Both figuratively and literally, last night’s mayoral debate brought brought longtime rivals Justin Wilson and Allison Silberberg back to their old turf.

The Del Ray Business Association debate touched on new issues, like recovery from pandemic, but some of the more telling moments were when host Julie Carey reopened old wounds from 2018 that had never healed. The debate also focused on several issues around Del Ray, where Mayor Wilson began his civic career and where former Mayor Silberberg frequently hosted many of her campaign kick-offs and rallies.

Looking at pandemic recovery for the next year, both Wilson and Silberberg emphasized continued flexibility for local businesses. Wilson said Alexandria was one of the first to adjust its regulations on outdoor dining and other restrictions to help restaurants adapt.

“[Some of that] is going to need to remain,” Wilson said. “We’re not going to immediately come out of this. It’s not going to be a light switch.”

Wilson said the priority will have to be on getting hospitality and consumption-based businesses back, as well as shifting tourism to focus on attracting more regional visitors to Alexandria rather than going after nation-wide audiences.

In particular, Wilson pointed to his work with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney in lobbying to allow carry-out cocktails. Wilson also said that he and City Council member John Chapman had proposed the closure of the 100 block of King Street before the pandemic, which went into effect when the pandemic started.

Now Wilson is hoping to expand that closure to include the 200 block of King Street for a pedestrian zone from the waterfront to Market Square — right outside City Hall.

Silberberg said her priorities as mayor would be forming a summit to talk with business leaders and identify their needs, reduce the BPOL tax, and suspend parking meters for a year to encourage more access to local businesses.

“This first year is going to be really critical,” Silberberg said.

While Wilson championed the flexibility the city offered local businesses, Silberberg said the reality on the ground for many of those businesses — naming the business losses in the Bradlee Shopping Center in particular — is that the city could have done more. Wilson noted that the shopping center is a private shopping centre and received the same flexibility as the rest of the city, but Silberberg said the city should have taken a more hands-on approach to guide businesses towards the resources they needed.

“Yes, it’s private, but encouraging them to work with us would have helped,” Silberberg said. “Atlantis, 38 years in business, just closed because they couldn’t open out front. Working with that property owner would have helped.”

The two also briefly clashed over accessory dwelling units. Wilson said that the city’s zoning laws do not allow people like the fictional characters The Golden Girls to live together in Alexandria. Wilson said the current zoning was overly prescriptive in regard to traditional families, while Silberberg said it would be possible for the charming older ladies to reside under existing ordinances.

Wilson also raised the topic of using federal funding to kick-start business improvement districts (BID) — organizations aimed at addressing business needs and promoting active uses and events to commercial districts. BIDs are another controversial idea with a storied history in Alexandria. After several attempts at getting launched, the idea of setting up a BID in Old Town was scrapped in 2017 when it became unclear whether a majority of businesses within the district supported the idea.

“We need to set up and fund business improvement districts in our business corridors,” Wilson said.

Wilson said BIDs could be set up and funded, for the first few years at least, with federal funding that could help take the pressure off local businesses, which would otherwise have to pay an additional tax.

Silberberg, who had faced off against Wilson over the idea in 2017, reiterated earlier criticisms that a BID would be taxing businesses to provide services the city should already be offering through organizations like the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and Visit Alexandria.

“If we had a BID tax in Old Town… if we had that during COVID, a lot of businesses would have been hurt by it and would have closed,” Silberberg said.

Silberberg and Wilson also clashed over housing, with Silberberg attacking Wilson for not supporting dedicated funding for affordable housing, and Wilson hitting back that Silberberg had opposed several affordable housing projects that came to the City Council.

“It’s a difference in how to raise money,” Wilson said. “But you have to support the projects.”

Wilson pointed to several votes where Silberberg was the lone or one of the few votes against projects that have since become part of the city’s bulwark of committed affordable housing units. That’s continued after her time as mayor, Wilson said, with Silberberg being a vocal critic of The Heritage project.

One development, in particular, stood out to Silberberg as her vote on the issue being misrepresented.

“Here we go again with distortions of my record,” Silberberg said. “With regards to Saint James, I wasn’t the only one who voted against it. The pool [at the project] was for market rate residents, but not the affordable residents. That’s why I voted against it.”

These topics were also discussed:

  • Colocation on School Properties: Wilson supported looking at colocation of mental services, dental services, recreation and more — pointing to current conversation about community pool at Minnie Howard — but said housing wasn’t the best fit. Silberberg said housing colocation was unimaginable with schools already bursting at the seams, but said uses like a teen wellness center could be an appropriate colocation.
  • Halal slaughterhouse: Silberberg said the use doesn’t belong in the city and is “very problematic” on many fronts, particularly for other nearby businesses. Wilson said it was basic use permit in an industrial zone, across from a city waste disposal facility and next door to an auto-body shop.
  • Stream Restoration: Wilson pointed that he had pushed to step back and study all three stream restoration sites and said Silberberg, along with Wilson, had voted in favor of the grant that started the process. Silberberg argued the grant application hadn’t included the stream restoration plans that became controversial, and said she was dubious that the pause on Taylor Run development would last much longer than the June 8 primary.

Photo via Visit Del Ray/Facebook

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