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Council member Del Pepper looks back on 36 years of public and private city leadership battles

Earlier this week, City Council member Redella “Del” Pepper finished up a historic run in city leadership that includes an unparalleled treasure trove of stories about the behind-the-scenes battles that made the city what it is today.

Pepper joined the City Council in 1985 and has remained in office for 12 terms before announcing last November that she wouldn’t run for reelection.

“During these 36 years I have worked with five different city managers and six mayors,” Pepper said. “Each one has had their own merits. I’ve gotten to know quite a few people here.”

Pepper is a native Nebraskan and has an amiable, folksy charm that belies a shrewd political operator with decades of stories about the making of modern Alexandria.

One of those Pepper is most proud of is the story behind the closure of GenOn Power Plant in North Old Town. Today, it’s a location with demolition and redevelopment on the horizon, but for much of Pepper’s tenure, it was the site of an ongoing fight to close the largest polluter inside the beltway.

“We had tried everything, policies and regulations and laws. Nothing would work. We tried a lot of talking and negotiating and VDEQ and we couldn’t get anywhere,” Pepper said. “I co-chaired that and it was really a chore, going down to Richmond and nobody would listen. In the end, it was all a matter of money.”

Pepper said GenOn — then Mirant — wanted a permit to change the layout of the plant but couldn’t get it because the city kept objecting at every turn. Pepper said the city would grant the permit if Mirant would change certain things on the site causing environmental damage, but eventually, implementation of those changes became such a financial burden that it wasn’t worth the cost. The plant eventually closed in 2012.

“In the end, they realized that their business was not all that red hot and it wasn’t worth it to them to lose the money they put in escrow,” Pepper said. “That one was terribly important.”

Not far from the plant, Pepper recalled the more public battle where the city, led by then-Mayor Patsy Ticer, and City Manager Vola Lawson, warred with Washington Redskins owner Jack Cooke and Governor Douglas Wilder to keep a new stadium out of Potomac Yard. Pepper said the city was caught completely off-guard when Cooke announced that he and Wilder had made an agreement to build the new stadium in Alexandria.

“It was a shock, really, to those on the Council,” Pepper said. “We were stunned. They were saying ‘in a handful of months they were going to have this stadium’ and that was not the use that we had in mind. What’s coming was what we had in mind, what we’re building right now, and every day we’re building something that moves Alexandria forward.”

Pepper said the City Council, led by Ticer and Lawson, fought relentlessly and eventually kept the stadium from being built. Pepper said the city’s goal was to have a Metro station built there, despite criticism at the time that it was an unsustainable vision.

“We were told there aren’t businesses or people living around there to support it,” Pepper said. “I used to say back to them ‘if you build it, they will come’ and that’s what’s happening.”

There were also fights within city leadership, though. While Pepper describes herself as “barely computer literate” today, in the early 1990s Pepper was an advocate for modernizing the city’s computer systems and digitizing city services.

“One of the things I did in my installation speech was I said ‘we can’t go on with this computer system we have now,'” Pepper said. “It was one big, huge room-sized computer that we used to send out bills and send out checks for staff. This was 1994. What I said in that speech was: where appropriate, everyone who should have a computer has a computer, and here are the things I want to use them for.”

Pepper said she had a list of around seven to ten items she wanted the city to be able to do on computers, like access information on city dockets or for businesses to be able to download information about permitting. But Pepper said she butted heads with a high-ranking administrator who told her to back down.

“I was told it was going to cost millions, but I said ‘I can’t change my position on this; this is what businesses expect from the city,'” Pepper said.

Pepper put together a task force over the summer to strategize about how to push for modern computer systems. Pepper said the administrator slipped a spy into the group, but Pepper was able to win the spy over to their cause, and the group went into the next City Council retreat with a successful push to have a commission set up to address modernizing the city’s digital services. Pepper said that was one of the longest and most energy-intensive fights in her tenure.

Over the years, Pepper said her views on her role in city leadership have evolved. Pepper said she used to be very neighborhood-focused, but said the city’s Waterfront Plan, put together by Olin Studios, was a lesson in expanding her view to be a city-wide leader.

“The Waterfront Plan was, for me, a game-changer,” Pepper said. “For two decades I was saying the best use of the waterfront was green grass, maybe bushes — but when Olin came out with this plan, with how you can use a waterfront, I didn’t know if I liked it or not but it was interesting.”

Pepper said there was a lot of pushback from some neighbors.

“I finally came around and said ‘you know, I’m going to support this plan because I think it’s interesting and I want to see what we can do with this’ and the neighbors were not very happy with that, because I had been their champion on this issue,” Pepper said, “but what came out of that was a lot of good ideas that we will put into effect and it got us thinking differently in a lot of ways. That was a game-changer, and what it taught me was you should always look at everything very carefully because there may be an idea that’s worth enacting.”

Pepper said she has a few personal rules that she follows on the Council. For one, she said she tries to never make any promises about how she’s going to vote because she wants to go into public hearings with an open mind.

“People will want to know ‘will you vote for this or that’ and I say ‘what’s the point of having a hearing if everyone has made up their mind,'” Pepper said. “It is true if an issue like Landmark came up and I’m already on the record, you can see I have no problem saying ‘yes, I’ll be supporting that,’ but I’ve tried to be careful about what you agree too. People call and want me to be persuaded this way or that way, and I tell them ‘I’ll make up my mind after the hearing.'”

Pepper says she also tries to visit every site on the public hearing docket and solicits invitations to meet with churches or civic associations involved in the issues.

“I’ll always say ‘if there are two people together, may I please be the third’ because if there’s anything going on or if I could get an invitation, I would be there for sure,” Pepper said.

It was that approach that Pepper said led her to vote how she did on the contentious Seminary Road diet.

“Seminary Road issue… that was a difficult one,” Pepper said. “Everybody had a good argument. The neighbors are worried about cut-through traffic and we felt that we had to do something there. The bicyclists had to have a place where they could feel safe, and the pedestrians too. I stood on that corner on Seminary and oh my goodness I was just scared to death. I was afraid one of these cars would miss a [curb] and run me over. I stood on a safe corner, but they were whizzing by and it scared the dickens out of me.”

Pepper said some of the city’s decisions still weigh on her.

“I’m still so concerned about the fairness of every vote you make,” Pepper said. “It can be a game-changer and life changer for people. If you’re building something and you don’t get to build it, you may have to take a whole different direction. It can change everything, and that’s why I’m very careful. When we make appointments to boards and commissions, it takes me hours to go over what they’ve said because this is someone who spent a lot of time writing this up. I try to see that person because you know how heartbroken some of them are going to be if they’re not chosen, so you really want to give everyone a fair shot.”

Pepper lives just off Duke Street with a corner apartment she said overlooks the Beatley Central Library and Ben Brenman Park. Throughout her tenure, Pepper has been an advocate for greater development on the West End, and it’s something she said she’s excited to watch after her retirement as Landmark Mall is finally redeveloped.

“The West End is definitely going to blossom,” Pepper said. “When they get Landmark moving, Van Dorn is going to change a great deal. Things are going to be happening up and down that [corridor], and it’s going to influence development on West Eisenhower avenue. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they do there. Eisenhower Avenue needs to blossom, it needs to develop.”

Pepper said she’s hoping to see skyscrapers on Eisenhower, with the goal being development that’s visible and inviting to those passing by on the Beltway.

“It’s not quite the dream that Hoffman had, but nevertheless it’s a wonderful dream,” Pepper said. “What I’ve told developers is what I like to see are the high rises coming up so everyone from the Beltway can look over and see that Alexandria is on the move.”

After she retires, Pepper said those that succeed her on the City Council will have their hands full with equity and flooding issues.

“We’re trying very hard on equity issues to help people about to be evicted or who just don’t have money for food and so forth,” Pepper said. “We have to lift everyone up, and [figuring out] how do you do that. I think some of our environmental issues, flooding in particular, are going to be issues that continue.”

Upon retiring, Pepper said she’s going to take up a task she promised her mother she’d do.

“I’m a genealogist for my family,” Pepper said. “When my mother died, I promised I would put together all the material and put it on a computer, so my extended family and descendants would be able to have a sense of what came before. That’s what I really want to do.”

Pepper said there was always some issue or topic that kept her around, election after election, but eventually, she felt it was time to make a clean break.

“There was always one more thing that I wanted to do,” Pepper said, “but you just reach a point where it’s your time.”

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