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Where the Polk Avenue sidewalk ends, neighbor concerns about parking and park stability begins

The City of Alexandria is planning to build a new sidewalk on the north side of Polk Avenue, but the city’s plans have some neighbors concerned about the construction’s impact on the nearby park and the neighborhood’s parking situation.

The city is planning to build a new sidewalk that connects two dead-end stretches of sidewalk that cut off abruptly into dense underbrush. The city said the sidewalk construction will help students in the neighborhood walk to Polk Elementary and Hammond Middle School — though students will have to cross the street anyway to get to Polk.

The sidewalk will bump right up against Polk Park’s steep hillside and remove the street parking on the north side of the street. Around 80% of the sidewalk will be built on the street, but some of that remaining 20% will cut into the forested part of the park.

“The purpose of this project is to fill a sidewalk gap on Polk Avenue near Pelham Street,” the city said on its website. “Currently, the existing sidewalk on Polk Avenue ends, forcing people to either walk in the street or cross Polk Avenue to continue along their route. Filling this sidewalk gap would provide a more continuous path for people walking to the park, to Polk Elementary, and to Hammond Middle School.”

The concerns from some of the neighbors are twofold:

  • The new sidewalk will remove nine parking spots from a neighborhood where parking can already be scarce.
  • The new sidewalk potentially cuts into the toe slope of the hill, which concerns neighbors who worry about how it could affect the stability of the Polk Park hillside.

Carol James, a resident near Polk Avenue, said there’s already a parking scarcity in the neighborhood but acknowledged that where the cars are currently parked on Polk Avenue is city property.

James wrote testimony for a meeting scheduled tonight:

The proposed sidewalk at 5325 Polk Avenue is entirely within the City’s street right of way. So, it’s [Transportation & Environmental Services’] call. That does not make it right. Removing parking is not without cost. A friend of mine sold her parking place for $50,000 a decade ago. A condo development is asking $10,000 to buy a space. Granted, Polk Ave. parking is public not private. But land is land and it is not without value to those who share its space and place, no matter what sleight-of-hand accounting method you use. Our community values 9 parking spaces. T&ES obviously doesn’t.

James also pushed back against the sidewalk plans in a letter to the editor published by the Alexandria Times in April.

The environmental side of the neighborhood pushback concerns the 20% of the sidewalk build in the underbrush. The project will cut into the toe slope — the bottom of the soil mass comprising the slope. It’s an ecological argument reminiscent of discussions in 2021 about the restoration of Taylor Run.

Rod Simmons, City Natural Resource Manager and one of the vocal opponents to the Taylor Run restoration plans, pointed to the Alexandria Geologic Atlas which identified potential issues with construction on the slope of Polk Park.

The hillside next to the sidewalk construction is marked in red on the city’s slope stability map, indicating that the slope contains high levels of expandable clay materials and, more importantly from a development perspective, is already prone to landslides.

Rendering of new Polk Avenue sidewalk (image via City of Alexandria)

The City’s Office of Communications and Public Information (OCPI) said in an email that the project has been reviewed by the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities (RPCA).

A detailed structural engineering or geotechnical assessment is not required for retaining walls under 2′. The maximum height of the curb that would provide retention is 1′, and all appropriate civil engineering best management practices have been utilized in the development of the project concept plans. The Department of Recreation, Parks, and Cultural Activities has been continuously engaged and consulted on this project, including arborist and landscape architecture staff. Based on the collective assessments of RPCA staff, the department’s position is that the proposed sidewalk poses minimal impact to the park.

Jack Browand, deputy director of (RPCA), said his department has coordinated with TES and RPCA supports the project.

The project website said the sidewalk paving also entails removing four trees.

“The proposed sidewalk would require the removal of four trees, which are 3″, 6″, 12″, and 12″ in diameter,” a project FAQ said. “With the revised concept plan, staff was able to preserve the largest tree (18″). The City recognizes the value of trees and actively plans for and funds the expansion of the City’s tree canopy citywide. This does not mean trees will never be removed, but rather means that the City aims to produce a net gain in trees to expand the tree canopy overall.”

Melanie Hogg, a neighbor across the street, said the area is a frequent route for pedestrians and said sees around 30-4o people walk along Polk Avenue every day. Hogg also said the street could use some speedbumps to slow traffic.

“I love that the city is paying more attention to Polk Avenue,” said Hogg.

While the city would not specify how many students are expected to benefit from the new sidewalk, OCPI shared anecdotal evidence from administrators at nearby schools saying their students frequently travel along Polk Avenue and the project would benefit future children and residents.

“ACPS does not disclose exact locations of student residences, but a number of students live in the project area,” OCPI said. “Both Polk Elementary School and Hammond Middle School administration staff have noted that some of their students walk on Polk Avenue and are forced to cross the street or walk in the street due to the sidewalk ending. In addition, based on staff observations and input from the community, many residents in general walk in this area and will benefit from the provision of a continuous sidewalk.”

Other neighbors remain unconvinced by city’s plans and say there are a litany of other concerns about the project that remain unaddressed, from who will handle snow plowing (OCPI said the RPCA will handle winter maintenance) and whether the destruction of trees at the site will require the city to refund an earlier Department of Defense grant.

“While I am neither a lawyer nor an ethicist, clearly we are all on a literal slippery slope both by law and by City policy implications with any degradation at all to the property at 5325 Polk,” James wrote.

The project is scheduled for a Traffic and Parking Board meeting tonight (Monday) at the City Council Chamber (301 King Street). The meeting can also be attended virtually via Zoom.

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