Alexandria, VA

What a week in Alexandria.

Our top story this week is on Gregory Elliott, a special education teacher at T.C. Williams High School. Elliot also goes by the name of “Sugar Bear” for the D.C.-based go-go band Experience Unlimited, and their song “Da’ Butt” from the Spike Lee movie “School Daze” was featured at the Oscars, along with actress Glenn Close dancing to it.

This week was full of news.

City Manager Mark Jinks hinted at retiring, there was a chlorine spill at Lake Cook and the Alexandria Fire Department is contending with reports of racism, sexism and favoritism.

Additionally, a cyberattack on a gas pipeline resulted in a state of emergency throughout Virginia. We asked readers about it in our weekly poll, and out of 250 responses only 31% (78 votes) considered making alternate travel plans.

Election stories

Important stories

Top stories

  1. Go-go music star-turned Alexandria teacher ‘Sugar Bear’ in the spotlight after Oscars shoutout
  2. Landmark Mall developers to field public question in forum this week
  3. UPDATE: Woman arrested for firing gun near Alexandria Courthouse in Old Town
  4. AHDC proposes nearly 500 units of affordable housing for Arlandria
  5. ALXnow’s top stories this week in Alexandria
  6. Here’s which City Council candidates signed the new ‘Alexandria Constituents’ Bill of Rights’ pledge
  7. Girlfriend of murder suspect arrested for breaking into home and beating up witness
  8. Election: Stark differences as Wilson and Silberberg face off in mayoral debate
  9. Racism, sexism and favoritism reported within the Alexandria Fire Department
  10. Here’s the order that City Council candidates will appear on the ballot for the June 8 democratic primary
  11. Wilson and Silberberg clash over new challenges, old wounds, and The Golden Girls

Have a safe weekend!

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(Updated 5:30 p.m.) Most of Alexandria’s City Council candidates met in person for the first time in Arlandria on Thursday night, and affordable housing, school resource officers and access to health care led the bilingual discussion to a mostly Spanish-speaking audience.

The forum was hosted outside by Tenants and Workers United and Grassroots Alexandria.

“The pandemic really showed us that we need to work to ensure that if we want low income people of color to continue being a part of our community, we have to work on that,” Evelin Urrutia, the executive director of Tenants & Workers United, told ALXnow. “We have lost a lot of affordable housing units in the past two decades. They need to change a lot of policies and they have to start investing more money in affordable housing, something that was not done in previous years.”

Councilman Canek Aguirre, the first elected Latino to Council in Alexandria, said he’s worked to get more health care resources to the immigrant population in Arlandria.

“I will say the health department, we did add four community health workers,” Aguirre said. “Three speak Spanish, one speaks Amharic. This is all on purpose. I have been working with health population managers, the last three of them, talking about how we do outreach and where we need people, making sure we meet them where they are.”

Councilman John Taylor Chapman said that Chapman said that the city needs to give more resources to Neighborhood Health, which provides health care services to low-income residents without insurance.

“The Alexandria Health Department needs to become a better partner with the folks that are doing the work in the community,” Chapman said. “Because it’s really about you and your health.”

Candidate Bill Campbell agreed, and said that many of the city’s woes can be solved with more diversity.

“”To me, this is easy,” Campbell said. “Neighborhood Health, I’m sure, has more nurses and doctors and look like you and me. And so we got to make sure that we increase our diversity everywhere — in our health department, on Council, everywhere in this city the more voices that we can get, and the places where things are needed, the better this city is going to be. That’s the key to it, is adding diversity everywhere.”

Candidate Alyia Gaskins said that the city needs to expand health care access by expanding the operations of the mobile health van, as well as increase resources for health care pop-ups in low income areas.

“I think that expanding health care services begins with expanding access,” Gaskins said.

There are seven candidates of color and five women running for Council — out of the 15 candidates running, including an independent and a Republican candidate. That means that there is a chance, depending on the outcome of the November election, that the newly elected City Council could have a majority of Black members — a first in history.

“As a black man in America, I’m probably the most endangered human species out here, right?” Campbell said. “I raised three kids through the Alexandria school system, two boys of color. I also helped start the Family and Community Engagement Center in ACPS. All of my work will be focused around equity, and trying to eliminate systems that we know have been racist and have institutionalized biases in them. And that’s what I want to continue doing for Alexandria.”

Candidate Kevin Harris said that his work creating a safety committee for the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority community set him apart.

“The chief of police has already highlighted that this is an effective measure that he wants to duplicate across the city,” Harris said. “We shouldn’t have to wait once we get on Council to start doing those things you want to be able to get started.”

Candidate Patrick Moran is against the elimination of school resource officers from ACPS, and candidate Bill Rossello said the issue needs more public discussion.

“We need public safety professionals in our schools to protect our kids,” Moran said. “I’m a straight white male. I’ve experienced privilege my entire life. Throughout that I’ve fought to serve, to give and to work hard for my community. Otherwise, I don’t know what it means and feels like to be intimidated in school from police officers because I feel as though I’m being discriminated against. I appreciate the efforts that have been made to counteract that, and I appreciate the funding that has gone into our mental health services and wellness services.”

Candidate James Lewis said that the city should have more diversity in its police department.

“I think it starts with ensuring that the current law enforcement practices in the city don’t over-criminalize or over-police communities of color,” Lewis said. “We’ve taken some good steps in that direction and need to continue to do them. But really, the way you solve the problem on term is making opportunities for people in communities of color to become law enforcement.”

Aguirre said the elimination of SROs was a first step.

“How do you want officers to interact with our community?” Aguirre said. “We need to continue working on that a lot. There’s going to be more conversations to be had as we move forward.”

Candidate Meronne E. Teklu said that police need to stay out of schools.

“How we implement that is the real question,” Teklu said. “Working with community organizers will be critical. Folks like Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor have not seen justice. We need to ensure common sense gun safety and data transparency.”

On affordable housing, Aguirre said that he supported raising the city’s meals tax to 5% to pay for the effort, and Chapman said that the city hasn’t pressed developers hard enough to contribute more. Gaskins said the city needs to expand tools, such as the right of first refusal, and .

“We haven’t pressed that button enough [with developers], haven’t pressed that issue enough,” Chapman said. “And that’s what we need to do.”

The Democratic primary for City Council is June 8.

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The City Council unanimously approved a $500,000 loan to get a new affordable housing development for the Arlandria neighborhood off the ground.

As part of an effort to preemptively combat gentrification likely incoming with Amazon’s arrival, the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation (AHDC) has put together plans to build a new affordable housing complex at 221 W. Glebe Road, former location for Safeway.

According to a presentation, the new development will be 460-480 units of affordable housing, around 380 parking spaces, and 38,000 square feet of non-residential space at the former Safeway.

The units will be spread across two buildings on the site, one ten-stories tall and another at seven-stories tall.

According to AHDC, the focus will be on units built for families, with 65% of total units either two bedroom or three bedroom units.

For the non-residential space, AHDC said it plans to bring in:

  • Healthcare services providers
  • Shared office space for nonprofit/mission driven organizations
  • City agencies satellite office space
  • Childcare and/or child education services
  • Retail space for locally-owned businesses

The project is scheduled to come back to the City Council for review later this year, with construction starting in 2023 if approved. The pre-leasing phase is scheduled to start in the 2024-2026 timeframe.

Images via City of Alexandria

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Former Mayor Allison Silberberg very publicly didn’t plan on running against Mayor Justin Wilson in the Democratic primary, but as weeks slipped by and no other challenger came forward — and Council Member Mo Seifeldein dropped out — Silberberg said she felt she needed to step up.

Three years after Silberberg lost her reelection bid to Wilson, she’s back to reclaim the position.

“I couldn’t just stand by and watch our city put at risk by destructive policies of our current mayor,” Silberberg said.

Wilson has racked up several endorsements from current and former members of city leadership, including other City Council members and state legislators, but Silberberg said she isn’t particularly worried by that. Silberberg said in the last week, her campaign has raised over $64,000, while Wilson recently announced that he raised $90,000.

“I’m not concerned,” Silberberg said. “In many cases, that’s the old guard. I’m honored to have support form people across our city. We’re at a crossroads in our city. I’m a person who gets things done and I listen to people.”

Silberberg’s list of objections to Wilson is, beyond a “greatest hits” of concerns that have emerged from local advocacy groups like Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria, an extension of many of the same battles Silberberg fought with Wilson on when the two were locked in opposition during her tenure as mayor.

Silberberg said some of the biggest issues fueling her campaign are:

  • Reverting Seminary Road Changes — “Wilson took away vital travel lanes on Seminary Road,” Silberberg said. “I would restore them. It’s a major arterial road to our only hospital. It was one of the safest streets in the city, the data showed that, but in a distorted kind of way he said this is a vote about public safety. Thirteen civic associations banded together and said do not do this, it affects every resident in the city.”
  • Opposition to City Stream Restoration Projects — “I’m fighting to save Taylor Run… saving the forest there, and Strawberry Run,” she said. “I would listen to environmentalists, scientists and experts who have come forward on their own to say that this is a disaster in the making, to destroy the forest. This is some of the last remaining forests in our city, you can’t just replant and wait 30 years, because it’s not just the trees but the environment around it.”
  • School-Affordable Housing Colocation — “I’m committed to protecting limited school properties from housing,” Silberberg said.
  • Opposition to Eisenhower Slaughterhouse — “He pushed through the slaughterhouse where the existing businesses a football throw away banded together and banded the Mayor not to do that,” Silberberg said. “There are no other slaughterhouses within the beltway, and not one in our city. The impact on environmental waste is really upsetting — not to mention the smell. It was dismissive of the fact that the business owner has had numerous code violations in other states. I would not have supported that.”

Some of the reversals could be a challenge. City staff recently laid out the costs to alternatives to the Taylor Run Stream Restoration the city could be required to pursue to keep up with its Chesapeake Bay Watershed credit requirements.

Silberberg  is dubious of staff’s claims.

“Staff, with all due respect, seems to be inflating or misrepresenting the costs for alternatives,” she said. “We need to have all that vetted openly and discussed.”

Silberberg said she was also surprised and frustrated that staff hadn’t tested the soil at Taylor Run before committing the city to funding the overhaul.

“Nobody on the city staff, and they admitted this, that they hadn’t tested the soils at Taylor Run,” Silberberg said. “Someone on their own volition hired a highly regarded laboratory, tested the soils, and it came back with negligible amounts of phosphorous, that’s one of the driving forces. So basically the city admitted that they were basing their analysis and conclusions on a generic version of soil samples in a whole other region. That’s not how we want to do analysis when it comes to a treasured spot in the city.”

Taylor Run, along with some of the other issues, go back to what Silberberg sees as a recurring problem with transparency and ethics in city leadership. Silberberg and Wilson have clashed over issues about ethics for nearly a decade, including a protracted battle over a proposed ethics pledge in 2016.

“We must restore integrity and transparency and adopt meaningful ethics reform,” Silberberg said. “That is certainly a top ethics reform, and we need a leader with demonstrated record of truth, transparency and ethics, and I am that leader. I led with an ethics initiative, and the person who led the effort to water that down was then Vice-Mayor Wilson. We did accomplish some goals, but didn’t go nearly as far as what I wanted.”

Silberberg argued that information that came to light from public Freedom of Information Act requests, and later printed by the Alexandria Times, not only showed that there were behind-the-scenes discussions on issues like Seminary Road and the Potomac Yard southern entrance that the public should know about, but also that there was too much information in those that was redacted.

“Some of the lines that weren’t redacted, which wasn’t very much, showed that he distorted the truth or lied and misled the public,” Silberberg said. Read More

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Morning Notes

Arlandria affordable housing development meetings this week — “Alexandria Housing Development Corporation (AHDC), a non-profit housing developer, is exploring a proposal to create a 400+ unit affordable apartment rental community located at Mt. Vernon and Glebe Road… If you are not pre-registered, you can click here to join the meeting in Spanish at 7 PM on 4/14, and click here to join the meeting in English at 7 PM on 4/15.” [City of Alexandria]

City nominated for Condé Nast award — “The Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards are the longest-running and most prestigious recognition of excellence in the travel industry. Alexandria has placed among the Top 5 Small Cities in the U.S. for the last three years alongside Charleston and Santa Fe.” [CNTraveler.com]

Alexandria to get first DashMart in DC Metro area — “Brought to you from the folks at DoorDash, the company plans to open a warehouse later this year in Alexandria at 826 S. Pickett St. (just west of South Van Dorn Street) where it will house the items for delivery around the clock.” [Alexandria Living]

City announces cohousing/co-living open house — “The City of Alexandria invites the community to participate in the Cohousing/Co-living Virtual Open House scheduled for April 20th from 7-9 p.m. Cohousing/co-living generally offers individuals who are unrelated a private living space as well as access to communal areas like kitchen, bathrooms, and living spaces.” [City of Alexandria]

Today’s weather — “Cloudy early with partial sunshine expected late. High 66F. Winds light and variable… Partly cloudy (in the evening). Low near 50F. Winds light and variable.” [Weather.com]

New job: Appointment setter — “This is our busiest time of the year, and we are looking to bring on 2 new customer service advisors to our team. We fully train, so no experience is required for this position. You will be setting appointments and consulting potential customers on which services fit best for their families.” [Indeed]

Courtesy photo by Jack Powers

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Landmark Towers has a problem.

The West End residential property at 101 S Whiting Street, originally built in 1964, was more or less falling apart and a planned ten-year rehabilitation project was prohibitively expensive.

The City of Alexandria also has a problem: its bleeding market rate affordable housing faster than committed affordable units — units with rents capped below market price — can be made to keep up with demand.

The two bodies came to an agreement last year for a loan that — like the old Reese’s ad — took each party’s problems and turned them into each other’s solutions. Now, the city is looking to that West End partnership as one potential solution to help stave off impending gentrification of Arlandria when Amazon comes to town.

At a City Council meeting on Tuesday, city staff said the earlier Landmark Towers agreement could act as a template for partnerships in Arlandria, where there are similar market rate residential developments that could be in need of extensive overhauls. Today, city staff said the majority of market rate units in the area are affordable at 60-80 percent of area median income (AMI).

“[We’re] proactively engaging with willing property owners may also create future opportunities to potentially buy down rents,” said Alexandria Housing Planner Tamara Jovovic. “The recent investment in Landmark Towers out at the West End is an interesting example. City provided financing to property owner to address outstanding capital maintenance issues.”

According to the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee (AHAAC), the loan would help pay for capital improvements in exchange for adherence to adhering to certain rent guidelines and other stipulations.

Provision of a $2.5 million capital improvement loan to Landmark Towers, LLC, a 154-unit mixed-use rental property in exchange for long term compliance with the City’s voluntary rent guidelines, provision of a right of first refusal in the event of a future sale, and a commitment to jointly explore potential redevelopment opportunities, if mutually beneficial, to add committed affordable and workforce units.

The AHAAC said in its report that market rate affordable units are part of a decreasing supply. The recommendation also said that the loan was the first of its kind: a housing opportunity loan to a privately-owned entity, but that doing so was consistent with the city’s housing and community development powers. It’s a shift that could blur the lines between committed affordable and market rate affordable units moving forward.

“The importance of this residential asset to Alexandria’s housing affordability ecosystem,” the report said, “the property’s many long term tenants, its locational and transit efficiency, as well as its capacity for potential additional development, combined with the owner’s desire to collaborate with the City on a mutually agreeable solution that maintains the property as market rate affordable and workforce housing, has induced the parties to come up with a package that offers short, medium and long term benefits.”

It’s a solution that was raised among others at the City Council meeting to discuss ongoing plans to try to preserve not only affordable housing in Arlandria, but the predominately Hispanic and immigrant communities that have called the area home for several decades.

Jovovic said other aspects of the plan will include making sure that Arlandria residents are the ones who benefit most from new affordable housing, with the city developing a system that would prioritize existing residents of the neighborhood when new units come online in the area. Jovovic said the city is also working on making the housing application process less intimidating, which can be dense and hard to decipher even to native English speakers.

City Council member Canek Aguirre said he was excited about the plan and credited the city’s partnerships with local community organizations in helping with outreach.

“I’m excited about this project and the level of outreach — even in the pandemic — and the Spanish-first approach to ensure the demographic areas are reached out to,” Aguirre said. “It’s a testament to the importance of our relationship to organizations like Casa Chirilagua and Tenants and Workers United.”

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There’s a line nowadays that snakes around the corner from the old Pet Valu store at 3819 Mount Vernon Avenue in Arlandria. The store has been repurposed as a vaccine site for Neighborhood Health, which has given away more than 16,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine to low income and mostly minority residents.

“We have provided 16,000 vaccines between all the sites, and 85% of them have been to people of color,” Neighborhood Health Executive Director Dr. Basim Khan told ALXnow. “We’ve ramped it up over time since we started. So at this point we’re at 5,000 vaccines a week.”

There are three Neighborhood Health vaccine sites in the city, at Alfred Street Baptist Church, Virginia Theological Seminary and on Mount Vernon Avenue. There are also sites near Seven Corners, at Macedonia Baptist Church in south Arlington and along Route 1 in Fairfax County.

“With minorities being vaccinated at much lower rates than white residents, we set up a program to address this issue to increase equity in the vaccine rollout,” Khan said. “Our focus is with the underserved communities that we’re trying to reach with the goal of preserving access for our own low income patients, because as you know our patients are predominantly low income, uninsured immigrant people of color.”

The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership was able to work with the landlord of the Arlandria storefront to provide the space to Neighborhood Health rent-free. Vaccines are provided by the city of Alexandria and Fairfax County, as well as the federal government, since the nonprofit is a federally qualified health center.

“Initially, our goal was to do 2,000 vaccines per week,” Khan said. “It seemed like a monumental task, but as you see we’re at 5,000 a week now, because obviously the demand is there. There is no waiting list and we will continue until the job is done.”

Courtesy photo/Mark Haney

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The Arlandria-Chirilagua area of Alexandria is one of the last bastions of market rate affordable housing in Alexandria. With the arrival of Amazon on the horizon threatening that, the City of Alexandria is working on a plan to try to keep the area’s gentrification at bay.

A pair of Zoom meetings are scheduled for Tuesday, March 30, to present a drafted series of affordable housing recommendations. The first, at 6 p.m., will be held in Spanish with English interpretation. The second, at 7:30 p.m., will be in English with Spanish interpretation.

The majority of the area falls below the area median income (AMI). Around 95% of households surveyed in 2019 by Tenant and Workers United earned less than 40% AMI, less than the $35,280-$58,480 per year income range for households of one to six people. Many of them, around 28.5%, live in households with five or more residents.

Arlandria is one of the few areas in Alexandria — along with portions of the West End — with an adequately affordable housing supply. The study found that the majority of rental housing in the area is affordable at 60-80% AMI, most of which are one-bedroom units.

A document outlining themes in the upcoming plan said that while housing in the area is generally affordable, increasing rents are still a challenge. Protestors in Arlandria last year pushed for a rent freeze after many in the area were left unemployed by the pandemic.

“Residents struggle with the high cost of housing as rent impacts every family decision, including the need to share housing with unrelated adults and being able to pay for food, medical care, and childcare,” the plan noted. “More deeply affordable housing will help residents remain in their community and meet basic needs.”

The concern is that the arrival of Amazon in nearby Crystal City could sent housing prices in the area skyrocketing, as it has in Seattle.

“Residents are concerned about the impact of Amazon HQ2 and fear displacement from gentrification,” city staff said in a presentation. “Many feel that their undocumented status and limited English language skills prevent them from resolving landlord issues. Building community capacity to raise concerns without fear of retribution will help residents access services they need, including tenant relocation and displacement protections.”

The city launched a community feedback campaign in 2019, though the process was somewhat waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the draft recommendations generated from the outreach efforts will be presented at the upcoming meetings.

“During the live virtual meetings, City staff will present the draft recommendations,” the city said in a press release, “followed by a question and answer portion at the end.”

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A 26-year-old man was shot in the leg in the 200 block of W. Glebe Road in Arlandria on Wednesday night.

The incident, characterized as a felonious assault, occurred at around 11:30 p.m., and was reported by Alexandria police just after midnight via Twitter.

“The victim was transported to the hospital,” Alexandria police said in a release. “His injuries are not life-threatening.”

No suspect information was released.

The area where the incident occurred has a lot of traffic and commerce. It’s located near the intersection of Mount Vernon Avenue and Glebe Road.

Police said that the investigation is active and ongoing, and that anyone with information should call the police non-emergency line at 703-746-4444. Callers can remain anonymous.

Map via Google Maps

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(Updated 1:30 p.m.) A woman was allegedly stabbed in the head by the father of her child after he allegedly forced his way into her apartment in the Arlandria neighborhood of Alexandria.

The incident occurred on September 26 at around 9:15 p.m. in the 700 block of Tennessee Avenue.

“After assaulting her with the knife, (the suspect) then took his three-year-old son and left the area in an unknown direction,” according to a police search warrant affidavit that was issued last month.

Police pinged the suspect’s phone, and found that it was in the apartment where the incident occurred. Police answered the suspect’s ringing phone from a contact listed as “Carlos trabajo” (Carlos work), and the caller said he’d been watching the suspect’s son and was wondering when he was going to pick him up.

The boy was soon reunited with his family.

The suspect, 36-year-old Miguel Moreno, has not been apprehended and is wanted for statutory burglary, abuse or neglect of children and malicious wounding.

Map via Google Maps

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