in the Patent and Trademark Office that morning. In the West End, candidates across party lines recognized the need to refocus on infrastructure and to finally get a plan in the works to deal with Landmark Mall.

“We need Landmark Mall developed,” said Councilwoman Del Pepper, a Democrat. “There’s potential, but there’s been no movement in seven years. This could really jump start other things in the Van Dorn area.”

Candidate Bob Wood, a Republican, agreed that development at Landmark Mall needed to be the number one goal for the West End.

On a broader level, Councilman John Chapman, a Democrat, said that lowering the office vacancy rate was vital to the West End’s economy.

Councilman Paul Smedberg, a Democrat, focused many of his comments on transportation policy in the West End.

“Transit dramatically impacts the quality of life [in the West End] and we need to tackle that regionally,” said Smedberg, proposing an increase in bike stations and sidewalks in the West End, and adding that the city needed to highlight pedestrian safety on the major transit corridors. For Pepper, an increase in bike stations and sidewalk improvements in the West End would help improve some of the transit congestion. Republican candidate Townsend “Van” Van Fleet similarly proposed plans to encourage Alexandrians to walk rather than drive.

On transit, Chapman said that the West End needs an expansion of DASH and bus transit options. Democratic Councilman Tim Lovain favored centering development around metro station as an effective method of reducing traffic demands throughout the city. Candidate Fernando Torrez took the idea a step further and said he would like to see another metro station installed in the West End, though at the same time acknowledging the difficulties and cost such a plan would entail.

Other candidates focused on changes to traffic and parking. Phil Cefaratti, an independent, argued that residential streets need more stoplights as well as more restrictions on turning left without a sign.

“We are too gracious in relieving developers of parking requirements,” said Wood. Democratic candidate Willie Bailey proposed adding a phone number on no-parking signs that would allow residents to contact city officials if a car was left inappropriately parked.

The final question of the night asked the incumbent candidates what vote they regretted the most and challenging candidates what City Council vote they most disagreed with. For members of the City Council, there was a recurring theme of regretting delays in infrastructure development.

“We put off a lot of infrastructure development during the recession, but those deferred bills don’t get any smaller,” said Democratic Councilman Justin Wilson. Pepper expanded the infrastructure regrets to include not building new schools, which left the city’s schools overcrowded.

“We need to prioritize spending on central functions,” said Republican candidate Monique Miles, emphasizing infrastructure costs and schools as primary needs for City Council funding.

The most controversial discussion of the evening started when Van Fleet accused the City Council of voting in secret on BRAC 133. Later, Lovain responded that there was no vote on BRAC.

“It was a Department of Defense decision rammed down Alexandria’s throats,” said Lovain, drawing loud jeers from an otherwise docile audience. “The truth hurts.”

The truth, as it turns out, is more complicated. While the City Council may have discussed BRAC in a closed session, the Freedom of Information Act prohibits the Council from privately voting on the topic.

“Regardless of whether or not the City Council discussed BRAC in closed session, the city’s position was ultimately not to favor one private developer over another as they competed for the Department of Defense’s business,” said Craig Fifer, director of the Office of Communications. “Thus, City Council did not vote on one location versus another.”