Alexandria, VA

Cicadas are all the buzz right now, and the city released a quick update with advice for local residents and updating some tree plans to deal with the bugs’ anticipated emergence.

According to the city:

“The City of Alexandria will experience the 17-year cycle of the emergence of millions of the Brood X Cicadas from underground to mate and lay eggs in trees throughout the City now through mid-summer,” the city said in a press release. “The egg laying will be concentrated on smaller diameter twigs and branches. Impacted trees will exhibit clusters of dead leaves and branches that droop and turn brown as their circulation is cut off by the implanted eggs.

The city said that most trees will take unsightly but superficial damage.

“The trees will shed their damaged portions and continue growing,” the city said. “Some trees, particularly young, newly established trees, may succumb to their injuries.”

The city is making a few changes to its normal planting schedule to accommodate. Spring tree plantings will be delayed until the fall to avoid cicada damage, and recently planted trees will be watered to try and boost their health and ability to deal with cicada damage.

The city said it would not be spraying pesticides to deter cicadas, however, and netting won’t be installed on trees.

“While effective, netting is not economical at the municipal scale,” the city said. “Individual property owners should still consider netting as a potential protective measure for small or newly established trees.”

Photo via Shannon Potter/Unsplash

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There was a valve in Cameron Run Regional Park that wasn’t meant to be used. But two days ago, it was, and the result was a chemical leak into the adjacent Lake Cook that’s had a fatal effect on the park’s wildlife.

“There are two different pump stations and filter systems at Cameron Run, one for the main wave-pool and one for the shallow children’s pool,” explained Paul Gilbert, Executive Director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NOVA Parks). “Each system is a little bit different, both designed so they never put chlorinated pool water into the lake.”

But a relic of an earlier, outdated system remained at the park, and an employee mistook it for part of the filtration system.

“Someone who was not as familiar with the system found a valve that would allow them to drain that pool,” Gilbert said. “It’s a valve that hasn’t been used in over 15 years since we put in the new system. They didn’t understand what they were doing, but that pool water went into Lake Cook.”

Gilbert said NOVA Parks staff were on-site yesterday with the city’s fire marshal to examine the impact and figure out what happened.

“We disabled the valve that allowed the pool to be drained,” Gilbert said. “Today, we’re out there with the contractor cleaning up Lake Cook.”

Gilbert said the contamination was a fish kill.

“It’s a small lake, Lake Cook, so it’s an issue of concentration,” Gilbert said. “Right now, we’re focusing on clean up.”

According to Alexandria communications officer Andrea Blackford:

The Fire Marshals Office (FMO) issued a notice of violation for the illegal discharge of approximately 60,000 gallons of pool water that contained a strong odor of chlorine. The FMO also ordered NOVA Waterpark staff to make necessary repairs to the sanitary drains and other drains prior to refilling the pools. Additionally, a notice of violation was issued for the illegal discharge of a blue substance used as a stain on the pool deck.

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Hot off the heels of announcing a new affordable housing development for Arlandria, the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation (AHDC) is headed to public outreach for a proposed affordable housing development in the Seminary Hill neighborhood.

The plan is to build 37 units — 31 townhomes and 6 condominiums — at 4547, 4555 and 4575 Seminary Road, next to the existing fire station and across from Hammond Middle School.

The development will include two garage spaces per townhome, plus 18 surface parking spaces. The development will preserve approximately 51% of the site’s current open space, AHDC said, and improve pedestrian access to city-owned park land.

AHDC said in an FAQ that all of the units at the site will be affordable at up to 80% of area median income, a standard measurement for housing affordability.

In the FAQ, AHDC said that housing at that level of affordability is very much in demand.

“For a lot of families, even though this is ‘affordable’ housing and 80% AMI income is defined as ‘low-income’ by HUD, the reality is that these units are still out of reach for many,” AHDC said. “The solutions to this problem are complex, and financing for building units that serve even lower income levels is scarce. That said, 80% AMI units — often referred to as workforce housing units — are still in demand in Alexandria. It’s a part of the “missing middle” of housing and can support workers who provide critical services to Alexandria. Using wages from recent job postings, a household that consisted of an entry-level firefighter and a cook for a senior living facility, with one or two children, would qualify for this development.”

The meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, May 25, at 7 p.m. via Zoom.

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Vaccination in Alexandria could open up for ages 12 to 15 soon after the Pfizer vaccine recently cleared federal approval.

In a recent update to the City Council, Alexandria Population Health Manager Natalie Talis gave an update on where the city is so far in vaccination efforts and what, including the vaccine age expansion, is ahead.

According to the Alexandria Health Department, the city must receive federal approval before it can authorize administration for the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to the 12-15 age range.

“As the only vaccine authorized for those under 18, Pfizer’s EUA previously covered ages 16 and older,” the city said. “Providers in Alexandria cannot begin offering the vaccine to those aged 12 to 15 without CDC approval. AHD has been planning for the expansion of vaccine availability to this age group, including coordination with schools and pediatricians.”

In the meantime, as schools get ready to open up, Talis said there are currently no known plans for students under 18 years old to be required to prove that they’ve been vaccinated to get back into school.

That approval was granted yesterday, paving the way for that vaccination effort to begin.

According to Talis, currently over 74,000 Alexandrians have received at least one vaccine, and of those 51,000 are fully vaccinated. Now, with demand starting to go down, Talis said the focus is shifting into outreach.

“Right now we’re going into areas hard hit by COVID,” Talis said.

Talis told the Council a story about one worker who connected with a person who wound up getting his whole community involved in getting vaccinated.

“One worker was outside of a grocery store trying to reach people who have not been vaccinated,” Talis said. “She ended up speaking with one gentleman who only speaks Spanish. He had been vaccinated but his wife hadn’t. He went home, picked up his, wife, and brought her back to the grocery store to book a vaccine appointment even though we were happy to do it over the phone… He has sent us 15 more of his friends, family and neighbors, texting our outreach worker.”

Talis said the city has seen a magnifying effect as people the city reaches out to in face-to-face conversations spread vaccine information to their communities.

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Both figuratively and literally, last night’s mayoral debate brought brought longtime rivals Justin Wilson and Allison Silberberg back to their old turf.

The Del Ray Business Association debate touched on new issues, like recovery from pandemic, but some of the more telling moments were when host Julie Carey reopened old wounds from 2018 that had never healed. The debate also focused on several issues around Del Ray, where Mayor Wilson began his civic career and where former Mayor Silberberg frequently hosted many of her campaign kick-offs and rallies.

Looking at pandemic recovery for the next year, both Wilson and Silberberg emphasized continued flexibility for local businesses. Wilson said Alexandria was one of the first to adjust its regulations on outdoor dining and other restrictions to help restaurants adapt.

“[Some of that] is going to need to remain,” Wilson said. “We’re not going to immediately come out of this. It’s not going to be a light switch.”

Wilson said the priority will have to be on getting hospitality and consumption-based businesses back, as well as shifting tourism to focus on attracting more regional visitors to Alexandria rather than going after nation-wide audiences.

In particular, Wilson pointed to his work with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney in lobbying to allow carry-out cocktails. Wilson also said that he and City Council member John Chapman had proposed the closure of the 100 block of King Street before the pandemic, which went into effect when the pandemic started.

Now Wilson is hoping to expand that closure to include the 200 block of King Street for a pedestrian zone from the waterfront to Market Square — right outside City Hall.

Silberberg said her priorities as mayor would be forming a summit to talk with business leaders and identify their needs, reduce the BPOL tax, and suspend parking meters for a year to encourage more access to local businesses.

“This first year is going to be really critical,” Silberberg said.

While Wilson championed the flexibility the city offered local businesses, Silberberg said the reality on the ground for many of those businesses — naming the business losses in the Bradlee Shopping Center in particular — is that the city could have done more. Wilson noted that the shopping center is a private shopping centre and received the same flexibility as the rest of the city, but Silberberg said the city should have taken a more hands-on approach to guide businesses towards the resources they needed.

“Yes, it’s private, but encouraging them to work with us would have helped,” Silberberg said. “Atlantis, 38 years in business, just closed because they couldn’t open out front. Working with that property owner would have helped.”

The two also briefly clashed over accessory dwelling units. Wilson said that the city’s zoning laws do not allow people like the fictional characters The Golden Girls to live together in Alexandria. Wilson said the current zoning was overly prescriptive in regard to traditional families, while Silberberg said it would be possible for the charming older ladies to reside under existing ordinances.

Wilson also raised the topic of using federal funding to kick-start business improvement districts (BID) — organizations aimed at addressing business needs and promoting active uses and events to commercial districts. BIDs are another controversial idea with a storied history in Alexandria. After several attempts at getting launched, the idea of setting up a BID in Old Town was scrapped in 2017 when it became unclear whether a majority of businesses within the district supported the idea.

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While much attention has been paid to the ongoing Democratic primary for the City Council election, a small but growing pool of Republican challengers for the general election has gotten slightly larger with the addition of Darryl Nirenberg.

Nirenberg, a partner with the law firm Steptoe & Johnson in D.C., joins Mayoral candidate Annetta Catchings as the Republican candidates currently filed for the local elections.

Last year, Nirenberg wrote in a letter to the editor in the Alexandria Times challenging Mayor Justin Wilson’s assertion that cultural white supremacy was still prevalent in Alexandria and Virginia. Nirenberg also challenged Wilson over issues of density, which has become a rallying cry for opposition to incumbents this election– in both general election challengers and within the Democratic primary.

“The same crowd has controlled our city for decades,” Nirenberg wrote in the letter. “They have rigged the system so those with whom they fundamentally disagree can’t get elected to anything. Instead of taking responsibility, the tactic appears now to claim that to make things right, a radical ‘urbanist’ agenda for which there is no electoral mandate must be imposed on the city.”

Earlier this month, Nirenberg made an announcement for his campaign on the Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria Facebook group, which is non-partisan but focused around opposition to projects like the Seminary Road diet and the Taylor Run stream restoration.

“Thanks to the administrators and those who post here for raising and assessing the issues before our city,” Nirenberg said in his post. “The range of well argued positions posted here have reinforced for me that now is the time for our City Council to put aside divisive policies such as promoting density in the midst of a pandemic, road diets, housing on school grounds and paving over our green space, and instead, look for ways to build consensus on major issues and pull together our city. That’s why I am running, and hope you will visit my website to sign up, volunteer your time, request a yard sign and a bumper sticker, and throw in a contribution.”

Nirenberg’s financial history shows extensive donations to Republican candidates like Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan.

Under the issues listed on his site, Nirenberg expressed opposition to co-locating housing on school grounds and road diets.

Nirenberg also listed several government transparency goals, including public disclosure of grant applications, an annual publication of city contracts, and returning to election by wards or districts.

Nirenberg could not be reached for comment on this story.

The Democratic primary is scheduled for June 8, and the general election is scheduled for Nov. 2.

Photo via DarrylNirenberg.com

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With 17% of gas stations in Virginia currently dry, there are concerns about a potential gas shortage.

The temporary scarcity is the result of a cyberattack on a pipeline that shut down production, resulting in a state of emergency, some price hikes and some… ill-advised attempts at hoarding.

With potential lines, dry gas stations, or price hikes: has the gas shortage had any effects on your travel plans over the next few days?

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The City Council unanimously approved a $500,000 loan to get a new affordable housing development for the Arlandria neighborhood off the ground.

As part of an effort to preemptively combat gentrification likely incoming with Amazon’s arrival, the Alexandria Housing Development Corporation (AHDC) has put together plans to build a new affordable housing complex at 221 W. Glebe Road, former location for Safeway.

According to a presentation, the new development will be 460-480 units of affordable housing, around 380 parking spaces, and 38,000 square feet of non-residential space at the former Safeway.

The units will be spread across two buildings on the site, one ten-stories tall and another at seven-stories tall.

According to AHDC, the focus will be on units built for families, with 65% of total units either two bedroom or three bedroom units.

For the non-residential space, AHDC said it plans to bring in:

  • Healthcare services providers
  • Shared office space for nonprofit/mission driven organizations
  • City agencies satellite office space
  • Childcare and/or child education services
  • Retail space for locally-owned businesses

The project is scheduled to come back to the City Council for review later this year, with construction starting in 2023 if approved. The pre-leasing phase is scheduled to start in the 2024-2026 timeframe.

Images via City of Alexandria

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Most of Gregory Elliott’s students at T.C. Williams High School know him as a longtime, dedicated special education instructor.

But for parents and staff, many remember Elliott as frontman “Sugar Bear” for D.C.-based go-go band Experience Unlimited — also known as E.U.

The band was pushed back in the spotlight recently when the E.U.’s song “Da’ Butt” from the Spike Lee movie School Daze was featured at the Oscars, along with actress Glenn Close dancing to it. It got a laugh from Elliott, though he admitted many of the other teachers were more excited than he was.

“It was cool,” Elliott said, “but I keep a low profile.”

For Elliott, the spotlight came after a year of twin challenges: teaching a class of special education students virtually and simultaneously putting together their new album Free Yourself earlier this year.

The band hasn’t had a hit nearly on the scale of Da’ Butt, but E.U. has put out new albums sporadically. Their previous album was released in 2012.

“It’s long overdue, but it’s perfect timing because you have time to reinvent and recreate,” Elliott said.

Elliott said putting together the album was a way for him and his friends to stay focused and active during the last year.

“We were lost, so I just stayed focused as much as I could,” Elliott said. “Me and my band, we would go and socially distance to rehearse. We’d throw some lyrics in, try this and try that. It was a great experience.”

At the same time, Elliott was working to hold his special education class together through a pandemic that forced the students — some of them non-verbal — into virtual classrooms. Elliott has been teaching at T.C. Williams High School since 1996, shifting his focus primarily towards education.

“It’s my way of giving back,” Elliott said. “You always have to have something to fall back on, music is hit or miss. You’re hot one day and cold the next, there’s a lot of inconsistencies. My passion was music, but I decided: you know, I can help kids read or write.”

Since then, the school has been through a lot of changes, including a building change, but nothing like the pandemic.

Like with his music, Elliott said it was a year of reinventing and recreating.

“I learned a lot that I didn’t know about teaching this year,” he said. “You get to have a sort of fatherly relationship to the children and you get attached. Now I work with non-verbal students. With Zoom going on, it’s a lot harder. Just like the students, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is different.'”

Elliott said it was hard on parents too, and he tried to help guide them and explain things that they might not have understood about their children. Now, he said it’s a little easier with the class being back to in-person.

“We’re back in the classroom, been back in for a month. and it’s okay,” Elliott said, “but some students still don’t come, even on Zoom.”

Through the stress of coronavirus, Elliott said being able to work on the new album was a source of relief.

“It kind of was a blessing,” Elliott said. “You want to survive, and nobody knew what was going on. We didn’t have a vaccine or anything. Everybody was running scared. So me, myself, I was just praying a lot.”

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The last class to graduate from the school under the name T.C. Williams High School will have their change to gather with their peers and loved ones in person.

At a school board meeting on May 6, a group of seniors from the school led a presentation of a plan they’d put together and run by school staff for how to make in-person graduation happen amid lingering concerns about coronavirus.

The plan is to host an in-person graduation at Chinquapin Park on June 12, starting at 9:30 a.m.

The seniors, led by 2021 senior class president Karam Burjas, detailed some of the preliminary plans for distancing and layout.

According to the seniors, there is space for 945-980 students seated in a spaced-out area, which would accomodate the entire graduating class. The guest maximum is being proposed as two members of the household, for a total of 2,800 attendees, but it was noted that the governor’s guidelines mean that could go up to four guests with a total of 4,725 attendees — well below the 5,000 cap on outdoor activity gatherings set by the state.

It’s down from the nine guests allowed in past years, but seniors said they wanted to ensure that the full graduating class would be together for the ceremony in a single session.

According to ACPS, further details for the event are still being finalized.

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