Post Content
Anti-Zoning for Housing sign in Alexandria (staff photo by James Cullum)

A new advocacy group has formed in hopes of returning Alexandria to a district/wards election system.

The Communities for Accountable City Council (CACC) describes itself as a non-partisan group of Alexandria residents “exasperated with the intransigent Alexandria City Council that is unaccountable to communities and neighborhoods because of Alexandria’s At-Large election system.”

While the group is non-partisan, leader Tom Kopko said the origins of the group are in the contentious decision last year to end single-family-only zoning as part of a new plan called Zoning for Housing.

“We’re a group of people who are totally frustrated with the obvious intransigence and lack of accountability of City Council,” Kopko said. “There’s a long list of grievances, the latest is Zoning for Housing. They betrayed homeowners and, against massive opposition, passed [Zoning for Housing] unanimously.”

Zoning for Housing faced opposition from local homeowners, but also garnered support from others who say greater density is the only path to building enough housing to make Alexandria affordable.

Kopko said the feeling among residents he’s spoken to is that the City Council is unaccountable because they’re elected at large.

“Citizens have no recourse against seven elected officials and staff, all because they’re elected at large,” Kopko said. “Who is the person who cares about your neighborhood?”

Kopko pointed to a federal judge’s ruling that Virginia Beach’s at-large voting system is illegal as an example of at-large voting being struck down elsewhere in the state.

“Rejection of district elections is a rejection of every other electoral system that we all know and expect,” Kopko said. “The smaller the district, the more responsive the elected representative. That principle applies to anybody, no matter where they live.”

While Kopko said the group was formed in response to opposition to Zoning for Housing, Kopko said he believes the change could also benefit those who live in apartments or supported Zoning for Housing.

Regardless of where people are on Zoning for Housing: nobody had a representative for their community. Everyone had to try and lobby seven different people. That is totally unfair. The Zoning for Housing decision didn’t allow, for example, Del Ray — which was completely betrayed by Zoning for Housing — to hold any particular person accountable. Now they have to try and hold seven people accountable? That’s not the American way, no matter what their community of interest is.

A change to the district or ward system would require changing the city charter, Kopko said.

CACC said the district/ward system is a relic of segregation:

For its first 150 years, Alexandrians elected their city government by district/ward, until 1950 when segregationists installed at-large elections to suppress minority voices. Today, at-large elections similarly insulate the centrally-elected City Council from all voices, even betraying their core supporters.

This is far from the first time wards have been discussed for Alexandria’s City Council. A Washington Post article in 1992 highlighted similar back-and-forth arguments over wards. Reporter and historian Michael Lee Pope wrote that there was a similar battle between Del Ray and Old Town in 1932.

Last year, all current City Council members expressed unanimous opposition to a ward system in Alexandria.

Mayor Justin Wilson said he has mixed feelings on wards; saying that while he isn’t opposed to them in general, he doesn’t think they’d solve problems in Alexandria.

“I’m not categorically opposed to wards, but I generally don’t think they would solve the issues those who advocate for them believe they would,” Wilson said.

Wilson said most advocates for wards are either opposed to a specific land-use decision and believe the result would be different with specific neighborhood representation — as is the case with CACC — or are Republicans and other political groups who believe they could get more representation if the city had wards — as was the case in 1992.

But Wilson said having one member out of seven opposing a project with a citywide benefit won’t derail a project.

“If anything, it could make the Council less likely to incorporate the concerns of localized opposition,” Wilson said.

For those Republicans hoping to get a seat on Council via wards, Wilson said there’s further bad news.

“There is really no way you could draw wards in Alexandria to result in ‘Republican’ districts,” Wilson said. “Our lowest Democratic-performance precincts are still 50+%.”

Still, Kopko said the current at-large system is a relic of a bygone era that needs removal.

Pope wrote that advocates of the at-large system argued the removal of “sectorial interests” would create better candidates to lead the city. Meanwhile, opponents of the at-large system argue, as Kopko does, that the at-large system allows the City Council to overlook the interests of parts of the city without facing consequences.

Alexandria Living Magazine reported that the vote for an at-large system in 1950 intentionally limited minority voices.

“The origins of the at-large system are quite ugly, from the segregationist period — from the TC Williams era,” Kopko said. “I don’t know how anyone reading the history of a large system being based on a segregationist system could be in favor of it. How could you?”

14 Comments
ALXnow editor’s work from home setup (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

Of the 96,993 working Alexandrians, 30% of them work from home (30,015 people), according to the US Census.

United States Census data collected from 2022 provides a detailed breakdown of how Alexandrians travel to work.

The majority of workers, 51% of them (50,019 people), drove to work alone, with only 4,479 people reporting carpooling.

The least used category of travel was taxicab, motorcycle, bicycle or “other means” at 2.3% of workers (2,303 people), slightly less than the 2,345 people who walked to work.

The census estimated that 7,832 Alexandrians took public transportation to work in 2022. While this is only 8% of the workforce, the city was still included in a viral post about 21 cities with a population over 100k people where over 10% of residents take public transit to work.

28 Comments
The Vulcan Materials site (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

The Planning Commission didn’t have much by way of criticism for the proposed redevelopment of Vulcan Materials, but it opened the floodgates for Commissioners to dunk on the state of Van Dorn Street.

The plan is for Lennar Corporation and Potomac Land Group II LLC to remediate the industrial site and replace it with a hotel on S. Van Dorn Street, along with retail, condos, townhouses and more.

Sash Impastato, representing the Cameron Station Civic Association, said the nearby neighborhood had concerns that the project was still using a pre-pandemic traffic study as a reference for the project.

“Something needs to be done to do traffic studies closer in time to their bringing a project forward for approval,” Impastato said. “Using pre-pandemic data that is not adequately adjusted to account for current post-pandemic conditions is just not helpful.”

Staff said that the traffic study used pre-pandemic data because the alternative, at the time, would be using data from mid-Covid, which created anomalous traffic patterns.

“The reason why we did pre-pandemic numbers was… at the time of scoping of the traffic study, it was at the time when we didn’t know what traffic would be like during Covid, because the traffic study was implemented in 2021,” said Ryan Knight, division chief of transportation engineering. “At that point, we weren’t comfortable with what the numbers were showing. It wasn’t really until 2022 that we were like ‘Traffic is what it is.'”

Knight said the pre-pandemic numbers were “conservative,” but Planning Commission members said their first-hand experience is that driving on Van Dorn Street is nightmarish.

“Nothing works,” said Commissioner Mindy Lyle. “I was up and down Van Dorn four times today: it is a nightmare. There are three high-crash intersections between Edsall and Eisenhower. At Pickett, you sit through two or three light cycles to get out. Not one person in this room drives that as much as I do, so what you’re doing doesn’t work.”

Lyle said previous efforts to fix the corridor have also mostly flopped.

“When staff decided to redesign South Pickett with Modera Tempo it took over two years of badgering staff to get someone to come out and look at the stacking and admit it was designed incorrectly,” Lyle said. “It was redone, and it’s still incorrect. Staff has to be conscious that there is a traffic nightmare out there and no one is listening.”

Knight said the city acknowledges that Van Dorn is “something of a mess” but that there are efforts underway to improve the corridor. Knight said some of those changes could come when the city does its audit for the dangerous intersections Lyle mentioned.

Overall, the Planning Commission mostly praised the Vulcan development and said it’s unfair to expect that development to fix the poor state of Van Dorn. City Council member Melissa McMahon said the project was “making lemonade from lemons” at the site. With some amendments, the Planning Commission recommended approval of the project.

The Vulcan Materials project is scheduled for review at the City Council meeting tomorrow (Saturday) .

“This project is not the straw to break the camel’s back: the camel’s back is already broken,” said Planning Commission chair Nathan Macek. “This is an area that isn’t working presently and needs investment.”

11 Comments
Van Dorn Street (image via Google Maps)

If Alexandria wants the transit corridors it dreams of, Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek said it’s going to need to do more to secure federal funding.

In a budget discussion at the Planning Commission meeting last week, Macek noted that there is “no plan to pursue federal money” for two of the major transit corridors in the city budget.

Transitway corridors are areas where the city is hoping to implement “enhanced transit services” like bus rapid transit, a streetcar, dedicated bus lanes and more. Corridor B is the Duke Street / Eisenhower Avenue corridor. Corridor C is the Van Dorn Street / Beauregard Street corridor.

Macek said in the meeting that the funding set aside for transit development on those corridors is all local and regional funding.

“I will make, at every call, every opportunity I have, the call that we should be pursuing federal money for these projects,” Macek said.

Macek said he has concerns that the city is missing out on a chance to make those transit on those corridors better.

“My concern with the way we’re deploying BRT is we’re so content to make it happen with local and regional, and we’re not pursuing federal money that could help make this a real, functional, better bus rapid transit,” Macek said. “Totally missing that opportunity to pursue federal funds that could help us address the issues we have in these corridors.”

Staff told Macek at the meeting that one of the limits of the budget is it doesn’t show what avenues are being pursued, just what’s secure in the budget. Staff said efforts are underway to lock down federal funding for transit corridors.

Macek noted the Van Dorn Street Corridor in particular, which is seeing an upswing in new projects like the Vulcan property development, could benefit from federal funding for transit needs and possible widening.

“When we’re only working with local and regional money, we necessarily limit the scope of what we can accomplish because of that,” Macek said.

Photo via Google Maps

13 Comments
Organizers outside Southern Towers lead residents in a protest against CIM Group (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

A coalition of affordable housing advocacy organizations is planning to rally outside of City Hall this weekend to advocate stronger affordable housing and tenant protections.

The rally is scheduled for Market Square outside of City Hall (301 King Street) on Saturday, April 13 at 1 p.m. — while City Council is meeting inside.

The rally will be hosted by African Communities Together (ACT), an organization that’s done extensive advocacy work for residents of Southern Towers in the West End, and will include speakers from Southern Towers and advocacy group Tenants and Workers United.

“On Saturday, April 13th, African Communities Together (ACT), housing advocates, and residents of the City of Alexandria, will rally outside City Hall to call on the City of Alexandria to prioritize affordable housing and tenant protections,” ACT said in a release. “A shocking 78% of renters in Alexandria with incomes up to $75,000/yr are spending over 30% of their income on housing costs, making them housing cost-burdened.”

The rally is aimed to coincide with the city’s public budget hearing. Affordable housing advocates have been vocal throughout the budget process, along with advocates for fully funding Alexandria schools. Advocates called for the city to fully fund a pair of affordable housing developments that have been waiting in the wings for years and to expand the guaranteed income pilot.

At the same time, the city faces numerous other funding demands, from funding to Alexandria City Public Schools to long-overdue and costly infrastructure projects.

This year also marked the first time assessments for multi-family residential properties have declined — due in part to the increase in the city’s housing supply — which Director of Finance Kendal Taylor said could translate into rents decreasing, or at least stabilizing, for Alexandrians living in apartments.

The ACT release said the group will also debut a public art project from local artist and former Southern Towers resident Nana Ama Bentsi-Enchil. The artwork is called Doors of Displacement and focuses on the impacts of the housing crisis on the community through a “series of community-designed doors.”

2 Comments
The Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, as seen from the Potomac Yard Metro station (staff photo by James Cullum)

Crown Castle Fiber wants to expand its fiber optic cable plans for Potomac Yard.

While Crown Castle Fiber hasn’t been in the headlines as much as rival Ting, it has been positioning itself to take the lead in providing new fiber optic cable for the Virginia Tech campus in Potomac Yard.

A prior agreement back in 2022 let Crown Castle Fiber lay some groundwork in Potomac Yard and the West End. An updated agreement in 2023 allowed Crown Castle to install 400 feet of fiber at 1737 King Street.

Now, Crown Castle wants to add an additional 600-foot conduit and fiber optic cable at 3625 Potomac Avenue for the new Virginia Tech campus. Crown Castle is also filing to build infrastructure there and along Commonwealth Avenue near Lynhaven.

The additional fiber route is scheduled for review at the Saturday, April 13 meeting of the City Council.

6 Comments
1315 Duke Street after March 1863 by Andrew Russell (or Mathew Brady), image via City of Alexandria

Dorcas Allen faced an impossible choice.

In 1837, Allen was sold, along with her four children, to a slave trader and sent to a pen on Duke Street — where the Freedom Museum stands today.

Faced with the prospect of seeing her children taken and sold into slavery, Allen killed her two youngest children. Allen pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

A lecture by historian Alison Mann on Thursday, April 18, will discuss the murder of the children and its impact on the region. Mann is a historian at the National Museum of American Diplomacy and a subject matter expert in the field of diplomatic history at the U.S. Department of State.

The lecture is scheduled from 7-8 p.m. at the Lyceum (201 S. Washington Street).

Tickets are $15 per person or $12 for volunteers/members of Historic Alexandria. All proceeds go to supporting the Freedom House Museum.

According to the Office of Historic Alexandria:

Learn about Dorcas Allen, a woman living with her husband and four children as a free Black woman in Washington D.C. who was enslaved by James Birch, imprisoned in Alexandria, and tried for the murder of her two youngest children. A jury acquitted her by reason of insanity and, with John Quincy Adams’ assistance, she regained her freedom. This is a story of African American agency in the most desperate of circumstances…when an enslaved mother feels death is better for her children than life in bondage.

8 Comments

A developer has filed for a permit to redevelop 6101 and 6125 Stevenson Avenue, currently an office building and parking lot in the Landmark neighborhood, into a seven-story residential building.

The proposal is to build 270 units in the new building with 340 parking spaces in a garage, a ground-floor lobby and amenity space.

The development requires a special use permit to increase the height of the proposed building to 85 feet and an increase in the floor area ratio.

According to the application:

Overall, the Applicant is improving the Property by replacing the aging office building with an urban multi-unit building that will provide much-needed housing stock in the region. The proposed redevelopment will also reduce the number of curb cuts from three to two, achieve desirable density that is appropriate in the surrounding context, improve the Stevenson Avenue streetscape, and create affordable housing to serve the local community.

The development plans will create 26 units considered affordable at up to 60% of area median income for 40 years. The application said the units will consist of 17 one-bedroom units and 9 two-bedroom units. The developer will also provide a $433,962 contribution to the Housing Trust Fund.

The project is scheduled for review at the Planning Commission on June 4.

34 Comments
Igor, a dog at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (photo via AWLA/Facebook)

The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria is a beloved local institution, and it’s asking those who’ve had good experiences with the shelter to vouch for it.

Sniffspot, a site that specializes in private dog parks, is running a contest to rank the best dog shelters and rescues in Virginia.

A testimonial form asks users to speak about their experience with the shelter as an adoptee, volunteer/foster, staff member, supporter, or overall fan.

Those writing in can share their experience with the shelter, with a limit of one testimonial per person for each shelter.

Photo via AWLA/Facebook

2 Comment
The 200 block of King Street in Old Town, Alexandria (staff photo by James Cullum)

(Updated 3:40 p.m.) To get a business improvement district (BID) approved for Old Town, proponents will need the support of 60% of properties in the proposed zone. But a new change could cut property owners who don’t engage at all out of that 60% requirement.

City Council member John Chapman said after outreach was done for the Old Town BID there were over 200 property owners that never responded either in favor or against the proposal.

Currently, not weighing in on the project is tantamount to not supporting it.

“Those business owners wanted to look at adjusting the way we were doing counting to not qualify those individuals for counting toward the percentage of property owners that were either for or against the BID,” Chapman said.

While the proposed BID would get a leg up by not counting absent property owners in that 60% requirement, previous attempts at getting the BID going have faced active community backlash at times.

While many on the City Council expressed their support for that change, Chapman said the city should do more outreach to those property owners first for “another opportunity to have their voices heard for or against the creation of a business improvement district.”

“The goal is to engage those individuals, if they remain not voting at all, that their property would not count toward whether or not we do a BID,” Chapman said. “We do not want those who do not engage with this process to count against this process.”

Others on the City Council generally expressed support for the change. City Council member Sarah Bagley said she’s heard from businesses that support the idea of the BID but have absentee owners who don’t weigh in one way or the other.

23 Comments
×

Subscribe to our mailing list