“I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me.” –AnaÃ¯s Nin
By Carla Branch and James Cullum
2009 began and is ending – with Alexandria facing budget challenges.
“Last year we dealt with some of our most difficult budget decisions and fiscal year 2011 is going to be even harder,” said Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille.
In 2009, City Council approved a budget that decreased spending and increased the real estate tax rate. The year has seen nearly all of the City’s revenue sources decline, including the real estate property base. Hotel occupancy increased but room rates decreased causing a decline in the amount of revenue that the City received. There is little hope that 2010 will see significant improvement.
While the economy took center stage in 2009 and will likely do so in 2010, there were other issues on the minds of Alexandrians this year, particularly, swine flu. The first H1N1-related death occurred in Virginia in June. City officials spent the summer planning for a possible significant outbreak of the virus. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine came to Samuel Tucker Elementary School to film a public service announcement on preventive measures and to discuss general preparedness. Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille held a town hall meeting to inform residents about emergency plans for dealing with the H1N1 pandemic.
U. S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius came to T. C. Williams High School on Friday, Sept. 11, to receive her H1N1 immunization. Throughout November and December, the City and the school system held H1N1 flu shot clinics for high-risk populations. Early next year, the vaccine is expected to be available to anyone who wishes to receive it.
During the 2009 legislative session, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law banning smoking in restaurants. That law took effect on Dec. 1. While most restaurants in Alexandria voluntarily agreed not to allow smoking before the law was passed, most others now comply. There are those who have made the required modifications to continue to allow smoking on their premises but most have found that the modifications are just not cost-effective. Smoking is permitted only if there is a separate entrance and a separate ventilation system for the room in which smoking is permitted.
2009 will be remembered for the record-breaking December snow storm. On Dec. 18 and 19, just over 16 inches of snow fell on Alexandria, bringing City services and holiday activities to a halt. Though crews worked around the clock to remove the snow from City streets, traffic and parking remained a challenge when the City re-opened for business on Dec. 21. The impact to the snow-removal budget is yet to be analyzed.
The year began with a special election recount. Democrat Charniele Herring, who narrowly defeated Republican challenger Joe Murray in a special election to fill the 46th District Virginia House of Delegates seat vacated by Brian Moran, won again in a recount. Herring was elected to her first full term in November, defeating Republican Sasha Gong.
Alexandria also celebrated the inauguration of U. S. President Barack Obama. The City had television monitors on Market Square so that those who did not have tickets to the inauguration in Washington could be part of the festivities in Alexandria. Pat Troy held an inauguration party at his restaurant and invited patrons to raise a glass of champagne to the new president who, Troy said, “is part Irish.”
Moran, who resigned his Virginia House seat in December, 2008, to concentrate on his campaign for governor, lost in the June Democratic primary to Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds. Deeds eventually lost to former state Attorney General, Republican Bob McDonnell. Republicans won the Commonwealth’s three top spots in November, by more than 20 points each.
City Council and School Board elections were held in May and brought changes to both bodies. Two Democratic incumbents, Tim Lovain and Justin Wilson, lost their seats on Council to Republican Frank Fannon and Independent/Republican Alicia Hughes. Mayor Bill Euille was elected to a third term and former Mayor Kerry Donley became vice mayor by getting the highest number of votes of any Council candidate. Incumbent Scott Newsham lost his seat on the Alexandria School Board and Eileen Rivera chose not to seek a second term. They were replaced by Helen Morris and Mimi Carter.
Hughes made news after her election to Council when it was discovered that The Strand of Alexandria, where she rents an apartment, had initiated eviction proceedings against her twice in less than six months. Also, alexandrianews.org learned that she voted in Baltimore, Maryland, in the February, 2008, presidential primary and took a tax credit on her Baltimore home in 2008 and 2009. At the time of her election, she was driving a car with Maryland tags on which she was not paying personal property taxes in Alexandria.
Three registered Alexandria voters challenged Hughes’ residency and there was an administrative hearing before Alexandria General Registrar Tom Parkins, who found that, on the day of the July hearing, Hughes was a “qualified, registered voter in Alexandria.”
In June, Obama nominated Alexandrian Don Beyer to be the U. S. ambassador to Switzerland and the principality of Lichtenstein. He assumed his post in late summer.
Just before the new Council was sworn in, the previous Council voted to move local elections from May to November. When the current Council could reach no agreement on specific changes to the current three-year terms, they voted not to request any further city charter changes during the upcoming Virginia General Assembly session. This means that Council and School Board elections will coincide with the 2012 presidential election.
The crime that got the biggest headline in the City didn’t even occur here. On Saturday, July 25, Arlington County Police arrested Alexandria Police Chief David Baker and charged him with Driving While Intoxicated. He was driving an Alexandria City vehicle and had a blood alcohol content of .12. The legal limit is .08. Baker resigned three days later, pled guilty and served five days in jail. Less than a month later, Deputy Chief Earl Cook became the first African-American police chief in Alexandria’s 260-year history. Cook, a lifelong Alexandrian, is a 30-year veteran of the police department.
Even though violent crime in the City continued to decline, there were six homicides in Alexandria in 2009. In January, a Yellow Cab driver, Khalil Siddiqi, was robbed and murdered by two young adults and a 16-year-old. Two of the young men are now serving time in prison for that murder and the juvenile was found not competent to stand trial. Alexandrians were surprised to learn that Jamal Berry, 20, a former star lacrosse player at T. C. Williams High School, was one of those convicted of Siddiqi’s murder.
In December, 2008, Juantissa Hill, a 24-year-old Navy petty officer, was found murdered in her West End apartment. Rodney Eric Smith, 31, was sentenced to life plus 70 years for the crime.
Only one of the six homicides remains open. Police have made no arrest in the murder of Michael James Horton, who was found in the 600 block of N. Payne Street, suffering from a gunshot wound to his upper body. Horton, 45, died at the hospital.
Amid fears that King Street might be returning to its previous glory as a red light district, two sex shops opened in Old Town in 2009. Le Tache, at 210 King Street, and Lotus Blooms, at 1017 King Street, survived a proposed ordinance to limit the number of sexually-oriented businesses in the City. In November, the Alexandria Planning Commission voted 5-1 to take no action on the proposed text amendment.
As the controversy over proposed High Occupancy Toll lanes on I-395 grew, Alexandrians realized that the Washington Headquarters Services facility with its 6500 employees is coming to Mark Center. The Virginia Department of transportation put the HOT lanes project on hold due to lack of funding but transportation concerns about access to the WHS campus remain. Earlier this month, Council expressed its preference for two of the options VDOT is considering for a direct access ramp from I-395 into Mark Center. There was public outrage that VDOT is considering placing a ramp through the Winkler Botanical Preserve. Though Council has expressed a preference for protecting the Preserve, VDOT will make the final recommendation to the Federal Highway Administration, which will make the ultimate decision. Any decision and construction of an access ramp will occur at least two years after the WHS facility opens in September, 2011.
Plans for Potomac Yard development are moving forward but no construction is likely for the foreseeable future. For the first time in more than three decades, Alexandria has a new fire station, which is located at Potomac Yard. It includes 64 units of work-force housing.
Both spans of the new Monroe Ave. Bridge are now open and the adjacent street improvements are finished. Also, the feasibility of a $150 million Metro station at Potomac Yard continues to be studied. The Potomac Yard Planning Advisory Group and City staff are involved in discussions with the new owners of the shopping center about its redevelopment.
In August, the City released the Eisenhower West Industrial Land Use Study Report, which evaluated the pros and cons of relocating or redeveloping three major industrial business sites in the City’s West End. The study concluded that the City would be best served if the Vulcan Materials Company, the Virginia Paving Company and the Covanta Energy Plant are eventually moved to Springfield and replaced by retail and housing. However, the report also concluded that this is unlikely. Norfolk-Southern refused to participate in the study because of potential litigation between the company and the City.
Norfolk-Southern’s ethanol transloading facility continued to be a thorn in the City’s side in 2009. In February, the Surface Transportation Board ruled that Norfolk-Southern is engaged in rail operations and is therefore protected by federal preemption from most local regulation. The City has not pursued further litigation even though there was an ethanol spill at the Van Dorn facility in September.
The City broke ground on the new $60 million public safety center. The four-story, 124,000-square-foot police headquarters building will house more than 500 police department employees and is a green building.
The Alexandria Transit Company opened the new DASH bus maintenance facility in November. The $35 million project is located at 3000 Business Center Drive.
Council approved the Landmark/Van Dorn Corridor Small Area Plan even though there is no movement on redeveloping Landmark Mall. Work began on the Waterfront plan and the Beauregard small area plan.
After more than five years of discussions among the City, the Alexandria Redevelopment Housing Authority, neighborhood residents and Eakin Yongentob Associates, the first phase of the Glebe Park redevelopment was completed. Earlier this month, ARHA placed public housing residents in 24 newly-renovated one-bedroom apartments on Old Dominion Boulevard. The Glebe Park redevelopment will be financed in part by the redevelopment of James Bland and James Bland Addition, two ARHA properties near the Braddock Road Metro Station. Demolition at Bland will begin early next year. When completed, it will resemble Chatham Square, an award-winning public housing/market-rate complex, on which ARHA and EYA collaborated.
In January, Council unanimously approved the first phase of the Eco-City Action Plan, which consists of 41 goals and 133 action items that focus on short-term environmental actions. These include: adopting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 and 2020; educating City residents and business owners on the causes of climate change and reducing the carbon footprint and reducing energy consumption through conservation.
In an unprecedented move, the Alexandria School Board amended its budget request to the City Council in April, agreeing to meet Council’s budget target and reduce the amount of funds proposed by nearly $1 million for fiscal year 2010. The School Board has just begun deliberating the FY2011 budget.
In 2009, the Alexandria City Public City School system opened its first K-8 school at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School. Over 30 students are enrolled in the sixth-grade class. These students will remain at the school for seventh grade and the conversion to the K-8 model will be complete in 2011.
The City’s two middle schools became five small schools on the existing George Washington and Francis Hammond campuses. There are three schools at Hammond and two at GW. Sixth-graders like the model and eighth-graders hate it because it’s not what they have experienced in the past. The 45-minute, eight-period schedule each day may undergo changes in 2010 but the small school model will remain.
School enrollment continued to climb and test scores fell. ACPS students’ 2009 SAT scores dropped 41 points from the 2008 scores with declines in all subject areas. T. C. Williams High School students had an average composite score of 1441 while the average composite SAT score in Virginia was 1515. Enrollment in AP courses also fell, as did test scores.
In May, 2008, the Virginia Department of Education found that ACPS was out of compliance with State and federal laws regarding the education of students with special needs. An independent audit released in May, 2009, agreed. More than 16% of the students enrolled in ACPS are receiving some special education service. Everyone, including ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman, agrees that these students are not receiving an appropriate education.
When school began this fall, several kindergarten students were allowed to get off a school bus without a parent or guardian to pick them up. One youngster was discharged in the wrong neighborhood and was left to wander the streets alone until other children found him and took him to an apartment building. There are now new rules regarding the supervision and discharge of kindergarteners from school buses.
City Council will spend the first half of 2010 crafting an FY 2011 Budget, which will both meet the needs of residents and account for dwindling resources. The School Board will request more money than Council can provide and, in the end, will make do with what they are given. Both political bodies will continue to align concrete goals and measures with their strategic plans’ vision.
Development and re-development will be debated as Council balances density and quality of life. That density will remain largely theoretical as the recovering economy is unlikely to support construction of new projects. Dwindling state funding means little or no transportation improvements for 2010, although VDOT will move forward with recommendations for direct access from I-395 into Mark Center and the new WHS facility.
As the old debates continue alexandrianews.org wish everyone a healthy and happy 2010.