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City Council approves controversial hotel project, but says labor conversation isn’t over

Hotel Heron, a proposed development at 699 Prince Street, image via Monarch Urban

Alexandria’s City Council voted to approve a partially city-funded hotel project at 699 Prince Street despite opposition from community labor activists.

The project drew some attention for the city involvement in funding — 1% of the tax revenue generated by the project will be paid back to bond trustees — but at the City Council meeting on Saturday, the majority of the discussion centered around how the city should use its involvement to push for better labor practices.

The City Council chambers were filled with local labor activists opposing the project, though some trickled off at the discussion brought up the end of an eight-hour meeting. Those that stuck it out to remain for community comment reiterated concerns that the city was getting involved with a project that would not offer an adequate living wage for employees.

“We believe bringing in a virulently anti-union hotel project being constructed with no labor standards is not a good thing for the working class of this city,” said Virginia Diamond, President of the Northern Virginia branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). “I appreciate the work that has gone into a complete apparent change in your policy — which now for the first time takes into account the impact on working people, but it has a long way to go. Neither the developer nor the hotel owner were willing to speak with the union.”

Diamond said labor organizers were hoping for more protections, like prohibiting labor brokers and offering apprenticeship programs so Alexandria residents can work their way into middle-class careers.

The city did add some labor protection measures, like conditions for construction monitoring designed to curb wage theft, but the changes fell short of what activists had hoped for.

AEDP President and CEO Stephanie Landrum said the hotel project would offer a “what I would consider a very competitive array of benefits” including paid time off, paid time to volunteer, healthcare and 401k plans.

“Projects like this are years in the making so multiple times we do check-ins… so we don’t get to a point where we bring a project to you for approval and there are new things introduced,” Landrum said. “For a variety of reasons beyond our control, that didn’t happen here. So we’re at a point where we have a project that meets every requirement in place when we put it together and we literally got to the last step and brought it to you and a number of new issues were raised. If we push on some of these issues further, the project becomes not feasible for the development team.

While the City Council ultimately voted approval, even those who voted in favor of the project said the worker compensation discussions around the project were a good step forward and more work needs to be done to update the city’s labor standards.

“I think what I’ve seen of the last 11 days is a very big, good step to where we need to grow,” Chapman said. “I’m excited about the colleagues who have stepped up and talked about worker rights. No offense to my former colleagues, but that wasn’t happening in 2012 and 2013. To get our city processes caught up with our Council will take not a lot of time, but we have a lot of minds to change within our community and those conversations, whether it be with AEDP, Visit Alexandria, and other taxpayer groups — we need to bring those groups up to speed. If this is the new way, and I think it should be, those conversations have to take place so everybody is on the same page.”

Chapman specifically praised City Council member Alyia Gaskins, who was the first to raise the topic at the initial City Council review. But Chapman also said the project was a rare low-risk opportunity to boost commercial revenue in the city.

“I’m kind of looking at how we are bringing in commercial revenue,” Chapman said. “That’s something from the last couple years of the pandemic, even with this last term on council before the pandemic, was something we on Council need to be sharpening our pencils for. I was disappointed when we as a city shifted away from trying to hit a goal of 50/50 commercial/residential revenues because I do think that will lessen the burden on our homeowners and renters… This seems like an opportunity to increase that commercial revenue that we bring in.”

Those who opposed the project said labor was the key insurmountable issue.

“The discussion around this project has been pretty frustrating until today when we finally honed in on the real issue,” said City Council member Kirk McPike. “So much of the early discussion was about financing concerns that didn’t really reflect the reality of the project on the ground. This was a good model, where projects under this tourism zone only eat a little bit of what they grow. This project would be a slam dunk if it wasn’t for labor issues. We as a city need to get more serious about building up and protecting working families in our city and doing what we can under Virginia law to support unions in organizing efforts is a key way to do that.”

Both McPike and Gaskins said the labor discussion around the project signaled the start of a shift in the city’s viewpoint on these issues.

“We didn’t get what we want, what the people who will work at this hotel deserve,” McPike said. “We have put a flag in the ground and made it clear to future applicants that this is not a question that can be ignored, and I expect us to expect more in the future… I do think we have achieved something real here. This is a half-step and I hope the next project we look at is a full step forward with where we want to be on labor rights.”

“We put a stake in the ground that says we’re ready to have this conversation,” said Gaskins. “Progress was made on things the development team talked about. Yes, we’ve made some progress, but I’m struggling with where we didn’t get to.”

The City Council approved the project in a 4-3 vote, with Gaskins, McPike and Sarah Bagley voting in opposition.

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