Alexandria, VA

The City of Alexandria is inviting companies to bid for the construction of a municipal fiber network, putting the city one step closer to breaking the current monopolies on television and telephone services in Alexandria.

The city is hoping to build a broadband network that can support voice, video and data transportation at public facilities. A side benefit of this plan is an increase in consumer choice in cable, voice and broadband services at a variety of costs and available speeds.

According to the city website:

The city has received consistent feedback from residential and business consumers regarding the lack of local competition in cable television and broadband Internet services. Although no provider has an exclusive franchise with the city, there is only one cable television franchisee (Comcast) and one landline telephone franchisee (Verizon) in Alexandria, and there are no broadband Internet franchisees.

The system design was completed in August. The design focused on addressing connectivity for city buildings, public schools, library and public safety communication needs, according to the city website.

For years, the city has sought out other potential providers, but the website notes that “companies are typically reluctant to make multimillion-dollar capital investments in new fiber networks.” Thus, the city is attempting to include the addition of fiber infrastructure wherever digging projects and utility work are already underway. Once the fiber network is built, the city would lease excess capacity.

“The city is planning to seek new franchisees who could lease excess capacity on the city’s new fiber-optic network and provide service to residents and businesses,” according to the city website. “This would allow all providers to compete fairly, and would incentivize providers to offer consumer services.”

Nearby Arlington County also built its own “dark fiber” network, at the cost of millions of dollars. But a plan to have businesses use the network, and thus provide an economic development boost to the county, have not panned out — as of earlier this year the network was almost totally unused.

A pre-bid conference for the Alexandria fiber project is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 19, in the purchasing conference room at 100 N. Pitt Street.

Photo via J.C. Burns/Flickr

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Alexandria’s Office of Housing has announced the 2020 Housing Summit to examine the current status of affordable housing in the city.

The event is scheduled for Jan. 11 at the Lee Center (1108 Jefferson Street) from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. The main goal of the event is to review the progress of the 2013 Housing Master Plan.

The goal of that plan is to develop or preserve 2,000 housing units through 2025. As of last year, the city was a little over halfway there, with 1,375 units preserved or created. That includes projects that are still “in the pipeline.”

Scheduled events for the Housing Summit include a morning bus tour to highlight recent affordable housing developments in Alexandria. Exhibits will also be available to show programs and services offered by the City’s affordable housing partners.

Breakout sessions will be held throughout the afternoon, covering topics like workforce housing and creating community partnerships.

A closing session is scheduled to look at how Alexandria’s housing progress fits in with local, regional and state efforts.

Staff photo by Vernon Miles

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Morning Notes

Chicken Butcher Suit Costly for City — “The city of Alexandria has paid an outside law firm $49,573 so far to help it fight an ongoing lawsuit about a halal chicken butchery that’s scheduled to open in an industrial area of the city.” [Washingtonian]

Alexandria Winter Shelter Now Open — “The City’s Winter Shelter at 5701-D Duke St. will open today at 7pm, and transportation is available. Please share with anyone who needs a safe and warm place to stay.” [Twitter]

T.C. QB Leads Team to Playoffs — “You could say T.C. Williams High School senior Robert Longerbeam has had a good fall. As quarterback of T.C’s football team, he has led the Titans to the state playoffs, breaking several school records along the way. He was also T.C.’s homecoming king.” [Alexandria Times]

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There are nearly half as many homes available for sale in Alexandria as the year before, according to city officials.

A complicated mix of reasons is behind the decline, but one reason looms above others: Amazon.

“Amazon announced its arrival one year ago,” said David Howell, executive vice president for McEnearney Associates. “Since then, we’ve seen 46% fewer listings in Alexandria and 44% in Arlington… The inventory began to shrink literally the day after the announcement.”

At a City Council retreat on Saturday, marking the launch of the budget cycle, City Manager Mark Jinks highlighted the scarcity of homes for sale in Alexandria.

“Active listings a year ago were 450,” Jinks said. “There are only 208 active listings in June 2019. There’s not a lot of inventory on the market for people to purchase. There’s a lot of speculation about what that means. Are people not selling because they think they’ll be able to get more? Are people not purchasing because they can’t? There’s so much uncertainty.”

Jinks explained to the Council that many homeowners who might otherwise be selling their properties are holding out in hopes that Amazon will increase the home value.

“Do I sell my home now or wait another couple years with Amazon coming will I get ten percent more or 20 percent more?” Jinks asked, hypothetically. “It’s a lot of speculation for what may or may not happen. There is not a lot of property for sale and a lot of speculation about why.”

Both Howell and Jinks said there are other factors at play both nationally and locally.

“Interest rates are low and the region is growing,” Jinks said. “There’s a demand for residential, as we’ve seen, but we’re not seeing price appreciation. At almost any other time like this, we would have seen single-family homes and townhomes move up appreciably, and we haven’t seen it. Some of the speculation is that people with student loan debt [make it] harder for people to afford the ownership market.”

While student loan debt could keep people from buying homes, Howell said he doubted that would impact the sellers. More likely, Howell said it’s a result of some after-effects of the housing bubble burst a decade ago.

“The big lesson is people aren’t selling for speculative reasons after the bust,” Howell said. “Appreciation is more modest and sustained because people are buying where they want to live rather than using the home as an ATM. People are staying put.”

Howell also said many of those homeowners were able to lock in low mortgage rates.

“We will see a sustained low inventory over time,” Howell. “That’s true nationally, but in Arlington and Alexandria especially.”

File photo

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Alexandria is taking another look at the future of Arlandria and Del Ray and how those communities can weather the planned urbanization of the “National Landing” area.

This fall, the city is launching its community engagement for plans to update the 2005 Mount Vernon Avenue Business Plan and the 2003 Long-Term Vision and Action Plan for the Arlandria Neighborhood. The city cites the nearby arrival of Amazon, the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, and the North Potomac Yard Metro station as looming developments that could start to change the character of the residential and commercial communities to the west.

Neighbors and organizations in and around the area are invited to offer feedback to help identify the most important community issues and start to build a framework for the new plans — which will start taking shape next year.

At a joint meeting of Arlington and Alexandria, city officials recognized that there was frequent difficulty in getting responses from communities most prone to the effects of gentrification, so several of the outreach events are focused on going out into the community and interviewing residents rather than relying on those residents and business leaders to come to meetings.

The first event will be this Saturday, Nov. 9, from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at Simpson Field (500 E. Monroe Avenue). City staff will be out at the field talking with local residents and will move up and down Mount Vernon Avenue to speak with people in stores and markets, according to the city’s website.

Additional outreach events are planned throughout November and December.

A community conversation for Arlandria is scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 21, from 6-8 p.m. at Cora Kelly Elementary School (3600 Commonwealth Avenue). The meeting will be held in Spanish with English translation available.

A similar meeting for Del Ray is scheduled for Dec. 12 from 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. at Mount Vernon Community School (2601 Commonwealth Avenue), this one in English with Spanish translation available.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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The Capital Bikeshare’s expansion in Alexandria has hit some serious snags that has resulted in at least a two-year delay in the arrival of new stations.

In 2017, the City of Alexandria approved 10 new Capital Bikeshare stations, which would have included a push into the West End and Potomac Yard. The plan was to install them in 2018, according to the Washington Post, but that didn’t happen. Then the city’s FY 2020-29 Capital Improvement Program cited summer 2019 as the proposed completion date, but that hasn’t happened either.

City staff say changes in regulations have resulted in the city being forced to secure new contracts and file more paperwork.

“The city did not install any new Capital Bikeshare stations this summer,” said Sarah Godfrey, public information officer for the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. “In 2018, VDOT reinterpreted federal regulations governing bikeshare; as a result, every municipality with Capital Bikeshare in the state has been working to secure new contracts and comply with those requirements.”

Now, the city is trying to ride in tandem with Falls Church’s expansion plans.

“Falls Church was the first Northern Virginia municipality to get a new contract in place; we’re working on obtaining permission to ‘ride’ that contract and going through the normal grant processes to fulfill the federal and state requirements,” Godfrey said.

Whether that will be allowed is unclear. In emails between city staff and VDOT officials, obtained by ALXnow, VDOT staff called the proposed piggybacking “uncharted territory” and said that the timeline for that process was unknown.

VDOT staff also said earlier this year that the city still needed to submit documents showing the scope of work involved, a cost estimate for the project, and a document showing the locations of the new bikeshare stations.

“Once we’ve cleared those process and regulatory hurdles, staff will be working to get the… stations that were approved in 2017 installed as quickly as possible,” Godfrey said. “Staff will then begin planning and engagement for the next round of stations, pending approval for additional operating funds, which are considered annually by City Council during the budget process.”

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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It’s an early Christmas for Alexandria leadership, with Democrats taking control of the Virginia legislature opening the door for efforts to assert local control of several key policy questions.

Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means that localities like Alexandria can only exercise powers expressly granted by the state. In practice, Mayor Justin Wilson said this leaves localities forced to seek approval from the state for basic city policy questions, particularly on fiscal issues. Under a Republican majority, Alexandria struggled to have many of its legislative priorities addressed.

“We’re looking for a lot of partnership on the financial issues,” Wilson said. “I want to see a General Assembly that respects local control and gives us the authority we need to represent our constituents. We struggle quite a bit — and this is not a right or left thing — but all jurisdictions struggle with a General Assembly that insists on taking a ‘mother may I’ approach to basic policy questions.”

In a recent joint meeting between the School Board and the City Council, City Manager Mark Jinks said the city was reaching the limits of the state-set maximums for certain taxes, like the meals tax and hotel tax.

“We’re going to be looking for the General Assembly to recognize some of the significant constraints that we have locally around raising revenue and funding schools, education, transportation and human services,” Wilson said. “On the education side, the whole urban crescent of Virginia is struggling with growth and student enrollment. It’s been years since the state has been an active partner in financing schools.”

Wilson said he was also hopeful that the new General Assembly would restore money previously taken from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and work to increase partnerships in transportation infrastructure.

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If your property is damaged by a city vehicle, there’s a good chance you could be out of luck when it comes to seeking payment.

With its blue background and city seal, the marker set up in the yard at Shuter’s Hill within eyeshot of the backside of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial could be mistaken for an official sign, but the sign tells the story of one resident’s struggle with the City of Alexandria over an archaic legal precedent.

According to the sign, a city truck struck the fence on May 22 and was captured on video, but the city has claimed sovereign immunity — a term derived from British common law doctrine that means the government cannot be sued without its permission.

This isn’t the first time damages from an garbage truck has led to frustrations over sovereign immunity. Across Virginia, there have been several instances of localities citing sovereign immunity when faced with costly liability charges, according to Washingtonian.

Craig Fifer, a spokesman for the City of Alexandria, said logistically that paying claims would necessitate an increase in taxes and fees, reductions in services, or other savings:

The City’s services are designed and operated to provide the maximum benefit to the community.  Under federal and state laws and court rulings, the City is generally not liable for damages caused in the course of providing core government services. While the City conducts extensive planning and training to avoid damaging property, some damage does occur given the vast scope of City operations. Exemption from these claims saves a significant amount of money every year for taxpayers as a whole.  If the City were to pay claims for which it is not legally liable, it would necessitate some combination of increases in taxes and fees, reductions in services, or savings in other areas.

The City is expected to defend itself against claims for which it is not legally liable. If the claim involves a core government function (including trash collection), sovereign immunity would apply. If the claim involved another situation (such as the operation of a City vehicle while not performing a core government function), sovereign immunity would not apply and the claim would be paid if appropriate.

Jonathan Siegel, a law professor at George Washington University, said the arguments over sovereign immunity aren’t new.

“This has been around forever,” Siegel said. “It’s a fundamental feature of government and it causes all kinds of problems for centuries. Ever since the founding of the nation, it’s been legally true that governments have sovereign immunity.”

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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 announced today that it will be launching APEX, a loftily-named new permitting and land use application system, early next month.

The goal of the new system is to take the complicated application system — which currently requires a trip to City Hall — and make it simpler and entirely digital. APEX is designed to handle everything from permits to add a new deck to a home to land use applications for larger projects, according to a promotional video for the new system.

“APEX will allow customers to apply for permits and development plan reviews, attach supporting documents and submit payment from computers or mobile devices, eliminating the need to make a trip to City Hall,” the city said in a press release. “City staff have worked to identify application and review processes that could be improved with the implementation of the new system.”

In addition to submitting applications, documents and drawings online, applicants will also be able to track the progress of their paperwork. Staff in the field will be able to access plans and process approvals on-site.

According to the press release, new features of the system include:

  • Electronic application, plan submission and review for permits and land use applications.
  • Improved communication between staff and customers.
  • Real-time status tracking for permit and land use applications.
  • Advanced search capabilities.
  • Online inspection scheduling, tracking and updates.
  • Online payments.

The system is scheduled to launch next Monday, Nov. 4, but until then there will be several service interruptions as the city switches over to the new system. This week, online permits will not be accepted, but paper applications can still be submitted at City Hall. The permit center will be closed, however, on Thursday, Oct. 31 and Friday, Nov. 1. The Department of Planning and Zoning will remain open.

During the first week of launch, the Permit Center will close at 2 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 4 and 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, Nov. 5-8. Normal hours of 8 a.m.-5 p.m.will resume the week of Monday, Nov. 11.

Arlington county launched a similar digital permitting system earlier this fall after piloting it over the summer — though the system hasn’t rolled out without problems.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Faced with declining utilization, the City of Alexandria is will decide whether or not to shutter the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center.

The facility, located at 200 S. Whiting Street, is a 70-bed detention center that takes in teenagers from Alexandria, Falls Church and Arlington County with a misdemeanor or felony offenses.

Between 2006 and 2019, the detention center has seen steadily declining usage. The number of total bed days — a calculation of the number of juveniles multiplied by the number of days each stays at the facility — has had a 70 percent decline from 20,092 in 2006 to 5,574 in 2019.

A study on what to do with the detention center is currently underway by D.C.-based criminal justice consulting firm The Moss Group.

“[The Moss Group] is evaluating what changes, if any, could be made to the Center to make it more efficient while still meeting the needs of the juvenile population and communities at large,” the City of Alexandria said in a press release, “or whether the Center should be closed due to underutilization, and youth detained in another center in Northern Virginia.”

A fact sheet for the study cites a variety of causes for the decline, including decreased juvenile crime, increased use of alternatives to detention, and legal changes in juvenile court practices. Fairfax County has experienced similar declines, and the study indicated that “further regionalization” could be an answer to the underutilization.

Meanwhile, the facility was budgeted for $5.8 million in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, with $1.5 million contributed from Alexandria. The fact sheet notes that the declining utilization has led to an increase in per diem costs to each jurisdiction.

The three localities that contribute to the detention center are each planning to host community meetings to provide more information about the study and listen to community feedback.

  • City of Falls Church: Thursday, November 14, from 7-8:30 p.m. at City Hall (300 Park Avenue)
  • City of Alexandria: Wednesday, November 20, from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Lee Center (1108 Jefferson Street)
  • Arlington County: Thursday, November 21, from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Central Library Auditorium (1015 N. Quincy Street)

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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