Alexandria, VA

Along with a new phase of reopening, several new laws the City Council had pushed for in November will be taking effect starting tomorrow (Wednesday).

One of the biggest new changes will be that possession of under one ounce of marijuana will be a $25 civil fine without any jail time or a criminal conviction. Simple possession records will be sealed and employers and schools cannot ask about prior simple possession convictions.

Mayor Justin Wilson said new laws going into effect on July 1 will add more equity to arrests made.

“Those are changes that relate to marijuana, those are changes as it relates to shoplifting that really add more equity and will change the way that public safety addresses these crimes,” Wilson said in a Zoom meeting on racial equity on Monday night. “I think these are long overdue changes and will help address in some ways some of the disparities that we see.”

Other items requested by the City of Alexandria in its legislative package include:

The main Confederate statue in question was removed before the new law allowing its removal took effect.

The legislative package pushed for an increase of the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The General Assembly instead approved a $12 minimum wage with the potential to increase to $15 by 2026.

Councilman Mohamed “Mo” Seifeldein earlier described legislative proposals with a Democratic majority in the General Assembly as “playing with house money.” To that end, online sports betting was also legalized statewide.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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Alexandria’s annual program providing fans or air conditioning for low-income seniors is coming back. This year, the city said the focus is ensuring seniors are comfortable staying home to avoid exposure to coronavirus.

“The City’s Division of Aging and Adult Services’ Senior Cool Care Program provides assistance for seniors ages 60 years or older who need cooling in their homes,” the city said in a press release, “especially while seniors are encouraged to stay home as much as possible to avoid potential severe illness from COVID-19.”

The seniors must be at least 60 years old, meet income eligibility requirements and must be residents of the City of Alexandria to apply for the program — though they could be a homeowner or a renter.

The program provides seniors with electric fans and, in some cases, room air conditioning units, according to Senior Services of Alexandria.

Seniors interested in applying for the program can email [email protected] or call 703 746 5999 for more information.

Staff photo by Vernon Miles

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An Alexandria police officer has been dismissed and is facing criminal review after allegedly using unjustified force against an unarmed man.

“A white male officer reported using weaponless force against a white male subject’s leg, in order to take him to the ground,” the City of Alexandria said in a press release. “The subsequent investigation determined that the use of force was unjustified because no force was necessary.”

Termination proceedings have been initiated, but the police department has also referred the use of force to the Commonwealth’s Attorney to consider criminal charges.

“Three supervisors who failed to investigate the use of force promptly enough have also been disciplined,” the city said.

City spokesman Craig Fifer said that because the termination proceedings and criminal review were still underway, the city would not release the name of the police officer at this time.

“Use of force is dehumanizing and should be avoided whenever possible, even when legally justified,” said Police Chief Michael Brown in the press release. “Unjustified use of force is completely unacceptable, and we will continue to hold officers accountable in the rare cases when violations of this policy occur. Alexandria police officers do not typically use force at all, because they are required to de-escalate interactions and situations when possible by communicating effectively with subjects, maintaining distance, and employing other measures to protect themselves and those around them.”

The full press release is available below:

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Alexandria might be moving into phase three of reopening its economy on July 1, but it’s taking a slow approach to opening its facilities back up to staff and the public. City staff are planning on slowly getting back to their respective offices, and departments are looking at rotational staff schedules with the goal of starting the process in mid-July.

“We want to continue to minimize physical interaction (with the public) while gradually increasing those service offerings,” Terry Suehr, the city’s director of the Department of Project Implementation, told City Council earlier this week. “We will remain in partial opening all the way through to when this virus is more in a completely controlled it’s not a big threat to us.”

She added, “Most of our council boards and commissions [will] remain virtual, but we’ll start to restore more in-person, programs, while maintaining… physical distancing.”

There are no firm dates in place for the slow reopening of in-person services, and Suehr said that portions of staff teleworking from home will likely go on well into the future.

“The first thing to think about is that really the city never closed,” Suehr said. “We understand the need to respond to the public’s requests for additional in person services and availability of facilities. One of our approaches though will be to continue a significant amount of telework, and our online services will definitely continue.”

In the meantime, the city is asking businesses to participate in the ALX Promise program, which trains business owners and their staff on meeting health regulations.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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The city is rationing out spots in summer camp programs reopening soon, but even some in the city’s leadership are unclear on why space will be so limited while the city has a preponderance of unused space and resources.

“Summer camp programs are starting,” said Jim Spengler, director of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities in a recent joint meeting between the City Council and the School Board. “They are aimed at essential workers and will expand beyond essential workers based on enrollment.”

But Mayor Justin Wilson noted that with Phase 3 going into effect next week, many jobs are going to start expecting those employees to come back. With many summer camps canceled, those parents will be left without options for childcare programs.

“If that happens will expect to see a whole crunch of workers going back to work,” Wilson said. “To the extent that we have space, we can be essential in helping out frontline workers go back to the workspace. We have a lot of unused space, so I want us to explore our options before we say ‘we can’t use that capacity.'”

Wilson said staff needs to look at school facilities and city facilities to see what kind of space is available to be used for summer programming.

“It seems like we should be looking for every opportunity we can in this environment,” Wilson said. “I’m constantly hearing from parents who are very concerned about their ability to go back to work, particularly when bosses start to expect it. I feel like we can be part of that solution, and there’s money available for us to be part of this, but we have to work out the facility side of this.”

There are complications beyond just facility space, however. Spengler said limits with social distancing mean some spaces that aren’t being utilized aren’t viable as summer program spaces.

“As schools are finding with school buses, for example, social distancing really controls how many people you get together more than the aggregate number you’re given by the Governor,” Spengler said. “The other is if we were able to enroll more students, then we have a staffing issue. We don’t have the staff available because we didn’t do normal summer hiring, so we don’t have the staff capacity to expand much beyond where we are right now.”

But city leaders said that with the city still facing high unemployment figures, not having staff shouldn’t be a problem.

“I feel like that’s a solvable problem,” Wilson said. “I’ll be crystal clear, that seems like something we should be able to figure it out. It seems like this is not a normal circumstance and we can find staff, there’s a lot of people looking for jobs.”

“I would echo the mayor’s sentiment,” City Councilman John Chapman said. “This is an extraordinary time, but we do have a number of people looking for opportunities. Capacity is something that we just need to work through. I don’t think it’s something that we stop at and say ‘We can’t do it’ because if we’re vocal about looking for people, I think we’ll get quality people who would be able to run some of our programmings.”

Wilson added that a good place to start would be hiring from canceled summer camp programs.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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Gov. Ralph Northam announced today that Virginia will move into Phase 3 next Wednesday, July 1, and for Alexandria that means looser restrictions on retail, restaurant and entertainment venues.

The move puts Alexandria and Northern Virginia back on the same timeline as the rest of the state, which Mayor Justin Wilson attributed to the efforts at social distancing and proper hygiene of local residents.

“The efforts of residents and businesses to respect public health guidance has been successful,” Wilson said. “We have slowed the spread and been able to ease restrictions. But we are not out of the woods yet. We need to continue socially distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands. Doing so will allow us to continue to move back to a more normal situation.”

The largest change will be the reduction or elimination on capacity restrictions. During Phase 2, non-essential retail and seating at restaurants had been limited to 50% capacity. The move into Phase 3 will eliminate those restrictions. High contact entertainment venues that had been closed will be allowed to open with 50% capacity. Fitness centers and pools will be able to open at 75% capacity.

Wilson said on social media that the downward trend in positive COVID-19 cases was one of the main criteria for reopening, but that the city will continue to expand testing.

The reopening comes even as other states that have had reopened have seen spikes in coronavirus cases. While the city’s rate of positive testing is going down, Alexandria does continue to see new confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Staff photo by Vernon Miles

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Hundreds of gun rights activists met at protested outside City Hall on Saturday, some of them armed to the teeth with handguns, AR-15 assault weapons and even muskets.

The protest was organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, and demonstrators rallied against new ordinances proposed by the City of Alexandria to limit the carrying of guns on city property. Alexandria Police were on-hand during the event, and there were a few arguments that broke out between protestors and passersby.

“The whole country looks like it’s turned upside down right now,” VCDL President Philip Van Cleave said on stage. “I’m not the only one looking at it that way. Everybody I’m talking to is just shaking their heads, ‘What happened? What’s happening?’ And it only reminds me all the more of how sacred how important that right is to be able to protect ourselves.”

David Britt of Fairfax sat at the large fountain at Market Square with his AR-15, and said if the ordinances banning weapons on city property pass that he will likely not visit Alexandria in the future.

“I love Alexandria,” Britt told ALXnow. “I normally don’t bring this (the AR-15), but I do have my concealed carry that I have with me all the time. But with these new regulations that they’re talking about, I would be illegal standing here.”

Britt got his concealed carry permit five years ago and has never pulled out his gun in public.

“I hope I never do,” he said.

Gun activists demonstrated in Alexandria last September when a man walked through the Farmer’s Market (at the same location outside City Hall) carrying weapons and alarming some patrons. The man later stood outside Del. Mark Levine’s Old Town home in protest of Levine’s proposed assault weapons ban.

Chuck Smith, a Republican candidate for Virginia Attorney General, spoke at the event.

“The next attorney general of Virginia will be pro-America, pro-Virginia, pro-Trump, pro-life, a 100% gun-toting, card-carrying supporter of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Smith told the audience. “Without the Second Amendment, we have nothing.”

Staff photos by James Cullum

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The Alexandria City Council will consider a resolution tonight (Tuesday) establishing a community police review board and condemning systemic racism.

Councilman Mo Seifeldein, who drafted the resolution, says he has support from his colleagues and that he envisions the board to have independent authority to review and investigate police misconduct and empower the community and law enforcement members to come forward with concerns without fear of retaliation.

“I am encouraged that we have broad support for this resolution,” Seifeldein told ALXnow. “We demand more from those in position of public trust. I remain hopeful that our better angels will answer this call.”

Thousands of people have protested the death of George Floyd and police brutality in Alexandria over the last several weeks.

Seifeldein said he hopes people of color will be well represented on the review board and that the city will have 90 days to present a detailed proposal of what the body will look like after engaging with the public.

The full draft resolution is below.

Establishing a Community Police Review Board and Condemning Systemic Racism 

WHEREAS, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, died of asphyxiation as two police officers sat on him and held him while one other police officer pressed his knee and full body weight on Mr. Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for his life and repeatedly said “I can’t breathe.”

WHEREAS, the death of Mr. Floyd ignited a Nationwide protest for over 12 days demanding justice for Mr. Floyd and an end to police brutality against Black and Brown people. Mr. Floyd’s death follows the murder of Eric Garner, Dominique Clayton, Atatiana Jefferson, Yassin Mohamed, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria recognizes that these deaths are just the most recent in a tide of victims who have lost their lives due to police brutality; the recurrence of acts of violence and oppression committed by those sworn to serve and protect is the result of systemic racism.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria stands in solidarity with the Floyd family, his friends, the Minneapolis community, and the empowered activists and organizations calling for meaningful reforms to reverse discriminatory practices.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria condemns the use of force by law enforcement to suppress the protestors’ right to assemble peaceably.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria acknowledges that the plight of Black and Brown Americans is not always explicit and present in the form of police brutality, but also entrenched in institutions such as the judicial system, the electoral process, career advancement, education, housing, and the health care system.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed racial disparities in health and economic wellbeing.

WHEREAS, the City of Alexandria and all government officials have a duty to ensure the protection of all communities through actions and reform, including in the justice system.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, the City Council of the City of Alexandria condemns police brutality and racism in our Nation.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City of Alexandria calls upon state and federal elected officials to pass meaningful laws to prohibit the militarization of law enforcement, to reform the criminal justice system, and to reform police immunity laws.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City Council of the City of Alexandria recognizes that gathering data on the demographics of police encounters with the public is an imperative step in holding law enforcement accountable and shall be added to the City Council work plan.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City Council of the City of Alexandria recognizes the urgent need to adopt a police body worn camera policy and it shall make it a priority in the City Council work plan.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City Council of the City of Alexandria is committed to exploring new 21st century public safety models.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, the City Council of the City of Alexandria hereby establishes a Community Police Review Board within 90 days of passing this resolution. The City Manager and the City Attorney are directed to return to Council in the first Legislative Meeting of September with a proposal to establish the Community Police Review Board.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, the City of Alexandria reaffirms that Black Lives Matter.

Photo via Alexandria Police Department/Facebook

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Morning Notes

Regal Potomac Yard Movie Theater Closed for Good — “Regal Cinemas has scrubbed the 16-theater multiplex at 3575 Potomac Ave. from its list of Virginia locations on its website. Couple that with the fact Virginia Tech and JBG Smith Properties (NYSE: JBGS) plan to redevelop the North Potomac Yard site on an accelerated timeline, it’s likely the theater showed its last film months ago — when Disney’s “Onward” was No. 1 at the box office.” [Washington Business Journal]

Governor Releases ‘Forward Virginia’ Phase Two Guidelines — “Most of the state will enter phase two on Friday, June 5. Northern Virginia, including the City of Alexandria and Fairfax County, might enter about a week later — but only if local coronavirus and health metrics indicate it is safe to do so. The governor has not given Northern Virginia a projected date for entering the second phase.” [Alexandria Living]

Group Raises Thousands for Alexandria Families — “We are helping more than 30 families every week with food, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and baby supplies during the COVID 19 pandemic.  Many of these families are unemployed and not eligible for benefits.” [GoFundMe]

Virtual Job Fair Today — “The city of Alexandria Workforce Development Center is hosting a free “Meet the Employer” event tomorrow! Learn more about immediate employment opportunities in Virginia.” [Facebook]

Food Drive Replaces First Thursday in Del Ray — “On Thursday, June 4 (by 4 p.m.), plastic tubs or boxes will be placed on Mount Vernon Avenue at the intersection of all streets from Hume to Braddock; in front of the Mount Vernon Recreation Center; and at the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and the following streets: Braddock, Monroe, Alexandria Ave., Windsor, Del Ray, and Ashby. Items will be picked up by 7:30 p.m.” [Facebook]

Teens Plan Peace Walk for Saturday — “The public is invited to the Alexandria Peace Walk and encouraged to wear blue, the color for peace. Walkers are asked to bring posters, wear masks and stay six feet apart for the walk, cha-cha slide, and prayer.” [Zebra]

Hyatt Centric Old Town Welcomes Back Customers With Video — “We at the Hyatt Centric Old Town Alexandria are ready to welcome you back with the highest safety and cleaning procedures for your peace of mind when you travel.” [Youtube]

New Job: Shopkeeper Apprentice at Ice Cream Shop — “Shopkeeper Apprentices are full-time employees sharing the same responsibilities as the Shopkeeper including accounting, scheduling, inventory/ordering, and all HR functions (hiring, training, development, and performance management of all team members).” [Indeed]

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The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) is starting a grant program later this week to help Alexandria businesses recover from coronavirus.

ALX B2B is a new grant program supported, in part, by the City Council as part of the CARES Act funding allocation that also included rental assistance for low-income households.

“The program is opening applications on Thursday and is focused on assisting business going through reopening following the pandemic,” Landrum said.

Landrum said many of the businesses reopening will face new costs, like equipment and furniture to socially distance customers and sanitize afterward. As the city progresses through the phases of recovery, Landrum said these will be the new normal in how companies interact with customers.

“All of that comes at an expense after a period of time when companies have seen huge, dramatic declines in revenue,” Landrum said.

The first round of the program will have $4 million in funding, half from the city allocation of the CARES Act, and half from reallocated funding from the Alexandria Investment Fund. Landrum said at least at the start, this likely won’t be enough to support all of the businesses that need it.

“We do anticipate there will be more demand than funding available,” Landrum said.

A few terms of eligibility will eliminate some businesses. Most broadly, business owners have to express their intent to remain in business, but they will also have to provide information about their lease to show that it’s applicable through the end of the year to demonstrate a commitment to staying in business.

Any business that has opened since March 1 of 2019 is also out of luck for the grant program, as the eligibility requires businesses to show profits year-after-year until coronavirus. Landrum said this is to be able to show the business was stable and could be profitable again.

“We want to invest in businesses with the best chance of surviving,” Landrum said. “Comparing year over year, month to month, is best and most accurate way to show that.”

Corporate-owned businesses are ineligible as well, an attempt to avoid the payouts to megacorporations that plagued earlier small business grant programs. Landrum said a locally owned franchise of a larger chain could still be eligible, though.

“For a business to apply, has to be a locally owned franchise and they would have to present that paperwork,” Landrum said. “There are a number of athletic companies that are national brands but locally-owned franchises. Want to help those people but not direct resources to a corporate entity.”

The grant program is divided into three categories based on employment size, which determines the maximum grant for each business.

  • Smallest (2-24 employees): $10,000 maximum
  • Medium (25-49 employees): $15,000 maximum
  • Largest (50-100 employees): $20,000 maximum

“A lot of the qualifications and the eligibility criteria focus on companies with a physical footprint in Alexandria,” Landrum said. ‘It’s recognizing businesses with a physical space are more likely to incur these costs. Examples include restaurants, where many had to buy new furniture for outdoor dining.”

Landrum said other professions, like physical therapists, personal groomers, massage parlors, will all need similar health measures. Even office spaces, which have turned towards more open concepts and squeezing people into smaller footprints, will have to undergo a radical adjustment to keep employees safe.

Background for the program is provided in English, Spanish, Arabic and Amharic, but Landrum said AEDP has phone translation services for business owners speaking any language.

Even for businesses who aren’t able to get a grant through ALX B2B, Landrum said there are other ways AEDP can help.

“One of the number one things we’ve been helping with is talking through real estate portfolios, [helping business owners] understand terms of leases and having conversations with landlords,” Landrum said. “I think that’s something people don’t realize we can and want to do.”

Landrum said AEDP can also help talk businesses through cash flow, marketing, and HR issues and utilize a variety of resources.

“AEDP and our partners are intended to be a trusted advisor to the business community,” Landrum said. “If any business owner has a question about anything, we might not have the answer, but we’re a connector for what those businesses need. One of the things we can do is listen and be a sympathetic and empathetic ear. When people are anxious, upset, devastated — and on top of that own a business — we can help.”

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(Updated 4:55 p.m.) With coronavirus, national outrage over police violence against black Americans, and a host of other issues taking center stage in 2020, the debate over Seminary Road that dominated discussions last year got pushed to the back burner, but the issue is making a small comeback at a Board of Zoning Appeals meeting next week.

A sign saying “Take Back Seminary Road #JustinsTrafficJam” was prominently displayed at 1420 Key Drive but has been cited by the city as being in violation of zoning ordinances. An appeal of that citation is scheduled for review at the Board of Zoning Appeals meeting on Monday, June 8.

“Zoning Ordinance limits temporary signs on residential properties to a total area of no more than ten square feet, provided that no single sign is larger than four square feet,” the city said in a staff report. “The sign subject to this appeal is 32 square feet, which exceeds the maximum total temporary signage allowed on residential property by 22 square feed and exceeds the maximum individual sign size by 28 square feet.”

The owner of the sign, in an appeal, said he had never had problems from the city putting similar signs on the fences before and believed the sign was targeted for political reasons.

“I believe that I have been specifically singled out for my sign because it makes a political statement,” the owner said. “I have reached this conclusion for several reasons, including that during the previous times I have put a sign on my fence, no one in the city government has ever had a problem.”

When the homeowner pointed to other signs nearby of similar size, he was told that the ordinance was selectively enforced based on complaints.

“There are numerous other signs around the city that have been up for months and sometimes over a year that flagrantly violate the city’s sign regulations, but only mine has been singled out as violating the regulation,” the owner said. “This type of selective enforcement for purely political purposes is not only a violation of my free speech, but is just wrong.”

Photo via City of Alexandria

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The following Letter to the Editor was written by Alexandria City Councilman John Taylor Chapman, who also owns Manumission Tour Company.

As we progress through this quarantine, like many business owners, I was forced to figure out how to keep my business from permanently closing. Like many of the tourism industry, we have seen one of the best times of the year for our business become a time of great uncertainty.

Like many, I was forced to pivot my business. 

That meant buying a 360-degree camera to set up virtual history tours. Prior to buying the camera, the most photography I had done was with a couple of clicks with my phone’s camera, and this piece of equipment was pretty new to me. I have since appreciated renewed views and perspectives of different sites within Alexandria.

I believe that this pandemic has allowed us to see Alexandria and its people in some new ways, and I am quite appreciative of that as well.

You have impressed me with your thoughtfulness of each other, your flexibility to adapt to this public health emergency, and your strong sense of community that we can and we WILL get through this TOGETHER, as people, as businesses and as organizations alike. 

During this period, I believe we all have a new appreciation for the relationships that we have with each other. We probably chat with members of our family and our circles of friends more than we ever have. I know for me, this pandemic has given the opportunity to reconnect with old friends I haven’t been in contact with just because we have gotten too busy. 

Some of us have also found some time to get some of those projects done, those plans executed or those ideas implemented that we promised ourselves we would do “one day.”

As we look to phase into what will be a new normal, I want to say thank you. Thank you to those of you who went out of your way to help one another.

I also implore you to celebrate what can be our new normal:

  • Celebrate our relationships with one another
  • Appreciate the roles that each of us play in making this community thrive
  • Find time for self-care and also time for each other
  • Support our businesses and organization which make us unique
  • Show concern for your health and fitness and also for those who you care about

While this pandemic is not over, I ask that we work together in our neighborhoods and communities to make Alexandria’s new normal the best it can be. 

ALXnow.com occasionally publishes thoughtful letters to the editor about issues of local interest. To submit a letter to the editor for consideration, please email it to [email protected] Letters may be edited for content and brevity, at our discretion.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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