Alexandria, VA

Alexandria could open up new zoning options in the city for “continuum of care” facilities that would offer local seniors a new option to age in place.

While elder care homes, group homes for the elderly, nursing homes and hospice care are all included in sections in the zoning code, staff said in a report that there’s no definition for senior facilities that offer a “range of care options from independent living to assisted living, with or without memory care services, within one facility.”

Under the current language, staff said there were vagaries about how existing development standards — such as setbacks, open space, and density — would apply to a facility like this, which eludes traditional residential, commercial and mixed-use zoning classifications.

The new continuum of care amendment is scheduled for review at tomorrow’s (Saturday) City Council meeting.

The new definition classifies continuum of care facilities as domiciliary use and/or care for four or more aged, infirm, or disabled adults. The definition also allows for a range of independence, from housing with kitchen facilities to assisted living with memory care, all located on one lot.

The move is part of an effort by the city to supply adequate housing for its senior citizens. According to a staff report:

The demand for senior housing in Alexandria is increasing as the population ages. Analyses of the American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year 2015 Estimates show that the City’s population aged 65 and older increased from 9.2% in 2010 to 9.8% in 2015. While the City’s senior population is growing at a slower rate than in other areas of the country, this age group is expected to continue to grow in Alexandria over the next twenty years as the “baby boomer” generation enters this age group in greater numbers and Alexandria continues to be a desirable location for retirement and aging in place.

Approval of the new zoning options won’t mark the end of changes for continuum of care facilities. According to the staff report, the Affordable Housing Work Group is currently assessing ways to create more affordable senior housing options via developer contributions and other means.

Photo via Susan Jane Golding/Flickr

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Deli, News & More at 1406 King Street in Old Town sells, as the name may suggest, deli sandwiches, news, and more. But it’s the “and more” that got the shop in trouble earlier this year.

The shop opened in 1994 as a newsstand, and in 1995 got authorization to operate a carry-out restaurant in conjunction with the newsstand. But as any one of the 150 patrons a day at the store may have noticed, half of the shop is a convenience store it was never authorized to operate.

A staff report on the zoning issue said that the unauthorized convenience store attracted patrons from nearby office and commercial buildings, hotels, and residents of the surrounding neighborhood.

During a routine inspection in June, inspectors cited the business for violation of its Special Use Permit for sale of alcohol. Further inspection found that the restaurant had expanded substantially beyond the carry-out restaurant and newsstand it was authorized for.

Deli, News & More is on tomorrow’s (Saturday) City Council docket as a consent item, meaning it will likely receive approval that will bring the store into alignment with its zoning, and locals can continue buying beer and necessities along with their news and deli sandwiches.

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If you’ve ever wanted to get more involved in city governance, now is your chance.

There are several vacancies for boards in Alexandria. Many have certain requirements, like being a member of the Planning Commission or a representative of an impacted group, many groups also have public members who represent the community and are not required to be affiliated with any particular group.

Many of the policy decisions that reach the City Council start at one of the dozens of boards and commissions that specialize in various fields of public interest.

All applicants must submit a personal data record form by 5 p.m. on Dec. 3. Applicants cannot apply to more than one board or commission.

The following committees and boards have vacancies for citizen members, sometimes listed as a member-at-large:

  • Alcohol Safety Action Program Policy Board: of four vacancies, there is one vacancy for a citizen member, due to an expiring term. The Board meets at the call of the Chair.
  • Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee: one public vacancy  The Committee meets on the first Thursday of the month at 7:00 p.m.  Approximately four to five hours per month are required of Committee members.
  • Archaeological Commission: one member-at-large vacancy, due to a resignation.  The Commission meets at 7:00 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month.  Approximately four to five hours per month are required of Commission members.
  • Beauregard Urban Design Advisory Committee: one vacancy for a citizen member, due to expired term.  The Committee meets on the third Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m.  Approximately four hours per month are required of Committee members.
  • Beautification Commission: two citizen vacancies. The Commission meets on the second Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m. Approximately eight hours per month are required of Commission members.
  • Commission for Women: one vacancy for a citizen member, due to a resignation.  The Commission meets on the second Tuesday of the month at 7:00 p.m.  Approximately eight hours per month are required of Commission members.
  • Commission on HIV/AIDS: eight vacancies for citizen members. The Commission meets on the third Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m.  Approximately three hours per month are required of Commission members.
  • Commission on Persons with Disabilities: two vacancies for citizen members. The Commission meets at 7:00 p.m. on the second Wednesday of every month.  Approximately six to ten hours a month are required of Commission members.
  • Community Services Board: one vacancy for a citizen member. The Board meets on the first Thursday of each month at 6:30 p.m.  The Board is on recess in July and August. Approximately eight hours per month are required of Board members.

A full list of Commissions with vacancies, including the ones with specific requirements not listed here, is available at the City of Alexandria website.

The city is also looking to fill a vacancy on the Alexandria Transit Company’s (ATC) Board of Directors. All applicants must complete a personal data record form and submit it to the ATC by Tuesday, Dec. 3.

According to the city website:

The Board will take into consideration the applicant’s work background, years of residency in the City of Alexandria, past and present involvement in community service, civic groups, and other boards and commissions, the extent to which they use or have used transit services, their interest in transit and transportation issues, related skills that they may bring to the Board, and the area of the City that they reside with respect to the present Board members.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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It has been years since the City Council has been giddy during a meeting discussing its state legislative package.

For the first time in decades, there is a Democratic majority in the Virginia legislature, which is a boon to the city’s all-Democrat council.

Mayor Justin Wilson previously told ALXnow that the win opens up doors for several longstanding city goals, like more free-reign to control local financing. At a City Council meeting last night (Tuesday), some of those goals took shape in a draft of the city’s legislative package.

Every year, the city assembles a selection of local requests for Alexandria’s legislative representatives to take to Richmond. Proposals have ranged from increasing the minimum wage to changes in the minutiae of preschool management, and most of the requests were ignored or shot down by the Republican majority.

“As everyone understands, this is going to be quite a different General Assembly session,” Wilson told the City Council. “That’s certainly a very exciting thing.”

Officials warned, however, that the city had to exercise some restraint to ensure that most of the goals would be approved.

“This is a clear double-edged sword for us,” Sarah Taylor, the city’s legislative director, told the City Council. “The opportunities are really good. The legislature and our delegation will be able to do some really great things, but we have to be very smart and very strategic in how we approach things.”

Taylor said the city priorities were broken up into three categories:

  • State investment in infrastructure
  • Protection and expansion of local authority and funding for localities
  • Access, equity and equality

The big ask for the infrastructure investment is assistance with the RiverRenew project, the largest infrastructure project in Alexandria’s history and the result of an unfunded mandate by the state legislature. The project is estimated to cost between $370 and $555 million. It secured some funding earlier this year, but the city is requesting $65 million more.

Taylor said state Sen. Richard “Dick” Saslaw (D-35) asked for $75 million. Several members of the City Council noted that they wouldn’t say “no” to higher funding than what they requested.

Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means local authorities can only exercise powers expressly granted to them by the state, but several of the items in the legislative package aim to pick away fractionally, like granting localities the right to regulate firearms in government buildings and property.

“There’s a lot that could be done with local authority,” Taylor said. “There are a lot of pieces that could be done incrementally.”

Other specific asks in the legislative package include:

  • Incrementally raise the minimum wage in Virginia to $15/hour
  • Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment
  • Allow voters to use an otherwise valid but expired photo ID
  • Amend the Virginia Constitution to establish the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Commission
  • Additional state funding for K-12 education
  • Red flag” gun control laws and stronger background checks
  • Broaden the coverage of the Communications Sales and Use Tax (CSUT) to include audio and video streaming services and prepaid calling services
  • Comprehensive tax reform to allow more types of taxes and reduce reliance on property taxes
  • Add Alexandria to the list of localities where a state income tax credit is available to landlords accepting Housing Choice Vouchers
  • Full restoration of funding to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority for local transit projects
  • Legislation that will allow the city to increase recycling rates in our community and reduce the use of plastic bags, single use plastics and Styrofoam

A public hearing on the legislative package is scheduled this Saturday, Nov. 16. Final adoption of the package is scheduled for Dec. 12 with the legislative session beginning Jan. 8.

“To undo the amount of damage that has been done to the Commonwealth — to move the Commonwealth forward to a more progressive agenda — we may have to roll up our sleeves,” Councilman Mohamed “Mo” Seifeldein said. “We’re playing with house money and let’s clean up.”

“Gambling is still illegal in Virginia,” Wilson was quick to note.

“Well, maybe we can get a bill on that too,” Seifeldein said.

Staff photo by Kalina Newman

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A new noise ordinance could impose Old Town’s decibel limits citywide, but one local restaurant isn’t taking the news lying down.

Lost Dog Cafe, a popular restaurant at 808 N. Henry Street near the Braddock Metro station and part of a regional franchise, expressed frustration at the proposed limits on Twitter.

The ordinance would limit noise in public places citywide to 65 decibels (about the volume of a normal conversation) in a public place within 10 feet of a structure, and nothing louder than 75 decibels (about the volume of an average dishwasher) in a public place within 50 feet of a structure.

Other proposed limitations include new nighttime measures from 11 p.m.-7 a.m. that would prohibit audible noise from one residence that reaches another and commercial loading or unloading.

Lost Dog Alexandria owner Matthew Sisk told ALXnow that his main frustration was that many of the plans seem already predetermined by the time they reach public input.

“I think, in general, a lot of what the city puts out for changes to regulations… they don’t do a very good job of circulating that through the business community,” owner Matthew Sisk told ALXnow. “We get caught off guard by these changes with very little time to respond or [offer a] rebuttal.”

The city is currently collecting input on the changes, which are scheduled to go to the City Council for a vote early next year.

Sisk said he appreciated the need for noise ordinances, but said excessive noise complaints can sometimes lead to frustrations for businesses with any nighttime or outdoor activity. Noise was cited as one of the reasons for an outdoor dining ban in Old Town that lasted until 2000, according to the Alexandria Times. In Vienna, hookah bar Bey Lounge has been in a long legal struggle with nearby residents over noise complaints.

“I think the base reason for a noise complaint is good,” Sisk said. “Nobody wants people next door blasting music. But at decibel they’re putting out as the threshold it becomes a weapon for disgruntled residents to use against the city as a whole or specific businesses.”

If the new noise ordinance moves forward, Sisk said the city needs to work to balance managing legitimate noise complaints with the nuisance caused by frivolous noise complaints.

A few years ago, Sisk said he might not have been hopeful of that happening, but recently there have been signs of change.

“I’m happy to own a business in Alexandria, but Alexandria isn’t business-friendly,” Sisk said. “But I will give [City Council] credit, that’s changing slowly.”

Sisk praised responsiveness from city leaders like Mayor Justin Wilson, who responded to his complaints on Twitter.

Sisk said he is still worried that too much work has gone into putting the noise ordinance together for the city to be willing to make changes, but that the direction the city government has been moving gives him hope for some responsiveness.

“You have people who still see it as a quiet town, but it’s an urban environment,” Sisk said. “The city is making advances and it’s getting better by the year. It’s better than it used to be.”

Photo via Lost Dog Cafe/Facebook

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Morning Notes

St. Elmo’s Coffee Coming to Old Town North — “St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub could be getting a second location. The Del Ray coffee shop submitted an application to open at the Gables Old Town North mixed-use development.” [Patch]

City Refuses to Pay for Damaged Fence — “Have you ever heard of something called sovereign immunity? Basically, it lets local governments off the hook if they damage your personal property. It’s what an Alexandria man learned the hard way after he caught a city trash truck damaging his iron fence.” [Fox 5]

City Wants Ideas for Solving Problems — “The City of Alexandria invites the public to attend brainstorming sessions on approaches to mental health, affordable housing and poverty challenges in the community. Community members selected these three topics during a recent public meeting on the development of a five-year Community Health Improvement Plan.” [City of Alexandria]

City Council Holding Budget Retreat — “The Alexandria City Council will hold a retreat meeting on November 2, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., at Alexandria Renew Enterprises (1800 Limerick St.), to discuss the Fiscal Year 2021 General Fund Operating Budget planning process and develop City Council’s Calendar Year 2020 Work Program… The retreat is open to the public, but will not include public comment.” [City of Alexandria]

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The City of Alexandria could be restricting noise limits citywide, and double violations fines as part of new ordinances.

City staff are proposing a citywide noise limit of 65 decibels (about the volume of a normal conversation) in a public place within 10 feet of a structure, and nothing louder than 75 decibels (about the volume of an average dishwhasher) in a public place within 50 feet of a structure.

Previously, those limits only applied to Alexandria’s Central Business District.

In a presentation shared with residents, officials note that the existing 53-year-old noise regulations on the books are long overdue for an update. The old rules don’t include information about loading times for delivery trucks and measuring noise across property lines, for example.

Now staff are proposing several updates, including:

  • A loading truck ban from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. every day.
  • A quiet hours designation for “plainly audible sound” in residential areas, from 11 p.m.-7 a.m.
  • Limiting the hours of outdoor cleaning equipment (like power washers) to match the hours set aside for lawn equipment: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. on weekdays, and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. on weekends.
  • Limiting pet noise: nothing audible from neighboring houses for more than five minutes during the day, or anytime at night if the barking (or other animal noise) is audible to neighborhoods with closed windows and doors closed.

The proposed changes would also double the existing penalties for breaking noise ordinances: from $50 to $100 for the first violation, $100 to $250 for the second violation, and $250 to $500 for the third violation.

However, the new regulations would keep several, long-standing exemptions, including aircraft noise which residents have long protested, as well as Metrorail trains and road work.

Any changes in Alexandria will require approval from the City Council before going into effect. The city is currently accepting comments about the proposed changes.

“We’re in the middle of a public outreach process,” said Department of Transportation & Environmental Services spokeswoman  Sarah Godfrey. “Once we review all comments, we’ll address those raised before submitting a final revision to Council for consideration. We expect to go to Council early next year.”

Godfrey said the recommended increase in fines is based what other nearby jurisdictions impose.

“The current fines are outdated,” she told ALXnow. “We looked at the fine structures of our neighboring jurisdictions and worked to come up with comparable, reasonable amounts.”

Staff are also proposing to create a new noise institutional zoning category of noise regulations, to cover schools, public buildings, and places of worship that fall outside the city’s other, existing categories (residential, commercial, and industrial.) Properties that fall under this new category could allow a higher threshold for noise (65 decibels) than residential properties (55 decibels), but lower than industrial areas (70 decibels.)

Image via Flickr/Phil Roeder

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Gone are the days when the Alexandria City Council and School Board’s joint meetings were bloody affairs where both sides would haggle over monumental budget gaps. But under the surface, members of the City Council were dubious at last night’s (Wednesday) joint session that enough is being done to align city and school interests when it comes to new development.

One of the most-discussed goals of the collaboration between the city and schools is co-locating facilities — moving away from new developments being single-use and towards projects that might include a school along with recreational facilities or housing.

A running theme through the meeting were concerns from city officials that there haven’t been more efforts to co-locate city and school facilities in new projects.

“Are we moving towards the view of having joint facilities?” asked Councilman John Chapman. “That was talked about in the joint task force, but I don’t necessarily see that. I’m hoping to see something much different. It doesn’t always happen overnight, but let me know the status of that because I don’t want to have a conversation about schools on one hand and the city on the other… I’m not seeing what I expected.”

City Council Says More Urgency Needed for Co-locating

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings walked the City Council and School Board through Alexandria City Public Schools’ (ACPS) plans for dealing with capacity issues, and City Manager Mark Jinks highlighted how the school funding fit into the tangled web of the city’s budget priorities.

Hutchings said that school and city staff have been working closely over the last year, as evidenced by more closely aligned budgets.

“That is where we’re having discussions around projects and funding,” Hutchings said. “For example, when you look at our presentation, there’s nothing in our presentation that’s going to be surprising to the City Manager and his team. These are all discussions we’ve had. We still not be where we’re seeking to be, but I know we’re not where we were. I can definitively say we’re not where we were.”

On the city side, Jinks agreed, saying that city staff are present in the discussions for every major school capital project. Jinks, a veteran of years of squabbles between the City Council and School Board, said joint planning is going much more smoothly than it had in previous years. Every project is examined for potential to co-locate city facilities, but Jinks said the right opportunities haven’t emerged yet.

“It’s all city money at the end of the day, so we need to look at decisions that benefit both of us in the way that make the most sense,” Jinks said.

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The Ramsey Homes affordable housing project will loaned an additional $1.4 million thanks to a vote by the Alexandria City Council.

Council members voted to grant the additional funding to the redevelopment last night (Tuesday), bringing the total amount Alexandria has loaned to $5 million.

The long-awaited, sometimes contentious project aims to replace 15 public housing buildings with 52 affordable housing units on the Braddock site. Of the new units, 37 will be reserved for households earning up to 60% of the area’s median income ($56,022) and 15 units set aside for households earning 30% or less than the median income ($28,011.)

“We’re delighted that the City Council is continuing to show strong support for the project,” Helen McIlvaine, the city’s head of housing, told ALXnow after the vote. “It’s going to replace units that had to come down because they’re dilapidated but it’s also going to add new units.”

The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) is developing the property at the corner of N. Patrick and Wythe streets and requested the money after CEO Keith Pettigrew said last year’s unusually wet weather delayed the archaeological study the city requires as part of the construction site review.

“The unexpected costs associated with the four months of dewatering for archeology had not been accounted for in our pre-development budget,” noted Pettigrew.

“Every time they resumed the archeological work it would rain again so I think they just remained behind the 8-ball,” said McIlvaine. “I understand that they were de-watering systems that might have been more efficient in other projects so maybe that’s a lesson that we would learn.”

“But most of what has occurred here was an external issue and we’re all trying to make sure the project stays on track,” she added.

Pettigrew attended the City Council meeting, but did not comment.

This is the second time the City Council has increased the loan to ARHA. Council members increased it by $1.6 million last May, as reported by the Alexandria Times, after ARHA cited rising construction costs and the loss of a tax credit.

The same document noted that “the ARHA team managing the project currently does not include any of the original staff who have transitioned out of the agency since the development was first approved and funded.”

Mayor Justin Wilson said he was “happy” to have the staff members there and thanked them for their hard work.

“I know that this has been a challenge from the beginning, from even before you got here,” he said. “I know it’s something you inherited.” 

The $1.4 million will come out of previous ARHA loan repayments to the city, and agency staff noted in a Council memo they plan to pay it back in 2035.

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The Alexandria City Council reaffirmed longstanding rent increase guidelines after debating the value of the unenforceable rules.

Last night (Tuesday), City Council members voted in favor of keeping guidelines capping rent increases at 5%, but not before arguing over the point of the “symbolic” guidelines, with one member jokingly offering to lower the cap to 1%.

“The question is why, when we have no authority, are we publishing a number that gives people some suggestion that we do authority, when we don’t,” said Mayor Justin Wilson. “We could pick any number here and we’re still going to be in these same position.”

For three decades, the city has issued Voluntary Rent Guidelines suggesting landlords not raise rents too high in a given year, and has issued caps as low as 5% and as high as 9%. However, the city has no way of legally enforcing the cap as Virginia lacks rent control laws. Instead, city staff negotiate with landlords to convince them to voluntarily stick to the cap, a difficult process Alexandria Times has previously reported on.

Alexandria Housing Division Chief Melodie Seau told ALXnow that the negotiations work about half the time.

“Hopefully with the upcoming election we’ll be able to able to implant some sort of rent control if not locally, then by the state, but that’s is big picture,” said Councilman Mohamed “Mo” Seifeldein, referring to the progressive agenda some Virginia Democrats have promised to enact if they win control over Richmond next month.

For now, Seifeldein argued the city’s non-binding guidelines meant Alexandria could and should lower the cap to 3% to help renters. He cited the need to be more aggressive in preserving affordable housing in light of recent warnings about regional housing shortfalls and Arlington and Alexandria’s recent team up to discuss how to prevent Amazon from pricing people out of the region.

“But the thing is that it doesn’t have any teeth,” Councilman Canek Aguirre replied, who said they might as well lower it to 1% if this was about proving “political will.”

Seifeldein agreed, and replaced his 3% proposal with Aguirre’s 1% one.

Councilman John Taylor Chapman echoed the sentiment, said he believed the council was “stretching to make a symbol of this because we want to show that we have political will on housing.”

“I would rather put some people in a unit and get some money like we did with Ramsey Homes, not making a statement on a resolution that has no teeth to symbolize to the public that we’re doing something,” said Chapman, referring to the delayed and over-budget affordable housing development in Braddock.

Members voted 1-5 against Aguirre’s motion for a 1% cap, killing it, along with Seifeldein’s original 3% proposal. Seifeldein abstained from voting.

The resolution considered by the council last night notes that rent hikes pose a growing problem:

Prior to 2000, very few Alexandria landlords with properties of 10 or more rental units failed to comply with the City’s Voluntary Rent Guidelines. However, noncompliance increased significantly around 2,000, when the vacancy rate for rental properties in the city dropped below 1%, and again in 2005 when a large number of rental units were converted to condominiums and rents increased throughout the D.C. metropolitan area.

“It used to be be back the 80s they didn’t have all these software programs that would develop rents on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis,” said Seau. “Property management doesn’t have the ability to override the recommendation from whatever system they’re using.”

Seifeldein noted on the dais that he didn’t want to “dignify” the misrepresentations to his original 3% motion, but did want “loosely quote” Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-D) that “those closest to the pain should be making the decisions.”

The council ultimately voted 6-0 to approve the originally-proposed 5% rent cap, with Seifeldein abstaining.

Image via the City of Alexandria 

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Morning Notes

Alexandria Declares Climate Emergency — “On October 22, the Alexandria City Council unanimously adopted a resolution declaring a climate emergency, recognizing that climate change poses a grave threat to everyone in Alexandria and around the world.” [City of Alexandria]

City Council Passes Refugee Resolution — “The Alexandria City Council unanimously approved a resolution to notify the federal government of its continued support for resettling refugees in Alexandria. The action was taken in response to Executive Order 13888, issued on September 26, which provides that the federal government ‘should resettle refugees only in those jurisdictions in which both the State and local governments have consented to receive refugees.'” [City of Alexandria]

Next Weekend: Event for Little Historians — “Bring your little learners to the Alexandria Black History Museum for cultural stories and creative craft activities that introduce world history and folklore… All ages are welcome, but most suitable for children 3-5 years old.” [City of Alexandria]

Nearby: Belle View Fire Costs Millions — “Monday morning’s six-alarm fire at the Belle View Shopping Center began in the kitchen of one of the businesses in the center, the Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department said in a Tuesday press release… The fire caused more than $5.8 million in damages.” [Covering the Corridor, Fairfax County Fire]

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Favoring the Planning Commission’s decision over staff’s recommendation, the Alexandria City Council has told the Virginia Paving Company it has seven years to vacate its West End property.

The requirement comes as the city is working to transform the Van Dorn Corridor — today an industrial and car-heavy stretch from the Van Dorn Metro station to Landmark Mall — into a more residential-focused area.

In one form or another, there has been a paving plant operating at the site since 1960. But the site was specifically identified in the Eisenhower West Small Area Plan as being a location prime for redevelopment as a commercial and residential hub. The Vulcan materials site across the street is already primed for redevelopment as a mixed-use residential, commercial, and hotel property.

City staff had recommended Virginia Paving be required to close within three years, citing the 2015 approval of the Eisenhower West Small Area Plan as when the clock should have started ticking for the company to prepare for closure. But Mary Catherine Gibbs, attorney for Virginia Paving, successfully argued to the Planning Commission and then to City Council that there has not always been clear communications from staff over the years about whether that closure was going to happen or when.

The City Council unanimously picked 2027 for Virginia Paving’s closure, giving the company more time to phase out operations and find a new buyer for the site. But the City Council also required Virginia Paving and city staff to have regularly scheduled meetings to ensure that progress is being made.

“At the end of seven years, I don’t want you coming back and saying ‘whoops, we need more time,'” said Councilwoman Redella “Del” Pepper. “I want to button it down so that in seven years they’re out. It did not come as a surprise to them that they were going to be asked to leave because they knew that we had this in our mind as we passed it the first go-around… I want it chiseled in stone so we don’t have to go through this a second time.”

Images via City of Alexandria

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