DCNorthstar has been covering uptown meetings and events for nearly two years. During that time, we’ve learned a lot about how our local elected officials work. We’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Being an effective representative requires an array of skills and talents. Citizens are charged with electing a neighbor to be their interface with the vast city government. Yet, there’s never been an effective mechanism to learn about the candidates for these local elections before we step into the voting booth. Until now.
We invited all the candidates for Advisory Neighborhood Commissions 4A and 4B and for the special election for the Ward 4 seat on the State Board of Education to meet us for an interview to share their plans and ideas with the community. Twelve of them graciously agreed.
The interviews took place on October 13th at the Shepherd Park Library. The candidates were thoughtful and passionate about serving their community. The interviews were conducted by Jennell Alexander and filmed and edited by Christopher Alexander. Talent management was performed by our children Savannah and Xavier and their friend.
This interview is with Tanya Topolewsky, the incumbent commissioner for ANC 4B02.
We hope that you enjoy this series.
Here is the transcription of the interview. Jennell’s questions are in bold and the candidate’s responses make up the paragraph text.
Election Day is coming. Do you know who is running to be your Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner? My name is Jennell Alexander from DCNorthstar and we interviewed several candidates and they’re going to tell you a little bit about what their platforms are. Take a look.
- Jennell Alexander
Hi, my name is Tanya Topolewski and I’m a candidate for ANC 4B02.
- Tanya Topolewski
What is the most important issue facing your Single Member District and how do you intend to address it?
I think that the most important issue for our Single Member District right now is the functionality of the ANC. We as an ANC 4B have always had a little bit of a difficult relationship with our community, meaning that we don’t communicate very well with them. And that is something that I’ve worked very hard within the ANC to address already. We’ve talked about it in the ANC about having things like a communication plan, things like outreach as far as newsletters, but also outreach as far as distribution lists and things of that nature. But we’ve managed to do none of them. And I think that that’s really a disservice to the community. I think that it’s important for the community to understand the relevancy of the ANC and that relevancy is missing for so, so many people.
One of the things I’ve already done in order to try to bridge this gap is to do postings on listservs with detailed postings about what the actual role of a commissioner actually is. Because people really don’t understand that we even have an ANC and what word “Advisory Neighborhood Commission” means. So education for people about what it is, has been first and foremost in my mind. And I think that going from that point of just educating people on how the ANC functions is important and it’s missing.
What are your thoughts on the pace of the city’s development? You can answer this in regards to Walter Reed development or the city’s comprehensive plan.
I want to take this from the tack of the Walter Reed Development. So, I am the current ANC commissioner for ANC 4B02. So I sit not only on the ANC, but I’m also on the Community Advisory Committee for Walter Reed.
I am the ANC 4B representative on that committee. So the Walter Reed Development, for many people who aren’t familiar, or for people who have not followed it, will be the largest development in Ward 4 probably for our entire generation. It will have the largest impact on our ability to provide new jobs for people in this area. And also extensive new housing and other opportunities such as medical facilities, medical care. I think it’s really important for people to understand how large it actually is. When Walter Reed is done, it will create two entirely new single member districts within the Walter Reed Development. So if you put it in that kind of context, we’re literally putting in two whole new neighborhoods just within that development alone. So clearly the impacts of that development on our area is going to be beyond substantial.
There will be changes that I think the developer is actually working hard to mitigate as far as transportation issues in particular, which is always a concern. Along with that, multimodal issues as far as the bike trails and how that integrates with the Walter Reed Development. So those kinds of things are upcoming as things start to come out of the ground. I think that, overall, these are the kinds of developments which are rare, which actually provide the largest amount of our ability as a city to grow denser, but in a way that makes some sense for the rest of the city because, people always are talking about, “Well, are we doing too much? Is it too dense? Is it too fast?” Is it all of these kinds of questions. But when you have a place like Walter Reed, where you really have an opportunity to do it right, meaning grow dense, but also manage all of the other implications around it. That’s important.
And I think it’s happening here in Ward 4 in a very measured, thoughtful way and the impacts to us will be great. And I don’t want to deemphasize the largest fact of this is that it will bring an enormous number of jobs for many, many residents and people who want to be in Ward 4. It’s definitely a bonus all the way around.
This commission struggles to work together at times. How will you work with the residents and other commissioners when there is a contentious issue?
I think the best example of how I have worked together with all the other commissioners already is for the Metropolitan Branch Trail. That came up as an issue for 4B as far as how the trail was going to be aligned from the Fort Totten Metro Station all the way through up to Aspen Street and Piney Branch Road.
It’s an important piece of infrastructure for our area. That trail is incredibly important to me personally because of my background in landscape architecture and design. I was very upfront working with the commission and the committee that was handling it for ANC 4B, the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. I worked with them on probably 10 to 15 different meetings, coordinating meetings with at least three other ANC commissioners. I talked with other ANC commissioners and tried to bring them up to speed on what the implications of the trail were, what the options were and did a variety of outreach to the community.
I come at the trail in this particular way, because I have a master’s degree in landscape architecture. And so the actual physical design of our larger public space environment is really important to me.
Part of these things I learned, not only in school, but things I study every day here in the District of Columbia. I see things quite a bit differently than a lot of other people do because I see where there’s opportunities where most people will say, “Well you really can’t do that.” But then I can jot down on a piece of paper and draw it out and say, “Oh yes, you can and here it is”. So those are ways that I can take my own professional knowledge and be able to share it with the other commissioners to affect positive change for the District and for Board.
How do you plan to keep residents informed about issues?
So this is the perennial question, because here’s what happens at the level of the ANC:
We say, “We need to be able to inform people”.
And then everybody says, “Well, not everybody has email.”
And everybody says, “Well, we can’t do flyers because they’re too expensive.”
And that’s where the conversation stops.
I’ve long pushed for a communication plan, an actual formal communication plan, within ANC 4B. To literally write down, okay, here is how we’re going to communicate with our constituents. Here are the listservs so we can post our agenda. Here’s how the agenda gets posted. Here’s our resolutions, our draft resolutions, which are attached to our agendas, So that people, when they get the agendas, can click on a link, see the resolution, and if they have a comment, then they can actually email the ANC directly.
It’s these baseline kinds of things that ANC 4B really does not do a sufficient job at that would take the ANC from being something that’s sort of spinning off in its own little world, to being directly relevant to everybody’s lives here so that they can be a resource for people and understanding what’s actually happening on the level of interaction with the government.
So, along with that idea of the communication plan will be this sort of infrastructure of how to communicate via listservs. Redoing our website so that it’s actually functional and easy for us as an agency to maintain because right now the District of Columbia doesn’t provide a whole lot of great infrastructure for the website. We have to do it ourselves and ours is not great. Also there’s a lot of information on our website currently that could be much better and we don’t have certain things like our agendas and our meeting minutes and all of our recordings and things like that.
We frankly just don’t have those things up to date and that makes us look like we don’t have anything to offer people who go to our website. So I would really, really like to fix that as well. Those would be some core things to take care of. And then also implement a policy, for example, of having bulletin boards which we’d have a in a couple of locations, like at local libraries and rec centers. That they ANC posts what we’re doing once a month there. I think we could handle doing that and also posting our agendas and all of our resolutions also at libraries, in the rec centers too, so that people who don’t have access or don’t want to be attached to their email can go there every month and say, oh, here’s what the ANC is doing, here’s what’s coming up. That would go a long way to hitting all of the people within our community instead of just dealing with a few.
This is definitely something that I’ve thought deeply about and have actually tried to change within our ANC, but it has hit a rocky path.
Why are you the best person for the job? Why should your neighbors vote for you?
I think the reason that I’ve been effective as a commissioner so far, is because of my background, my professional background. I am a sustainable real estate developer here in the District of Columbia. I only build highly, energy resource efficient projects and I’ve done a variety of different levels of ground up and also gut-rehab kinds of projects.
What this means for people is that I understand a lot of the way that the District of Columbia operates, in particular when it comes to the DCRA. And so the things that I’m able to ask of other developers, the questions I’m able to answer for people and how I’m able to manage team conversations and also larger conversations. I’ll go back to that professional background. So for that reason, I think I still remain the best candidate.