It’s been a busy week in Alexandria with City Council coming back into session for the first time in 2022.
With a majority of the Council being new, there are fresh names and perspectives stories about city decision-making. Highlights from this week’s City Council meeting included a first look at plans for the city to — kind of — invest in a luxury hotel and bids to develop broadband internet access citywide.
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- The Institute for Defense Analysis to open new Potomac Yard headquarters later this month
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At a City Council meeting on Tuesday, the City Council approve the receipt of four broadband franchise proposals.
The companies that put in bids for consideration are:
The four companies have submitted proposals to construct and maintain a broadband system in Alexandria and will move into review by city staff. Vanetta Pledger, Alexandria’s chief information officer and director of information technology services, said that city staff will complete a review of the proposals and send its findings back to the City Council.
As the city moves forward with the development of a broadband network, City Council member Alyia Gaskins reiterated that work needs to be done to ensure equitable access across the city.
“I was really excited to see the previous Council made it explicit our commitment to equity as part of our search,” Gaskins said. “We all know that equity only works when we’re all very clear about what our digital equity needs are and so making sure that we understand where are specific problems, where are the gaps, what experience did our small businesses or schools have during this pandemic. It would be my hope that the city manager and city attorney really have some clear guidelines about how we are looking at and measuring digital equity as part of our review process.”
Deputy City Manager Laura Triggs said equity will be one of the main topics under consideration as the city reviews the four proposals.
“The next steps for us are to review the proposals that we get and we will look to see what is fair and equitable to the city, what is responsive, and what’s the best for our citizens,” Triggs said. “We’re excited about this. We’re happy to see that we have a lot of proposals, but we also know that’s a lot of things for us to consider, but we look forward to the next steps.”
Alexandria’s City Council was overall supportive of an arrangement presented earlier this week to invest — sort of — in a new Old Town hotel.
A proposal backed by the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership would have the city help fill gap-funding for a hotel project at 699 Prince Street that fell through when the pandemic hit. Interior demolition was already underway when the pandemic made it impossible to secure financing on a new hospitality project, said AEDP President and CEO Stephanie Landrum in a presentation to the City Council on Tuesday.
Landrum said the city’s hospitality industry has plummeted over the last couple years and in some cases it’s more beneficial to convert those properties to residential, here Landrum said the city’s economy would benefit more from a luxury hotel.
“We’re seeing what we could classify as obsolete hotels, dated in terms of their age or their amenity base isn’t what travelers want today, or their location isn’t amenity approximate,” Landrum said. “We’ve decided as a city that [hotel conversion] is helping achieve priorities like housing availability, but we need a good mix of commercial projects in the city to balance the tax base. while we continue to improve or encourage hotel conversions in some places, have to encourage hotels to be built in viable locations.”
Landrum said a hotel at 699 Prince Street would generate 500% more revenue to the city than a residential project and require little social or infrastructure uses, with no burden placed on schools and little pressure on park use.
“The cost of people who reside in a hotel is much less than residents,” Landrum said.
The site was once the Hotel George Mason, built in the 1920s but was later converted to offices and served as headquarters for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Landrum said there financing structure being proposed limits the risk involved for the city. The city, through AEDP, would pay bond trustees out of a 1% cut of the sales and use tax generated by the hotel after the project is complete and begins to generate revenue. The project is estimated to generate roughly $2 million annually in revenue, which Landrum said was a “significant amount of money” for the city to come from one project.
“We are agreeing to support this project, but if this is unsuccessful that debt has no bearing on the city, it’s all on that project,” Landrum said.
But Landrum said while she expects AEDP will likely get “phone calls” from other potential hotel developments if the project is approved, Landrum warned that the circumstances around the city’s involvement with this project were relatively unique.
“This project unique in historic preservation, in size and scale,” Landrum said. “I don’t think a new hotel being built for long-term stay in the West End or to service the new Virginia Tech campus in Potomac Yard will have the same set of circumstances. The number one provision is that you have to prove you have a gap you can’t close.”
The City Council approved first reading of the proposal, which is scheduled for a public hearing at the Saturday, Jan. 22 City Council meeting.
The main concern expressed by the City Council was over the handling of labor on the project. City Council member Alyia Gaskins asked about creating project labor agreements and other progressive labor arrangements for the hotel development, but Landrum said the profit margin is already so slim it’s unlikely the project would be able to support that.
“This project came to us because of a gap in financing,” Landrum said. “A lot of the things you’re talking about unfortunately comes at an additional cost. We’ve talked a little about this… we understand how real and impactful those additions are. For a project of this scale to enact some of those things would make the project not feasible. [We’re] talking about a 20-25% increase in cost for some of the labor concessions.”
The project presentation boasted that the project would bring in 19 full-time jobs and 90 part-time jobs, but City Council members expressed uncertainty at whether those employees would be paid a wage that would allow them to live in Alexandria.
“I really like the model for this, where what we put into this is based on what we’re getting out of it in terms of revenue,” City Council member Kirk McPike said. “We’re not talking about a dime of city money going forward without coming to us from this project… [but] without paying levels where they could live in Alexandria, we’re not benefitting Alexandria workers.”
Staff agreed to come back at the Jan 22 public hearing with more information about wages for employees at the hotel.
“There are things that as good human beings, citizens, and representatives we want to do but we also need to get projects done for the greater good of the community and what is the cost-benefit of some of these decisions,” Landrum said. “We try to thread that needle right now when there isn’t a clear policy at the council level and brought forward a project we think is obviously a great community good.”
In a City Council meeting last night, Inova Alexandria Hospital and local health officials shared a look at the current COVID-19 situation in the hospital and what the state of emergency declaration means for the city.
Inova Alexandria Hospital President Dr. Rina Bansal told the City Council that the hospital is prepared for any potential surge.
“The good news is, if there is good news, is that we’ve been dealing with this for 22 months so we’re well versed with handling another surge of Covid,” Bansal said. “While we are extremely busy, we’re well within our capacity from a bed perspective as well as a resource perspective. We are actively planning for any surges that we may see in the next few weeks, as noted in the predicted models.”
Bansal said the emergency declaration from Gov. Ralph Northam gave the hospital more flexibility to tackle any upswing in hospitalizations:
That’s why the emergency that was recently issued by the governor is key. It’s key from an in-patient perspective because it allows us to increase our licensed bed capacity beyond our current license, work in staffing ratios that may not be what we do right now, and it allows vaccinations to be given by any healthcare provider which increases our ability to provide vaccinations in this community and telehealth services, which allows increased access to our patients within Virginia and in Maryland if they were previously our patients. It allows us to use providers licensed in other states to provide are.
Bansal acknowledged that staffing has been a challenge at the hospital.
The hospital has reverted to earlier visitation restrictions and Bansal said the majority of patients being hospitalized are unvaccinated ones.
“The sicker patients are the unvaccinated patients,” Bansal said, “and if you look at it proportionally the unvaccinated patients are the ones getting admitted to the hospital.”
Inova Alexandria Hospital spokeswoman Melissa Riddy also noted that the hospital is critically short on blood, and will be holding blood drives on January 25 and 27.
The Alexandria City Council will likely extend the city’s state of emergency from the end of January to June 30, 2022. Tuesday night’s (Jan. 11) vote will be the fifth extension of the declaration since the pandemic began in March 2020.
The declaration, which was first approved by Council in March 2020, has been continually updated, and finds that “the emergency continues to exist and will exist into the future.”
If approved, the city will end up being under a state of emergency for 27 months.
There have been 162 deaths and 23,737 reported cases of COVID-19 in Alexandria, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
The full emergency declaration is below.
WHEREAS, the Director of Emergency Management of the City of Alexandria, Virginia finds that the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a Communicable Disease of Public Health Threat for Virginia and is of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant a coordinated response by City departments, agencies, and voluntary organization.
WHEREAS, on March 14, 2020, City Council adopted Resolution No. 2928 confirming the Director of Emergency Management’s Declaration of Local Emergency which extended through June 10, 2020. On June 9, 2020, City Council amended such resolution extending the Declaration of Local Emergency through September 30, 2020. On September 22, 2020, City Council amended such resolution extending the Declaration of Local Emergency through March 31, 2021. On March 23, 2021, City Council amended such resolution extending the Declaration of Local Emergency through September 30, 2021. On September 14, 2021, the City Council amended such resolution extending the Declaration of Local Emergency through January 31, 2022.
WHEREAS, the Director of Emergency Management finds that the emergency continues to exist and will exist into the future.
THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY DECLARED, that a local emergency exists throughout the City of Alexandria; and IT IS FURTHER DECLARED AND ORDERED, that during the existence of said emergency, the powers, functions and duties of the Director of Emergency Management shall be those prescribed by state law and the ordinances, resolutions and operations plans of the City of Alexandria, and that any actions taken under this declaration shall be directed at the prevention or response for, damages, loss, hardship or suffering threatened by, or resulting from, the emergency. The declaration for COVID-19 effective as of March 9, 2020, at 8:00 am and shall remain in full force and effect until June 30, 2022, at midnight unless sooner amended or rescinded by resolution of the City Council.
This week, the City Council is docketed (items 27 and 28) to review a proposal for the city to, in a round-about way, be involved in the financing of a new luxury hotel in Old Town.
With hotel revenue going into freefall during the pandemic, the prospect of building or renovating hotels in Alexandria hasn’t been a particularly financially appealing option, but a report prepared by Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) and city staff said that’s going to be a hit to tourism in the city as people travel again.
At the City Council meeting tomorrow (Tuesday), the Council is scheduled to vote on a “tourism development plan” developed with the Virginia Tourism Development Financing Program (TDFP) to provide gap financing for a hotel project at 699 Prince Street.
The project is coming to the city for financing because the project is below the anticipated yield investors would hope for. According to the tourism development plan being presented to the City Council, the anticipated operating profits for the hotel are between 6.5% and 7% — below the 10% yield targeted by investors for financing before the pandemic. According to the report:
The project’s $69.6 [million] (includes building sale) ancipated cost will be capitalized with approximately $45.2M (65% loan-to-cost) senior construction financing, and approximately $10.27 million of net historic tax credit proceeds. The remaining $14.13 million will be funded through a combination of TDFP proceeds and investor capital.
It’s a somewhat complicated chain of financing, but a graph in the presentation lays out some of the financing web.
The tourism development plan laid out to Council also highlighted some of the issues with hotel room supply city-wide. One of the big issues, the plan said, is that residential units are seen as a safer bet than hotels. The report noted that the city has lost five hotels in the last two years.
“The major challenge for Alexandria’s tourism economy is our recent reduction in hotel room supply,” the plan said.”The loss of hotel rooms is largely a result of the booming residential real estate market. With low-interest rates and increasing post-Covid migration from urban centers to suburban communities, the demand for residential housing in Northern Virginia is causing many hotel property owners to convert their properties to residential. As a result of these conversions, Alexandria’s hotel base dropped 17% in the past two years.”
The report also said while there are “upscale properties” in the city, there are no real luxury hotels in Alexandria.
“This proposed development would fill a void in the market and in turn, increase City revenues by increasing our Average Daily Rate,” the report said.
The report also said the new hotel would provide large meeting spaces that are in short supply in Old Town.
Finally, Alexandria would benefit from more hotel meeting space in Old Town. Our largest conference hotel, the Hilton Mark Center, is located on the City’s West End, a 20-minute drive from Old Town. Within Old Town, Alexandria has only three properties that can accommodate a large meeting (200+) — the Westin, the Hilton Old Town and Holiday Inn & Suites. Despite the walkable and historic downtown that many meeting planners and their attendees are seeking, Alexandria loses mid-size meetings to adjacent localities like Arlington, VA and National Harbor, MD.
The report from AEDP and city staff, though, said the expectation is for the hospitality market to rebound this year and next — how the ongoing wave of Covid cases from the omicron variant affects those projections isn’t said.
“In the recent HVS market study, the tables indicate demand for higher-end hospitality that will surpass pre-Covid levels in 2022-2023 and point to continued growth thereafter,” the report said. “Targeted for delivery in the 2023 timeframe, the Project will be well-positioned to capture this demand.”
At the meeting on Tuesday, the City Council will vote both on creating a “tourism zone” at the site to incentivize hotel development and, immediately after, a tourism development plan for the proposed hotel.
After nearly two years under COVID-19, the new Alexandria City Council was sworn into office Monday night (Jan. 3).
Monday’s snow storm and rising COVID numbers made the ceremony a virtual event. The specter of COVID loomed large over the ceremony, too, as Mayor Justin Wilson took the oath from Spain, where he has been stuck since contracting the virus during a holiday trip with his family.
“Alexandria needs to be a city that does big things,” Wilson said. “But it also needs to be a city that does less things, and does them better.”
It’s Wilson’s second term as mayor. Married with two children, he was elected in a special election to Council in 2007 after the resignation of then-Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald. He lost reelection to Council in 2009, was elected in 2012 and was elected as Vice Mayor in 2015. For his day job, he is a senior manager for Amtrak.
The new Council will have to mull a tax increase, as City services will be strained by COVID for years, and the police and fire departments have long decried low pay, morale and high turnover.
“If there is anyone that expects that we can simply layer this collection of new services on top of what we have always done, and expect it neither to cost us dramatically more nor impact our ability to execute, the dose of the reality that is coming is going to be especially harsh,” Wilson said. “We have seen in recent days and weeks our basic services strained, challenged, compromised. This Council must do the hard work of determining not just what we can fit into one annual budget, or even a multi-year capital plan. This is broader than that. If we are facing a once in a generation reconciliation of the role, scope and function of local government, this Council must bravely take on that mission to figure out what we don’t do in the future and who’s gonna do it, and what we should keep doing… and how we do it better than anyone else.”
Council unanimously elected Councilwoman Amy Jackson as vice mayor, since she received the most votes among council candidates in the November election.
“We’re going to continue with our COVID-19 recovery,” Jackson said. “I know Alexandria is resilient, I know our children, our Alexandria Health director, along with our city manager, all of my colleagues and our city staff are working to help everyone get on the same page concerning our vaccinations and getting tests, and all of that will help us be a better Alexandria on the other side of this, a healthier Alexandria.”
“I thank you and I hope to continue to respectfully engage with you as we go through these next three years,” Chapman said. “Seeing so many of you sacrifice for the city, sacrifice time away from your families, be worried about your health status — all of that is not unseen by members on this council, and not unseen by me.”
McPike said that many challenges lie ahead.
“We can build an Alexandria where every young person has an effective and safe place to learn, where we can address our housing challenges while still preserving our green spaces; where we can help our local businesses thrive while ensuring that our workers and the unions that represent them have a seat at the table,” he said. “If we do our jobs well Alexandria It can be a light that shows the way to better future for our region and our Commonwealth. That work will not be easy. It will take patience and compromise.”
Due to Monday’s snowstorm and rising COVID infections, the induction ceremony for new members of the Alexandria City Council has shifted to a virtual-only format. The School Board’s induction ceremony has been moved to a larger building for distancing.
Mayor Justin Wilson, who is stuck in Spain after contracting COVID, will be sworn in with City Council at 6 p.m. on Zoom. Councilman-elect Kirk McPike also recently tested positive for COVID and is isolating at home.
The new Council will be made up of Wilson, McPike, Sarah Bagley, Alyia Gaskins, and incumbents Amy Jackson, John Taylor Chapman and Canek Aguirre. Council is then expected to elect Jackson as vice mayor, since she received the most votes among council candidates in the November election.
A recording of the installation will also be available on Tuesday (Jan. 4) and on Cable Channel 70/1084.
School Board installation
The Alexandria School Board’s induction ceremony will be virtual-only at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday (Jan. 4).
According to Alexandria City Public Schools:
The Alexandria City School Board Induction Ceremony and Organizational Meeting on Tues., Jan. 4, 2022, has been moved to the School Board Meeting Room located at 1340 Braddock Place, at 6:30 p.m., in order to limit the number of people in Alexandria City Public School
s(ACPS) buildings. We will follow the current COVID-19 health and safety protocols in place in the School Board Meeting Room which include occupancy limit s.
The new Board will be made up of Chair Meagan Alderton, Tammy S. Ignacio, Chris Harris, Abdel-Rahman Elnoubi, Willie F. Bailey, Ashley Simpson Baird, Kelly Carmichael Booz and incumbents Jacinta Greene and Michelle Rief.
Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson’s vacation to Spain just got extended a few days due to a positive COVID-19 test.
Wilson is isolating in Spain, where he was with his family on vacation. His family has since returned to the United States after testing negative, Wilson said on social media.
Wilson said that he is boosted and is experiencing light symptoms.
Wilson told ALXnow that he will be unable to return for the installation of the new City Council on Monday — which was moved to City Hall from Alexandria City High School as a COVID prevention measure — but that he will be participating in the ceremony virtually.
Wilson is the second member of Council to contract COVID-19, after City Councilman Mo Seifeldein announced testing positive on Dec. 22.
My family and I have been traveling in Spain through the holiday.
Unfortunately, I tested positive for COVID. I was boosted and had light symptoms.
Everyone else in my family was negative and they have traveled home.
— Justin Wilson (@justindotnet) December 30, 2021
Another single-day record for new COVID cases was set in Alexandria today, and the understaffed Alexandria Fire Department has made “vital changes” to contend with rising infections among staffers, including the temporary suspension of annual leave.
There were 460 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Alexandria on Today (Dec. 30), a 22% jump over the previous record of 376 cases set on Christmas day.
“During this time, we will temporarily suspend the authorization of annual leave,” AFD leadership wrote in a Monday email to City Manager Mark Jinks. “The Alexandria Fire Department is implementing vital strategic changes in response to the highly transmissible Omicron variation of the COVID-19 virus and the current staffing challenges. AFD is experiencing an increase in daily positive cases.”
The department currently has 22 members who are non-operational due to COVID, and 29 confirmed infections in the last month. While the number of infections is relatively low, AFD is currently understaffed by 23%, with 281 first responders working in a department that needs 347 to be fully staffed.
Consequently, long-standing staffing issues at the department have resulted in first responders working exorbitant overtime hours.
“Over the last three months, I’ve worked 1,004.25 hours,” AFD Captain Sean Europe told City Council in the public comment portion of a recent meeting. “That means I’ve worked, on average, close to 80 hours per week. Eighty hours a week as a firefighter. I don’t even know if that’s legal. I’m working twice as much, while getting paid less, than the people doing the exact same job just up the road.”
Department-wide over the last three months, AFD staff have worked more than 6,200 forced overtime hours and 10,500 of voluntary overtime.
Europe says he has 42 days of paid annual leave that he can’t use because of staffing.
“I want to take a vacation, to spend time with my family and friends – but we’re so short staffed I can’t,” he said.
The International Association of Firefighters’ Local 2141 union stated that suspending annual leave is a move that should be made in the collective bargaining process, on which it says the city is dragging its feet. The union also says that the city’s proposal for compensation and staffing increases isn’t enough.
“We hired a labor relations agency, and they put forward that nothing that is up for negotiation through collective bargaining be changed,” Jeremy McClayton, an organizer for the union, told ALXnow.
Other moves by APD include:
- Taking fire Engine 205 (serving Old Town, Del Ray and Potomac Yard) out of service.
- The Advanced Life Support (ALS) provider from Engine 205 will relocate to Truck 205, converting Truck 205 to an ALS suppression unit.
- Ambulance 204 will be placed in service on a 24-hour three shift schedule, and holdovers will be used to maintain staffing
Fire Chief Corey Smedley said over the summer that he was concerned with the number of hours his staff have worked.
“Some of them were working up to 72 hours straight, and that was not safe,” Smedley said. “I cannot continue and I did not continue to allow them to put themselves and for us to allow them to put themselves into harm’s way.”