Monday, April 27, 2009

Talking Heads

Eight days and counting until the general election ...

Readers have been asking what the Growler thought of East End Council candidate debate last week.

Well, it ended up being well run and the organizers were scrupulous in not editing or softening the queries but asking them as written. A lot of ground was covered and the format (which involved pairing one incumbent with one challenger on the answers) worked well.

On the hot-button issues in our neighborhood, the first big disappointment was the discussion of transportation and traffic. References were made by several panelists to BRT on Route 1, but no-one bothered to add disclaimers about the need to protect the vulnerable homeowners on N. Patrick and N. Henry Streets. So BRAT pack, stand at attention! Your vigilance is still needed on this issue, particularly if a free stimulus money check is in the mail to City leaders.

There was also a question about the future of the 40-year old Jefferson-Houston Elementary School and whether candidates support building a new school. While noting this is more the School Board's province, Councilman Tim Lovain said he leaned toward repairing the building, but also thought it worthwhile to look building a new one or selling the property to build elsewhere. (That just about covers all the options, don't you think, readers?)

Other incumbents were waffled between renovation (which is years off in any case) and reconstruction. Former Mayor Kerry Donley could only point to the fact that there were other unfunded needs in the capital budget but thank our lucky stars for Alexandria's AAA bond rating which happened under Democratic leadership. (Shameless plug, perhaps?)

So don't expect JH to move up the priority list any time soon, at least from a facilities standpoint.

When asked if they thought public housing was equitably distributed around the City, candidates answered no — but with slightly different spins.

Independent challenger Rich Williamson said there was definitely not enough dispersal but then suggested it shouldn't be loaded into a high-rise at Landmark. (Translation: let's keep it out of the West End.)

Councilman Rob Krupicka quickly agreed that there wasn't enough deconcentration, but then deflected any discussion about future dispersal into his usual cheerleading for mixed-income developments, particularly the proposal for the James Bland redevelopment. (Translation: let's keep it out of Potomac Yard.)

Republican contender Frank Fannon brought up the need to redevelop some of ARHA's properties simultaneously. (Translation: Chatham Square is great but Hopkins-Tancil should be next.) The very mention of Chatham Square underscored the fact that there is one formula for deconcentration for Old Town, but one quite different for our neighborhood.

Everyone skirted the issue of the land swap at Potomac Yard (exchanging the Braddock Fields playing grounds for Landbay L) by supporting a need for more study coupled with declarations that George Washington Middle School students' needs had to be the first priority. This one sounds DOA to the Growler, but we'll see. Del Ray is already mounting a propaganda effort in the press. There was support for the redevelopment of the 7-11 site, but the question now is not equitable development but whether Del Ray and Rosemont have the smarts to get the convenience store — a magnet for footloose GW students — and its booze out of here. Doubtful.

Of course, not every question was related to our neighborhood and many were on broader themes like economic development.

Clearly all candidates are now embracing aggressive economic development as a method for addressing the overly large proportion of City revenue that is dependent on residential property tax assessments. That's fine, but the Growler remains skeptical about this mid-course correction. Alexandria was gung-ho on residential development in recent years and we're now stuck with troubled condo buildings and plans for more that are virtually dead on the table. Given the violent mood swings of our bipolar leadership, it's likely that whoever is elected will charge equally enthusiastically and equally blindly into the opposite direction and in 10 years we'll have a glut of office and retail space and another soul-searching about balance.

There were a few interesting themes explored by the challengers. Some observers, particularly the incumbents, may sneer at him, but Mr. Williamson touched on a sore point by talking about how neighborhoods are "consulted" by the City but ultimately have planning "imposed" on them and rarely empowered to shape their own destiny. Those of us who have been through the Braddock Road planning charade know just how apt this observation is.

Second, while there was some of the usual Republican dogma about less regulation which is usually of more interest to businesses than to citizens, there were references to Board of Architectural Review (BAR) reform that constitute a bullseye for this neighborhood. There is scarcely a homeowner here in Parker-Gray who hasn't seethed about the picayune rules regarding the use of Hardiplank siding. And if you really want to make residents' blood pressure rise let's talk about the equally stupid and intrusive rules regarding garden sheds. Councilman Justin Wilson talked about his support for BAR reform, but we haven't seen any concrete proposals yet.

The Growler liked Republican challenger Phil Cefaratti's comments about the budget and cutting City staffing. It's beside the point to plead (as Councilman Paul Smedberg did) that there were plenty of competent people at City Hall. We know that. But Mr. Cefaretti noted that in all large organizations at least 10% of staff are poor performers. So far the City is only willing to tackle a staff reduction of 4% in FY 2010, with many of the positions slated for extinction already unfilled. It's an opportunity lost.

What was remarkable about the forum is that the incumbents — who, with the exception of Mr. Wilson, have all served at least six years or more, and some much longer — have little to offer as solid and lasting accomplishments.

Mr. Donley offered a few, but appeared to be living in the past, talking again about how he brought the Patent & Trademark Office to Alexandria and how it expanded the tax base. Fine, but he has yet to explain why residential property tax payors haven't had the relief that was promised. Is it time for citizen analysts to have a long hard look at the budget and determine if mega-development is actually costing the City more than it is producing? And if it isn't, why can't the Council spend within its means?

And speaking of old-timers, Vice Mayor Del Pepper -- who has been complicit in the doubling of the Alexandria budget since 2000 -- pronounced the FY 2010 budget "lean and mean."

One of the biggest eyeball rollers of the evening was the statement from Mr. Krupicka that the reason for the recent explosion in school enrollment -- the highest in Virginia -- and the consequent pressures on the Alexandria City public school system is a rash of fertility across Del Ray, Beverly Hills, etc. Apparently all the preggos are creating the problem.

Unfortunately, that's isn't entirely borne out by the demographic facts as outlined in an article last fall in the Gazette, which found more than half of the new pupils this year were Hispanic. School superintendent Dr. Morton Sherman also told Inner City Civic Association members last fall that many of the new pupils were coming to Alexandria from Fairfax County. It's not hard to put two and two together and figure out that the wake of foreclosures in the county, plus the City's don't ask, don't tell immigration policy passed in October 2007, is attracting displaced residents here.

So those are just a few of the highlights. In sum, there wasn't a lot for residents in Parker-Gray to cheer about. But it's always good to remind the pols we're out here and we're not going away.