Alexandria, VA

Pedestrians are getting a little more room to walk down King Street this weekend, but the new changes aren’t the planned pedestrian zone that has stirred up conversations in Old Town.

“The City has temporarily widened the sidewalk on the south side of the unit, 100 and 200 blocks of King Street, to allow more room for pedestrians to stay at least 6 feet apart while walking,” the city said in a press release.

Starting at 7 p.m. tonight, traffic will be prohibited from driving east on King Street past S. Fairfax Street, Alexandria Living Magazine first reported. The City of Alexandria clarified, however, that this isn’t part of broader pedestrian zone plans, but is instead an attempt to stall the spread of coronavirus as more people take to city streets.

“We are just widening the sidewalk on one side of the street to help pedestrians observe physical distancing guidelines,” City spokesman Craig Fifer said in an email. “Vehicular traffic will be one-way instead of two-way on those two blocks to free up the space used to widen the sidewalk. This is not related to the King Street Place proposal, and is not intended to encourage anyone to come to the area.”

The change will be in effect until Tuesday, May 26, according to the city. The city will also have additional law enforcement in the area to maintain compliance with the law. Northern Virginia is still under a stay-at-home order and gatherings of more than 10 people are still prohibited, with only essential trips outside of home permitted.

“To accommodate the wider sidewalk, vehicles on these three blocks may travel one-way westbound only (i.e. away from the river),” the city said. “Pedestrians, motorists and cyclists should stay alert and observe all posted signage and instructions from law enforcement officers.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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An earlier plan to close a portion of King Street for pedestrian-and-bike-access-only could be making a comeback as restaurants look for ways to do outdoor dining as a social distancing measure.

In a virtual town hall, Mayor Justin Wilson addressed questions about the possibility of closing streets to promote pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The prospect has gained ground in New York City, San Francisco, and other urban localities. There has been pressure from some advocates in D.C. for the city to do the same.

In Alexandria, however, the prospect of shutting down roadways to give more room for pedestrians and cyclists has been famously tempestuous.

“We’ve gotten that question a lot over the last couple of weeks,” Wilson said. “We’re looking at alternatives to facilitate outdoor dining when that returns. We received a proposal from a number of Old Town restaurants to see what can be done.”

The City Council has already permitted some encroachment into the public right of way for takeout and delivery at local restaurants. With Alexandria’s reopening delayed but still on the horizon, part of the plan to support small businesses while maintaining social distancing includes allowing more outdoor dining.

The pedestrian zone plan was, originally, to close the block between Lee Street and Union Street on weekends. The idea was popular enough that some officials were already discussing making the change permanent before the pilot was even implemented.

Those earlier plans were altered to include car traffic and were ultimately shelved for being too costly, according to Wilson.

“The city already entertained the idea of some form of closure on King Street that would have allowed expanded outdoor dining,” Wilson said. “That idea got shelved because of budget challenges, but we are continuing to look at those. I suspect you’ll hear more over the next couple weeks.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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The Alexandria City Council on Tuesday sent staff the proposed King Street Place pedestrian pilot program back to the drawing board.

The original plan would have turned a section of King Street near the waterfront into a pedestrian-only zone between Lee Street and Union Street on weekends, but more recent plans have included a single lane of traffic through the area that was going to be car-free.

Under the $190,000 plan proposed by staff, parking would be completely removed in the 100 block of King Street and a single lane of westbound traffic would be allowed for deliveries, valet parking, and picking up and dropping off visitors. That would shift dining to the south side of the street, while the north side would be open to vehicles.

“This is much different than what we had originally talked about, and I appreciate how we have gotten here,” Mayor Justin Wilson told city planning staff after a presentation at City Hall. “We’d like you to do it better and spend less.”

Wilson added, “If this works and is beneficial, then let’s do the whole King Street.”

The pilot, which staff was hoping to get approved by council next month, will now likely launch in early June after an amended plan is sent to the Waterfront Commission and the Traffic and Parking Board, according to Hillary Orr, deputy director of the city’s Department of Planning and Zoning.

“This is a lot of money,” City Councilman John Taylor Chapman told staff. “If we were to cut off the streets at the end [of King Street] and make this a plaza, it would probably be much less expensive… What I’d love to see is a much more streamlined, probably cheaper version of what you’re trying to accomplish here, because it is a pilot.”

“I did not think we were going to spend six figures on a pilot for that,” Chapman added.

Under the proposal, the King Street Trolley route along King Street would be redirected. Westbound traffic would continue, but eastbound traffic would loop around The Strand and Cameron, Union and Prince Streets.

“The street is only 37 feet wide emergency vehicle access needs 20 feet of that space,” Orr said. “That was really the key element we were thinking about in trying to balance the additional outdoor dining and then where pedestrians have additional space on the street. It did limit the design options, but it does allow for space that enhances the vitality along the corridor.”

Orr said city staff will look for some flexibility in its final presentation to the council to make changes during the pilot.

“If there are any unintended consequences of some of the proposals here or if we see that there is additional space needed for delivery, or things that we might not have thought of or ideas that people come up with, this is a pilot and opportunity to really test out how we use this space so that hopefully we can come up with a permanent solution in the future,” she said.

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Morning Notes

City Offers Free Tax Prep — “The City of Alexandria is offering free tax preparation to qualifying residents. Taxpayers are eligible if their income is below approximately $35,000 for individuals and $55,000 for families. Expert volunteers from Community Tax Aid, Inc. will ensure that taxpayers apply for all applicable credits and deductions — especially the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, which people often don’t realize they are eligible to receive.” [City of Alexandria]

More on King Street Pedestrian-Only Zone — “The pilot program is an opportunity to prioritize pedestrians while providing opportunities for the city to move towards urbanist goals like decreasing reliance on cars. It’s not the first time part of King Street was pedestrian-only. The idea was inspired in part by a previous effort, in 2006. Back then, the pilot program did not gain much traction as a permanent idea, though it was very popular with residents.” [Greater Greater Washington]

APD Officers Thanked for Saving Lost Man — “On January 24, 2020 Officer Vitale, Officer Harrell, and Officer Lennon located a critical missing person who was in need a immediate medical assistance. The parents of the victim came to Police Headquarters to thanked them for saving their son’s life.” [Twitter]

Update on Cop Shooter’s New Trial — “A man who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 2013 shooting of an Alexandria, Virginia, police officer was granted a new competency evaluation before standing trial in Prince William County on arson and stalking charges. In a brief hearing Friday in Circuit Court, Kashif Bashir repeatedly seemed to be trying to leave the courtroom, as his attorney sought, and was granted, a different psychologist to assess whether Bashir is competent to stand trial.” [WTOP]

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ALXnow reported last week that city officials were mulling over the idea of making a planned pedestrian-only zone on King Street permanent.

Starting April 18, a block of King Street near the Old Town waterfront — between Lee and Union streets — will be cordoned off from vehicular traffic. In place of cars, pedestrians will be able to walk down the middle of the newly-painted road as diners at the restaurants lining the block enjoy a more relaxing meal on sidewalk cafes.

The city’s Transportation Commission was so enthusiastic about the plan at a recent meeting that there was speculation that the seasonal closure could be made year-round.

What do you think about that idea?

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Alexandria officials are still working through the details, but there’s an unmistakable air of excitement from city staff and leadership when it comes to turning part of King Street into a pedestrian-only zone.

The proposal would close one block of King Street — between Lee Street and Union Street — to car traffic on weekends and turn it into a pedestrian-only zone.

Staff presented the latest on the plan to the Transportation Commission on Wednesday, Jan. 15, after which the Commission unanimously approved the plan and speculated that the closures could become permanent if all goes well.

Outreach for the project is planned to continue over the next month, with meetings scheduled with the Small Business Development Association, Visit Alexandria, and Old Town businesses next week.

An open house for the project is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 23. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the project on Feb. 25 and, if approved, the closure would start on April 18.

Deputy Director for Transportation Hillary Orr told the Transportation Commission the main concerns they’ve heard voiced are about the safety of the project. Police have suggested the use of solid barriers that have to be screwed in (and unscrewed for removal), a proposal also endorsed by the Fire Department due to concerns about vehicles entering the pedestrian zone — inadvertently or otherwise.

City staff said they are also looking into types of plants and stones that could provide additional barriers.

Orr noted that the intersection of King Street and Union Street has been a transportation challenge for city staff for years, particularly with vehicles turning onto one of the most pedestrian-heavy sections of Old Town.

“Removing turning vehicles from that intersection actually makes it safer,” Orr said.

Orr described the project’s components as “pilots within a pilot,” saying that pieces of the project like changes to loading zones, parking, and vehicular traffic patterns could impact city policy beyond just this closure.

The owner of a few nearby properties raised some concerns at the meeting, noting that the alleyway to the south being proposed for deliveries and loading is very narrow and could pose a safety risk with cars increasingly using it to get around the closed King Street.

In addition to car access, the plan will remove parking spaces not just on that block, but on Lee Street and a block east on King Street.

If approved, the closures would last from April to October, but the Transportation Commission members already expressed enthusiasm for seeing the project extended or made permanent if the closure this summer goes well.

“I’m excited,” said Transportation Commission chair Melissa McMahon. “We’ll see what happens in October.”

Image (top) via City of Alexandria (middle) via Google Maps

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(Updated at 11:15 a.m.) Alexandria’s plans to convert one block of King Street into a pedestrian-only zone are starting to come together.

The plan would close King Street between Lee Street and Union Street on weekends, according to a report presented to the Waterfront Commission Tuesday morning.

The street is primarily home to restaurants, like Daniel O’Connell’s Irish Restaurant and Bar and Bugsy’s Pizza Restaurant. There are four retail locations on the block, but two of them, Lou Lou Boutiques and The Lucky Knot, are on the corner and accessible from driveable streets.

The conceptual design shows bollards at either end of the street, with a pedestrian zone and dining areas set up along the street. Staff said barriers would be a requirement to making the pedestrian area safe. Paint on the street would help delineate pedestrian zones. Loading areas for the businesses will be located along alleys on either side of King Street.

The plan has created some concerns, with the staff report saying businesses were primarily concerned about how deliveries would be made. Other concerns included valet parking, mobility for seniors and persons with disabilities, and safety.

The King Street Trolly could be diverted to Cameron Street and Prince Street and loop around Strand Street, the plan suggests.

The plan will next go to the Transportation Commission tonight, with an update to the City Council in January. It’s scheduled for review at the City Council in February.

Photo via City of Alexandria

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