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Got your kilt ready? Alexandria’s Scottish Christmas Walk weekend is back.

Former City Councilwoman Del Pepper will take center stage as the grand Marshal of the 51st Alexandria Scottish Christmas Walk Parade. Record crowds are expected for the parade, which is free to the public and features dozens of Scottish clans, dancers, bagpipers and the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums.

While the parade is the main attraction, the weekend of events is capped off Friday night (Dec. 2) with the Campagna Center’s Taste of Scotland at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. It cost $200 for a single ticket and $375 for two tickets for the party, which includes “whiskey-tasting stations, hors d’oeuvres, beer and wine bars and a custom art exhibit,” according to the Campagna Center.

The Scottish Christmas Walk Parade

The one-mile-long parade starts at 11 a.m. at the intersection of Wolfe and St. Asaph Streets, and travels north to Queen Street, then turns right (east toward the Potomac River) on Queen for three blocks, turns right on Fairfax Street, right on King Street and then concludes at the reviewing stand in front of City Hall (301 King Street).

“Bagpipers include the Kiltie Band of York and the City of Alexandria Pipes and Drums plus a bagpiping Santa closing the parade,” Visit Alexandria said. “A pipe band and color guard will be presented by St. Andrew’s Society of Washington, D.C., which is a charitable and social fraternity of Scottish descendants established in Alexandria in 1760, and a founding parade partner along with Campagna Center and the Old Presbyterian Meeting House.”

Not to be missed — at the conclusion of the parade, a number of pipe bands play in unison in front of the reviewing stand.

Santa at The Torpedo Factory

After the parade, the Torpedo Factory Art Center will host a holiday festival.

The event starts at 2 p.m., and art enthusiasts will have an hour-and-a-half before the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Santa and Mrs. Claus will be sailed by a fire boat to the city’s pier — just outside the Torpedo Factory — at 3:30 p.m.

Holiday Boat Parade

Keep pocket warmers handy, because the festivities end with the Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights on Saturday night.

More than 50 boats will sail in this year’s parade, which is sponsored by Amazon.

Enjoy dockside festivities in Waterfront Park including a pop-up beer garden from Port City Brewing Company, food, activities and more,” Visit Alexandria said. “Plus, check out a new family friendly event on the North Waterfront at Canal Center and Oronoco Bay Park featuring artist vendors, music, kids activities and more.”

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The Alexandria City Council unanimously approved a collective bargaining agreement with the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, ushering in a new era of collaboration with city employees.

If likely approved in the fiscal year 2024 budget this May, the agreement means substantial pay increases for new officers, sergeants and lieutenants. The current base salary of $54,698 for an officer would be increased by 11% to $61,503 at the beginning of the next fiscal year, July 1, 2023. After next year, salaries for officers would increase 2% annually.

Mayor Justin Wilson said that the collective bargaining agreement is historic, since it’s the first of its kind to be approved in Virginia.

“This is a really important step.,” Wilson said. “We came to a place that that was mutually agreeable one that I think moves the needle forward and recognizes our hard working police officers for the work that they do every day for our residents at work that is greatly valued by the community, but does so in a constructive way in partnership with the city, recognizing that we’re all in this together.”

Damon Minnix, president of Alexandria chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, said that the agreement creates a new pay scale based on years of service.

“We’ve spent countless hours working towards this agreement,” Minnix said. “Most importantly, this process and agreement opens the lines of communication between the interests of our officers and city management.”

Compensation issues has plagued the Alexandria Police Department for years.

The collective bargaining agreement includes:

  • A one-time payment to employees who will not get at least a 10% pay increase in the agreement
  • A $1,000 longevity bonus for well-seasoned officers in July 2024 and July 2025
  • A 5% pay boost for officers in specialized units, including academy instructors, motorcycle officers, field training officers and K9 handlers
  • Formation of union committee

The agreement also asks the city to conduct a “cost-neutral, 20-year retirement option with an immediate payout and no minimum age requirement” for officers.

City Manager Jim Parajon said that coming to an agreement was an exhausting process.

“This agreement is not without disagreements, and is a I think an excellent start,” he said. “It really does value our police officers at a very significant level.”

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Facing inflation, a $17 million budget shortfall and fewer federal economic recovery funds, the Alexandria City Council will consider a tax increase in its upcoming fiscal year 2024 budget.

City Manager Jim Parajon has been tasked with presenting Council with two budget alternatives — one with a tax increase and another without.

“This year’s budget is going to be tight,” Parajon said at a recent Del Ray Business Association meeting. “We’re also predicting a much slower growth rate than we’ve done in the past. As you can imagine, property tax and the growth in our real estate is what drives a lot of our revenue. And we projected that’s going to be a little slower this year.”

Parajon said that city staff is expecting a shallow recession to impact the city this spring, and is eyeing expenditure reductions. So far, the $17 million shortfall is mostly attributed to an increase in city operations, the annual transfer to Alexandria City Public Schools and city debt service.

Mayor Justin Wilson hopes to not increase taxes, and said that inflation pressures impact city government, just like everyone else.

“We have not increased the tax rate in six years and I am hopeful we can avoid any increase this year,” Wilson told ALXnow.

The city is also contending with collective bargaining agreements with the police and fire department unions. Additionally, ACPS faces a $12 million budget shortfall, and wants to give employees raises.

The current FY 2023 budget saw a $445 (6.5%) increase to residential real estate taxes, although the tax rate of $1.11 per $100 of assessed value did not change.

City staff are also working on re-timing projects in the city’s 10-year $2.7 billion Capital Improvement Program to “better align with ability of operating budget to absorb costs increases and City’s ability to execute projects,” according to a presentation to Council on Tuesday night (Nov. 22).

Parajon will present his proposed budget on Tuesday, Feb. 28 — a week-and-a-half after the School Board approves its budget request. The budget will be approved in May and go into effect on July 1.

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George Washington Middle School (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

Construction and other capital improvement costs for next fiscal year have increased for Alexandria City Public Schools by millions.

More than $14 million out of the $24 million in cost increases for new and existing capital improvement projects is due to supply chain issues and cost escalations, ACPS staff reported in a presentation to the School Board on Monday (Nov. 14).

Site development cost estimates have increased almost 200%, staff reported.

“There have been industry wide cost escalations on everything,” Erika Gulick, the ACPS executive director of facilities, told the Board. “That affects your groceries and your gasoline and affects construction and steel and concrete and everything else that we use to build our schools.”

In the meantime, the City is wrestling with its own capital improvement cost woes. The city is currently in the process of reevaluating its capital projects over the next decade, and says that CIP costs to the operating budget exceeds anticipated revenue growth.

“Approved capital budgets are larger and more complex than our experienced ability to execute capital projects,” City staff said in a presentation earlier this month. “(The) approved capital improvement program needs to be reassessed and placed on more sustainable path.”

The draft ACPS Capital Improvement Plan budget includes the following projects for FY 2024:

  • $17.4 million for George Mason Elementary School design, project management and other construction costs
  • $5.5 million for the renovation of the fifth and sixth floors of Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School
  • $5.1 million for the retrofit of the swing space at 1703 N. Beauregard Street
  • $5 million for repair work at William Ramsay Elementary School
  • $2.5 million for renovations at Francis C. Hammond Middle School
  • $2 million in transportation system upgrades
  • $1.5 million for emergency repairs
  • $1.3 million for renovations at George Washington Middle School
  • $1.2 million for Alexandria City High School stadium renovations, security enhancements and stormwater improvements
  • $1.2 million for textbook replacements

ACPS will next conduct a community meeting on the FY 2024-2033 CIP budget on Monday, Nov. 28. The Board will approve the CIP on Dec. 15.

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Yellow Cab taxi (image via Alexandria Yellow Cab/Facebook)

Alexandria’s taxi cab industry is going through some changes as a result of ongoing used vehicle supply issues.

New and used vehicles remain very expensive as a result of pandemic-related disruptions to car production. As a result, local taxi cab drivers with vehicles that are coming up on the city’s age limit for taxis have expressed concerns they won’t be able to afford vehicles in compliance with the city’s limit that non-hybrid taxi vehicles can’t be older than 10 years.

At a meeting earlier this week, the Traffic and Parking Board reviewed potential changes to taxi regulations in Alexandria. Among the recommendations working their way through the city review process are changes that would eliminate the age requirement for vehicles and allow taxi companies to determine if an age limit is necessary.

Other changes focus on making city policy flexible, allowing taxi companies to reduce size to meet demand without incurring penalties, and continuing fee reductions implemented last year.

The city is increasing some fees on taxis though, adding a $1 surcharge and a $0.50 increase to the initial meter charge.

A staff report to the Traffic and Parking Board said the taxi industry is still in rough shape following the double hits of competition from companies like Uber and Lyft and then the pandemic.

“The taxi industry continues to face challenges resulting from the pandemic and the increased competition from Transportation Network Companies, such as Uber and Lyft,” the report said. “Regarding the impacts of the pandemic, many taxi trips start or end at hotels and National Airport. While travel is increasing, it is not back to pre-pandemic levels.”

Kyle Summers, Chief Operating Officer of Alexandria Yellow Cab, said the removal of the limit on the age of taxis will be a relief to many local drivers.

“We support the proposed changes,” Summers said. “With Covid, we lost quite a few vehicles with drivers no longer able to work. They are coming back, but drivers whose vehicles are going to expire soon are struggling to find options to replace their vehicles. Removing the ten-year limit on vehicles is really going to help the industry continue to work, continue to make a living, and serve the public.”

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“Alexandria West” community boundary (image via City of Alexandria)

Tonight, the City of Alexandria is launching a kick-off meeting for the 18-month process of updating and potentially reshaping city policy governing the West End.

According to the city’s website, the goal is to “engage the community to create a shared vision for the future of Alexandria West, addressing topics such as equity, culture, housing, getting around, land use, parks, and safety.”

The planning area mostly focuses on the westernmost parts of Alexandria, on the west side of Van Dorn Street. The plan is an update to a 1992 small area plan for the area and a 2012 plan that focused on the neighborhoods near Beauregard Street.

“Creating an updated community vision for the future allows us to proactively plan for change and prepare for challenges and opportunities in the years to come,” the city said.

The virtual event starts at 7 p.m. tonight. Attendees can register for the meeting online.

“Tuesday, November 15 at 7 p.m., community members, businesses and organizations are invited to attend a virtual kick-off meeting launching the City’s 18-month Alexandria West planning process,” the city said in a release.

According to the city website, the discussion over the next 18 months will explore issues of housing affordability, equity, culture, land use, mobility, pedestrian and cyclist safety and accessibility, and connecting both existing and future open space.

The city said the meeting will be recorded with a video posted afterward and pop-up events will be held around the West End.

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A voter leaves City Hall after casting a callot (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

At a City Council retreat, Alexandria leaders met with some of the city’s leading budgetary advisors to discuss some dire signs of what one staff member called a “pasta bowl recession.”

The city’s top finance experts said the city should be cautious as it potentially heads into a period of stagnant economic growth — if not outright decline.

“We don’t want to take a doom and gloom approach,” said Director of Finance Kendel Taylor. “We’re not saying the sky is going to fall, but we actually don’t know. The uncertainty where everyone is sitting right now is fairly significant.”

Taylor said that, as the city begins to plan for Fiscal Year (FY) 2024, the Department of Finance is being cautious.

“When we look at FY 2024: it’s very early,” Taylor said. “We only have a couple months of sales tax… interest rates keep going up, fuel prices, there’s a lot of uncertainty. We’re in a very cautionary stage.”

While the city’s economy is continuing to grow, Taylor said that’s going more slowly than she’d like. While the city averages 4% economic growth, Taylor said her office is estimating only a 2% change.

“We’re still an attractive place to live, we’re still economically sound, but it’s not what it’s been for the last few years,” Taylor said. “We’ve seen a lot of growth in the past year… but really we’ve just gotten back to pre-pandemic levels. That means we missed two years of anticipated growth. It’s a weird environment… It’s something where we have to just be cautious.”

Along with that slow growth, Taylor said interest rates have gone from 3% to 7%, meaning it’s more expensive to buy a house in Alexandria today than it was a year ago.

Vehicle assessments, meanwhile, remain high. The city approved a one-time tax relief for car owners to keep their tax from skyrocketing after vehicle values shot up during the pandemic. Taylor said the city is still monitoring those values this year to see if a repeat of that one-time relief might be needed.

“It’s too early to really know what’s going to happen with vehicles, but values remain high,” Taylor said. “We made an assessment adjustment in 2022 to mitigate those increases. We’re going to keep watching that over the next few months to see what’s the right approach to vehicle values in 2023.”

In brighter news, Taylor said sales tax and meals tax figures have remained strong, exhibiting a commitment from the community to supporting local restaurants and businesses. Those tax levels were restored to pre-pandemic levels in the summer of 2021.

The hotel tax has slowly been crawling back. Taylor said in July the city was within 10% of where the hotel tax was pre-pandemic. In August, it was within less than 1% of pre-pandemic levels.

At the same time, Taylor warned that optimism over tax levels returning to pre-pandemic levels ignores the bigger concern that the city has still lost two years of economic growth.

“It’s great to see that hotels are getting back to pre-pandemic levels,” Taylor said, “but we would have typically seen a few percentage points of growth.”

Kevin Greenlief, assistant director of finance, said the revenue from FY22 was good and FY23 has revenue increases baked into it, but the keyword for FY24 is caution.

“In the second quarter of 2022, [chief financial officers] are beginning to be pessimistic about GDP growth and potential impacts of a recession,” Greenlief said. “The popular term right now is a pasta bowl recession’: a long recession but not a deep one. I’ve seen ranges from a -.4% GDP growth to a .1% positive growth. There’s a lot of debate right now about whether there will be a recession. The smart money seems to think so, but they’re not looking like the sky is falling, it’s that [growth] is going to be flat.”

As the city plans for the future, City Manager Jim Parajon said some of that will involve looking at how much office conversion the city allows. While the city has had numerous positive office conversions — from restaurants to schools — Parajon also warned against throwing the baby out with the bath water. Maintaining some level of office space could be the better long-term play, even if it means losing some revenue short-term.

“The conversion approach for outdated office makes a lot of sense, but I want to be careful that we don’t lose good office space to conversion,” Parajon said. “That’s really important, and that may mean we play out a cycle or two in the economy so we’re looking at a balance of commercial to residential.”

Even when offices do come back, Parajon said they may not resemble the sea of cubicles from the pre-pandemic days.

“We’re likely to see smaller footprint office components with lifestyle office elements,” Parajon said. “They all feed really well into Alexandria because we have an amazing lifestyle here and that’s enticing to a company that needs to recruit and retain talent.”

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(Left to right) ACPS Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt, Mayor Justin Wilson, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, ACHS senior Elizabeth Lane and School Board Chair Jacinta Greene at the high school, Nov. 7, 2022 (via Twitter)

After a back-and-forth with city leadership on school safety, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares got a quick tour of Alexandria City High School from the city’s leaders on Monday (Nov. 7).

Miyares toured the school, met with students and city leaders, ate lunch and discussed school safety.

In a joint statement released Monday night, Mayor Justin Wilson and School Board Vice Chair Jacinta Greene said that the health of the school system depends on its relationship with the police department.

“We agree on the importance of students being able to grow and thrive in a safe learning environment and assured him of the close partnership between our school division, Alexandria Police Department and other agencies that promote the well-being of children,” Wilson and Greene wrote.

The meeting was also attended by City Manager Jim Parajon, Police Chief Don Hayes, ACPS Interim Superintendent Melanie Kay-Wyatt and ACHS Executive Principal Peter Balas.

Wilson added, “We thank Attorney General Miyares and his team for their visit and for his offer of any help or support from his office for the City of Alexandria and Alexandria City Public Schools.”

Miyares, in August, wrote a letter to Mayor Justin Wilson and School Board Chair Meagan Aldterton saying that he was alarmed by reports of violence within the school system last year. In his letter, he urged Alexandria to work closely with law enforcement to strengthen the city’s School Resource Officer (SRO) program.

ACPS began the 2021-2022 school year without school resource officers, after they were defunded by the City Council. They were returned after an alarming number of incidents with weapons in schools.

There were 46 students arrested and 68 injured last school year, and 194 incidents that provoked a police response, according to a new safety report detailing arrest and security incidents.

After the meeting, Miyares released the following statement:

As the proud product of public schools, I’m particularly passionate about making sure that every public school student not only has access to a quality education, but a safe environment to learn. I’d like to thank Alexandria Mayor Wilson, School Board Chair Alderton and the ACPS officials who invited and welcomed me today.

Today’s meeting was productive and I was able to share some concerns, as well as offer the resources of the Office of Attorney General to support them. Alexandria City High School has amazing students, and I was honored to meet some of them today. I look forward to working together with the Alexandria City officials to make sure parents feel confident that their children will be safe at school. As Attorney General, every Virginia family’s safety is my number one priority.

This Thursday, the School Board will vote on a recommendation extending the ACPS agreement with the Alexandria Police Department to provide SROs until the end of this school year. In December, the School Board will also receive the interim Superintendent’s recommendation on the partnership between ACPS and the police department.

Via Twitter

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School buses on W. Braddock Road on Dec. 10, 2021 (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria has started identifying pedestrian safety improvements around Alexandria City High School and a number of other school campuses.

Staff with the city’s Department of Transportation & Environmental Services are creating “walk audits” with available for public review in a final report by next June.

The walk audits will be conducted at both campuses of Alexandria City High School, George Washington and Francis C. Hammond Middle Schools, and at the city’s newest school — Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School.

“We will be coordinating with the school communities for each of those schools,” said Bryan Hayes, the City’s Complete Streets coordinator. “That’s the principals, teachers, parents, the students… to help identify things that make it challenging or unsafe for students to walk or bike to school.”

It’s all part of Alexandria’s Complete Streets and Safe Routes To School programs, which are devoted to making infrastructure improvements like adding new sidewalks, enhancing crossings and traffic calming.

Five years ago, the City identified 250 transportation improvement recommendations at 13 elementary schools. The city has completed about half of those recommended projects, according to the Department.

Staff will gather data through this winter and spring. To develop recommendations, the Department will have a small team of city staff, consultants, school representatives, and others to observe students walking to schools.

Making the improvements will be a multi-year process, said Alex Carrol, program manager of the City’s Complete Streets project.

“We’ve we’ve tackled a lot of the low hanging fruit in the recommendations,” said Carrol. “These were always intended to be multi-year efforts. I don’t have a specific timeline for when we expect all of the recommendations to be completed, but it is going to be a multi year process.”

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Seminary Road (Staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated 4:10 p.m.) Fewer crashes, reduced traffic volumes and more bike riders —  a new report shows that the Seminary Road Diet is working.

The information comes from a Post-Project Implementation Evaluation by the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. The evaluation shows has been a 41% reduction in crashes along the one-mile stretch of Seminary Road between North Howard Street and Quaker Lane since the road diet went into effect in 2019, according to a report released Tuesday (Nov. 1) by the city’s Department of Transportation & Environmental services.

That’s not all: there have been zero crashes involving serious injury or death, and traffic does not appear to have diverted to neighborhood streets.

Morning peak traffic has increased by 15%, although average peak travel times decreased between 11% and 17%.

The Seminary Road Diet — reducing the four through lanes of the roadway to two and adding bike lanes and a turn lane in the center — was one of the most controversial issues of 2019.

Mayor Justin Wilson said that he’s read the report, and says that the change did what it was designed to do.

“I’m pleased, but not surprised,” Wilson said. “Based on my conversations with many residents in the Seminary corridor, including many who initially opposed the change, the new Seminary has improved the quality of life for walkers, bikers and drivers alike.”

It took the city two-and-a-half years to compile the data for the Seminary Road Project Evaluation Report. The delay in reporting was attributed to needing traffic patterns to return to pre-Covid levels before determining the impact of the road diet.

The report found that traffic volumes during peak travel times decreased between 11% and 17%. Extreme speeding is also down, with the percentage of people driving faster than 35 miles per hour on the roadway now at 7% of drivers.

The Post-Project Implementation Evaluation determined:

  • Average annual crashes on Seminary Road decreased by 41%
  • Non-severe injury crashes decreased by 14%
  • There were an average of .8 fatal or severe crashes per year from 2015 to 2019, and zero from 2020 to 2022
  • Property damage-only crashes decreased by 8%
  • Extreme speeding is down, with the percentage of people driving faster than 35 miles per hour decreased from 11% to 7%

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