This afternoon, after years of behind-the-scenes planning, the City of Alexandria announced THINKAlex, a comprehensive initiative that will modernize the City’s development ordinances and guide its long-term plans and strategies for housing, transportation, disaster recovery, and land use, among other things.
You can read the press release below, but first, I want to give my own perspective:
When I first went to work for Mayor Roy nearly five and a half years ago, we both recognized the real and pressing need to rethink and retool Alexandria’s development strategies and priorities. It’s a subject about which I’ve written frequently on my blog: The ways in which the construction of Interstate 49 in the mid-1990s affected the inner city and downtown, the fact that Alexandria had tripled in geographic size since the 1960s while retaining essentially the same population, the fact that we had prioritized the construction and development of publicly-owned assets and facilities in far-flung, suburban neighborhoods while our historic infrastructure continued to deteriorate, and the ways in which our vision, at least at the time, for solving these problems focused more on pie-in-the-sky “catalytic” developments instead of the nuts and bolts of healthy and dynamic neighborhoods.
What impressed me first about Mayor Roy– well before he was elected– was that he also intuitively understood these issues, and he ran on and was overwhelmingly elected on a platform of “smart growth.” Almost immediately, Mayor Roy changed the City’s policy on annexation: No longer was expansion prioritized for the sake of expansion; there were other things that needed to be considered: access to resources, drainage, connectivity, and police and fire coverage.
A couple of years later, he announced the SPARC (Special Planned Activity Redevelopment Corridors) Initiative, a tax-neutral bond initiative that focuses, almost exclusively, on improving and enhancing basic infrastructure along Alexandria’s most important and historic inner-core thoroughfares and assets. SPARC is about fundamentally improving and altering the quality of the built environment, and for anyone who has traveled down Masonic Drive during the last six months, its results should already be noticeable and profound. In the near future, Alexandrians can expect similar progress on Bolton Avenue, MacArthur Drive, Lower Third Street, and the Riverfront. These things take time, of course, and they demand deliberative, well-considered planning. But the magic of SPARC is really quite simple: Instead of spending millions and millions of taxpayer dollars on a single, “catalytic” asset (and I’ve heard everything pitched from a mega-million dollar marina to a waterpark hotel), public dollars should, first and foremost, go toward the improvement of basic infrastructure: roads and sidewalks, lighting, signage, and landscaping, things that make a neighborhood attractive not only for residents but also for businesses. And although the idea is simple, for Alexandria, it has been difficult to resist the allure of a quick fix, the notion that a single project could somehow change everything.
What good is it, however, if the public spends millions of dollars on a new multi-purpose arena or a marina or even a waterpark hotel (an absurd idea, to be sure), when the infrastructure around it is crumbling and in disrepair, when it’s surrounded by block after block of vacant and dilapidated properties?
To be sure, some critics may suggest that the City, under SPARC, recommended spending money on the Downtown Hotels Initiative (DHI). But those critics misunderstand the project: the DHI was never concerned with propping up a private-sector hotel; it was always about protecting a City-owned asset and investing, purely, in improving publicly-owned physical infrastructure. (For what it’s worth, after a series of false starts, I remain more confident than ever that the Hotel Bentley will reopen with private dollars and the City will finally exit the hotel business, selling the Alexander Fulton at a fair market price).
We didn’t merely need to rethink our development policies and priorities; we needed to reconsider our overall objective.
Yet, understandably, after years of planning one way, Alexandrians weren’t exactly keen on spending millions more to plan another way, particularly considering that many of the plans we had already commissioned were never realized or even seriously considered.
So, the challenge that faced Mayor Roy and his staff (myself included) was how to actualize the meritorious existing plans, while, at the same time, rethinking our long-term priorities without spending hundreds of thousands of City money and simultaneously ensuring for maximum community participation and input.
When the Louisiana Recovery Authority announced that it was accepting grant applications for “resiliency” projects, we immediately realized the opportunity, and thanks in large part to the hard work of my friend Daniel T. Smith, Alexandria received an enormous award, $567,000, the second highest grant in the State (only eclipsed by New Orleans), to execute a comprehensive, long-term initiative, now known as THINKAlex.
And believe me, for Alexandria, this is a game-changer. It cannot be overstated. Although SPARC is a nearly $100 million program, THINKAlex is just as bold, just as important, and will prove to be just as enduring. Trust me on this.
PRESS RELEASE FROM THE OFFICE OF MAYOR JACQUES M. ROY
The City of Alexandria Launches THINKAlex
Comprehensive Initiative Could “Write the Book” on Long-Term Resiliency
Alexandria Mayor Jacques M. Roy and his administration are proud to announce the launch of THINKAlex, a bold and innovative community-driven initiative focusing on the development of effective long-term strategies and solutions for transportation, land use, housing, zoning, and a revision of the municipal development code. “This ‘umbrella’ will be the framework for all the principal initiatives we have been working on for the last five years,” said Mayor Jacques Roy.
THINKAlex is funded through a $567,000 grant from the Office of Community Development and United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the second-largest award of its kind in the State of Louisiana. In addition to the City, THINKAlex will be spearheaded by Concordia, LLC, an internationally renowned and award-winning innovator in urban development and architecture.
“Following the England Air Force Base closure, the Alexandria community pulled together, demonstrating a fierce resiliency. Among other smart moves, the community created a plan, Alexandria 2010, to bring Alexandria into the 21st century,” said Mayor Roy. “Now is the time to map out a course of action with proven 21st century solutions. But THINKAlex is not simply a plan. It is dynamic and multifaceted, and will be built entirely by the community. Too often, plans collect dust on shelves. THINKAlex will be organic, and because we can now utilize technologies, like social media, THINKAlex will be able to constantly evolve and rapidly respond to new and unforeseen demands.”
THINKAlex was first conceived by Mayor Roy and his staff in 2008, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. At the time, the State of Louisiana, under the auspices of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, encouraged affected municipalities and parishes to compete for funding “resiliency” projects.
“When the funding became available, we pitched something we thought not quite done before,” said Mayor Roy. “My development staff wanted to consider ‘resiliency’ in its entirety. That meant much more than just preparing for natural disasters, though that was absolutely critical. It means addressing transportation, land use, drainage, housing, and annexation policies, and it means revising our development ordinances. We were pushing SPARC and preparing to launch what would become SafeAlex and other initiatives to tie together a complete “planning overhaul”—and do it in a way that did not involve mere plans but a series of implementation models. We were on the edge of a real, deep community planning framework to enhance the built environment and prepare for future infrastructure needs. Our relationship with GAEDA and other stakeholders began paying off in tangible results. It was exciting, but it wasn’t finished.”
City officials have been informed THINKAlex is the first and only truly comprehensive resiliency initiative in the State of Louisiana, and it will be informed by “nexus community planning,” a cutting-edge approach created by Concordia that specifically and individually focuses on the physical, cultural, social, organizational, educational, and economic components of a community. Nexus planning also emphasizes and encourages the full and effective utilization of publicly-owned neighborhood facilities and assets, such as schools, libraries, community centers, and parks. “Using the Nexus model as an organizing framework ensures the creation of a systemic and holistic plan for Alexandria’s future,” said Steven Bingler, founder and CEO of Concordia. “All assets and needs of the community are important when determining next steps for a truly resilient community. This way ensures that each aspect of the Alexandria community garners equal consideration during the planning and community engagement process.”
During the next three weeks, the City of Alexandria will announce a schedule of citywide community meetings and principal fellows, who will administer the implementation of the planning, design, and development processes.
“THINKAlex is a game-changer,” said Mayor Roy. “I have been told by several experts in this area Alexandria has the opportunity to write the book on resiliency planning. I hope we can seize this opportunity and live up to such a lofty goal. THINKAlex will not only inform the future of Alexandria, but, I believe, could serve as a national best practice and model. This plan is the coalescence and culmination of the five years of work and research being implemented by a nationally-renowned expert. I am excited for our City and look forward to our Council and community participating heavily in this process.”
Follow THINKAlex on Twitter (www.twitter.com/thinkalex318) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/THINKAlex). Applications for leadership positions can be downloaded from www.cityofalexandriala.com.