Alexandria, VA

What a busy week in Alexandria.

Our top story this week was on Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Old Town shop fibre space on March 3. It was Harris’ first official visit outside of the White House since she was inaugurated, and she spoke about the American Rescue Plan with shop owner Danielle Romanetti.

Alexandria City Public Schools reopened for hybrid instruction this week, the first time since all school facilities were shut down on March 13. The school system reportedly welcomed back 1,200 special needs students in kindergarten through fifth grade. ACPS will open on March 9 for special education students, and then fully reopen its doors to hybrid learning for students on March 16.

On the coronavirus front, the number  of deaths due to the virus has climbed to 123, and cases are at 10,404 since the first case was reported on March 11, 2020. Mayor Justin Wilson says the city is doing well keeping the numbers down, although with a vaccine waiting list exceeding 45,000 and 3,000 vaccine doses being given out weekly, distribution will continue to be slow.

More than 550 people responded to this week’s poll on the proposed new names for T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary School. About 60% of respondents said they were happy with Alexandria High School, but not with Naomi Brooks Elementary School; 25% said they liked both names; 8% didn’t like either name; and 6% didn’t like the high school name and were happy with the elementary school name.

In case you missed them, here are some other important stories:

Here are our most-read posts this week:

  1. Just In: Vice President Visits Old Town Shop Fibre Space
  2. Alexandria Wants Feedback on Building Spray Park in Del Ray
  3. El Chapo’s Wife to be Isolated in Alexandria Jail for One Month Per COVID-19 Distancing Rules
  4. Consultant Proposes Replacing Community Shelter with Mixed-Use Development
  5. Alexandria Advocacy Facebook Group Parodied in New Blog
  6. Superintendent Proposes New Names for T.C. Williams High School and Matthew Maury Elementary
  7. Patrick Moran, Son of Former Congressman Jim Moran, is Running for City Council
  8. ACPS Reopens its Doors and Evaluating Grading System for Traumatized Students
  9. Man Arrested for High-Speed Vehicle Race on I-495
  10. Meronne Teklu Enters City Council Race
  11. Neighborhood Spotlight: Old Town is the New Town

Have a safe weekend!

Photo via Peter Velz/Twitter 

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Post-holidays, Mayor Justin Wilson said in a town hall last night that Alexandrians have done a good job adhering to COVID restrictions and it’s shown in slowly declining deaths and hospitalizations.

On paper, Alexandria has seen its death toll increase over the last week to a total of 123 deaths, but the Alexandria Health Department and Wilson noted that this was due to figures from the holidays being adjusted to include additional deaths believed to be caused by COVID-19.

“Those deaths are not because we’ve seen more over the last few days, but [as a result of] going over death certificates and classifying deaths [earlier] that were COVID related,” Wilson said. “The new deaths added to count over last couple days, and many of those were deaths that occurred in holiday period when we had a spike. That’s not minimizing those deaths: but they occurred some weeks ago now.”

Wilson said hospitalizations have decreased and that there haven’t been any new deaths over the last couple days.

“We’re done with the holidays,” Wilson said. “We saw a very significant spike, reaching highest levels we’ve seen during holiday period, but that’s now subsided and we’re doing well. My message to Alexandrians — we’ve got to keep it up. We’re in a good spot on a good trend line.”

Meanwhile, Wilson said Inova Alexandria Hospital is currently at 65% capacity, which is healthy compared to earlier spikes and is even a little low compared to regular occupancy. There are 14 patients at the hospital who are either COVID-19 positive or under investigation, which Wilson said is the lowest numbers from the hospital in a while.

While Wilson noted that the vaccine supply has started going up at a federal level, that hasn’t quite trickled down to a local level up.

“We’re up to 3,000 doses received per week, which is a combination of first and second doses,” Wilson said. “But we have a waiting list of over 45,000 Alexandrians signed up already for vaccination. So at 3,000 a week it’s still going to take a while.”

Photo courtesy ARHA

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Regional losses to tourism and the hotel industry could be an unexpected windfall for Alexandria’s ongoing efforts to find affordable housing.

During a presentation to the City Council last week, Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP) President and CEO Stephanie Landrum said that the city could look at streamlining some rezoning to help transform hotels emptied by COVID into affordable housing units.

“We’ve spent a lot of the time in the past talking about office conversion and talking about the economics of that,” Landrum told City Council. “We are going to add hotels to that list. Where does it make sense to encourage the conversion of an older, perhaps considered obsolete hotel, and helping us accomplish maybe some of our affordable or other housing goals — and at the same time investing and encouraging in new hotels in the right spaces?”

The proposal comes as the city balances affordable housing needs with some public reluctance on colocation. The School Board voted unanimously against co-locating affordable housing at the Minnie Howard Campus of Alexandria’s high school, and ACPS noted that the proposal sparked community backlash.

Earlier this week, an ACPS consultant proposed either adding affordable housing to a community shelter or moving the shelter entirely and using the site as a mixed-use development with an affordable housing component.

Meanwhile the city — and the region as a whole — have seen a dramatic drop-off in hotel occupancy and revenues. Mayor Justin Wilson noted in a social media post that hotel revenue fell from $1.1 million in July 2019 to around $200,000 in July 2020.

Landrum told ALXnow that AEDP is currently looking over some of those strategies and will come back to Council with a more detailed report.

“We’ll give them a look at our commercial corridors, like office and hotel uses,” Landrum said. “It might be that some hotels decide that travelers aren’t going to come back for a long enough time and maybe they are not approximate to a metro or have enough amenities. They might decide hanging onto the hotel doesn’t make sense and might pursue sale or conversion.”

These would likely be hotels off Eisenhower Avenue or in the West End that don’t have immediate access to central tourism areas, Landrum said, so it’s unlikely this would apply to any Old Town hotels.

The proposal saw some initial support on the City Council, though it will take more research over the next few months to see what the city could do to facilitate that sort of turnover.

“I think it would be interesting in terms of looking at options for future viability in some of those sites,” City Councilman John Chapman told ALXnow. “With the need of housing, coupled with the fact that some hotels might not survive — so what would you do with those buildings?

Chapman said he’d like to see some hotels used as commercial or residential space, though the city will have to work with the building owners to determine that.

“I wouldn’t want to close the door to affordable housing without hearing more about what is planned,” Chapman said. “I’m not trying to jump the gun on that, but I want to say that there’s interest. We’re interested in whatever that second life is [for some hotels], but I don’t know what that process entails and how we change it in a way that makes it fit.”

Chapman said the city should do more to look at other localities to see if any others have gone through similar procedures and gather some lessons learned.

“Is it something we see across the D.C. metro area as it relates to tourism and hotels in their next life?” Chapman said.

Landrum said the city has seen that with some office buildings, and, in rezoning, has had to determine whether case-by-case whether it was appropriate to allow those parcels to have other uses. This has happened a few times before for hotels, Landrum noted, including:

  • Washington Suites Alexandria (100 S. Reynolds Street) being converted to The Mark Apartments
  • Crowne Plaza Hotel mid-conversion by Carr Companies to Venue.
  • Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham (420 N. Van Dorn Street converted to Broadstone Van Dorn Apartments

The first two had to undergo a zoning review, while the Broadstone Van Dorn Apartments conversion was done by-right.

“As we’re looking at impact on the real estate market, I think we should be proactive and decide whether this is something we want to pursue,” Landrum said. “Affordable housing is a major priority.”

Landrum said the city would likely start with one hotel space and work in partnership with a local affordable housing nonprofit to test the idea.

The city’s role in this process, Landrum said, would likely be facilitating discussions between property owners and affordable housing developers and nonprofits.

“We would want to talk with nonprofit housing and say ‘you should take a look at this’ or talk with affordable housing developers,” Landrum said. “I don’t see a situation where we would, as the city, step in and try to acquire it ourselves. Our role is to make recovery easy to remove hurdles. We should take next month or two to see: Are there any hurdles? Is there a way for this to happen without having to go through a bureaucratic process?”

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Nine-year-old Luis Aleman had a hard time learning at home, and was happy to be back at Mount Vernon Community School on Tuesday.

It was a far from ordinary school day for the fourth grader, with plexiglass screens at desks that are spread apart, kids distancing from each other, and even walking a socially distant mile for recess instead of playing on the monkey bars.

Aleman said learning at home was tough with two siblings, and that he was glad to go back to school and see his teachers in person.

“It was tough,” Aleman told ALXnow. “When you have siblings, it’s tough, because they mess around with you.”

On Tuesday, Aleman joined about 1,200 special needs students in kindergarten through fifth grade in going back to Alexandria City Public Schools, marking the first time that in-person public instruction has been allowed since March 13, 2020.

“Now, every desk is six feet apart, and we have to be six feet apart, and we have to wash our hands every time we touch,” Aleman said.

About 60% of ACPS staff have been able to go back to school for in-person learning, although not all of them have been vaccinated.

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. could not confirm the number of staffers who have been completely vaccinated, but said that vaccination is not a prerequisite to go back to work. He recently got his second vaccine dose, and said that the side effects temporarily left him with flu-like symptoms.

“We’re back. I’m glad that we finally got to this part, honestly,” Hutchings said outside MVCS on Tuesday. “I want to thank our team for all their hard work that they’ve done over the past year to prepare for this moment. And, it’s showtime.”

MVCS Principal Liza Burrell-Aldana said that the school can handle unforeseen emergencies.

“We have a 63% of our staff who are returning hybrid,” Burrell-Aldana said. “If we have to an emergency happen, we need supervision last minute, we’re gonna just go in there and do what we do.”

Hutchings said that ACPS is evaluating grading practices for students who may have been traumatized by the pandemic.

“We have a grading committee that is looking at our grading practices, which need to be revamped,” Hutchings said. “This has been a traumatic experience for kids, and we have to take that into account.”

ACPS will open on March 9 for special education students, and then fully reopen its doors to hybrid learning for students on March 16.

Hutchings said that the school system will continue to monitor the situation in individual schools to determine if they will stay open. In the meantime, he said that it looks like students will go back to in-person schooling for two days a week for the rest of the year.

“We will be working through each individual school, monitoring how many cases, and when you get to a spread that’s more than two within a building and following what the guidance from the Alexandra Health Department and looking at our contact tracing to determine if we need to remain open or closed, but we’re going to use those metrics just like we were using before we opened our doors,” Hutchings said.

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Some parents and teachers are facing uncertainty and lingering questions in the days and weeks before ACPS returns to in-person school on March 16.

While ACPS has regularly put out newsletters on the plan for reopening, some in the community are still unsure if their teachers will be back in the classrooms or whether teachers who have been unable to secure a vaccine amid a hectic rollout will be forced to return.

“It’s been absolutely wild at the school right now,” a teacher at one of Alexandria’s middle schools told ALXnow. “We were told early in the pandemic that no one is going to be forced back. There was a back to school survey and they told families it was non-binding. We were told that if you have a medical issue, no one is being forced back to school. They did a sharp turn a few weeks ago: that we’d be back in the buildings March 1.”

While teachers are currently able to get the vaccine on paper, city leadership acknowledged that the process has been slow-going as doses trickle into the city from the state. The teacher said some faculty have faced difficulty getting the vaccine, or have gotten the first dose but are expected to go back to work before they get the second dose.

An ACPS spokesperson said the city is trying to get teachers vaccines, but considers them voluntary.

“The vaccination is voluntary and not required for staff to work in schools,” ACPS said. “All ACPS staff who sign up for the vaccination are designated as priority 1B. The AHD continues to schedule as many staff as possible for vaccinations depending on vaccine logistics.”

The teacher told ALXnow that they are required to submit a doctor’s notes if they are concerned about health conditions putting them at risk if they return to work, but that several have had notes rejected. An ACPS spokesperson said the organization would not comment on the process for health conditions as a “personnel matter” but that staff are encouraged to reach out to an HR representative for assistance. The teacher said that many in school faculty have tried contacting HR, but their calls go unanswered.

“We’re told ‘that’s an HR question’ but they won’t pick up the phone,” a teacher said. “I make calls, but they won’t call back and won’t respond to requests for calls. It’s anonymous people at HR making decisions for who is going back. I want to believe they’re well intentioned, but everybody is pretty confused.” Read More

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Morning Notes

Surge in COVID-19 Deaths Occurred in January and February — “The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is reviewing and accounting for COVID-19 deaths that occurred during the post-Holiday COVID-19 surge between January and the end of February. As a result, there have been recent increases in deaths reported in Alexandria’s COVID-19 dashboard. AHD and the City extend their sincere condolences to all community members who have lost someone during the course of the pandemic.” [City of Alexandria]

Resident Launches DrainALX Website on Flooding — “After Waynick’s first flood experience, she started talking to neighbors on her own street, letting them know that they should submit information through Alexandria 311, sign up for City alerts and more — and her communication efforts kept growing from there. Her email list now has more than 250 people across at least a dozen neighborhoods from the West End to North East Alexandria and Old Town.” [Alexandria Living]

AlexRenew Provides Details on Alexandria’s RiverRenew Project — “The project AlexRenew is undertaking now means reducing the millions of gallons of rainwater mixed with sewage that sometimes pollutes Alexandria’s waterways via four outfalls located around the City. These outfalls are at the eastern end of Pendleton Street, the southern end of Royal street, and two along Hooffs Run.” [Alexandria Living]

Front Boarding, Fares To Resume On Dash Bus In Mid-March — “Other regional bus systems, including Metro, Fairfax Connector and Arlington Transit, resumed front boarding and fare collection in early January.” [Patch]

Health Department Gives More Doses to Ladrey Senior Highrise — “The Alexandria Health Department (AHD) has allocated another 100 first doses to ARHA for seniors. In addition to the remaining residents at Ladrey who want to be vaccinated, ARHA is reaching out to seniors at other sites who have not yet been vaccinated to offer them the opportunity. The clinic will be held in the Community Room at the Ladrey Highrise on this Wednesday, March 3 from 1:00PM – 4:00PM.” [ARHA]

Elnoubi Out of Council Race — Abdel Elnoubi, the co-vice chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, is not running for City Council. Elnoubi, a project manager for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, filed to run in the upcoming democratic primary on Dec. 30, but told us that he’s now thinking about running for the School Board. [ALXnow]

Today’s Weather — “Sunny (during the day). High around 45F. Winds NW at 10 to 20 mph… Clear skies (in the evening). Low 31F. Winds light and variable.” [Weather.com]

New Job: School Classroom Monitor — “Positions start as soon as possible. Temporary/Contract – Through June 2021.” [Indeed]

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There have been 12 more coronavirus-related deaths in Alexandria, bringing the death toll from the virus to 119.

Six of the deaths were residents in their 80s, four were in their 70s and two were in their 60s. Five victims were women and seven were men.

Alexandria’s caseload now stands at 10,342. That’s 146 more cases since this time last week, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

There have also been 509 total hospitalizations in Alexandria since the onset of the pandemic, and the city’s seven-day moving average is now at 22.4, which is down from last Monday’s total of 26.6 cases.

Across Virginia, there have been 8,783 deaths and there are or have been 577,174 cases of the virus. There have also been 5.9 million PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests and the state’s seven-day positivity rate is 7.1% (down from 8.1% this time last week).

Vaccine Update

VDH is now releasing vaccine demographic data for Alexandria, and 20,317 residents have received at least one dose and 13,004 have been fully vaccinated. There are now more than 45,000 city residents on the vaccine waiting list.

White residents far outpace other races in the city for first doses and full vaccinations.

  • White — 6,942 first doses, 3,493 fully vaccinated
  • Black — 1,723 first doses, 1747 fully vaccinated
  • Latino — 1,684 first doses, 809 fully vaccinated
  • Other — 1,416 first doses, 667 fully vaccinated
  • Asian of Pacific Islander — 505 first doses, 234 fully vaccinated
  • Native American — 45 first doses, 13 fully vaccinated

“Some of the disproportionality among people of color compared to white populations may be due to the current vaccination focus on older adults,” reported the Alexandria Health Department. “In addition to  AHD’s equitable vaccine prioritization process, AHD will use this data to reinforce existing engagement efforts, such as partnering with communities of color, to raise awareness about vaccine safety and effectiveness, and how to pre-register and how to obtain COVID-19 vaccination.” Read More

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Most of all, what Hard Times Cafe (1404 King Street) staff said they’ll miss about Mike Dankwa is his ever present smile and deep-bellied laugh.

In a GoFundMe raising support for Dankwa’s family — organized by Cindy MacIntyre and Hard Times owner Richard Kelly — MacIntyre said Dankwa was an optimistic and cheery presence at the restaurant.

Last Friday, Feb. 19, Dankwa died as a result of complications from COVID-19, Zebra first reported.

“Mike succumbed to COVID-19 on Friday the 19th and leaves behind his lovely wife, Gina; three children and a large extended international family,” MacIntyre said. “Originally from Ghana, he settled in Woodbridge, VA over a decade ago… We hope you will join us with a generous donation to help cover the cost of Mike’s funeral and to support his family as they deal with this unexpected tragedy.”

Dankwa had been at hard times since 2002, working as assistant manager while studying at George Mason University.

“Mike was the friendliest, most positive person at Hard Times,” Kelly said in the post. “He was always there for his staff and our many customers who loved to come visit with him.”

The post noted that Dankwa enjoyed golf and hockey, and was an avid fan of the Washington Capitals.

“It’s heartbreaking to post this but Mike Dankwa the long time GM at Hard Times in Old Town passed away last Friday after a month long battle with Covid,” MacIntyre said. “Mike wasn’t just my Boss during my years there he became someone I considered a friend. He leaves behind his wife, a young son and a daughter in college… He will be truly missed.”

At time of writing, the GoFundMe has raised $4,020 of its $50,000 goal.

Photo via GoFundMe

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Morning Notes

Virginia Rolls Back Some Restrictions on Dining, Outdoor Gatherings — Effective Mar. 1, Virginians will be able to buy and drink alcohol at restaurants, food courts, breweries, distilleries, and wineries until they are required to close at midnight. The changes to the current executive order come amid declining rates of hospitalizations and infections and rising vaccination rates in the Commonwealth, Northam said during a press conference this morning (Wednesday).” [Reston Now]

Alexandria Black History Museum Launches Online Exhibition — “Following George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, the Alexandria Black History Museum (ABHM) requested that Alexandria residents share their thoughts, artwork, and more. ABHM wanted to document the Alexandria community’s response of this tragic event and preserve it for future generations. An online exhibition featuring the items received so far launched recently on the Historic Alexandria Online portal. The items collectively are called the Black Lives Remembered Collection.” [Zebra]

Leaders Predict What Alexandria Will Look Like in the Year 2050 — “You pop into the Torpedo Factory and delve into the immersive beauty of art and technology combined, then get your caffeine fix with ease as a retinal scan captures your regular favorite brew — fair trade of course, because all coffee is these days. With a coffee in hand, you board one of the free electric trolleys that departs every 10 minutes from King Street to any of the city’s neighborhoods — Potomac Yard, Inova West, Carlyle, Arlandria, Del Ray and more.[Alexandria Living]

Council Approves Newport Village Development — “UDR Newport Village LLC, has received approval for a development special use permit to tear down two garden-style apartments and build a multifamily residential building with 383 units near Northern Virginia Community College. According to the plans, 24 units would be studios, 255 would be one-bedroom units, and 104 would be two-bedroom units. At least a dozen of the units would be affordable, and the developer is making a contribution to the affordable housing fund.” [Alexandria Living]

City Environmental Award Nominations Open — “Know someone who is committed to protecting the environment and sustaining Alexandria’s natural resources? Nominate them for the Ellen Pickering Environmental Excellence Award by March 25.” [Twitter]

George Washington Reenactor Conducting Community Conversations — “Join George Washington every Friday in February as he discusses his life during various periods of his life and engages the audience. The first week will be about his youth, the second week will delve into the American War for Independence, the third week will cover his post-war retirement at Mount Vernon and his time presiding over the Constitutional Convention, and the last installment will cover his Presidency and final retirement years.” [Visit Alexandria]

Today’s Weather — “Mainly sunny (during the day). High 52F. Winds NW at 10 to 15 mph… Partly cloudy (in the evening). Low 31F. Winds light and variable.” [Weather.com]

New Job: Pastry Chef/Baker — “Seeking a full time pastry and/or bread baker for high quality artisan bread and pastry company. We are looking for a creative self starter who has attention to detail and a variety of skills from cookies and brownies to cakes, ice cream, mousses, desserts and pies- laminating skills a plus but not necessary. Creativity, drive and a strong work ethic are critical. This position comes with a lot of freedom to develop new items and grow the business. You will be producing a menu of set items according to our recipes but we are looking for someone who can creatively and efficiently develop and add more items- this is a growth position.” [Indeed]

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In the latest Agenda Alexandria conversation, local business and civic leaders came together to discuss the highs and lows of the recently proposed City Manager’s budget.

The budget included a proposed tax rate reduction, but City Council candidate Bill Rosssello challenged the overly sunny narrative about the reduction.

“I look at the budget the way it’s been presented and something that always seems to concern me is when we lead with a narrative around the tax rate,” Rossello said. “The tax rate is only one part of the equation for the actual taxes that people pay… While we’re looking at a proposed 2 cent tax rate decrease, when you do the math, for the average household it comes out to be almost a 6% tax increase in real dollars and that’s what really matters to residents: how much more or how much less am I going to pay?”

Rossello was joined on the panel by Rob Krupicka, former City Council member and Delegate and owner of Elizabeth’s Counter, and Janet Blair Fleetwood, Secretary of the Budget & Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee and the Mayor’s representative on Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee (BFAAC).

The group discussed the current imbalance between the residential and commercial tax bases, which has only gotten worse during the pandemic.

“Back in 2009, we used to get 30.5% of revenue from commercial, said Fleetwood. “It is now 21.3%. We have a good situation here, with Virginia Tech’s Innovation area coming in, Amazon, the Patent office, the National Science Foundation, and Landmark. We should start looking to grow businesses that will come in and bring good jobs and use commercial real estate.”

Fleetwood said there has been talk that post-pandemic, companies may not want to use commercial real estate as they did before, but Fleetwood said she has also heard from companies that they will still need physical footprints for team projects.

“I don’t think commercial footprint is going away,” Fleetwood said.

Krupicka noted that questions about the balance between residential revenue and commercial revenue may fundamentally change post-pandemic.

“The balance between residential revenues and commercial revenue… there are fundamental shifts happening right now that make that an old debate,” Krupicka said. “People are working from home now, and you’re going to see a lot of businesses that don’t go back to commercial office when COVID ends.”

Krupicka said one of the larger concerns is that small business have to compete against larger companies like Amazon and pay taxes those companies don’t.

“Small businesses are competing against Amazon and large internet companies,” Krupicka said. “There is big international competition that pays a lot less taxes than small mom and pop. Small mom and pop has to pay BPOL tax… small businesses like mine are writing checks to government, but doing it in the hole. If you broke even on COVID, you’re paying on gross receipts, not profits.”

Krupicka said Amazon pays retail taxes, which benefits the city, but in general pays less on taxes per transaction than small restaurants or retailers.

“We need to have conversation about if we want small businesses to be at a disadvantage tax wise,” Krupicka said.

On the other side, Rossello said the burden on residential taxpayers has grown considerably and is pushing people out of Alexandria.

“We’ve taxed out so many middle class folks, who can afford to pay decent mortgage or rent, but find it more affordable to leave,” Rossello said. “We’ve seen whole neighborhoods turn over from diverse middle class neighborhoods to gentrified neighborhoods where houses on very small lots are $1.5 million dollars.”

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