Alexandria, VA

The City of Alexandria is working on plans to handle a potential Coronavirus outbreak, but if you’re looking to a free face mask from the city, you’re out of luck.

“Our health department is not there to deliver masks,” said City Councilwoman Amy Jackson at a City Council meeting on Tuesday. “We’ve seen an increase in requests, but you have to find your own if that’s what you want to do.”

Councilman Mohamed “Mo” Seifeldein checked in with the City Manager at the meeting’s end to ensure the city is preparing for a potential coronavirus outbreak.

“With the announcement from the CDC, it seems like unwelcome news may be coming,” Seifeldein said. “In the event that we have to go into a short schedule, work from home, school [closures], I want to make sure plans are set.”

City Manager Mark Jinks confirmed that the city is working on plans to continue operating city services while minimizing the potential spread of disease.

“As the spread of the virus is on two continents, it’s a pandemic,” Jinks said. “We’ve had a staff group working and we’re going to be expanding that. We have a continuation of service plans in place with each department, however, this is a different circumstance than we have ever faced.”

“This is not a snowstorm. This is not a weather event,” he continued. “We’ve got to go back and look at those and see how we would respond differently. We’re in a different gear.”

Jinks said he and others on city staff are reading up on past pandemics.

“Nobody really knows how far it’s going to spread, but we have to plan for it,” Jinks said. “We have to be ready.”

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

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After months of stalled discussions over the cost of adding southern access to the Potomac Yard Metro station, Mayor Justin Wilson said the city could start the process of financing it over again.

The Potomac Yard Metrorail Implementation Work Group “expressed a great amount of frustration at the amount of time we have spent working with WMATA and their contractor to come to an agreement on a potential change order for improved southwest access,” Wilson said at the City Council meeting last night (Tuesday). “The message that was crystal clear from PYMIG was to set a date to have pencils down regardless of where we’re at and pursue going back to market to bid out the improved southwest access.”

Wilson said the group’s attitude was one of “frustrated impatience” with the way the WMATA has handled this.

The original southern entrance to the Metro station was cut from early plans to save money. As something of a consolation prize, a path to a pedestrian bridge, from neighborhoods to the south to the entrance on the north side of the station, was added.

The city has been in discussion with WMATA for months after prices the latter negotiated for the southern access ramp came back higher than the $50 million allocated in a state grant. During PYMIG meetings, city officials repeatedly said they believed the price was substantially higher than what it should be.

Wilson acknowledged at an earlier meeting that while going back to market for bids on the contract could get a better deal, it could also show that WMATA was correct and the numbers will be even higher than the current bids.

At the site itself, construction is progressing. Staff said at the City Council meeting that the walls are being poured in for the AC switchgear building. Contractors are currently working on ground stabilization to support the station and driving piles on the west side for the north pavilion.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Alexandria may allocate $6 million to reopen closed portions of the Holmes Run Trail.

The trail, which was damaged in last July’s flash flooding after the Barcroft Dam overflowed, in addition to previous flood damage from 2018, is currently closed in four sections. City Manager Mark Jinks has proposed new capital funding to reopen all four sections.

If approved by the City Council as part of this year’s budget and Capital Improvement Program process, trail users will still have to wait a couple of years for it to fully reopen. Repairs will be designed and planned in Fiscal Year 2021 and construction will take place in Fiscal Year 2022.

“The City recognizes the impact these trail closures have on the many residents and visitors who use Holmes Run Trail and appreciates the community’s patience as City staff works to fund, plan, design and construct the necessary improvements to make the trail fully functional once again,” said a press release.

The full city press release is below.

Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks has proposed $6 million in capital funds to restore public access to the portions of the Holmes Run Trail closed following damage sustained during heavy rainfall.

In July 2019, Alexandria received a month’s worth of rain in approximately one hour, which led to flooding that damaged portions of the trail and left it unsafe for public access. Holmes Run is subject to water surges from stormwater that enters the run from various points, and these surges can be heavy when combined with automatic, controlled releases from the upstream Barcroft Dam.

While some problems have been repaired by City maintenance crews already, four locations (including two bridges) remain closed due to the devastating level of damage. These four sections of the trail suffered severe erosion and are structurally compromised. A map of the current closures and detour routes are available at the Holmes Run Trail Closures page.

The cost to address the current issues and rebuild the trail exceeds existing City resources and available state aid. The City Manager’s February 18 budget proposal funds design and engineering in Fiscal Year 2021, and construction starting in Fiscal Year 2022. City Council will adopt the Capital Improvement Program on April 29.

The City recognizes the impact these trail closures have on the many residents and visitors who use Holmes Run Trail and appreciates the community’s patience as City staff works to fund, plan, design and construct the necessary improvements to make the trail fully functional once again.

While temporary warning signage and barriers have been installed at all trail closures, City staff is actively working to develop more robust detour route signage to help trail users navigate the closures.

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Alexandria is a little ahead of schedule increasing the number of affordable housing units in the city, and two new deals are getting it closer to meeting its regional housing goals.

On Saturday, Council unanimously adopted proposals to increase the number of affordable housing units in Eisenhower East by the hundreds, and to add nine affordable units in a new mixed-use Aspire Alexandria development in Braddock.

Mayor Justin Wilson called an amendment to the Eisenhower East Small Area Plan “the most aggressive inclusionary zoning, affordable housing policy we have ever adopted in the city.”

Under the proposal, 10% of additional residential rental development in Eisenhower East will be devoted to affordable rental units. At full buildout, up to 400-450 affordable units are anticipated for the area, which currently only has 66 affordable units.

“We will have to see how this all works out and comes to reality, but I think an important step about our values as a community,” Wilson said.

The mixed-use Aspire Alexandria project is the latest project taking advantage of the city’s 2019 affordable housing guidelines by increasing density in exchange for affordable housing. Its nine affordable units are but a fraction of the 133 units that will be used for senior citizens, however.

Alexandria’s low cost, market-affordable (non-subsidized) rental housing fell 88 percent between 2000-2018, and the city needs to produce 2,000 affordable housing units by 2025 and an additional 1,950 units by 2030 to meet the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ regional goal of 320,000 new affordable housing units.

At just over 15 square miles, Alexandria is looking everywhere for land, and the city manager’s office has even tapped the public school system to include co-locating affordable housing options in plans for all schools slated for development.

Helen McIlvane, the city’s housing director, said that the city is on track to meet its 2025 goal, and a little behind with the total number that it needs to raise by 2030.

“It’s a puzzle, its expensive. We have to be focused all the time at looking at opportunities and making most of them,” McIlvane said, adding that the city is trying to incentivize building owners to keep properties affordable. “There are places on the west end, where buildings are market affordable and we’d like them to remain that way. We want to secure what’s on the ground today, we want to preserve it.”

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The Eisenhower Partnership is making a last-minute push to try to salvage a 15-minute bus service plan for Eisenhower Avenue ahead of tomorrow’s City Council meeting.

Currently buses cycle along Eisenhower Avenue every 30 minutes, as they do in much of the rest of the city. A new plan would increase the frequency of service in densely populated corridors, while cutting down or eliminating service to some less-densely populated residential areas.

After backlash from Seminary Hill residents at risk of losing the AT2 line, DASH restored some of the less dense areas but at the cost of scaling back the 15-minute cycles planned for Eisenhower.

Now, the Eisenhower Partnership — a non-profit representing the Eisenhower Valley — has set up a petition hoping to make Eisenhower Avenue one of the 15-minute bus service routes again.

“We ask Alexandria City Council and the DASH Board of Directors to amend the plan to bring more frequent service to Eisenhower by 2022 to support continued economic growth, improved livability for residents, and fewer cars on our streets,” the group said in the petition. “The Eisenhower Valley is booming in new residential and commercial construction. It is an economic engine for Alexandria, increasingly providing improvements to innovation, learning, and living.”

The petition has 118 signatures with a goal of 200.

The Eisenhower Partnership cited upcoming plans to increase density in Eisenhower, with a shift towards greater residential uses.

“DASH ridership on Eisenhower is already strong, averaging 175 riders each weekday,” the petition said. “This number will grow, since several new apartment buildings are planned or under construction along Eisenhower, including partial conversion of the Victory Center to residential. Long-awaited growth is great news, but these new residents will either ride the bus to Metro stations or add to the unmitigated traffic problem.”

The City Council is scheduled to review an update on the transit vision study at the meeting tomorrow (Tuesday).

By 2030, the plan is to have virtually every bus route in the city — including Eisenhower Avenue — at 15-minute frequency. The 2022 planned network, however, would leave the N1 route on Eisenhower avenue at 30-minute frequency.

“To support smart growth and reduce traffic for all Alexandrians, bus service on Eisenhower should be at least every 15 minutes by 2022, increasing as needed,” the petition said. “For certain, another ten years of low-frequency service on Eisenhower will leave all Alexandrians in a jam.”

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If your idea of paradise is a glass full of wine and a roomful of cats, then you’re in luck.

On Saturday, City Council unanimously approved a special use permit for Mount Purrnon Cat Cafe & Wine Bar, and the two-level building at 109 S. Alfred Street promises to be full of purr-sonality when it opens this spring.

The circa-1885, 2,050-square-foot property has been a commercial site since the 1970s, and dating back to 2002 was home to Fitness on the Run and Sand and Steel Fitness (now at 5418 Eisenhower Ave.). It’s next door to the Friendship Firehouse, across the street from Morrison House Hotel and around the corner from a number of local restaurants and coffee shops.

The cat cafe would allow up to 15 felines — all from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington — to hang out cage-free in lounge areas on the first and second floors, until adopted. The interior will have a tavern feel, even catering to Old Town’s colonial atmosphere with portraits of cats as presidents on the walls.

Cat cafes gained popularity in Taiwan in the 1990s. D.C.’s first cat cafe was Crumbs & Whiskers in Georgetown, which opened in 2015.

Mount Purrnon, which got seed funding by raising $25,500 in a Kickstarter campaign, will serve beer and wine for up to 20 patrons an hour. But what if a patron has one too many? Not to worry, because same-day adoptions are not allowed. There is an interview process, which includes a background check.

Pre-packaged foods like cheese and crackers, hummus and veggies, pastries and chips will also be served, and no food will be prepared on-site. There will also be no live entertainment — other than the cats, that is.

Special use permit approved!!!!! Thanks GW, happy birthday!

Posted by Mount Purrnon Cat Cafe and Wine Bar on Saturday, February 22, 2020

Photo via Mount Purrnon Cat Cafe & Wine Bar/Facebook

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Among the benefits of the new Aspire Alexandria project headed to the City Council this Saturday (Feb. 22) are a handful of new homes that could meet a critical need in the city.

Aspire Alexandria is a new housing development at 1112 First Street, where Tony’s Auto Service is today, aimed at offering independent senior living. The anticipated move-in age is between 77-82, but the facility will not offer direct assistance with daily living activities or memory care needs.

The project is going to be predominately market-rate housing, but plans sent to the city council include a handful of affordable housing units in exchange for additional density.

The city’s 2019 affordable housing guidelines say that developments can achieve up to 30% additional density in exchange for affordable housing, either by way of a contribution to the city’s affordable housing fund or by providing units, in the case of residential development.

In exchange for bonus density, Aspire will offer eight units set aside as affordable for up to 40 years. The residents of these units would have access to the same elderly care and amenities as the rest of the residents.

According to a staff report:

These include, but are not limited to, 30 meals per month, all utilities (excluding telephone), basic cable, wireless internet, weekly housekeeping and linen service, trash removal, on-site entertainment and social and educational programs and events, group wellness activities, 24-hour concierge service, and scheduled transportation services

The affordable housing will still take most of a resident’s paycheck. To qualify, the applicant can make no more than $4,250 monthly ($51,000 annually) for a one-person unit or $4,855 monthly ($58,260 annually) for a two-person unit. The affordable units’ total monthly costs will be $3,552 for a one-bedroom or $3,791 for a two-bedroom.

Helen McIlvaine, Director of the Office of Housing, told ALXnow that the affordable units fit a need for housing between the lowest end of the spectrum and the luxury senior housing that is more frequently being built.

“We have some stuff for people at the lowest end, but this is for people who can’t afford the luxury housing,” McIlvaine said. “The city doesn’t have a lot of alternatives. This expands options for seniors.”

Market-rate one-bedroom apartments at the facility are expected to be priced around $4,900 monthly.

Despite the fairly low number of units being offered, Commission on Aging members said in an earlier meeting that units specifically for seniors are needed in the city.

“The representatives noted that the City is not currently building these types of units elsewhere and that a monetary contribution of equivalent value to the Housing Trust Fund would not be reserved exclusively for future senior housing development,” the staff report said. “It is noted that the representatives discussed the potential need to explore securing more deeply subsidized rents (for example, affordable at 30% or 40% AMI) in exchange for a fewer number of units (of equivalent value) while retaining the 60% AMI income eligibility cap.”

Image via City of Alexandria

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As part of an effort to curtail truck traffic through residential streets, the City Council could add E. Taylor Run Parkway to the list of streets where truck traffic is banned.

On Saturday (Feb. 22) the City Council is scheduled (item #13) to review a potential ban on commercial truck traffic on the street, which connects Janneys Lane and Duke Street.

Commuter traffic has repeatedly been a thorn in the side of E. Taylor Run Parkway residents, particularly with apps like Waze and Google Maps diverting traffic onto side streets to avoid gridlock on the main roads. The Traffic and Parking Board originally approved a recommendation to close the street to truck traffic in 2018.

A similar ban already exists on W. Taylor Run Parkway, though that street has its own share of problems — namely an ongoing spate of parked cars being struck by passing vehicles.

According to city records, there are 23 other streets where truck traffic is banned, most of them in Old Town or connected to Seminary Road.

Photo via Google Maps

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Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks released his proposed, $799.9 million fiscal year 2021 budget at City Hall on Tuesday night, and it includes a 2 cent real estate tax increase.

Jinks, who also presented a $2.1 billion 10-year Capital Improvement Plan, proposes increasing the current tax rate by six cents over the course of six years — a 2 cent addition every other year — in order to pay for city and school system improvements.

“That will raise about $230 million over a 10 year period, and that will go largely to paying debt service for, generally, those projects that we’re borrowing for,” Jinks said. “We will use those increases in the tax rate to cover that cost against service, which will take that pressure off the general fund… (T)here’s a large consensus in the community that we need to do the school projects, we need to do the city projects.”

The budget is a 4.5% increase over the current FY 2020 budget of $761.5 million, which was approved last May. The 2 cent real estate tax hike of $1.13 to $1.15 per $100 of assessed value averages to a $116 tax increase for residents, city officials said.

Adding to the tax burden: a 4.15% jump in average property assessments.

The CIP also includes the eventual renovation of city hall, $7.5 million for bridge repairs and refurbishments, $17.6 million to support the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority Capital Improvement Program and $30.5 million toward flood mitigation along the waterfront.

Schools

This year’s proposed tax hike will help cover the $227 million price tag for the renovation of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School and the expansion of T.C. Williams High School, Jinks said.

The preliminary budget includes a $241.4 million transfer to the Alexandria City Public School system. The $9.8 million, or 4.2% increase over last year’s budget, meets the full amount requested by ACPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings, Jr.

Collaboration between the city and ACPS has progressed over the last several weeks, as Alexandria is experiencing an affordable housing crisis and needs land. Last month, school officials seemed aghast at the notion of co-locating affordable housing on the grounds of George Mason Elementary School after a feasibility study was mistakenly released to the public. Now, however, ACPS has pledged to include co-locating affordable or workforce housing options in all future development plans (with the exception of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School).

City Employees

Under the plan, all city staff would receive a 1.5% pay increase, totaling at $3.5 million. The budget includes $800,000 for targeted pay increases. Employees are also eligible for merit-based pay increases ranging from 2.3% to 5%, and the plan would add $400,000 to reduce employees premium shares from 20% to 15% for those making below $70,000 a year.

The proposal includes 34 new full-time positions, including $85,000 for a full-time nurse practitioner to provide health support for the city’s firefighters and medics; $85,000 for a rehabilitative program coordinator with the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney; $50,000 for a part-time psychologist to help staff on the receiving end of 911 calls for service; $360,000 for six reserve firefighters and $135,000 for Sheriff’s Office staff.

Mayor Justin Wilson thanked staff and said the process was far from over.

“The budget development process begins the day after we adopt the last budget, and culminates tonight,” Wilson said. “This is the start of a process where we ask a lot of questions.”

The budget also includes:

  • $562,000 for the city’s new Alex311 customer service initiative
  • $415,000 for four new Transportation and Environmental Services employees to focus on land use and transportation plan reviews
  • $138,000 to increase the city’s in-house information security staff
  • $287,000 for full-time security officers at City Hall
  •  $760,000 in capital preservation funds for the Murray-Dick-Fawcett House
  • An 11.9% increase in for residents who use the city’s trash and recycling services, from $411 to $460 per year
  • A 4.5% increase in the stormwater fee for residents, from $140 to $146.30

Council will conduct nine budget work sessions leading up to the April 29 adoption. On Thursday, the city will conduct a public budget presentation at Charles E. Beatley Central Library (5005 Duke Street) from 7-8:30 p.m, and the budget public hearing will he held at 5:30 p.m. on March 9 at City Hall.

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After months of activism over the much-maligned Seminary Road Diet, the Facebook group dedicated to opposing the lane reduction has rebranded itself and broadened its focus.

On Sunday, the Alexandria Residents Against the Seminary Road Diet Facebook group was renamed “Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria! End Seminary Rd Diet & Other Bad Ideas.”

“I think that trust in the city government has reached a low ebb. It’s the lowest that it’s been in the 30 years that I’ve lived in Alexandria,” said Bill Rossello, one of the administrators of the Facebook group. “When the city makes a decision, they just go through the motions to make it look like they are making efforts toward civic engagement.”

The group of around 1,500 vocal residents was founded in November — not long after the quick implementation of the road diet, a reduction of the 0.9 mile stretch of Seminary from N. Quaker Lane to Howard Street from four lanes to two, plus a center turn lane and bike lanes.

After Freedom of Information Act disclosures and continuous engagements with numerous city officials, City Councilwoman Amy Jackson surprised her colleagues in December by calling for a reversal of the road diet. Jackson ended up withdrawing her motion, although the group considers the attempted action a victory.

“It’s all about Facebook and the power of social media, because all these people came to us. With 1,500 people, word can spread very quickly,” Rossello said, adding that the road diet will be an election issue in the upcoming local Democratic primary in June 2021. “There will be more FOIAs, and judging from what Amy Jackson promised to do, there will be some movement on this… I imagine that most of our members will support candidates who want to reverse it.”

Now the group will focus its attention to issues across the city. Its description on Facebook now reads:

(T)he City’s lack of truthfulness and transparency has become a pattern across a number of policy decisions and proposals, including those related to road diets, Metro entrances, affordable housing, VDOT grants and business permitting without proper data, justification and approval from actual citizens of the City.

Rossello, who served on the city’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee for seven years in the 1990s, said that the private Facebook group is nonpartisan, but it is not intended to be a debate platform for city residents. About 19 members of the group have been kicked out for arguing, he noted, because the group is intended to be an “affinity group.”

A recent post emphasizes that discontentment among residents bridges the party divide.

“I like adding Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria to our name,” a group member wrote last night. “It helps combat the folks saying we’re grouchy right wingers. I, for one, am a liberal Democrat.”

“I think that we on this site want to prevent our pleasant, tree-lined City from turning into sterile, treeless Crystal City,” the post continued. “We favor a transportation department that promotes traffic flow, not traffic jams. We want our government to return to its friendly, honest, responsive ways. We want to end this era of… rigged community ‘input.'”

(Though the group is vocal in its opposition to the Seminary Road Diet, a less vocal group of residents, including many of those who live along the affected stretch of Seminary Road, support the changes. Also, it should be noted, Crystal City is not without trees.)

Despite the prohibition on arguing, Mayor Justin Wilson repeatedly engages on the page by making comments, many of which refute accusations of a conspiracy against city residents.

The mayor’s comments have fueled the determination of the group, Rossello said.

“I think that he [Wilson] has certainly added to the interest in the group and spurred a lot of discussions. People take advantage of that and spar with him,” Rossello said. “We are going to continue to put pressure on city officials.”

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Alexandria’s DASH bus system is looking to improve its mobile ticketing smartphone application, but city officials want the app to be compatible with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s SmarTrip cards.

The bus system views the rollout of the app last June to be a success. Now DASH is working with the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission to understand how to improve upon the system before making those next steps.

“We eventually hope to see that merge with the future generation of SmarTrip,” DASH General Manager Josh Baker told the city council during the transit company’s annual stockholder meeting at City Hall on Tuesday. “Our system is entirely self- contained. You’re able to buy a pass on there, add money to your trips, but not on your SmartTrip card. So, eventually we hope to see that system feed into the future generations.”

Baker added, “It’s a little tricky, because of course WMATA had some stuff going on internally in that they’re trying to figure out in terms of SmartTrip in the future.”

But Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson said that there needs to be some regional leadership around converging the technology to be compatible across multiple transportation platforms.

“You go to the San Francisco Bay area, and whether you’re riding Oakland’s bus system, whether you’re riding the ferry, the BART, whether you’re riding SFMTA, whatever, you’re using the same card, the same media, all the same system,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to be there eventually. So, not only the bus systems in Metro, but VRE and the water taxi and everyone else.”

Approximately 1,000 bus riders downloaded the app in June, and by October there were more than 5,000 users. The app was made available to accommodate riders during the summer shutdown of Alexandria’s Metro stations for platform improvements.

Last year, DASH reported more than 4 million passenger trips and logged 1.7 million miles.

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Interested in sailing to work? During last summer’s Metro Shutdown, Alexandria eased restrictions allowing for the Potomac Riverboat Company’s water taxi to ferry commuters from the city’s waterfront to the District Wharf.

Tonight, the city council will receive a report on extending the license agreement to allow for early morning water taxi commuting services to continue.

The agreement, which would allow for the water taxi to start running as early as 6:30 a.m., was “nearly unanimously” endorsed by the Waterfront Commission, according to a Dec. 31 letter submitted in the staff presentation to council.

The letter also said that there should be minimal parking impacts in Old Town.

Specifically, staff found that 85% of commuters surveyed said they either walked or biked to the water taxi, and 90% of these commuters were former Metrorail riders,” Waterfront Commission Chair Stephen Thayer wrote. “Staff noted these former Metrorail riders did not stop riding Metrorail altogether, but simply boarded Metrorail at L’Enfant Plaza, which is a short shuttle bus ride away from the District’s Wharf.”

The Commission is also asking the city to consider a water taxi user reimbursement program. During the summer shutdown the daily $10 commuter round trip was reduced 80% with the reimbursement.

Potomac Riverboat Company operates four water taxis, in addition to the Cherry Blossom, Matthew Hayes, and other named vessels.

The Council will decide on the matter at a public hearing on Feb. 22.

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