Alexandria, VA

While Alexandria’s Transportation Commission endorsed a WMATA-backed plan to overhaul the region’s bus system, that approval was accompanied by concerns that the project won’t be able to achieve its lofty goals.

On paper, the plan put forward by the Washington Area Bus Transformation Project sounds ideal to any bus rider. The plan pushes for faster, more frequent, more reliable bus service that is also more affordable.

The plan would impact both regional bus lines, like Metrobus, and local bus systems, like DASH. It lays out aims for improving the bus system that frequently overlap with the city’s own plans to overhaul the DASH bus network.

The top four recommendations are vague, but the 20-page summary gives each a little more context:

  1. Provide frequent and convenient bus service that connects communities and promotes housing affordability, regional equity and economic growth
  2. Give buses priority on roadways to move people quickly and reliable
  3. Create an excellent customer experience to retain and increase ridership
  4. Empower a publicly appointed task force to transform bus and lead the implementation of a truly integrated regional system

Part of the implementation of the plan, a representative of the project said to the Transportation Commission at a meeting last week, is a regional task force that could monitor progress on the milestones and report annually on whether those are advancing.

“We didn’t go through this process to create a plan,” the representative said. “We went through this process to transform the bus over the next ten years. Such an entity would bring more accountability, more transparency in the region at a higher level.”

Melissa McMahon, chair of the Transportation Commission, said those reports will need to identify advances not just regionally, but by individual localities.

“There could be really wide gaps between one jurisdiction and another,” McMahon said. “That could really hold this up… some of the things you’re describing require everyone to move on together.”

A draft strategic plan was released last year and to an extent, the plan already includes information on individual progress within bus networks. In the section titled “advance technology and programs that improve the safety of everyone on board,” the plan notes that DASH has security cameras installed on roughly 20% of the fleet.

Overall, members of the Transportation Commission were hopeful the plan will help to reform the bus network and make it a viable supplement to rail transit.

“Buses are the historically ugly stepchildren of the transit system,” McMahon said. “They don’t have the same flash as other kinds of transit. They don’t have the same permanence that rail does… but if the Metrorail is our backbone, the bus is our nervous system and capillaries. It’s circulating everywhere in our community. So it’s really important that we get this right.”

Photo by Jay Westcott

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Aggravated assaults have increased every year for the last three years in Alexandria, and Police Chief Michael L. Brown said that his department is working on methods to reverse the trend.

“Some of these are happening behind the doors of residences in the city, and we’re trying to get a better understanding of that,” Brown told ALXnow. “We’re working with the Department of Community and Human Services to see what we can do to come up with a program that aligns city services with the need of individuals so that they don’t have to call 911 and we can do something else beforehand.”

In 2019, there was a 37% spike — 208 calls for service for aggravated assaults, compared to the 151 incidents in 2018, which itself was a 10.2% increase from 2017. That year saw an 11.4% increase from 2016. So far this year, there have been eight reported incidents, and the department will be releasing its annual report with final tallies in the coming weeks.

Brown, now in his third year leading the department, said that many of the incidents were caused by suspects who have had difficulty coping with stress at home. He also said that there is no specific hotspot for incidents in the city and that the crime is evenly distributed.

“What is troublesome to me and the police department is that so many of these things are domestic in nature,” he said. “These are people who are in or were in relationships, and it gets down to how that person was coping with that relationship which led to a 911 call because it turned into a crisis. We’re going to find a method for the city to  get the word out to folks to get help.”

Starting this month, the department is increasing its focus on community policing by placing officers in designated beats. That, Brown said, will allow officers to forge stronger relationships with communities and may help stem the tide of aggravated assaults.

“The expectation is that officers will stay within their beats and become a visible presence in the area — like the mailman,” Brown said. “So, you may find that there’s a particular set of high rises or area where officers are working with those communities to identify problems and try to deal with them before they become a 911 call.”

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Everything must go! Numerous Pier 1 Imports stores will be closing in Virginia by the beginning of March, and that includes two Alexandria locations.

Staff at the Pier 1 at the Potomac Yard Shopping Center (3901 Richmond Hwy) are marking merchandise 20% to 40% off, and bigger discounts are expected in the days ahead. The store has two full-time and 12 part-time employees, all of whom were informed of the closing after the Christmas holiday.

The Texas-based company was founded in 1962, and announced earlier this month that it will be closing around 450 brick and mortar locations around the country — nearly half of its stores — as sales continued to dip.

“Although decisions that impact our associates are never easy, reducing the number of our brick-and-mortar locations is a necessary business decision,” Pier 1’s CEO Robert Riesbeck said in a statement. “We thank our team of hard-working associates for their commitment to Pier 1 and to serving our customers.”

The Pier 1 Imports online store locator no longer lists the locations that are closing around the country. There will be at least a dozen stores that will close in Virginia, according to Business Insider.

“We will definitely be here for the next couple of months,” said a Pier 1 staffer in Alexandria who could not disclose their name.

The Pier 1 at 4609 Duke Street will also be closing its doors, and the only locations in Northern Virginia that will remain open are in Fairfax, Woodbridge and Leesburg. Locations in Arlington and Bailey’s Crossroads are also closing.

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Whether you’re actively searching for your new home or are just beginning to consider making a move, open houses are the perfect way to start your search.

Open houses allow you to get a feel for things such as neighborhood, how far your budget will go, must-haves in your new home, and some design inspiration.

As the #4 expansion team in the country, HergGroup Greater Washington’s website has a comprehensive list of open houses and homes for sale in Alexandria and beyond.

Here’s a sampling of the local open houses this week:

  • 900 Franklin Street, Patrick Henry — $525,000 (Open House: 1/26 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM)
  • 45 Arell Court, Lands of Quaker Village — $650,000 (Open House: 1/25 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM, 1/26 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM)
  • 1102 Trinity Drive, College Park — $825,000 (Open House: 1/26 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM)
  • 710 Lyles Lane, Potomac Greens — $975,000 (Open House: 1/26 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM)
  • 3404 Holly Street, Cobblestone — $1,365,000 (Open House: 1/26 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM)
  • 530 N Pitt Street, Old Town — $1,699,000 (Open House: 1/26 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM)

The preceding feature was sponsored by HergGroup Greater Washington and John Lam of Go Homeside Financial. Go Homeside Financial is located at 4000 Legato Road, Suite 550 Fairfax, VA. (571)212-4812, jplam.gohomeside.com.

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Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria is planning to once again host what is says is the largest Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Festival in the country this weekend.

The event is organized by the church but held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center (201 Waterfront St.), across the Potomac in National Harbor. It is scheduled to take place on Saturday, Jan. 25 from 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

The event brings together high school students and over 70 HBCUs, according to the website, and many of the schools offer on-site admissions, interviews, and auditions with some application fees waived.

The festival “originated with humble beginnings of 150 attendees in 2003 and matured to 11,000 attendees in 2019 — making us the largest HBCU Festival in the nation,” the website says.

The festival also serves to help connect students with potential scholarship programs. To date, the organization says $20 million in scholarships have been awarded at the festival.

HBCUs scheduled to attend range from nearby institutions, like Howard University, to schools in places like Texas and Ohio.

“We offer 11 seminars packed with impactful information to prepare students and parents for a successful college tenure,” the church said on the event website, “from securing financial aid to finding your ideal career path.”

In addition to academic opportunities, planned programs include a drum line and step show.

Tickets to the festival are $5 per person or $50 for a group of 10 or more. While there are special passes for applicants, general attendees can come to enjoy seminars and talk to school recruiters.

Image via Alfred Street Baptist Church/Facebook

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There’s a new dog-friendly boutique hotel in town. The six-floor, 124 room Hyatt Centric Old Town Alexandria (1625 King Street) opened just a few blocks from the King Street Metro station on Wednesday.

“Today we are 100% open, 24/7 and year-round. It’s really exciting,” General Manager Matt Karow told ALXnow. “As you may know, Alexandria is one of the most dog-friendly cities in the country, and inside the rooms you’ll find some fun, quirky little things that pay tribute to man’s best friend.”

The hotel was designed by Alexandria-based architect Cooper Carry, and is the second in Virginia behind the Hyatt Centric Arlington, in Rosslyn. The rooms are small, and a standard king will run visitors $200 to $215 a night. The hotel’s junior suites (there are two) cost about $300 per night. The dog-related quirks include art on the walls and coat hooks that look like dog posteriors.

The ribbon cutting for the hotel was attended by Mayor Justin Wilson, members of the city council and representatives of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.

The hotel also opened the French & Southern lobby bar and restaurant. The restaurant features French staples like duck confit and quiche, but also southern favorites including shrimp and grits.

“It’s a top notch restaurant. It’s phenomenal,” restaurant co-owner Steve Greksouk said. “This is a beautiful place and it’ll be really fun to welcome guests from out of town.”

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Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson is one of six mayors who are making a difference and “shaping urban America,” at least according to The Hill newspaper.

Wilson made the list, which was published Wednesday, alongside the mayors of Kansas City (M0.), Tampa, Brooklyn Park (Minn.), Minneapolis and Phoenix.

In its write-up, the paper lauded Wilson and the city for helping to bring the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus to Potomac Yard, in conjunction with Amazon’s HQ2 coming to Arlington.

More from The Hill:

…when two local governments just outside of Washington put together their bid for Amazon’s HQ2 project, they decided on a different approach, one that would provide a lasting benefit to the city of Alexandria and Arlington County even if Amazon’s tax revenues didn’t fill the gap. To prove to Amazon that its residents would be qualified for the estimated 25,000 high-tech jobs the company would bring, the cities helped bring a new Virginia Tech campus to their region.

“There was very much a feeling that the benefits of the [Amazon] investment were going to accrue to a very small percentage of the residents,” said Justin Wilson, the Democratic mayor of Alexandria. “We felt like there was an opportunity to chart a different course.”

Working together across their shared border, Alexandria’s government and the Arlington County Board… are planning for new housing growth, workforce development, collaboration with the new Virginia Tech campus and area schools. They plan special outreach to minority- and women-owned businesses, and they hope to protect low-income housing in minority-heavy communities near Amazon’s coming Crystal City hub.

“We looked at every opportunity that we thought would be able to seize the benefits of this investment and make sure it benefitted everyone in the community,” Wilson said. “We’re still fleshing this all out. The good news is there’s real excitement in the community.”

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Morning Notes

New Office to Residential Conversion — “A Mark Center office building in Alexandria is now set to be converted into apartments. D.C. real estate investment firm PRP LLC plans to convert 4900 Seminary Road, a 12-story, 209,000 square foot building, into residential… PRP wants to put 213 market-rate units into the building, which also has room for about 4,100 square feet of ground-floor retail.” [Washington Business Journal]

Mayor Reacts to Retrocession Suggestion — “With Democrats now in control of the Virginia Statehouse, Republican Delegate Dave LaRock says he is concerned that liberal values are taking over so he’s calling for Arlington and Alexandria to be split off and given to D.C… Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson calls LaRock’s statements a ‘comical clown move.'” [Fox 5, Twitter]

Send-off For Historic Fire Apparatus — “The Friendship Fire Company purchased an ornate hose reel carriage in 1858. Now, thanks to the support of the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association, community donors, and its win as the No. 1 Virginia Endangered Artifact of 2019, Historic Alexandria is sending the hose carriage off for much-needed conservation.” [Zebra]

Lawmakers Considering Shopping Cart Bill — “Senate Bill 631 would make it so that the cost of removal, including disposal, of an abandoned shopping cart will be charged to the cart’s owner. The ordinance originally applied just to Fairfax County, but Surovell said Arlington and Alexandria asked to be included in the new legislation.” [ARLnow]

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Alexandria Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings needs help, and says that his newly approved chief of staff will is a key component to the success of the school system’s organizational structure.

“Right now I have nine direct reports, so that’s nine department heads reporting directly to me,” Hutchings told ALXnow. “Each of those individuals has a department that they oversee.”

Dr. Stephen Wilkins, the incoming chief of staff, was hired as the chief human resources officer for the school system last June. His relationship with Hutchings goes back a decade, when the future superintendent unsuccessfully applied to be the principal of T.C. Williams High School. At the time, Wilkins, a retired U.S. Army colonel with master’s degrees from Harvard and the U.S. Army War College, and a doctorate from Walden University, was serving what would be a three year stint as the ACPS HR chief.

In 2013, Hutchings became the superintendent of the Shaker Heights City School District in Ohio, and hired Wilkins to be his assistant superintendent of business operations and human resources. Wilkins was later appointed interim superintendent for Shaker Heights when Hutchings left to become ACPS superintendent in 2018. He held the position for nearly a year, and then Hutchings reached out and asked him to return to Alexandria.

“Steve is just an anomaly. He’s just a rare find,” Hutchings said. “And there’s so many things that we’re doing right now, as we’re embarking on the ACPS 2025 strategic plan, as we’re trying to establish systems and processes, and to have alignment throughout the organization, that me as being the only person to work with our senior leaders makes it challenging.”

Wilkins is currently transitioning to his new role, which begins on July 1. The reorganization means that he will oversee the human resources department and the department of facilities and operations. That’s in addition to hiring new directors within each department, including a new director in the office of capital planning and design, the director of the office of employee engagement and relations and a director of the office of recruitment and retention.

The chief of staff’s duties also include supporting the office of the superintendent and assisting with the strategic management and execution of action items among the senior executive staff.

“That will be my role. It’s an interesting role, to say the least. It’s one that’s going to be developed as we go along, but we’ll get it done,” Wilkins told the school board at its Dec. 19 meeting.

Hutchings said that the new chief of staff will allow him to focus more on the school system’s strategic vision.

“Once you get to the CEO, superintendent level, it really should be around what is going to be our strategy, our processes, our systems, to get to that outcome that we are all seeking,” Hutchings said. “And this new structure will hopefully keep me out of the weeds as often as I am in there now.”

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Boyd Walker has never done this before. On the night on Jan. 29, the Alexandria resident will travel nearly 1,000 miles with 18 others in a four car caravan from Alexandria to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to volunteer with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

“It’s fun. It’s an adventure. It’s a road trip with a bunch of people who share your values and goals,” Walker told ALXnow. “Whoever the candidate is, there should be tremendous enthusiasm, because Donald Trump is the most corrupt dangerous president we’ve ever had and will be very damaging to our democracy and our planet if he spends another four years in office.”

The Iowa caucus, which is the first nominating battle between the Democratic candidates vying to run against President Trump this fall, is on Feb. 3. The presidential primary process has yielded a historic number of Democratic candidates, fundraising figures, and engagement among grassroots activists and volunteers.

The contest has galvanized many Alexandrians to action, including 19-year-old Barrett Fife (above), who took a year off from the College of William & Mary and moved to Urbandale, Iowa, last August to work on the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. She’s now a field organizer for the campaign, managing up to a dozen volunteers who are knocking on at least 100 doors a day in the run up to the primary.

“I’m taking a break. My school was really amendable and said to take as much time off as I need and to give them a ring,” Fife said. “No matter who wins, our nation is going to be more broken and divide than ever before, and I think Mayor Pete will help heal those divisions.”

Fife interned in years past with Del. Mark Levine (D-45), but it was the kind of work that an assistant would do.

“It’s been crazy to now be leading 40-to-70-year-old Iowans. Sometimes they look at me like, ‘Who is this kid?’ but it’s been fun flexing those leadership muscles,” she said. “It’s been absolutely amazing. It’s been crazy because I’ve lived in Virginia my entire life and go to school in Virginia, so this is the longest I’ve spent away from home.”

Clarence Tong, chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, said that Democrats are “laser-focused” on defeating Trump.

“It is exciting to have the Iowa Caucus finally here in just a few weeks and Alexandrians will have the opportunity to vote in the Virginia Primary on Super Tuesday (March 3),” Tong said. “Absentee voting has already started, so please make sure to make arrangements to vote if you cannot make it in person.”

Kurt Peterson of Charlottesville will lead the caravan of 18 local Sanders supporters in four cars to Cedar Rapids. His group will stay in Airbnb rentals and do as directed by field organizers on the ground. In 2016, he knocked on more than 1,300 doors in seven states for Sanders.

“We’ll do whatever is most beneficial to the campaign,” Peterson said. “We’ll see how things go. I’m probably not going to New Hampshire or South Carolina, because I think the effort is needed here. But after Super Tuesday we’ll see how we do and what’s next.”

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The Alexandria School Board is scheduled to work on narrowing down the site plan for Douglas MacArthur Elementary School to two potential designs at its meeting tomorrow (Thursday) night.

The meeting is scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. at the Alexandria City Public Schools headquarters (1340 Braddock Place).

The two concepts — called “Y” and “Forest” for certain elements of their design — were narrowed down from an original field of five options.

The Y option puts the new school close to Janneys Lane, mostly along a long central corridor, with athletic fields and play areas located behind the building near a heavily wooded area. At the western end of the hallway, it splits with a gym at the north end of the school — giving the building its Y shape.

The Forest option would put most of the school closer to the wooded area, with the play and athletics areas located on the east end of the site.

At a community meeting last week, parents and community members expressed preferences and concerns regarding the proposals. Some said they believed the Forest design would make the athletic and playfields more accessible for public use when school isn’t in session, while others said the accessibility and proximity to the street was concerning. Staff said whatever design was chosen would have fencing around the building.

At its meeting, the School Board will also likely discuss co-locating city facilities at the site, something city officials have pushed for in recent years but which has received some pushback from local residents.

“Options for co-location could include additional recreation space, affordable or workforce housing, or added health services, co-located on the site with Douglas MacArthur Elementary School,” ACPS said in a press release. “ACPS and the City intend to explore feasible and appropriate co-location opportunities within the chosen concept, although the ACPS educational program for the new school will take priority.”

The final vote on the concept for MacArthur Elementary is scheduled to take place at the Thursday, Feb. 6 School Board meeting.

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