At last week’s budget work session, City Council discussed allocating resources to make Alexandria a “Livable, Green and Prospering City.”
This focus includes departments relating to the local economy and transportation, commercial and residential development, and the environment and parks. It accounts for about one sixth of the operating budget and nearly two-thirds of the 10-year Capital Improvement Program.
ECONOMY & TRANSPORTATION
A key theme throughout this budget process has been, in City Manager Mark Jinks’ words, “anemic revenue growth.” In that vein, much discussion focused on economic development.
Council and staff considered the draft FY2018 Interdepartmental Long Range Planning Work Program which aims at prioritizing large development projects. Priority undertakings for FY2018 include, for example, “development in Eisenhower East to take advantage of the momentum created by the National Science Foundation [NSF],” said planning and zoning’s Karl Moritz at the Jan. 24 legislative meeting.
At the work session, Vice Mayor Justin Wilson asked about accelerating the plan. “[I]n light of some of the challenges potentially coming from Washington … we got to have a discussion around how we prioritize our work plan to really focus on where we have opportunities for economic growth in the near term … I think we have a big problem on our hands,” he said.
“We have some real opportunities at three of our Metro stations that we’re not taking full advantage of,” said Councilman John Chapman. The Braddock Road station is one example. “Along with the redevelopment that’s happening right across the street [at the Andrew Adkins public housing site], there should be an opportunity to take advantage of something there. … I know WMATA has a ton going on. … But I would love for us to try to swing for that.”
Visit Alexandria wants to target the MGM National Harbor with ads and the NSF with “proactive” outreach. The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership wants to intensify the city’s “sense of place” — its spectrum of activities — to attract major office tenants.
COMMERCIAL & RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT
The NSF, a federal grant awarder, is expected to be a boon for local business, bringing in some 200,000 visitors annually. Councilman Paul Smedberg lamented that developers didn’t pursue building a lively “town center” around the NSF’s new location as soon as the deal was announced in 2015. Such development is now in the works, but it won’t be finished for years. In the meantime, “[W]e don’t have the hotels we need. We don’t have the conference space we need. We don’t have the restaurants we need for even just the employees to go out at lunch,” said Smedberg.
A proposed affordable housing development on the Church of the Resurrection’s property in the West End depends on whether or not the council includes it in the CIP. The church accepted about $2.8 million less than what it could have gotten for its land, had it opted to incorporate pricier market rate units. But the church says it’s called to maximize affordable housing. The project needs an additional $4.3 million — $8.4 million total — from the city in order to proceed.
“[A]s laudable as [the city’s] goal is, of one [affordable housing project] a year, and as much as that might be our aspiration, … we can’t promise it … The budget circumstances are just too unpredictable,” said Councilman Tim Lovain.
Councilman Willie Bailey had a different take. “It seems like a lot of groups are stepping up to the plate and being real creative to help us try to try find affordable housing in this city,” he said. “I just say, whatever we decide to do as it relates to the tax rate, that we keep affordable housing at the forefront. … I see this almost as a once in a lifetime project. You know, there’s nowhere to build. … And I applaud this church 110 percent. … [N]ot to bring religion here, but I think this is what God wants a lot of folks to do. … I just can’t believe they’re giving up their land to do this. And we need to find a way to make this work, now.”
Smedberg worried that ARHA redevelopments will take up an ever-increasing share of the city’s affordable housing resources. With “what they’ve got coming down the pike, all our money would theoretically go to ARHA, if we want those projects to happen,” he said.
ENVIRONMENT & PARKS
Alexandria needs to overhaul Old Town’s “combined sewers” to prevent human waste from overflowing into the Potomac. At $390 million, this upgrade alone accounts for one-fifth of the CIP. To pay for it, Jinks proposed increasing the Sanitary Sewer Fee every year for the next decade, for a six-fold increase by FY2027. This fee would secure the issuance of new city bonds.
Wilson inquired about the ramifications of increasing the first year’s hike above Jinks’ proposed 30 percent. For example, “a rate increase of about 80 [percent] would raise more than $3.2 million and...avoid a rate increase in FY2019,” according to a March 20 budget memo. Wilson voiced support for a further increase along these lines. Council members discussed how effectively to communicate these fee increases to the public.
The city’s parks face another round of cuts, including reduced baseball field preparation and reduced mowing and leaf collection. The cuts are expected to save the city $169,000.
“What’s the point in having parks if they’re not beautiful and maintained? To nickel and dime this aspect of our open space seems very shortsighted,” said Mayor Allison Silberberg.
Councilwoman Redella Pepper concurred, saying, “I don’t think we’re winning here.”
Wilson replied, “I don’t think you’re losing, you just got to find the money.”