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Alexandria went to the dogs long ago, and has been listed as one of 70 cities in the country as a Better City for Pets by Mars Petcare.

The certification takes a number of factors into account, including the number of dog parks, veterinarians, and pet-related businesses. There are an estimated 80,000 pets in the city with a population of 160,000.

“As the operator of the city’s only open-access animal shelter and a resource for domestic and wild animals as well as pet owners, we’re thrilled by this designation and will continue the efforts to keep Alexandria the amazing community it is, for both pets and people,” Animal Welfare League of Alexandria spokesperson Gina Hardter told ALXnow.

Mars Petcare also gave AWLA also received awarded a Vision Award grant, which will fund housing opportunities for pets in their shelter.

“On behalf of the people and pets in the City of Alexandria, we are grateful to be recognized as a BETTER CITY FOR PETS,” Mayor Justin Wilson said in a statement. “The grant received from Mars Petcare will help the AWLA discover how it can better help all pets and families in our city.”

Alexandria was also named a Top 5 Best City for Dog Lovers in the U.S. 2021 by LawnStarter and one of the Most Dog-Friendly Vacation Destinations in the U.S. 2019 by Expedia.

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Fresh from a bout with Covid that left Mayor Justin Wilson isolating in Spain, Wilson’s first virtual town hall of 2022 launched with a discussion of the current situation with COVID-19.

Alexandria has seen record-high levels of confirmed Covid cases thanks to the highly infections omicron variant. Wilson implored locals to swap out the simple cloth masks for more effective N95 or KN 95 masks.

“We need to up our masking game,” Wilson said. “The simple cloth masks are not going to be sufficient in the face of this highly transmittable variant. We’re encouraging people to get K-95 to prevent spread.”

Wilson said mask-wearing indoors was ubiquitous in Europe, which has helped keep the virus under control. But when asked about a mask mandate, Wilson deferred to the governor’s office, noting that the Dillon Rule makes Alexandria’s authority to enforce that mandate unclear.

“The authority on masking requirements has always been a little murky from the beginning,” Wilson said. “The city was one of the first jurisdictions to adopt a masking ordinance back in 2020. That ordinance was later replicated by the state and applied state-wide. We did not include enforcement in our ordinance, largely as a nod to some of the authority concerns in a Dillon Rule state.”

Wilson said a mask mandate would have to come from state authorities.

“In my view, and I’m not an attorney, but the governor has much clearer authority which is why we preferred those orders to come out of Richmond, and at this point that’s where they need to come,” Wilson said.

Today (Monday), Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in Virginia as a result of the spike in COVID-19 cases, which gives hospitals authority to expand bed capacity, but stopped short of issuing a mask mandate or other Covid mitigation measures.

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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.”

Also sworn in were incumbents John Taylor Chapman and Canek Aguirre, as well as newcomers Sarah BagleyAlyia Gaskins and Kirk McPike.

“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.”

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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.

Additionally, newly elected Sheriff Sean Casey was officially sworn in last week, and his new portrait and biography have been uploaded to the Sheriff’s Office website.

School Board installation

(Left to right) Blaine Jackson, Alexandria Vice Mayor-elect Amy Jackson, School Board Member Michelle Rief and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. at the 50th annual Scottish Christmas Walk Parade in Old Town, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. (staff photo by James Cullum)

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 Schools (ACPS) buildings. We will follow the current COVID-19 health and safety protocols in place in the School Board Meeting Room which include occupancy limits.

The ceremony can be seen on Zoom, and will be available on the Alexandria City Public Schools website.

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.

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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.

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In a letter to incoming Governor Glenn Youngkin, Mayor Justin Wilson outlined some areas of potential cooperation between state and local leadership, despite a wide political gulf.

It’s no secret that there’s nervousness in the all-Democrat Alexandria leadership about the incoming Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin. For the past four years, the city has been “playing with house money” in terms of state support for local projects.

Wilson previously told ALXnow that there were some areas of potential cooperation between the state and the city, and this morning Wilson said on Twitter that he’s sent a letter to Youngkin elaborating on that.

“I know that while we may have different ways of solving the problems and challenges facing our community, we can find common ground to make life better for residents in Alexandria and in communities throughout the Commonwealth,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson outlined six areas where he thinks there’s some overlap in interests.

Holding our electric utilities accountable

Both city leadership and Youngkin have been highly critical of Dominion Energy. Over the last few years, Alexandria has been hit with several major power outages affecting thousands, including one earlier this year that shut down many Del Ray businesses during Art on the Avenue, one of the most pivotal days for local businesses.

When questioned by city leadership in 2020, Dominion representatives said the outages were a fluke — but subsequent outages over the next year gave the lie to Dominion’s explanation. Both Wilson and Youngkin have attacked Dominion in the past, and the utility company donated to an anti-Youngkin PAC during the campaign.

“I filed a petition with the Virginia State Corporation Commission as part of Dominion’s Triennial Review,” Wilson wrote. “My petition requested that Dominion’s allowed profit be reduced to account for the instability in Alexandria’s electrical supply.”

Fully funding the Commonwealth’s criminal justice agencies

Wilson noted that Alexandria taxpayers provide nearly $27 million annually to make up the gap between state funding for the Sheriff’s  Department and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. The city pays these offices above their state salary to keep the jobs at regionally competitive salaries.

“As you advance your efforts to provide increased funding for public safety, we would urge that you ensure full funding of these agencies, as well as our state courts, Indigent Defense, Court Services Unit and Probation and Parole, including regional scaling for positions funded through a combination of state and local funding,” Wilson wrote.

Here, Youngkin and Alexandria leadership diverge more than with Dominion. Alexandria’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office has been relatively progressive and pushed forward on issues like avoiding jail sentences for marijuana possession, but Youngkin has been critical of progressive criminal justice stances.

Modernizing the tax structure

Wilson said Alexandria needs comprehensive tax reform with an eye toward elimination limits currently placed on cities, counties and towns in regard to revenue authority.

“Local government revenue sources need to be diversified,” Wilson wrote, “as we are currently overly reliant on real estate and vehicle personal property taxes and have little to no authority to raise revenue from other sources.”

Wilson said that COVID-19 in particular has limited the city’s revenue sources and has left Alexandria with few options to balance revenue.

Youngkin has called for tax reform, but along the lines of cutting incomes tax, grocery tax and more — not granting localities more authority to levy additional taxes.

Investing in public transit, including WMATA

Wilson noted in the letter that transit is a lifeline for essential workers and the overall economy of Northern Virginia, and is in turn part of supporting the Commonwealth’s economy.

“The jobs and household activities supported by Metrorail and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) yields the Commonwealth nearly $600 million in revenue each year,” Wilson wrote, “funding that is used to support projects and programs across Virginia.”

Wilson wrote that the state needs to help Alexandria in providing financial support to WMATA. But the Commonwealth’s funding to the Metro is in part provided by the gas tax. Youngkin has vowed to lower gas taxes, which could involve eliminating the gas tax, Axios reported.

Preserving local authority

In the longest of long-shots, Wilson said the city and the state could cooperate to ease back on Dillon Rule restrictions — which only grant localities authorities directly authorized by the state.

“As a Dillon Rule state, local governments in Virginia are significantly restricted in their authority,” Wilson wrote. “An overemphasis on statewide uniformity often hampers the ability for localities like Alexandria to respond nimbly or to innovate in response to emergent challenges unique to our community.”

Youngkin hasn’t spoken about the Dillon Rule — at least not that ALXnow could find in a desperate pre-deadline Google search — but the odds of the Governor-elect ceding authority to localities seems slim.

Either way, the city will find out as a new Alexandria City Council and Youngkin are sworn in next month.

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Alexandria leadership are sticking to their guns on changes planned for the Torpedo Factory Art Center as it looks at building a new governing structure to plan out the art center’s future.

At a City Council meeting last week, the Council and Deputy City Manager Emily Baker discussed evolving plans for the Torpedo Factory and what direction the city should take. The art center is one of the most popular destinations in Alexandria, attracting an estimated 500,000 visitors a year.

During the discussion, the City Council expressed a general interest in moving forward with the previously approved vibrancy plan, despite pushback from artists and supporters critical of plans to reduce studio space.

As previously reported, plans for the Torpedo Factory could involve replacing some ground-floor space with other types of artist spaces — like glass blowing — or uses like a cafe or restaurant. The idea is to make the location more vibrant and attractive to visitors, although artists in the building have resisted against plans that could reduce the studio capacity in the building.

The city approved a path forward laid out in the following memo written by Mayor Justin Wilson:

I believe that Council should endorse principles and ask that our City staff work with partners (AEDP, etc) to return with a plan in alignment with this approach:

  1. Create a separate public entity (e.g. Arts Community Development Authority) to consolidate Alexandria’s artistic real estate assets (Old Town North arts space, Torpedo Factory and beyond) with the mission to:
    • Strategically manage Alexandria’s artistic real estate
    • Take advantage of unique financing tools to rehabilitate, build-out and sustain real estate assets
    • Provide a framework for future consideration of public/private partnerships
    • Project financing and a schedule of City facility capital investments
  2. Ensure that the Torpedo Factory remains a world-class center for the arts, by defining a structure within the newly-created authority that:
    • Implements the approved Action Plan for Vibrancy and Sustainability, to build and sustain a high-quality arts program and visitor experience
    • Retains a place for Torpedo Factory artists as the facility evolves
    • Broadens scope of artistic expression included in the Art Center and throughout the district (e.g. performing arts, etc)
    • Solicits and incorporates structural changes from the City’s Race and Social Equity Officer to improve diversity of artists
    • Retains a place for non-Art Center tenants (Art League and Archaeology Museum
    • Extends the Torpedo Factory brand: combine with the Old Town North Arts District (e.g. “The Torpedo Factory Arts District”)
    • Engage with all stakeholders to develop a coherent vision/mission for the Torpedo Factory and the connected Arts District

During the meeting, city leaders expressed an interest in combining revitalization of the Torpedo Factory with the Old Town North Arts & Cultural District, and Wilson said revitalization plans can move forward on multiple fronts simultaneously.

“My goal is not to stand still,” Wilson said. “This is not a one-month undertaking to piece all this together. My hope is for us to continue to make progress… With an acknowledgment that we’ve already endorsed the vibrancy plan and will put together a structure that makes sense. We have to be able to do two things at once.”

City Council member Mo Seifeldein added a suggested task force comprised of artists, community members, the Archeology Museum, and potentially City Council members to look at creating a consolidated body to oversee all the city’s artistic real estate.

Baker noted that major renovation at the Torpedo Factory won’t start until 2026, but other changes within the building — like the rearrangement of artist spaces — could happen sooner than that.

“While the studies, debate and acrimony surrounding the Torpedo Factory have continued, the City has worked to expand the amount of space in our community dedicated to the arts,” Mayor Justin Wilson wrote in a memo. “Per our request, our staff has brought us a series of alternatives to consider. While a decision to select an individual alternative would not be immediately actionable in its current form, the areas of broad agreement from the various studies provide a set of principles that can and should be adopted by City Council at this time.”

The city voted to approve the principles laid out in the memo.

“The Torpedo Factory has got a long way to go in terms of — I don’t want to say modernizing, but for heaven’s sake fix the toilet,” said City Council member Del Pepper. “The whole thing looks like it’s 1950. Let’s do some of the things that can be done.”

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Clarence Tong won’t seek reelection for a fifth two-year term as chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, he announced in a virtual meeting with the organization’s members on Monday (Dec. 6).

Tong says he didn’t know a single Alexandria Democrat when he went to his first ADC meeting a decade ago with the intent to do his part to reelect then-President Barack Obama.

“I can confidently say that I got much more than I bargained for,” Tong said. “This past election is a reminder that Virginia is still a ‘swing state‘ and we can’t take for granted the progress Democrats have made. We need to continue to fight for our values year after year.”

Tong said he was most proud of building an “unparalleled Democratic turnout operation here in the City of Alexandria,” but that serving as chair is like having a second full-time job.

Sandy Marks, the ADC vice chair for communications, announced last month that she would run for the position. Since then, she has gotten the endorsement of Mayor Justin Wilson and nearly all of the incoming City Council, as well as members of the school board and ADC leadership. At this point, Marks is running uncontested for the election as ADC chair, which, with the other officer elections, will be held virtually on January 10.

“I’ve worked with Sandy for years on many issues facing our community,” Wilson told ALXnow. “She’ll be a good leader for our party as we work to build the committee and work towards preparation for the upcoming election cycles.”

It will be two years until the next election in Alexandria — the House of Delegates and midterm Congressional elections — time Marks says will be spent reinvigorating the ADC’s membership.

Marks, a freelance political writer, said that she and other ADC officers are stewards of a party that will continue for generations.

“It is our job to keep it on course, and adjust when necessary to get us where we want to be in the future,” she said. “My true goal here is to try to pick up where Clarence left off. He’s done a lot of really good work bringing the party to where it is today. And now, post-Trump and with the challenges that COVID brought to the committee in terms of meeting and seeing each other in person, a huge goal of mine is to work to reconnect the relationships that have been disrupted by COVID.”

Photos via ADC and Jack Powers

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It wasn’t so much a groundbreaking as it was a wall-breaking, as local dignitaries smashed their way to a new future at the new Inova Oakville at Potomac Yard on Monday (Nov. 15).

After years of development, construction officially began on the $300 million project at the corner of Swann Avenue and Richmond Highway — just down from National Landing and the Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus. The project and includes more than 1 million square feet of residential space dedicated to apartments, a new 93,000-square-foot Inova HealthPlex with a comprehensive emergency room and 55,000 square feet of retail. The facility is planned to open in fall 2023.

“This is an exciting day for our city,” Mayor Justin Wilson said at the event. “Congratulations to everyone who made this happen. We look forward to continuing to partner with Inova long into the future to expand world-class health care services in our community.”

The hospital facility will offer emergency room services, an outpatient care center and medical offices.

“The new facility represents one more way that we show our commitment to all people in our communities,” said Inova Hospital System President and CEO J. Stephen Jones. “It offers a gateway for communities that we have not traditionally served to the level that we know that we can.”

Douglas M. Firstenberg, principal at Stonebridge, which is developing the property, said that the mixed uses at the property will set it apart.

“This is really a vision of the future, the way we’re integrating the HealthPlex and the services for the daily needs and lives of the community are truly different,” Firstenberg said.

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After two years of euphoria with a Democratic majority in the legislature and a Democrat governor, local Democratic leadership are bracing for the other shoe to drop after Republicans won the governor’s seat and secured a tie in the House of Delegates in the election on Tuesday.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson, a Democrat who just won re-election along with the full slate of Democratic candidates in the City Council race, said those last two years have been a boon for the city.

“The thing that has been very good over the last couple of years has been the General Assembly, which has taken a very permissive approach for policymaking at a local level,” Wilson said. “Some of the things we worked on in the last year were things that came out of that permissive authority — regulating firearms on public property, collective bargaining, the framework for the police review panel. Those were all things that came out of state code to do things we couldn’t do before.”

With changes in the state leadership, Wilson said the glory days of the city getting its way in financial and legislative matters could be drawing to a close. The big concern, Wilson said, comes in the budget. Over the last two years, the city received state funding for the combined sewer project, flooding issues, education and more.

“From a financial perspective, [the state’s] been really good to the city,” Wilson said. “Money has to be at the top of the list [of concerns]… financial support and how that’s distributed Not having leadership that is attuned to our issues in Northern Virginia is a concern. Youngkin’s from Northern Virginia so hopefully, he has some empathy for us and can help us, but we’ll see… We’re going into a very different situation right now. It’s very concerning. There are opportunities, though, and I have to be positive about the places where we will work together.”

One of those areas, Wilson said, is pushing for Dominion to invest more heavily in reliability. The city has been plagued with several severe power outages over the last few years, most notably one that derailed the Art on the Avenue Festival — hitting at a time when keeping the lights on couldn’t be more critical for some local businesses.

“The Governor-elect has talked a great deal about Dominion and the fact that further reform is needed there, and we feel that way for sure,” Wilson said. “So hopefully, we’ll have a partner there in those efforts.”

Wilson also said he’s hopeful that bi-partisan comprehensive tax reform could help Alexandria have more independence in how it raises and allocates taxes.

“I’m hopeful for that kind of effort,” Wilson said. “I hope it provides more local control for how we raise revenue. We have to be as optimistic as we can. We’ve had an extraordinarily close relationship with the outgoing administration.”

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