Stark differences were on full display Saturday night, as Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson and former Mayor Allison Silberberg sparred in a contentious debate on local issues.
Wilson defended his record since taking the mayorship from Silberberg in 2018. Silberberg, however, said she wants to restore the public trust, and that the city is at an inflection point.
“We’ve seen in the last couple of years certain decisions and policies that have been decided that really put our city at risk in many ways,” Silberberg said. “Our visions for the city are different. And our city is at an inflection point… It saddens me to hear so many residents express a profound loss of confidence and trust in our local government. As your mayor, I would certainly be very focused on transparency, and rebuilding the public trust.”
The hour-long debate was hosted by the Alexandria Democratic Committee, and moderated by Robert McCartney, a senior regional correspondent for The Washington Post. Wilson currently leads in fundraising and endorsements, and the debate comes on the heels of Wilsons’ endorsement by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.
Silberberg presented herself as an environmentalist in favor of “smart growth,” while Wilson said that the city needs to match growth with transportation infrastructure.
“I’m inspired to turn what I’ve learned about our city’s resilience over the last year into a mission for our city’s future,” Wilson said. “I know that by investing in our kids, investing in our basic infrastructure, and making sure that we have an economy that can support the services that our residents expect and demand, Alexandria cannot only survive in the aftermath of this pandemic, but we can thrive.”
Silberberg’s tenure as mayor was plagued by lone 6-1 votes, and Wilson said that she voted against a number of important issues, including a controversial 5.7 cent tax hike in 2017 that resulted in significant capital improvement funding.
“I speak out for the people and I listen to our residents,” Silberberg said. “I’m certainly in favor of transit oriented development, that has been what we’ve all supported across the many years. But what I’m really for is smart growth. And what that means really, is that you don’t have unabashed out of scale overbuilding on every square inch, that you do keep some open space, which helps with the flooding.”
Silberberg criticized Wilson’s handling of COVID-19, and said that the city’s face mask ordinance needed to be passed sooner that the fall of 2020.
“It’s been a harrowing year for all of us,” she said. “I know a number of folks who have had COVID, and I’ve lost some friends. I don’t think we should have waited till October 1 with the outdoor mask order. Cities all across the country were helping restaurants, but the restaurants in the Bradley Center in the middle of the city and on the West End weren’t helped as much as other places, so we need to look at that across the board.”
Wilson said that the mask ordinance was the first adopted in Virginia, and was replicated by Northam in his statewide executive order. He also said that the city’s vaccination rate for Latinos is higher than for white residents, a result of “aggressive outreach” to the city’s nonprofits.
“I’m very proud of that ordinance,” he said. “Alexandria led the way in providing new small business flexibility using outdoor spaces, sidewalks, closing streets, parking lots and everything to help keep our businesses afloat. I worked with the mayor of Richmond to go down to the General Assembly and ultimately get the governor to include an executive order that allowed carry-out cocktails, which has helped keep our restaurants a floating all around our city. We spent millions of dollars a small business assistance again leading the way in the region, and helping our small businesses providing grants to small businesses all around our city.”
Silberberg also said that she would reverse the Seminary Road Diet, which she said is a transparency issue.
“I love biking, and I applaud everything that we could do to increase public safety,” Silberberg said. “But that’s not what this was really about. Seminary Road is a major arterial road that leads to our only hospital. Thirteen civic associations from all across the city who have never agreed about anything came together to say to the mayor and city council and the city staff, ‘Don’t do this.’ It was not widely supported. It was widely condemned by most of the residents in that neighborhood, but also 13 civic associations representing thousands. So, he didn’t listen. He was very dismissive.”
Wilson said that the Seminary Road issue is about public safety, and that there previously weren’t sidewalks on both sides of the street. He also said that spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to reverse the road diet is a “reckless expenditure of money.”
On flooding, Wilson said that the recently approved stormwater tax increase will help address stormwater issues throughout the city. Silberberg said that Council didn’t move fast enough, and that it resulted in residents suffering through three major flooding events last summer before action was taken.
“If I’m the mayor, I’m not going to neglect this,” she said.”People shouldn’t be fearful every time we’re expecting rain. That is what’s going on.”
Surprisingly, both Wilson and Silberberg agreed on being against colocating affordable housing on school grounds. Wilson, however, said that the city should look at colocating services at school sites, such as recreation centers, dental clinics and doctor’s offices.
“I personally don’t think housing is the most attractive opportunity for colocation on school sites,” Wilson said. “I think we have a lot of opportunities to do that and be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars by using our scarce property. But we want to make sure that we have an adequate amount of open space on our school properties. We want to make sure we have enough instructional space.”
Silberberg said ACPS is busting at the seams.
“Our students need the land and need it for recreational purposes and educational purposes,” she said.
Silberberg is also against the stream restoration projects at Taylor Run, Strawberry Run and Lucky Run. She says that the projects will destroy natural habitats, while Wilson says he is open to alternatives that allow the city to meet its Chesapeake Bay watershed requirements. Council will soon take another look at the projects, which critics say have been put on the wrong course by faulty data.
“We don’t have that many forests left,” she said. “I stand with the environmental scientists, I listen to the residents and the civic associations. I am firmly against the plan.”
Wilson and Silberberg also differed on the issue of accessory dwelling units.
Silberberg said ADUs won’t help with affordable housing.
“We are the densest city in this Commonwealth of Virginia,” she said. “We’re one of the densest in the country. If we keep taking away any open space that is left, the flooding will, frankly, get worse. But the issue is it’s about density. And and I don’t think this is going to move the needle on affordable housing, which I do support.”
Wilson said that ADUs are included in the city’s Housing Master Plan, which Silberberg and he voted for.
“As someone who has aging parents, myself and aging parents in our family, it’s a great opportunity to help accommodate some of that folks remaining in their community and aging in place,” he said. “So I did support it, and I was proud of the adoption of that ordinance.”
The winner of the June 8 primary will face Republican contender Annetta Catchings in November. Wilson and Silberberg will square off in another debate on Wednesday at 7 p.m.