Alexandria’s two mayoral candidates squared off Tuesday night debating the most starkly defining topics of their platforms — development and density — while addressing other city priorities such as affordable housing, transportation and green space.
The two native Alexandrians who used to play basketball together as kids found themselves once again on opposite sides of the court in their approach to the direction of the city.
Incumbent Democratic Mayor Bill Euille told the audience at George Washington Middle School that the city has made great strides in growth and livability by attracting development such as the 11,000-employee Patent and Trademark Office, a rebuilt Wilson Bridge and a complete overhaul of schools such as T.C. Williams High School, the largest 9th through 12th grade school in the state.
“We’ve moved forward in terms of… diversifying our economic base” to reduce reliance on residential real estate taxes, Euille said. “We do it through a community-oriented process.”
But Macdonald, who most recently began formally expressing his concern with city planning as a co-founder of a group seeking an alternative to the city’s waterfront plan, said the current administration is “not involving the community effectively from the start. You need to do comprehensive planning.”
He added later that density does “have a place” in a small city “because we’re running out of land. … Density is an outcome of good planning but not the beginning point.”
Euille said the city’s controversial waterfront plan to redevelop the riverside is “the right plan” that has seen more than 40 years of discussion allowing for better connectivity and accessibility.
Macdonald said the waterfront plan is a shining example of how the city “didn’t engage the community effectively” and shouldn’t have hotels there but celebrate the area’s historic significance.
Macdonald criticized the current administration for doing an “abysmal job” of getting the necessary open space for the city’s population.
“We’ve put it aside as we’ve said more development, more development,” he said.
But Euille said the city has an open space policy and has identified ways to bring in open space and is almost 80 percent there on meeting the goals of its plan.
They both agreed that creating and maintaining affordable housing is a top challenge for the city today.
“We need housing for all income levels,” said Euille, who grew up in Old Town’s public housing, has been mayor for nine years and on council for 18. He added that the city has a citywide housing initiative that will be taken up by council soon.
He also noted that putting 64 affordable housing units on top of the new Potomac Yard fire station was his vision and said new developments in the West End and Alexandria have affordable housing.
“Diversity in this city—we treasure and love it. It’s our No. 1 challenge,” Euille said, adding that the state has no rent control so it’s up to the city to work with private developers to ensure they maintain a certain number of available units.
But Macdonald, who previously was vice mayor of the city, said there’s not enough housing in the community for teachers, fire fighters and others. There’s “too many different efforts, we haven’t put them all together effectively,” he said, once again citing problems with the process.
Euille, who has served on the board of the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority for 12 years, said a Metro station at the under-development Potomac Yard site is essential. “Otherwise, the project will never be successful,” he said.
Macdonald said he supports Metro, but expressed concern that the site developer was not paying "its fair share” of the project.
“I’m for Metro but not for the way we got it,” he said.
The building of the Defense Department’s BRAC-133 at the Mark Center has been a constant theme throughout the campaign season, with opponents slamming the construction of such a large building far from Metro and criticizing the mayor and council for letting the plan happen.
Euille said on Tuesday night that the process for moving forward with BRAC “has been a positive one” and reiterated that it’s not a decision that the city could have stopped. “We’re moving forward to address transportation needs,” he said, citing solutions such as a shuttle and expanded bus service.
Both candidates said they were for attracting new business to Alexandria. Macdonald said the city should examine its tax structure and fees to ensure they aren’t onerous for the business community. Euille pointed out that he was a co-creator of the city’s Small Business Development Center and said he’s pleased that the vacancy rate is low and that more than 70 percent of the city’s small businesses are independently owned.
Both supported the new plan to bring the commercial trolley to the city’s Del Ray and Arlandria neighborhoods in an effort to tie Old Town and Del Ray together.
“There’s no reason everything needs to bottleneck along the King Street corridor,” Euille said. Macdonald noted it’s good to try different things.
On schools, Euille said he’s a “strong advocate” for Alexandria City Public Schools, has been a member of the school board and is a product of the city’s public school system, adding that he helped create a workgroup process between council and the school board.
Macdonald said while the city currently funds the school system, “we need to come up with a more shared revenue stream.”
In closing, Macdonald said the city must engage in a more collaborative process, plan for development and growth in a more careful way with a long-term view and offer its citizens more green space.
Euille said he brings proven leadership and is proud of the city’s accomplishments, including its nationally recognized financial stability.
The event was sponsored by the Alexandria League of Women Voters, North Old Town Independent Citizens Civic Association, North Ridge Citizens' Association, Old Dominion Boat Club and the Rosemont Citizens Association.