Friday, March 16, 2007

Economic Colonialism (Part II)

How interesting that the Mayor's remarks at ICCA the other night stressed revenue. The Growler is wondering if the drive to pave over Parker-Gray and the Braddock Road Metro area is founded in desperation about revenue.

First of all, a little background. The Alexandria budget has bloated enormously in just a few years.

The total FY 2001 Approved General Fund Budget was $320.0 million. City Manager Jim Hartmann recently proposed a General Fund Budget of $508.9 million for FY 2008. That's a whopping 38% increase in seven years and it was funded by the sharp rise in property values, which brought in a windfall of real estate tax while letting City leaders boast they were cutting rates.

Where is all the money going? The City didn't suddenly acquire 38% more residents, and school enrollment has been stable or on the decline for some time now.

It's a good topic for another day, but for now the Growler simply would like to observe that much of the current drive for revenue seems to be of the hamster-on-a-wheel sort, in which the politicians and City Manager are desperate to keep revenue pumped even as real estate values stagnate or fall.

But one of the reasons Growler thinks they are desperate is that collectively over time they have killed off other promising sources of even greater revenue.

Growler is thinking primarily of Potomac Yard. In a sense, we in Parker-Gray and Braddock Road may be getting density to make up for the loss of potential revenue that occurred when Del Ray fought back the more rational notion of dense development at the wide-open Potomac Yard.

Let's go back and look at the Yard. In 1993, the Post announced:
A Metro, commuter rail, Amtrak and bus station would be built at Potomac Yard in Alexandria by 2001 and its $35 million cost would be financed by a developer instead of taxpayers under a plan being discussed by the developer and Metro officials. It would be the first time a private company has paid for a station on the Metro system, which has been planned as an 83- station, 103-mile subway line funded by federal and local money." (Washington Post, October 10, 1993)
A few years later, plans for Potomac Yard were still grandiose:

"A real estate development group has been briefing government officials and civic groups in Arlington and Alexandria on an ambitious plan for the redevelopment of the Potomac Yard site, one of the most valuable tracts of land in the region. According to several people familiar with it, the plan for 'Washington Global Center' calls for a university center that would allow multiple colleges to produce programs for long-distance teaching, a business incubator to help young high-tech companies make global contacts, a financial center that would include an Internet-based stock exchange, an international convention center and hotel complex, an international cultural center, and about 4,500 houses, apartments and condominiums. Virginia Tech is involved with the educational part of the project." (Washington Post, September 27, 1996)

In an article on the Patent & Trademark Office's search for new digs, the Post notes that one of the finalists was Potomac Yard.

The 342-acre former rail yard is owned by Commonwealth Atlantic Properties Inc., formerly RF&P Corp. When Lazard Freres, the New York investment house, bought RF&P from the Virginia Retirement System last year, executives said they were rethinking development plans at Potomac Yard. But in conjunction with developer Boston Properties, they went ahead with the bid to build space for the PTO on a portion of the site that is in Alexandria." (March 17, 1997)
But by 1999 when the plans for Potomac Yard were finally approved by the City, the density had shrunk dramatically based on community opposition to PTO (among other things). With that, went the hope of a developer-funded Metro stop.

"When completed, Potomac Yard will contain about 2,200 dwelling units, 1.9 million square feet of office space, 625 hotel rooms and 115,000 square feet of new retail space in addition to the existing 620,000-square-foot Potomac Yard Retail Center. This sounds dense, but it could be denser--or much less dense if some citizens had gotten their way. It represents an intelligent compromise." (Washington Post, November 13, 1999)

"The result would be less than 6 million square feet of development in Alexandria's portion of the yard. That's far less than the 16 million square feet once proposed by another developer, and a happier ending than the Redskins football stadium or the massive Patent and Trademark Office once pitched and rejected." (Washington Post, September 7, 1999)

Happier ending for Del Ray all right. But what about Parker-Gray and the Braddock Road Area? Potomac Yard shrank by 10 million square feet of development yet will include "61 acres of park, including a 2.5-mile bike path along Metro and CSX rail lines" (Washington Post, September 7, 1999).

Instead, we're getting 3.1 million square feet of new development and scant open space.

Looks like we are being sacrified to make up for the 10 million square feet of development "lost," rejected by Del Ray, which also "lost" $35 million in free funds (probably more now given inflation) that would have been invested by a developer in a Metro station.

Economic Colonialism (Part I)

As the debate rages over the Braddock Road Metro plan, development, transit, and public housing the Growler is increasingly suspicious that this neighborhood is being treated as the colonies were once treated by the British Empire: as a source of revenue and raw goods, an entity to be dominated and exploited while the benefits flow elsewhere.

Case in point may be a scenario brought to the Cranky One by a concerned Parker-Gray parent, who is wondering if the Alexandria City Public School system is warehousing special education kids at Jefferson-Houston to attract Title I money that is then distributed around the City.

And does that mean that Jefferson-Houston test scores are being sacrificed in the interest of grant money?

This mom noticed while reviewing various school documents that although there are special education students in elementary schools all around Alexandria, Jefferson-Houston (as well as John Adams) has an unusually high percentage of special education students.

Now this may not be a bad thing in itself. By concentrating many pupils in one or more locations the City may also be better able to concentrate the additional resources they need.

Nevertheless, because these schools have large special ed populations, they give the ACPS the grounds to apply for Title I money to help out these troubled schools.

But that money apparently does not just go directly back to Jefferson-Houston but also to other special education programs in the City. If this theory is correct, it would seem ACPS has strong motivation to keep Jefferson-Houston inundated with special needs kids.

Surely, Growler asks, isn't this contributing to Jefferson-Houston's ongoing academic woes? If you have a large concentration of special ed students isn't it likely their testing scores will be lower, dragging down the whole school?

Ah yes. Some states have enacted waivers to exclude certain populations' test scores from a school's results. A waiver would mean a possible correction to Jefferson-Houston's scores, as it would allow ACPS to throw out the lowest test results.

But according to Concerned Parker Gray Parent, Virginia is apparently not one of the states that has enacted a waiver. So the special education populations' scores are still part of the Jefferson-Houston record.

Paranoia or truth? You be the judge.

At the very least, the fact that this interpretation is being bandied about and researched indicates Parker-Gray residents are waking up to the fact that we are getting the short end of the stick.