Coffee With Mark Jinks
Alexandria's outgoing City Manager talks about how the city has evolved and is evolving.
Mark Jinks, formerly an Arlington County official, became Alexandria’s Chief Financial Officer in 1999. He was named City Manager, or chief executive officer, in 2015. Jinks announced his retirement effective this month. He described some of the ways the city has evolved and is evolving during his time as its administrative leader.
How Alexandria Has Changed
Jinks said, “The city has clearly changed as the region has changed—we’ve grown around Metro stations. Our smart growth policies have been put into place and have been refined and expanded. We’ve also lost jobs at Landmark Mall which at this point is closed and empty. We’ve lost office jobs.”
Jinks thinks that converting vacant office space into residences is a good thing but, “We should not basically be returning to a residential community.” He said, “we need people here during the day” to support restaurants and retail and, “If people work here and live here, as opposed to commuting, that’s better for the environment and a better use of their time.”
He compared the present King Street retail environment to 1999. He said, “There are more interesting stores on it. Of course, a lot of those stores are struggling,” because of the trend to retail shopping online.
Jinks observed that the city has adopted a more flexible regulatory approach. He said, “It used to be that every restaurant had to go through a special use process” and that some city staff were “…very good at saying ‘no’.” He pointed out that the Code Administration department was formerly, and tellingly, known as Code Enforcement. Most permits are now available online and that the city now accepts plans electronically instead of passing blueprints from office to office.
Jinks highlights Alexandria’s information technology investments. Alexandria was one of the first cities to have a web page and one of the first to have fiber connections for all city and school facilities.
Jinks said that Alexandria’s capital investments have become more substantial. He said, “One year in the school capital investment now is probably equal to what the schools used to spend over ten years… We are at the point where we have very few trailers compared to a lot of our counterparts in the DC area. We entirely replaced our high school and have almost paid off that debt and are about ready to do a second one. The City Council is receiving planning documents for the Minnie Howard project this month.”
The City Manager’s Role
In recent decades three of Alexandria’s city managers—Vola Lawson, Phil Sunderland and Jinks—worked their way up to the position. Three others—Jim Hartman, Rashad Young and now James Parajon who will follow Jinks—came to the position from outside the city.
As to advice for the new City Manager, Parajon, Jinks said, “It’s a very involved community. Be good at listening--spending time listening is important [as is] understanding people’s points of view” and, “Second, is to understand who you are not hearing from because who we typically hear from is not a random sample. As a result, there are going to be people with greater needs that you won’t hear from and this gets to social equity issues. A concerted effort to meet people where they are in many corners of the community is very important.” He said that the new City Manager will, “see things with fresh eyes.”
Jinks said, “One of the things I’ve had on my plate was continuous improvement—do a good job. We have very good employees. Our systems generally work pretty well but that doesn’t mean that they always have to stay the same.” Jinks pointed to the general support for the elimination of the city’s regulation of taxis.
He does not claim that the city’s operations are flawless, for example, he recently concluded that the graffiti removal program needs improvement after there was no response to his call about a graffitied wall.
With the onset of the pandemic, Alexandria became the first jurisdiction in the United States to develop a way to safely process 911 calls from dispatchers’ homes. The calls were formerly received by dispatchers in a single room which risked a quarantine of everyone in the room. He said, “We’re still doing that because it means less commuting for people, it means that if we run into a huge storm and our call lines are down for a couple of hours we can ask people to take calls from their homes.”
Jinks said Alexandria used to be the urban and commercial center of Northern Virginia when major portions of neighboring jurisdictions were substantially agricultural. He thinks that if Alexandria is going maintain a strong identity compared to the larger Arlington and Fairfax counties it must be seen as well-run and innovative to influence people to move to the city and to establish businesses.
Alexandria’s Role in Northern Virginia
Jinks said, “a lot of decisions in this region get made regionally” and that Alexandria officials must actively participate in regional government organizations. He said, “For example, our Planning Director and Housing Director have been co-chairs of their respective committees at COG [the Council of Governments.]”
Jinks said that Former Congressman and Mayor Jim Moran used to complain that Arlington County was considered so well-run, “It was like living next door to Heidi.” He noted that Alexandria recently won, along with Minneapolis, the Urban Land Institute’s national award for innovative housing programs.
He said “I’ve been pushing for regional economic development. We are the only major metropolitan area in the country without a central economic development organization aimed at promoting and recruiting businesses. Every jurisdiction has their own.” He said it was not until Alexandria worked with successfully with Arlington on the Amazon and Virginia Tech developments that other Northern Virginia jurisdictions began to see the advantages of better regional cooperation.
Four Projects That Define Alexandria’s Future
As his City Manager tenure concludes, Jinks sees substantial progress in four transformative projects: the waterfront redevelopment, the redevelopment of Potomac Yard and the new Metro station, the new Minnie Howard campus of Alexandria City High School and the relocation of INOVA Hospital as part of the four million square foot redevelopment of the Landmark site. The last of these now appears to be firmly on the way to reality.
The Landmark project consists of the hospital, cancer center and medical office building (together, about one million square feet) and three million square feet of residential and commercial development. Jinks said “we tried” to include a new school in the plan which would have been an urban, or substantially vertical, school as is planned for Potomac Yard but, “the school administration at the time was not interested so it went by the wayside.”
Looking Back and Looking Forward
Jinks’ biggest frustrations as City Manager involve the pace of change. He said, “Whether it was [negotiating with the Old Dominion Boat Club], Potomac Yard or Landmark Mall--it just has taken a long time to get those projects done, “ and “The first memo I got from the owner of Landmark was dated 1999.” He said, “We had five iterations of plans for Landmark for a whole lot of reasons—the owner of two-thirds of the mall did not have it as a high priority. I had been lobbying for five or six years for the hospital to go to Landmark knowing that [the hospital] was landlocked and needed a place to expand. They needed a modern hospital.” Jinks said that lack of a medical office building adjacent to the current hospital sometimes made it difficult to recruit doctors.
About the building of BRAC (the massive Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closing building at Seminary Road and I-395) Jinks said, “The community interaction could have been different and the city’s decision to support both the Mark Center site and the Eisenhower Avenue site equally—looking back the city should not have done that. We should have focused on Eisenhower Avenue rather than saying that both developers needed to be treated equally.”
In retirement, Jinks looks forward to catching up on reading history and biography, for example, a biography of Henry VIII. He said, “I’m fascinated with Thomas Cromwell who was in effect his city manager,” and “I have a stack of books as high as my reading chair.”