Alexandria, VA

With the Democratic primary underway, candidates for the city council, mayoral, and state seats are putting together lists of endorsements from organizations and other notable locals.

As a local voter, how much do endorsements matter to you?

In national elections, endorsements tend to hold relatively little sway with voters. But in local politics, voters tend to be more directly connected to elected leaders.

(Also, LNN doesn’t endorse, so stop asking)

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When Virginia first started loosening restrictions around the delivery of alcohol, Mayor Justin Wilson and other leaders noted that it was going to be difficult to get that particular cat back in the bag once the pandemic is over.

Eased restrictions around alcohol was just the start, and in the year since the city went into lockdown during the pandemic, the city has loosened some of its restrictions on outdoor dining, takeout, and curbside pickup parking spots to help struggling local businesses.

All along King Street, outdoor dining patios often straddle the pedestrian parts of the sidewalk. Locations that had limited or no outdoor dining, like Hops N Shine in Arlandria, opened outdoor patios. Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap in Del Ray even turned its parking deck into a small tropical bar.

With vaccine distribution continuing to increase and more retail and restaurants opening spaces to customers, the question has surfaced: Should the city go back its pre-pandemic restrictions?

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You remember how we knew basically nothing about the proposed Waterfront Museum study? Turns out, many in the city doesn’t either.

At a Waterfront Commission meeting on Tuesday, the Commission took a second look at the Waterfront Museum study and the costs associated with it.

The museum, as suggested in the memo, would house some of the hulls of ships discovered on the waterfront and countless artifacts found in the area:

In addition, in FY 2022 $125,000 is requested to conduct a Waterfront Museum Feasibility Study to assess the viability of a history center as recommended in the Waterfront History Plan and the Waterfront Area Plan. If supported, the museum would house items such as the conserved ship timbers of an 18th century merchant ship and associated artifacts excavated as part of the Robinson Terminal South and Hotel Indigo construction projects.

“I have questions myself about this,” said Nathan Macek, the Planning Commission representative on the Waterfront Commission. “I don’t have any background on this and I don’t know what anybody on the Commission does. It would be helpful to flag this for discussion or even an update from city staff who could speak to what this is.”

Jack Browand, division chief of Parks and Cultural Activities, said the funding would help determine the feasibility of the museum, and later look at the design process and what the museum would cost, but cost was a major concern for members of the Waterfront Commission as the city looks at a budget heavily strained by the pandemic.

“I want to know how much this will cost and if this is the best use of our funds when we’re not certain how this whole pandemic ending will play out,” Commission member Christa Waters said. “You’re talking about $125,000, and City Council members would tell you that’s not a lot of money, but here and there it adds up.”

Waters noted that the Waterfront Commission has discussed the possibility of a museum for years, and most recently considered putting the boat on the roof of the Torpedo Factory, though there are concerns the roof isn’t fit to hold it.

“I think we need a little more precision in what we’re asking for and a little more direction,” Waters said. “I think this is not the year to do this.”

Waterfront Commission member Charlotte Hall reminded the others that there had previously been an effort to get a museum for the waterfront going and it failed.

“I’m quite alarmed that this is coming out in a letter that we’re supporting and that we know nothing about,” Hall said. “A friendly reminder that, while I’m in favor of a Waterfront Museum, we had a Waterfront Museum at the north end of the Canal Center and it failed, and it failed for a couple of reasons. I have a hard time supporting a study for something I know nothing about because I want to make sure it’s not another study that’s just going to go on the shelf.”

Commission members asked questions like where the museum would be, but Macek explained there were few answers with the study so early in the process.

“I don’t know anything more than what’s in this paragraph,” Macek said. “This feasibility study for the Waterfront Museum kind of came out of the blue.”

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An analysis of the recent ALXnow poll on the Alexandria mayoral race shows hundreds of apparently fraudulent votes cast.

In response to allegations that one candidate seemed to benefit from rapid repeat voting, ALXnow conducted an IP address analysis of the votes.

Our analysis showed 167 votes cast from non-U.S. IP addresses, with all but five cast for Allison Silberberg.

Another 231 votes came from one particular IP address combination, with a rapidity that suggests repeat voting. While all three candidates received votes within this group, the vast majority were for Silberberg.

No other significant irregularities were observed.

Silberberg touted her apparent edge in the ALXnow poll in a social media post Sunday. There is no indication that she would have known about the apparently fraudulent votes.

Silberberg told us said that at no time does she condone cheating in voting or online polling.

When the 398 suspicious votes described above were removed from the more than 1,200 cast, the results of the poll are starkly different:

  • Justin Wilson: 53%
  • Allison Silberberg: 36%
  • Annetta Catchings: 11%

While not intended to be a scientific poll, ALXnow regrets that it was seemingly exploited in order to mislead Alexandria voters. A note will be appended to the original poll post, linking to this article.

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Update on March 30 at 10:45 a.m.ALXnow has conducted an analysis on this poll, and found that a number of fraudulent votes were cast. 

A seemingly safe reelection bid for incumbent Mayor Justin Wilson took a sudden sharp turn this week as two new candidates entered the race, including former Mayor Allison Silberberg coming back for a rematch.

Council member Mo Seifeldein had initially announced a campaign against Wilson, but dropped out of the race.

The announcement conjured memories of the tense 2018 race between the two candidates that saw three years of vicious City Council arguments between Wilson and Silberberg boil over into campaigns divided as much by opposing personalities as differing policies.

In 2015, then Vice Mayor Silberberg ran against incumbent Mayor Bill Euille. Silberberg’s coalition of voters included many who were frustrated by new density and development approved under Euille — particularly along the Waterfront. Silberberg also benefitted from former Mayor Kerry Donley joining the race, splitting the more pro-density, institutional support for Euille.

Silberberg not only won the Democratic primary, but easily fended off a write-in campaign from Euille in the general election. The next three years, however, were filled with votes where Silberberg was often the lone voice against new development or legislative changes. In 2018, then Vice Mayor Justin Wilson ousted Silberberg.

But in the years since, many of those same concerns about density and development have resurfaced — from heated feelings over new bike lanes to large new development in Old Town.

While Silberberg and Wilson square off in the Democratic primary, scheduled for June 8, whoever wins could still face newcomer Annetta Catchings as a Republican candidate for mayor in the fall.

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After mostly smooth sailing, the City Council’s 4-3 denial of the Braddock West project came as a bit of a surprise.

The plan was to replace a series of townhomes just east of the Braddock Road Metro station with a towering new mixed-use development, containing 174 residential units and ground floor retail and restaurant uses.

The project faced some concerns from nearby residents — primarily concerning the stormwater impact from the project and the scale — but far less than the controversial Heritage project the City Council unanimously approved. The project had a seal of approval from the neighboring residential association and the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority, which had baffled one member of the Planning Commission who had noted the project would dramatically overshadow the Andrew Adkins development.

Those concerns that had been in the background at the Planning Commission came to the forefront, with City Council members Amy Jackson, Canek Aguirre, John Chapman and Mo Seifeldein voting against the project. Aguirre raised the issue that the outreach done by the project was years ago when the development was part of a larger development with ARMA, but those plans have since fallen apart after the ARHA redevelopment was delayed.

“I was at that first meeting they did for the bigger project, interesting meeting that took people by surprise,” Chapman said. “I would share the concern that Mr. Aguirre has shared. The community has changed over the years and it is a different project. To try to act like the community outreach done for the full block with ARMA is the same as a separate project is not the way we should operate.”

Pepper also slammed the project for what she argued was disappointing 10-year-storm-focused stormwater sewage improvements, despite staff arguing that the project shouldn’t be saddled with fixing the neighborhood’s woefully inadequate stormwater protections.

“Ten year storms?” Pepper said. “We don’t even have them. That’s a sprinkle. We don’t have ten year storms, we’re up there in the 100s. They’re the ones that bother us. They’re the ones that flood the basements and ruin’s people’s carpets and furniture.”

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A mounting effort to decrease the role of school resource officers (SRO) in Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) is gaining traction as some on the City Council have joined community activists in questioning the role of security officers in the schools.

The discussion comes as schools nationwide are considering alternatives to school resource officers or eliminating the position entirely. Alexandria’s SROs made the headlines in 2018 when one accidentally shot his gun inside George Washington Middle School.

City Councilman Canek Aguirre suggested that the position be changed from a full-time job at the school for a few of the most busy times, like arrival and dismissal, but aren’t positioned throughout the day in the school

The issue was raised at a public hearing on the budget earlier this week by representatives from Arlandria-based Tenants and Workers United. Youth organizers at the event said SROs are an intrusive presence that make some students feel unsafe.

The position was created in 1997 at George Washington Middle School with the opposite goal. According to the city:

All officers selected to the SRU attend a 40-hour School Resource Officer School. This training is provided by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services- Center for School Safety. The SROs also receive additional specialized training from the ACPS and other training sources on a wide range of subjects: dealing with kids who have emotional & educational issues, school policy, laws of search, seizure & arrest on school grounds, how to prevent and deal with an active school shooting incident and many other related topics.

The program has expanded over the years and today there is one SRO sergeant and five SROs.

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After months of community discussions following the School Board vote in November, Superintendent Gregory Hutchings is recommending that T.C. Williams High School be renamed Alexandria High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School be renamed Naomi Brooks Elementary School.

The choices split the difference between those who wanted to see the schools renamed after specific people and those who wanted to play it safe with area or neighborhood school names.

Alexandria High School was chosen over “Titan Community High School” — which would have kept the T.C. initials — and “Ruth Bader Ginsberg High School”.

Meanwhile Naomi Brooks Elementary School, named in honor of longtime local teacher Naomi Brooks who died last year, was chosen over names like “Rosemont Elementary School”.

The new names will be reviewed at a School Board meeting tonight (Thursday).

In an earlier poll, most of those who voted were in favor of Alexandria High School.

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City Manager Mark Jinks has proposed a budget this year that includes a real estate tax rate decrease of 2 cents.

The announcement came as welcome news to local property owners, from residents to business owners who faced a particularly difficult year as a result of COVID-19. The announcement was conjoined with a budget that belt tightening that trims down some of the city’s larger ambitions and won’t fill some currently vacant positions.

The budget also faced some detractors who argue that the city should take more steps to ease the burden on local residents and commercial property owners. In a recent Agenda Alexandria meeting, City Council candidate Bill Rossello said the narrative of a lightened burden on local residents doesn’t match the reality of an overall tax increase.

“I look at the budget the way it’s been presented and something that always seems to concern me is when we lead with a narrative around the tax rate,” Rossello said. “The tax rate is only one part of the equation for the actual taxes that people pay… While we’re looking at a proposed 2 cent tax rate decrease, when you do the math, for the average household it comes out to be almost a 6% tax increase in real dollars and that’s what really matters to residents: how much more or how much less am I going to pay?”

On the other side, some of the city’s transit and infrastructure ambitions are being scaled back as a result of the tax rate decrease. For instance, City Manager Mark Jinks said in the meeting that DASH will be forced to choose between density and coverage in a budget that will not allow it to keep all current lines operational and move forward with its planned higher-frequency service in areas of greater density.

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Last week the Alexandria City Council voted unanimously to uphold a decision by the Planning Commission to allow a church on W. Braddock Road to expand.

The Alexandria Presbyterian Church’s expansion has faced increasingly pitched opposition from around two dozen neighboring households who worried about increased traffic and the size of the building (~23,000 square feet).

The biggest problem for opponents: the expansion plan was “by-right” under city zoning, meaning the councilmembers, even if inclined to agree with the opponents, had little legal standing to vote against the project.

The exact legal details aside, do you think neighbor complaints like those in this case should be addressed regardless of what zoning allows on a given site?

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