Alexandria, VA

Not long after approving a new school zoning change, the Alexandria Planning Commission unanimously approved the design for the new Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

Much of the discussion and debate about added density was focused around the density concerns at the start of the meeting, but several neighbors spoke up with concerns raised throughout the process about how the larger school and facilities could impact the surrounding neighborhoods.

Lisa Porter, a nearby resident, pushed for Alexandria to require the installation of a traffic light at a nearby intersection that will turn from sleepy residential crossing to a junction leading towards the redeveloped school. The city agreed to return within six-12 months of classes starting at the school to evaluate the traffic patterns and determine whether a new traffic signal needs to be added.

Other nearby residents said they were concerned about increased recreational use of a nearby field.

Jack Browand, director division chief of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said the use should be mostly consistent with current use of the park. The field will be no larger and is designed with use for those 10 and under only.

“Community use there today will continue,” Browand said. “We expect it to be similar to what we saw with improvements at Jefferson-Houston.”

Browand said that could mean some increase in drop and play activity, but there was no lighting on the field for extended evening use.

The main fight among Planning Commissioners was the lack of a net-zero energy policy that had been touted earlier in the building’s development, and the Planning Commission mostly backed Planning Commissioner Stephen Koenig in requiring the net-zero policy be worked back into the project.

Ultimately, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the project before headed to the City Council later this month.

Image via ACPS

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A regional gas tax usually goes to supporting the capital funding for WMATA, but data presented at the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission meeting last night showed that regional gas spending has taken a nosedive in the last few months.

Starting in March, gas tax revenue started to dip below $3 million. While the gas tax revenue has fallen to $2 million in March in years past, by June it had plummeted far below that. For the entire region, roughly $500,000 was collected in gas tax revenue, compared to over $3 million in February.

In Alexandria, gas tax revenue fell from over $150,000 in May to under $50,000 in June.

The tax is calculated from sales two months earlier, meaning the June figures reflected the dive in funding from April, shortly after the stay-at-home order was issued.

The tax was increased this year to 20.2 cents per gallon starting July 1, and is scheduled to increase over the next three years to 28.2 cents per gallon.

 

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Cats have a reputation for being somewhat aloof, but nobody has told that to Alex yet.

The five-year-old tabby up for adoption at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (AWLA) is desperate for attention and affection.

“If you feel a tap on your shoulder when you’re at the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria, it might be Alex,” said Gina Hardter, a spokesperson for the AWLA. “He hasn’t quite gotten the hang of physical distancing, but he certainly knows how to get attention.”

Alex isn’t the biggest pet at the AWLA, but Hardter said he might have the biggest personality.

“Alex is looking for a playmate, and he’s willing to go to great lengths to meet you,” Hardter said. “Reaching through the bars of his kennel? Check! Showing off his belly? Check! Doing a happy little dance until you say hi? Check, check and check!”

Appointments to meet Alex and potentially adopt him can be made online.

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Alexandria’s civic associations came out in force to speak against a loosening of zoning restrictions at public school properties. While the Planning Commission ultimately pushed forward a modified version of the zoning change, there was widespread agreement that the public outreach could have been handled better.

The change had been proposed in 2019 and was docketed for meetings earlier this year, but had disappeared as the pandemic led to those meetings being cancelled until it quietly resurfaced for the Sept. 1 meeting.

The change originally would have allowed Alexandria City Public Schools to build schools up to 0.6 Floor Area Ratio (FAR) by right, meaning without needing public approval, or higher without a set restriction. The version approved at the Planning Commission still allows proposed schools to exceed the density restrictions, but only with a Special Use Permit (SUP) and by no greater than 0.75 FAR.

The proposal had been criticized by the North Ridge Citizens’ Association in the lead-up to the meeting, but was joined by others who protested that the city was quietly pushing the change through without public input.

“When we first learned about this proposal, we had to ask ourselves why our city would be contemplating such sweeping changes to our code without more public notice,” said Kay Stimson, representing the North Ridge Citizen’s Association. “This truly threatens to create a trust deficit between this commission and our residents.”

Stimson said she recognized that schools need greater capacity, but also said the city was pursuing an “increased density” agenda on residents throughout the city.

“If approved, this amendment would be a glaring example of arbitrary, capricious, and unsupportive administrative action by this city with detrimental impacts particularly on low density residential neighborhoods that don’t have the infrastructure to support the massive new buildings you’re proposing,” Stimson said. “The existing baseline should remain the prevailing density of the neighborhood. If someone wants to build something larger, the point of our zoning process is that they must talk to the public and gain permission. There is no justification whatsoever to allow for unlimited density in a school building. This actually calls into question why we would have a zoning code at all.”

Other residents similarly expressed frustrations that ACPS would be seemingly shielded from density requirements local homeowners face. Pete Benavage, representing the Federation of Civic Associations, said the federation had unanimously voted to oppose the change.

“We fell anything that is reducing the public input; the meaningful and timely public input, is deleterious to the benefit of the citizens of Alexandria,” Benavage said. “This amendment has not been properly vetted by the public and we would urge it either not be adopted or at least be tabled until such time as public vetting can be obtained. ” Read More

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A local church is offering the ultimate tech support: a divine blessing for local students’ laptops.

This Sunday, Sept. 6, at 5:30 p.m.,Trinity United Methodist Church (2911 Cameron Mills Road) is planning to host an Outdoor Blessing of the Chromebooks & Ice Cream Social (Social Distanced Edition).

“We invite you to join Pastor Grace and Hannah Day Donoghue for an end of the summer celebration,” the church said. “Anyone starting any kind of school is welcome to bring their Chromebook, or an item from their desk/school working space to be blessed for the new school year. We will pair this with individually wrapped ice cream, to take home with you!”

ACPS has distributed thousands of Chromebooks to students to prepare for the online-only start of the school year. Ecclesiastical accessories were not included distribution, but those hoping for some additional theology in their tech can sign up for the program online or contact Program Director Hannah Day Donoghue at [email protected]

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Updated 5:40 p.m. — According to Anton Murray, spokesman for Alexandria Libraries:

Due to an incidence of COVID-19 with a staff member at the Beatley Library, the Library has been closed for 1-3 days for deep cleaning. The nature of that staff member’s role in the library requires little to no significant direct contact with the public or other staff. Based on investigation to date (including contact tracing) by the Health Department no quarantine recommendations were needed for other staff or the public.

Holds pickup and due dates will be extended during this closure period.

Earlier: Two weeks after it started to reopen to the public, the Charles E. Beatley, Jr. Central Library has closed do to what has only been described vaguely as “emergency conditions.”

The Alexandria Library system announced on Twitter that the location would be closed until further notice.

A spokesperson for the city said the city could not provide additional information at this time on why the library was closed.

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Data put out today by the Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) shows that nearly 8% of the city was unemployed in July, only a fraction improvement over June’s figures.

The VEC data showed that the city had a civilian labor force of 100,938 in July. Of that, 93,084 remained employed while 7,854 had filed for unemployment.

The level of unemployment was marginally better than the 8,050 unemployed in June. While the figures aren’t in for August, data tracked week to week showed that the unemployment filings increased in July but dipped back down dramatically near the beginning of August. Last week, those numbers hit the lowest levels since April as the local economy starts to steadily improved.

Still, the unemployment numbers remain significantly higher than they were before the pandemic. VEC data showed that in July 2019, unemployment was only 2.1%. Kendel Taylor, the city’s Director of Finance, warned that full recovery could be two years away.

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In an update to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, Alexandria bus service DASH said it will resuming increased increased levels of service starting on Sunday, Sept. 13.

“DASH will increase service levels in Alexandria to approximately 80% of pre-COVID service on September 13,” the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission said in materials for an upcoming meeting. “Weekday service will be restored on several routes and limited service will resume on most routes that were discontinued in March.”

The move follows the Arlington and Fairfax bus lines resuming full service in late August.

DASH, which saw decreased levels of ridership early in the pandemic, had scaled down its operations in March. While service was reduced, the bus system did institute some new, long-awaited improvements like a bus tracking app in July.

The next meeting for DASH is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 5:30 p.m. Public comment is allowed after completing a short form.

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A Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing has left Elizabeth’s Counter in Alexandria as the last vestige of the once powerful ring of regional Sugar Shack locations, according to the Washington Business Journal.

Months after Sugar Shack owner Rob Krupicka unveiled ambitious plans to convert the Northern Virginia and D.C. locations from donut shop Sugar Shack into a new restaurant called Elizabeth’s Counter, Krupicka told WBJ that the pandemic drove down sales and forced him to close locations in Arlington and Washington D.C.

The Alexandria location at 804 N. Henry Street was the only location to be converted to Elizabeth’s Counter before the closures, though many locals refer to it by the old name out of habit and much of the interior decorations kept the same donut shop glaze.

Sales at Elizabeth’s Counter have rebounded somewhat since the worst of the pandemic, WBJ reported, boosted somewhat by speakeasy Captain Gregory’s.

The Northern Virginia branch isn’t the only part of the Sugar Shack franchise that’s faced financial troubles, the Richmond-based chains had to shut down other locations after lawsuits between the company’s founders.

Photo via Elizabeth’s Counter

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The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (AWLA) has won a $10,000 grant to help provide assistance to pet owners who might not otherwise be able to afford veterinary care for their animals.

The Mars Petcare Better Cities for Pets program is funded by Mars Petcare and administered by the Humane Society of the United States. The AWLA said funds from the grant will allow the organization to assist pet owners in the community to address urgent or chronic veterinary concerns.

“The AWLA already goes above and beyond to help animals in our facility,” Joanna Fortin, Director of Community Programs, said in a press release, “and we want to be able to extend that same level of care to animals throughout the community. This generous grant from Mars Petcare will mean we can help cherished pets receive much-needed care, regardless of owners’ income level.”

The funding will go towards the AWLA’s Community Programs department, a wing of the shelter founded last fall that found heightened use as the city faced widespread unemployment during the pandemic.

“As the pandemic affected budgets across the region, Fortin and her team have been able to provide pet food and supplies to pet owners in need through the Pet Pantry, which has donated more than 7,000 pounds of goods across the community since April,” the AWLA said in the press release. “The Pet Pantry complements other AWLA programs aimed at pet wellness, including accessible spay/neuter vouchers for low-income families, Pet Care Fairs and Drive-Up clinics to provide no and low-cost vaccinations and AniMeals for pets of senior citizens on fixed incomes.”

The AWLA said the community programs aim to make sure every pet in the city can be cared for as it needs.

“Every pet deserves to be healthy and safe, and every pet owner deserves the resources needed to care for their pets,” said AWLA Executive Director Stella Hanly. “Our Community Programs team strives every day to make that possible for animals across Alexandria. As a nonprofit, we don’t always have the funds to help everyone, but this grant will give us the opportunity to help more pet owners in need, and help those pets stay in homes where they are loved.”

Photo courtesy Animal Welfare League of Alexandria

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After a tumultuous start right as the pandemic hit, business at Old Town zero waste grocery store Mason and Greens (913 King Street) is doing better as quarantine has forced locals to reassess trash output.

“When we started off, we were just doing online orders,” said Justin Marino, who opened Mason and Greens with his wife Anna Marino in March. “We pushed up the deployment of our website a little further so we could do online orders and pickups.”

By the end of May, Justin said they started to allow some shopping in the store. So far, Justin said much of the business has come from people travelling to the store from D.C. or as far away as Richmond and Baltimore.

“We knew that we would tap into that market just because of what we were doing,” he said. “We were the only people in the area doing a zero waste shop. It’s drawn people to Alexandria, which is nice.”

For the most part, Justin said business has been steadily improving over the last few months after the store launched right as the stay-at-home order hit. There have been a few setbacks along the way, though.

“We’ve seen dips,” Justin said. “At the beginning of July we saw a dip that directly correlated with the spikes going on everywhere. I think people got a little bit hesitant to go out and do retail shopping. It’s the ebb and the flow, but every month doing better than the last.”

With local COVID-19 levels trending down, Justin said he’s excited to start doing new stuff with the store.

“The neat part is the store just evolves over time,” Justin said. “We have a lot of big plans for things coming up. One thing we hope to do, if all goes according to plan, is we hope to be doing beer and wine.”

Justin said if the store gets its ABC license, in late September they hope to add the ability to refill growlers.

“Everyone who drinks beer has been to a local brewery and has picked up a growler,” Justin said. “Having a place like ours to fill that up as a way to reduce glass. It’s still in the works. It’s a little bit tricky because a lot of the breweries are busy trying to figure these things out too. Ideally would be working with local breweries and vineyards as well.”

The silver lining to all of this, Justin said, has been that people at home have had to take a second look at the amount of trash they create. Trash collection resumed in June, but early in the pandemic the amount of garbage piling up at residential locations put a strain on the city’s infrastructure.

“Now everyone is at home and is starting to look at how much trash they’re generating and thinking about it more,” Justin said. “It’s more on people’s minds. It’s good in that respect, that people are thinking about the mountains of trash.”

Early in the pandemic, Justin said the store had a run on hand sanitizer, which they sell in bulk. While that’s calmed down substantially, there is still a challenge of finding pumps for hand sanitizer containers.

“One of the most fascinating things we found is we’re challenged finding pumps,” Justin said. “We will sell bottles with pumps for people to refill, but the pumps are hard to find right now, and have been hard to find since March. We found that a lot of people are just pitching them, not just locally but globally. Everyone is using these pumps, every restaurant and store, everyone buying sprayers and pumps and they usually just pitch them. There’s a huge demand and supply can’t meet that. We’ve been trying to source these things pretty regularly.”

In general, Justin said he hopes that people emerge from the pandemic more conscious about their waste.

“If people are looking at what they generate now that they’re at home all the time, it’s nice to actually think about that and think about ways to minimize that,” Justin said. “We’re here for those folks.”

Photo via Mason and Greens

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Even as the city sorts out how to handle issues of diversity and institutionalized racism in the school system, Alexandria is commemorating the 100th anniversary of a local school for Black students built in part by local supporters and parents.

In September 1920, the Parker-Gray School opened on Wythe Street where the Charles Houston Recreation Center is today. The school started as an elementary program, but added a high school in 1932. The school operated as the city’s lone Black high school.

With insufficient funding, many in the nearby community donated funding to buy supplies for the school.

“Under the direction of Henry T. White, the school operated with only the barest essentials and depended on the community for additional equipment and support,” according to the city.

In 1950, the high school component moved into a new building at 1207 Madison Street. The Parker-Gray School remained in operation until 1965.

According to a newsletter sent out by the City of Alexandria:

In September 1920, the Parker-Gray School opened for African American students grades 1 – 8. Located on Wythe Street, the school was named for the two principals of the previous segregated elementary schools in Alexandria – Principal John Parker of the Snowden School for boys and Principal Sarah Gray of the Hallowell School for girls.  Henry T. White was its teacher-principal with a staff of nine additional teachers.  Parker-Gray was the only elementary school in Alexandria with an auditorium because of Mr. White’s insistence that one be placed in the architectural plans. The boosters and parents had to buy chairs for the auditorium, a stage curtain, wastebaskets, desk clocks, coat racks for teachers, $1000 worth of equipment for the Home Economics room, reference books, roller maps and globes, a typewriter, a Victrola and records, a lantern slide with 600 slides as well as cover half of the cost of window shades for the building.

Photo via City of Alexandria

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