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New report examines how King Street pedestrianization fits into waterfront plans

Unit block of King Street pedestrian zone (image via City of Alexandria)

Ten years after adopting a plan with suggestions for turning the Waterfront into a cultural hub, the City of Alexandria is poised to move forward with one of them: making the streets closest to the river pedestrian-only.

Ahead of a potential vote to close the unit block of King Street and part of The Strand to traffic, a new report suggests that these street closures are supported by the 2012 Waterfront Small Area Plan and are broadly popular among locals. The unit block of King Street, the block closest to the Waterfront, is a one-way street connected to the two-way street called The Strand that runs parallel to the Potomac River.

While the pandemic sped up discussions about the pedestrianization of King Street, the report said discussions about closing these blocks to vehicle traffic go back to when the plan was approved in 2012.

“Among many things, [the plan] recommends closing the unit block and the Strand north of the parking garage entrance to traffic (except EMS, fire, police, etc.) to make a pedestrian plaza,” the report said.

And 10 years later, pedestrianizing the Waterfront has gained traction among locals. Per the city report, more than 90% of 1,800 respondents supported the temporary street closure.

“Of resident respondents, 91% had a positive or very positive experience with the pedestrian zone, and 89% of residents responded that they wanted to see the closure continue into the future,” the report said. “Throughout the closure, businesses periodically expressed support for the closure. In addition, an advisory group made up of staff from various departments, APD, Fire and the Old Town Business Association recommended permanently maintaining the pedestrian zone.”

The plans to close the unit block to vehicle traffic follow a pilot program that started in May and was set to end Labor Day weekend, but was extended to November. Last year, the City Council approved an identical change to the 100 block of King Street.

The staff report said the change has been largely popular:

Following the closure of the 100 block of King Street, an observable decline in through traffic on the unit block resulted. This decline, and the popularity of the new Waterfront Park, has led to an increase in pedestrian volume on the unit block and the Strand. In addition, based on the success of the closure of the 100 block, staff has received requests from the businesses along the unit block to assess the feasibility of closing this block as well. The City conducted a pilot project between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend (and extended through November 20), which proved this closure successful.

The Waterfront Small Area Plan includes multiple recommendations for orienting the space toward pedestrians. It recommends that the waterfront should have continuous pedestrian access and provide an attractive visitor experience.

The plan also calls for improvement to vehicular and pedestrian circulation, which the staff report said pedestrianization would accomplish.

These blocks are particularly challenging for pedestrians given the limited sidewalk space, lack of traffic, and desire that by visitors to walk in the street. By eliminating vehicles from these blocks, the businesses can expand while also creating more space for pedestrians to move through the blocks along the sidewalks and down the center of the street. Additionally, the intersection of Union and King Street is often congested from vehicles and pedestrians moving through the area. While the closure does not completely eliminate conflicts, eliminating one of the vehicular travel directions does reduce potential conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles.

The report said that while the proposal doesn’t eliminate two metered parking spaces and two unmetered spaces, there are several public parking options nearby. Specifically, the report said those looking to park should be directed toward the nearby — and notably underused — parking garages.

Before the streets can be closed, however, the Planning Commission must review these changes, per the City’s Charter.

The item is on the consent calendar — meaning it is likely to be approved without discussion — for the upcoming Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 1.

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