Mayoral candidates say Alexandrians lost trust in public officials because of failed Potomac Yard arena deal

The failed Potomac Yard arena deal, transparency in government and affordable housing took the lead as top issues in the first mayoral candidate forum of the 2023 Democratic primary race.

The candidates — Vice Mayor Amy Jackson, Council Member Alyia Gaskins and former real estate developer Steven Peterson are vying to replace outgoing two-term Mayor Justin Wilson, and provided positions on a number of subjects Wednesday night to the Del Ray Citizens Association.

The Potomac Yard arena deal was sprung on the region in a surprise Dec. 13 press conference as a one-in-a-lifetime chance to move the Washington Wizards and Capitals from D.C. next door to the Potomac Yard Metro station.

Gaskins said that it was a mistake to rollout the arena deal as if it was a slam dunk, and that the city needs to work on its community engagement.

“This was not a done deal, as I think we all understand,” Gaskins said. “But the way it was rolled out I think is a huge learning moment for us, because far too many people thought it was and then they lost trust not only in the process, but they lost trust in their elected officials. And when we lose your trust we have failed.”

Del Ray is next to Potomac Yard, and DRCA is one of the next door neighborhoods that was against the arena project, according to a March survey.

Governor Glenn Youngkin envisioned a world-class venue and entertainment district that could potentially lower residential taxes in the city, but he lacked the political acumen to get Democrat legislators on board and the proposal died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Peterson said that he’s running on a platform of transparency.

“I think that we saw firsthand that the arena deal was not approved due to the lack of transparency with the citizens,” Peterson said. “Essentially, trust was lost between the citizens and the state and local government officials.”

He continued, “The December announcement clearly caught a majority this area by surprise. There was never any transparency with the citizens or citizen input.”

Jackson is on her second term on City Council. An Alexandria native and T.C. Williams High School graduate, she said that she was against the arena early on, but that Potomac Yard still needs an entertainment district, and echoed statements by landowner JBG Smith’s CEO Matt Kelly, who said that the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus will be the anchor and that Potomac Yard’s future is as a tech corridor. She also said that she supports a 3-cent tax increase to pay for teacher raises.

“We still need an entertainment district,” Jackson said. “It needs to be a tech district.”

City Council has advertised a 4-cent tax increase in its budget deliberations.

The candidates spoke for less than an hour, establishing their platforms with 10-minute-long opening statements and two minute closing statements. The questions were sent to the candidates before the forum, and were focused on the arena, the school system, taxes, city services and protecting Del Ray as a historic neighborhood.

Jackson and Peterson agreed to protecting Del Ray’s historic character. Jackson she was against Council’s elimination of single family zoning, and Peterson said that he would reverse a slew of zoning reforms passed last year that are intended to increase the city’s affordable housing stock.

Peterson said that the city isn’t broken and has a lot to be proud of.

“Mayor Wilson has navigated the city through some challenging times,” he said. “There’s ways to address affordable housing but eliminating single family housing is not the solution in my opinion.”

Peterson also said that Del Ray should take its cues from Old Town’s historic district, which puts restrictions on homeowners to redevelop properties.

“Old Town has done a very good job and I think we need to help model Del Ray with what what is done in Old Town, because the historic nature is what’s made it successful and why people want to live there now,” he said.

Gaskins is seemingly the frontrunner in the race, having raised the most money, as of the last campaign finance disclosure deadline in December. She now claims to have raised $134,000, and also received the endorsements from three out of the four City Council Members seeking reelection — John Taylor Chapman, Kirk McPike and Sarah Bagley.

Gaskins said that her top priorities are creating a safer, more affordable and accessible city. If elected, she said that City Council would conduct monthly meetings with the Sheriff’s Office and Police department. She also said that she supports no more than a 2.5 cent tax increase in the upcoming budget.

“We’re going to develop action plans that we post on our website so that you can see what we’re working on and you can hold us accountable for delivering,” Gaskins said.

The Democratic primary is June 18, and there are a number of candidate forums between now and then.