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Alexandria City Council and candidates weigh in on failed Potomac Yard arena deal

Alexandria City Council members and candidates are opening up about their positions on the city backing out of the Potomac Yard arena deal.

Mayor Justin Wilson said that the city will be spending a lot of time unpacking what led to the announcement that it was backing out of a plan to move the Washington Wizards and Capitals from D.C. to a new arena with an entertainment district in the city’s Potomac Yard neighborhood.

The deal is now a historic defeat, joining the failed attempt in the 1990s to build a stadium for the Washington Redskins (now Washington Commanders) at Potomac Yard.

“We’ll spend some time unpacking all of this,” Wilson told ALXnow. “But in the end, this proposal got caught up in some powerful politics in Richmond. Now, as a result of those very same politics, some very significant priorities of Alexandria are very vulnerable in Richmond. That’s a shame.”

Wilson said those components of the state budget include funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, education and public safety. Wilson was enthusiastic about the deal since it was announced Dec. 13, remaining steadfast in his support of its economic potential until yesterday’s announcement. Wilson is currently vacationing with his family and has been responding to the situation from Greece.

“Gun legislation has already been vetoed, and I imagine many, many vetoes to go,” Wilson said.

All of City Council sat on stage alongside Wilson, Governor Glenn Youngkin and Monumental Sports & Entertainment owner Ted Leonsis at the surprise announcement on Dec. 13 in Potomac Yard. Youngkin characterized the move as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, wanting the arena to open next door to the Potomac Yard Metro station in 2028.

The $2 billion project stalled in the Democrat-controlled Virginia State Senate, held up by Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Louise Lucas, who refused to include it in the state budget. This week, Lucas said that Leonsis could pay for the entire project himself instead of relying on $1.5 billion in bond financing from Virginia taxpayers.

Former Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg joined the Coalition to Stop the Arena at Potomac Yard in Richmond to protest the move during the General Assembly’s session earlier this month. She said that the city backing out of the deal was a great relief.

“The financial risks were terrible for the Commonwealth and our city, as well as the traffic impacts that would have overwhelmed our city over 275 nights a year,” Silberberg said. “I hope the city will now focus its economic development vision on more compatible uses for this property. As I have said often since 2018, I envision a tech corridor with the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus as the anchor and catalyst in addition to mixed use development.”

The Mayoral candidates

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson, Council Member Alyia Gaskins and real estate developer Steven Peterson are running in the Democratic primary for mayor on June 18.

Jackson initially supported the arena and later joined the opposition earlier this month when the arena bill was not included in the General Assembly’s fiscal year 2025 budget.

Jackson sent the following statement:

The Monumental Arena project was not a good fit for our city with the impact it would have on our neighborhoods, financing structure, and infrastructure challenges. I’m proud that as your vice mayor I voiced those concerns and opposed it. I made the tough call – the right call – and I am the first and only candidate for mayor who did so. I have never been afraid to take on the tough fights or tackle the major issues in our city. I was leading this city during the pandemic and now we look to the future of our city with what our community needs being top of mind. I still envision an entertainment district there, but we need to go back to basics and prepare to develop that site in a responsible way that will benefit the people of Alexandria, and provide more space and family-centric venues and opportunities. Earlier this week — before the latest arena news— I offered a survey on what Alexandrians want to see at Potomac Yard. I look forward to what they suggest and the community conversation that continues around this site.

Gaskins reserved judgment on the arena until the General Assembly and governor could reach a deal.

Gaskins said the following:

Since day one, I’ve said that we need a deal that reflects Alexandria’s priorities – union jobs, housing, transit investments, etc. If we’re not getting that deal then it’s time for us to move on and find a new way to bring the vision for Potomac Yard fully to life. From neglecting to invest in union workers to failing to navigate negotiations with both the Virginia Legislature and the City of Alexandria, he did not approach the deal with the seriousness required to successfully engage with stakeholders and move it through the process so our city could have a chance to decide what we wanted.

Mayoral candidate Steven Peterson has been anti-arena since announcing his run. While he did not respond to a request for comment, he said on his campaign website that the arena was a “nightmare” project that would result in higher property taxes, increased traffic and a lack of parking.

City Council candidates

The entire City Council participated in multiple public forums to answer questions from the public on the arena issue. After the Dec. 13 announcement, the city, as well as the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, embarked on a three-month public relations blitz. The public forums stopped earlier this month, however, when the arena bill wasn’t included in the legislature’s budget.

The arena has also become a political issue in Alexandria, with numerous candidates running in the June 18 primary declaring themselves as against it.

“I do not believe this governor was ever going to be capable of putting together a proposal that could both pass the General Assembly and meet the concerns of our residents and Council,” Council Member Kirk McPike said.

While the House arena bill never got further than the Senate Appropriations Committee, City Council was firmly opposed to the proposed makeup of the Virginia Stadium Authority board, which would have owned and financed the arena. Each member of Council wanted the city to have at least equal representation on the board, and their opposition to the proposal was an early indication of a troubled legislative process.

City Council Member Sarah Bagley said that the failed arena experience reveals areas for improvement in the city’s communications and outreach process, while also demonstrating a “tireless work ethic and determination of people within our City to achieve big outcomes.”

“The end of this economic opportunity for Alexandria will need to be addressed by current and future Councils who must engage creatively with the business community to deliver vital commercial development,” Bagley said.

Council Member John Taylor Chapman remained quiet on the subject.

“I don’t have a public statement to make at this time,” Chapman said. “I will be commenting at the upcoming Council meeting.”

Council Member Canek Aguirre did not respond to comment requests.

Candidate Jonathan Huskey is a vocal member of the anti-arena coalition. Despite the city backing out of the deal, he said the city can’t be blindsided by such a massive development in the future and that he’s still running for office.

Today’s announcement is welcome news for Alexandria’s neighborhoods, workers, and families. However, it doesn’t change my campaign promise or status. Standing up for Alexandria means that we never have to be blindsided by a project of this magnitude, again. Our city’s major economic development arm is led by capable professionals who can find opportunities that support our goals.

The blame for the quick rise and fall of the Potomac Yard project lies in several places in DC, Richmond and at Alexandria City Hall. We need leaders on the City Council who should have known that backroom deals for a billionaire do not reflect our values and at the absolute least, demanded a true community debate rather than a PR campaign at home and an expensive lobbying operation in Richmond. I’m in it to stand up for Alexandria and looking forward to the primary campaign.

School Board Member Jacinta Greene, a Council candidate, supported development of the arena.

I strongly supported development of the Potomac Yard Area which is highly needed to bring good paying jobs to Alexandria while providing significant new tax revenue to our City. Unfortunately, the Governor tried to rush this project through the General Assembly without thoughtful review and consideration from all stakeholders.  If elected to City Council, I look forward to working with my colleagues to bring a well-thought out plan that will diversify our tax base, while preserving the quality of life for residents in the Potomac Yard area.

Candidate Abdel Elnoubi, who is also on the School Board, said that he had a number of problems with the arena and did not support it.

It is also clear now that Monumental struck a deal with DC, that they were not negotiating with Alexandria in good faith; they played Alexandrians against our neighbor and against each other to extort D.C., they are not a partner we should do business with.

The deal’s financial details were lacking. It lacked safeguards to shield Alexandria from potential financial liabilities amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars in the event of unrealized projections. Notably, alternative scenario projections have not been presented to account for potential discrepancies in the underlying assumptions… The deal neglected the needs of our commuters posing adverse implications through the anticipated surge in traffic, compounded by insufficient state funding allocated for essential public transportation enhancements aimed at mitigating such concerns. The deal’s environment details were lacking. The deal failed to prioritize the welfare of our workforce with lack of sufficient labor protections and commitments to uphold union standards.

Council candidate Jesse O’Connell said that the city should always reserve the right to decide what’s best for itself.

As we move on to what’s next we should do so agreeing that our budget situation and financial future are serious matters, and we have to commit to the hard work of finding new revenue and balancing our tax base. We learned through this process that there’s broad agreement about the tremendous potential for Potomac Yard to be more than parking lots. I’m excited to listen to neighbors and help work to shape the next opportunity that’s aligned with the city’s values and meets our community’s needs.

Candidate Kevin Harris had mixed feelings on the matter.

As a small business owner that offers basketball and E-Sports services to our youth, it was an opportunity in some regards, but it was best that it didn’t happen. Aside from the huge fact that the deal could have caused displacement for marginalized communities, partially sidelined labor unions, and created a complex traffic situation, it was clear from my talks with community members from various sects of the city that the vast majority of Alexandrians didn’t want it or were indifferent towards it. Regardless, this situation has sparked a unique opportunity for our city to continue in dialogue on the real issue, how to boost our commercial tax base. Monumental was a potential cure, but I believe the side effects such as displacement and less affordable housing might have outweighed the initial ailment. As we progress in this dialogue to come to a greater solution, we should invest more in the success of the small businesses that already exist in our city. Let’s make concessions so small businesses grow, people can afford to stay in the city, and all Alexandrians feel heard without having to form coalitions.

Candidate Charlotte Scherer said that the deal’s collapse is a victory for transparency.

This would have placed an unjustifiable burden on the residents of Alexandria, jeopardizing our city’s fiscal stability and potentially leading to cuts in essential services and programs. The opposition of organized labor to the arena project underscores the broader concerns surrounding its feasibility and impact on our community. As a candidate who stands with organized labor and believes in protecting workers’ rights, I cannot support a project that fails to prioritize the well-being of Alexandria’s workforce. The Northern Virginia Housing Alliance estimates that over 2,000 homes occupied by working families are at risk due to development at Potomac Yard. The city council cannot simultaneously address the housing crisis in Alexandria while actively seeking development deals for entertainment complexes with adjacent luxury hotels charging upwards of $731 a night.  I am committed to promoting responsible and transparent development in Alexandria, ensuring that any future projects align with the values and priorities of our community.

Candidate James Lewis said the arena failure is Youngkin’s fault.

It was opposed by labor, made Alexandrians a permanent minority on the Stadium Authority Board and lacked a long-term commitment from Richmond for needed transit and transportation funding. It’s disappointing the Governor seemed unwilling to consider a better deal for Alexandria and taxpayers that could have made the project workable. Now that the deal is dead, we need to start the conversation about what could or should go on the site. Simply saying an ‘innovation corridor’ is a buzzword; the type of innovation matters. We need to be specific so we can find a partner that creates good-paying jobs and catalyzes future development that starts to reduce the tax burden on residents.

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