On Saturday, September 14th, City Council held its Public Hearing on the road configuration for Seminary Road. The hearing lasted about 8 hours with over 100 speakers on both sides of the issue. In the end, City Council voted 4-3 to reject the recommendation of the Traffic and Parking Board (TPB), which would have retained the existing 4 lanes on Seminary Road with the addition of 2 pedestrian-activated crosswalks. Instead, 4 Council members voted for what is known as Alternative #3, which will reduce the travel lanes by 50% and add bike lanes to replace car lanes. This has always been the option that T&ES staff has strongly advocated, with the support of bike and smart growth lobby groups. As we had understood the process, the Director of T&ES, Yon Lambert, was to present the recommendation of the Traffic and Parking Board to Council as the staff's preferred option, and, as a result of his decision to bring an automatic appeal to Council, would then present the other Alternatives that staff had presented to the community many months ago. But on Saturday, what we heard in the staff's presentation was a cursory description of the TPB's recommendation with what could, at best, be called a lukewarm endorsement, followed by an expansive description of Alternative #3, which the staff had self-rated as the best choice from the time they first presented their Alternatives.

Following the staff's presentation and the 100 public speakers, Councilwoman Amy Jackson put forward a motion to adopt the TPB's recommendation. That motion was seconded by Councilman Mo Seifeldein. Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker very quickly introduced a substitute motion to adopt Alternative #3 instead. That motion was seconded by Councilman Canek Aguirre The vote was then taken on the substitute motion. Voting FOR Alternative #3 (the road diet) were: Mayor Justin Wilson, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Councilman Canek Aguirre, and Councilwoman Del Pepper.  Voting AGAINST Alternative #3 were: Councilman John Taylor Chapman, Councilwoman Amy Jackson, and Councilman Mo Seifeldein. So Alternative #3 was adopted as the plan for Seminary Road.

There are a few things to point out. You can watch any and all of the hearing by going to the city's site, www.alexandriava.gov to see the video of the proceedings. You may want to watch the discussion after the last speaker to see how the Council responded at that point. I think it was notable that the hearing demonstrated tremendous passion on both sides as well as robust civic engagement. To me, that says a great deal about our community as a whole. In addition, the discourse was civil. That was all very positive. Unfortunately, as the Council was finishing the docket item, Mayor Wilson proclaimed that we would never do this again. Those were his words and were the same words he had used when he met with leaders of the 13 civic associations. But in the Council Chambers when he said that, there was an audible groan. He said that far too much Council and staff time had been spent on this one stretch of road. He also expressed his deep frustration and said that we needed to change the process for the future in order to avoid this level of discussion and public input again. In that moment, he had a chance to try to bring the divided community back together, but instead he chose to announce his plan to change the process going forward, despite having just achieved the outcome he and staff had long favored.

It was also disconcerting that the Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) spoke out so adamantly in favor of Alternative #3 and against the SHA Alternative. Obviously, it is absolutely their right to do so, but it was nonetheless disappointing after all these years of collaborative work and cooperation. The SHA Alternative that we put forward to the city, which was ignored, contained the recommendation for the two pedestrian-activated crosswalks and speed enforcement that VTS had specifically expressed were their concerns with the roadway. SHA felt that our Alternative was quite responsive to the VTS' genuine concerns for the safety of their community. It is also very important to note that, in fact, at our April 2019 meeting where the SHA Board voted in favor of the Resolution supporting maintaining 4 lanes of roadway, the VTS representative was present and voted on behalf of VTS to support Alternative 4 with the 4 lanes of roadway. For some reason between the time of that vote and the Public Hearing on September 14th, the VTS community decided to change their position, but chose not to discuss it with the SHA Board, since their representative did not attend our June meeting, nor our recent September meeting that took place after our summer recess for July and August. Since the establishment of SHA,VTS has always had a Board seat on our Board, and any resident of the Seminary may be a member of the Seminary Hill Association. All of our meetings are open and residents are encouraged to come and speak out on issues of concern to them. We have never had anyone from VTS come to any of our meetings to say they have felt excluded from our decisions, so it was very disappointing to hear Seminary officials and residents criticize the Association they have been an active part of for decades.

And finally but certainly of great importance, some of the speakers and some on the dais were dismissive of the 13 civic associations from across our city and the Federation of Civic Associations, who came together in support of maintaining 4 lanes on Seminary Road. All of these organizations have served our city well for decades and operate totally on an all-volunteer basis. This coalition and joint effort of these residents and associations have been unprecedented. While we all fully understand that any decision made by a civic association does not mean that 100% of our residents agree with that decision and we have never stated that, it is important to note that this is the way our democracy works. When the SHA Board voted for our Resolution supporting 4 lanes, we did so at a public meeting where all were welcome to attend and speak, as many did. In the end, the Board voted based upon our survey of residents, our observations by attending all community meetings on this project, and statements made to the Board that evening. This is the same process that City Council follows when making their decisions. Council does not poll all 150,000+ residents before each vote they take. They do research, listen to those members of the public who choose to engage in an issue, and then vote on the issue. This is exactly what each of the 13 civic associations and the Federation did when taking a position on Seminary Road. Residents are obviously free to disagree with the position taken by their civic associations as some speakers did on Saturday, but it is also perfectly correct for a civic association to publicly take a position on behalf of their residents on important issues in our community after listening to those who choose to engage with their civic association.

As the President of the Seminary Hill Association, I am proud of the team effort by our Board and the dedication shown during this difficult time. There were many people who worked very hard and under stress by giving up countless hours to attend meetings, researching city documents, emailing staff and Council members, and on and on. It was a big lift, and we should be grateful for their commitment to SHA. Please know that I am deeply appreciative and proud of our Association and the role we played in this historic coalition of civic associations and the Federation. It has been a pleasure to work with the other civic association presidents who joined our effort after responding to the grassroots concerns of their residents. They are an amazing group of civic leaders, and we have all worked well together and are committed to staying in touch on a regular basis. When future issues arise we can get organized and take action. The bonds of friendship with the other leaders across the city have been forged, and I believe that will serve our association and our city well in the future.

 

Carter Flemming, President, Seminary Hill Association

 

 

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