Newsletter

With the groundbreaking of the first of Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus buildings, Alexandria took a step into a new future on Tuesday.

Governor Ralph Northam joined top brass from Virginia Tech, Boeing, master architect JBG Smith and hundreds of visitors at the groundbreaking for a state-of-the-art 300,000 square-foot building. He said that, when completed, the academic buildings will be places “where academia, government and industry connect working to solve problems through technology.”

Virginia Tech plans on opening the first of three academic buildings in 2024, and the school anticipates teaching computer science research and development programs to 750 master’s degree students when the project is completed in ten years.

Mayor Justin Wilson thanked City Manager Mark Jinks and his staff, as well as the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, which was integral in bringing Amazon’s HQ2 project to the region.

We are so excited that so much of the plans that we have shaped for really a quarter of a century are coming to fruition on this site,” Wilson said. “But, ultimately, it’s not about the buildings. The buildings will be amazing, and we’re really excited about that. It’s the people that will be in the buildings and the people who will leave those buildings, and we are so excited to see the embodiment of this vision come to reality in the buildings here in the city of Alexandria.”

Tara Laughlin is studying for her Master’s degree in computer science at the Innovation Campus, and is one of seven Boeing graduate scholars. Boeing also gave the campus a $50 million gift.

I want to make a difference in the field that I work in, but I honestly just didn’t know where to start,” Laughlin said. “The Innovation Campus answered everything that I’d wanted.”

Matt Kelly, the CEO of JBG Smith, the master developer of the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, said that the future looks bright for Potomac Yard.

“When we began courting Amazon alongside the Commonwealth to make Northern Virginia home to HQ2, one of the main points of attraction that they had to the D.C. region was our strong base of tech talent,” he said. “Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus brings that right next door, and delivers on a future of diversifying our economy and broadening that talent base for many decades to come.”

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Last week Mayor Justin Wilson shared information on building inspection requirements following the disaster in Florida, but now the city is also pushing for state-level reform on building inspections.

The city’s scope of implementing  building code inspection requirements is bound by the Dillon Rule, which states that localities can only exercise powers expressly granted by the state. On July 8, Wilson sent a letter to Governor Ralph Northam urging him to start the legislative process toward overhauling the state’s barebones inspection requirements.

“In the hours and days after the tragic collapse of the Champlain Towers high-rise condominium in Surfside, Florida, I received numerous questions from residents in Alexandria about building safety in our community,” Wilson said. “As both a historic community and a growing community, the issue of building safety related to older buildings as well as new construction is one of particular interest.”

Wilson noted that there are 57 high-rise buildings in Alexandria that are at least 40 years old, and 51 high-rise buildings without sprinklers — the most of any locality in Virginia. Wilson also noted that a 2007 survey by the Virginia Housing Commission found that Alexandria had the most older high-rise residential buildings in Virginia.

“The City issued a press release communicating information about the Commonwealth’s Uniform Statewide Building Code, inspection requirements for new construction, required periodic inspection of certain systems, and the process for identifying and correcting unsafe buildings and structures,” Wilson said. “We did note, however, that there is currently no requirement in Virginia to proactively or regularly inspect building structure and that a building that has received a certificate of occupancy is only inspected again if there is a change in occupancy or alterations to the building that require inspection.”

Senator Scott Surovell noted on Twitter that Virginia condos are independently inspected every 5 years and repairs are recommended, but those are often ignored by Boards who are given immunity from liability.

Wilson noted that those studies are overseen and implemented by volunteers, not municipal building code officials, and the scope of studies outsourced to third parties is defined by those same Boards.

In the letter to Governor Northam, Wilson suggested slipping language into the American Rescue Plan Act funding to create a workgroup to look at potential changes to the building inspection requirements.

“I am asking that you consider including budget language establishing a work group of stakeholders on the issue of building safety in the Commonwealth in the appropriation bill for the Commonwealth’s tranche of ARPA funds that will be considered at the upcoming Special Session of the General Assembly,” Wilson said. “This workgroup would bring together stakeholders — including localities, building code officials, tenant groups, the development community, staff from the Department of Housing and Community Development and others to review building safety in the Commonwealth and identify legislative and budget proposals for the 2022 session.”

Potential changes Wilson suggested included:

  • New reporting requirements and transparency regarding current structural findings by homeowners and condominium associations
  • New authority for local building code officials to require inspections of buildings and structure in their community
  • A building inspection/recertification process
  • Emergency requirements that existing older buildings have structural assessments done within the next year.

“The tragic collapse of the condo building in Florida is highly unusual,” Wilson said. “There are millions of commercial and residential high-rise buildings in the United States and catastrophic structural failures like the recent disaster are, thankfully, quite rare. However, this is an opportunity for us to consider and revisit the issue of building safety in our communities and identify ways to review and potentially enhance building safety across the Commonwealth.

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In the wake of the condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson says that Virginia needs to update its building safety regulations.

While calling the June 24 collapse of the 40-year-old building a rarity, Wilson tweeted that it has raised safety concerns since Alexandria has “most of the older high-rise residential buildings in Virginia.”

“There are millions of commercial and residential high-rise buildings in the United States and catastrophic structural failures like the recent catastrophe are, thankfully, quite rare,” Wilson said. “However, this is an opportunity for us to consider and revisit the issue of building safety, and identify ways to review and potentially enhance building safety.”

In Virginia, building owners are not required to have inspections on structural integrity after buildings get a certificate of occupancy when construction is complete. They are only inspected if there is a change in occupancy or alterations that require inspection.

“Currently, there are no requirements to proactively or regularly inspect building structure,” City staff said in a release.

Wilson told ALXnow that he will soon send Governor Ralph Northam a letter asking his office to look into the matter.

For now, residents with concerns about the structural integrity of a building can contact the Department of Code Administration.

“The City is committed to the safety of our residents and I look forward to working with City staff, my City Council colleagues, other localities, members of the General Assembly, members of the Administration and other key stakeholders to identify ways to ensure the safety of buildings and structures in our community and in those across the Commonwealth,” Wilson said.

According to the City:

Virginia’s building code requires multiple layers of inspections, reviews and monitoring, particularly related to building structure and integrity, that initially take place during building construction. The inspections are performed by professionally licensed architects, engineers, municipal inspectors, special inspectors, senior engineers, certified technical experts, certified laboratories and certified testing agencies. Once these inspections have been passed, the building will receive a certificate of occupancy.

Building owners are then required to have periodic inspections of certain systems, such as elevators, fire protection and fire alarm systems. Currently, there are no requirements to proactively or regularly inspect building structure. A building that has received a certificate of occupancy is only inspected again if there is a change in occupancy or alterations that require inspection. As part of this inspection process, the statewide building code contains provisions for identifying and correcting unsafe buildings and structures. If a building is identified during an inspection as being structurally unstable or unsafe, there are provisions to handle that situation.

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What a week in Alexandria. Here’s the rundown.

Our top story was on President Joe Biden stopping by the Sportrock Climbing Center in Alexandria last Friday with First Lady Jill Biden and Governor Ralph Northam.

Seeing the president around town is getting to be a regular thing. The president, who also visited in April, discussed “the state’s progress against the coronavirus pandemic” and the celebration of “summer as Virginia lifts all COVID-19 distancing and capacity restrictions.”

This week, we also followed up on a New York Times report about the Virginia Theological Seminary making reparations payments to slavery descendants. The program was launched in 2019, and the school issued $2,100 in annual payments to 15 families in February.

On Wednesday, the Fire Department released its restructuring plan, which goes into effect June 12, and is intended to help emergency response times by shifting resources. AFD will conduct community conversations on the restructuring on Saturday, June 5, at 10 a.m.; Monday, June 7, at 2 p.m. and Thursday, June 10, at 7 p.m.

Closing the short workweek, on Friday Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown announced that his retirement. Brown’s last day is June 25, and the City Manager is soon expected to name an acting chief to lead the department while the city’s undergoes a national search for a permanent replacement.

Election stories

Important stories

Top stories

  1. UPDATED: President Biden and Gov. Northam visited Alexandria this morning
  2. JUST IN: Virginia State Police chase U-Haul pickup truck through Alexandria
  3. Bennett-Parker says Levine mailer on Commonwealth of Virginia letterhead is ethics breach
  4. Goodie’s Frozen Custard & Treats opens in Old Town
  5. Hank & Mitzi’s Italian Kitchen closes for the foreseeable future in Old Town North
  6. Volunteers needed this weekend to help clear dangerous stretch of Mount Vernon Trail
  7. Wilson and Silberberg mayoral debate finale opens possibility of ‘tweaking’ Seminary Road Diet
  8. Homegrown Restaurant Group gives employees raise to $15 an hour, will ease COVID restrictions at 6 restaurants
  9. ‘Rock It Grill’ eyeing karaoke expansion, bringing back Halloween party
  10. Here’s the order that City Council candidates will appear on the ballot for the June 8 democratic primary
  11. Ownership of Landmark’s streets could make a big difference down the road

Photo via White House/Twitter

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Alexandria’s Homegrown Restaurant Group is making an investment in the future.

That’s what “Mango” Mike Anderson says, now that he and co-owner Bill Blackburn have agreed to pay their 150 employees $15 an hour. Anderson says it’s about retaining good staff and thanking them for their hard work during the pandemic.

“Most of our business for the last year has been out of tents,” Anderson said. “Our staff have been out in the cold and rain and bad weather every day. My job behind the scenes was to apply for all these PPP loans and the Employee Retention Credit, and here we are at the end of this and we didn’t end up giving any Christmas bonuses this year. So, we all kind of got together and said, ‘Man, let’s try to make this $15 an hour deal happen.'”

Anderson also said that all COVID restrictions will be lifted Friday at Pork Barrel BBQHoly Cow Del RayThe Sushi BarWhisky & OysterSweet Fire Donna’s and Tequila & Taco.

Governor Ralph Northam was recently at Pacers Running in Old Town, where he met with Mayor Justin Wilson and spoke with employees about raising the minimum wage. Pacers has been paying its employees $15 an hour since last year.

Starting May 1, Virginia’s minimum wage increased to $9.50 per hour. It will go up again to $11 per hour on Jan. 1, 2022, to $12 in 2023 and then $15 per hour in January 2026.

Anderson said that tipped staff — bartenders and waitstaff — will not be paid $15 an hour, and estimates their income to be closer to $20 after tips.

“I think business is going to be strong this summer,” he said. “And we’re kind of betting on the future. Now’s the time to do it, show our appreciation and as a byproduct of this deal we’re also hoping it will attract a stronger caliber of staff to the restaurants.”

Anderson said that the company will be fine, despite an impact from increasing salaries.

“The dishwashers made like $10 or $11,” he said. “Now, with the online tip pool they’re going to make like $19 an hour. So, we’re gonna take a hit, but we’re trying to play the long game here, and the long game is to thank your customers and thank your staff.”

Photo via Holy Cow/Facebook

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The Alexandria Health Department on Friday, May 28, is launching a new accreditation program for businesses to make visitors feel safe.

That’s the day that Governor Ralph Northam is lifting all COVID-19 restrictions throughout Virginia.

The ALX Promise Gold program is the new version of the ALX Promise program, which launched in May 2020 and required business owners and staff to undergo health safety training. More than 450 businesses participated.

“The ALX Promise program really helped to reassure the community and people that were coming into our community that we were a safe place to come,” said Rachel Stradling, an environmental health manager with the AHD. “We really want to make sure that we continue that momentum this summer, while reassuring people that our businesses are still doing the right thing.”

Stradling continued, “Yes, we may be open at an increased capacity, but we want the community to have reassurance that these businesses still really care about the community’s health.”

The new program is being launched in a partnership with Visit Alexandria.

Nearly 70 businesses have already signed up to participate in the new 45-minute class, which updates business owners and staff on the latest updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Businesses must also pledge to report any new coronavirus cases, allow staff to get paid time off to get vaccinated, and maintain sanitation practices.

Some businesses, like fibre space in Old Town, are continuing to ask customers to wear face masks inside, while other big chain stores like Target and Wal-Mart have eliminated mask and distancing requirements.

“We obviously want every business to participate in the program,” Stradling said. “This really is the gold standard. It’s asking you to report every case, it’s asking you to give people paid time off to get vaccinated and we understand that that may be challenging to some businesses. But we really want to encourage as many businesses as possible to participate, and they will get an awesome new decal, which is a really pretty gold color and really stands out.”

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The Alexandria City Council on Saturday unanimously voted on Saturday to align the city’s face mask ordinance with the state’s guidance.

That means that Governor Ralph Northam’s recent lifting of the mask mandate applies to vaccinated city residents, and that any additional changes his office makes will not need local approval.

Any executive order issued by the governor regarding face coverings is the requirement that needs to be followed in Alexandria,” City Attorney Joanna Anderson said on Saturday.

Local businesses can determine whether they want to continue mask requirements, and masks will continue to be mandatory in K-12 schools.

“The state of emergency in Virginia will remain in place at least through June 30 to provide flexibility for local government and support ongoing COVID-19 vaccination efforts,” according to the governor’s office.

According to the city:

There are some instances when fully vaccinated people should continue to wear masks indoors, including on public transit, in health care facilities, and in congregate settings. Since vaccine clinics are considered health care settings, masks will be required by all patients, guests, volunteers, and staff, while inside and outside of vaccine sites. Businesses retain the ability to require masks in their establishments. Employees who work in certain business sectors–including restaurants, retail, fitness, personal care, and entertainment–must continue to wear masks unless they are fully vaccinated, per CDC guidance. The order also states that all K-12 students, teachers, staff and visitors must wear a mask over their nose and mouth while on school property, regardless of vaccination status.

There have been 11,799 cases of COVID-19, and the death toll is 135 in Alexandria. Approximately 40% of eligible Alexandrians have been fully vaccinated, according to the City.

 

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Morning Notes

State of emergency declared in Virginia over gasoline shortages — “Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency Tuesday afternoon to address gasoline supply disruptions across the state due to a cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline.” [Patch]

Potomac Riverkeepers disavow Silberberg mailer — “Potomac Riverkeeper Network learned today that Allison Silberberg’s campaign to be the next Mayor of Alexandria recently distributed a flyer that included an apparent endorsement by Dean Naujoks, the Potomac Riverkeeper and a member of our staff… Potomac Riverkeeper is neutral and does not endorse Alison Silberberg’s candidacy for Mayor of Alexandria. Potomac Riverkeeper Network supports clean water, not individual candidates.” [Twitter]

Virginia ABC stores returning to pre-pandemic hours starting Friday — “After more than a year of reduced operating hours in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority (ABC) stores will return to pre-pandemic operating hours on May 14, 2021.” [Zebra]

Fairfax County seeks public input on the former Mount Vernon Athletic Club — “The former Mount Vernon Athletic Club at 7950 and 7960 Audobon Ave. in Fairfax County’s Lee District is undergoing a transformation.” [Alexandria Living]

Today’s weather — “Partly cloudy (during the day). High 67F. Winds NNW at 10 to 15 mph… Mostly clear skies (in the evening). Low 46F. Winds N at 5 to 10 mph.” [Weather.com]

New job: Assistant camp director — “The YMCA of Metropolitan Washington is one of the largest charities in the DC area. The Y serves as an anchor in the community offering programs and services encompassing youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.” [Indeed]

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What a week in Alexandria. Here are some of the highlights.

The Alexandria City Council on Wednesday approved its Fiscal Year 2022 $770.7 million budget on Wednesday, and it includes a 2 cent real estate tax reduction. It’s the first time that’s happened in 15 years, and the budget also fully funds Alexandria City Public Schools’ request and includes a 1% raise for city and state employees.

But perhaps the biggest news of the week came with City Councilman Mo Seifeldein’s proposal to eliminate School Resource Officer funding from the budget. The effort was supported along by Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Councilman Canek Aguirre and Councilman John Taylor Chapman, who voted along with the group after failing to save the program in a last-minute effort.

Crime stories dominated many headlines, and Police Chief Michael Brown spoke with us this week about his department’s efforts to reduce destructive elements throughout the city. More from that interview will be published next week.

In this week’s poll, we asked about the importance of political endorsements for local candidates. Out of 222 responses, 48% (107 votes) don’t consider endorsements while voting; 39% (86 votes) said endorsements influence their decision; and 14% (29 votes) feel that endorsements hold a lot of sway.

Election stories

Important stories

Top stories

  1. Parking issues plague Potomac Yard, city looks to create residential parking district
  2. Knife pulled on woman who chases would-be thieves in Old Town
  3. D.C. man arrested after 130 mph chase leads to crash on Interstate 495
  4. Police: Armed robberies occur minutes apart in Del Ray and Arlandria
  5. Two injured in hit-and-run in Old Town, driver leaves car and flees on foot
  6. Too noisy? City Council is considering revising Alexandria’s noise ordinance
  7. Alexandria City Council to end School Resource Officer program at Alexandria City Public Schools
  8. Alexandria man arrested for firing gun at 7-Eleven door near Braddock Road Metro station
  9. Here’s the order that City Council candidates will appear on the ballot for the June 8 democratic primary
  10. JUST IN: Power outages across Alexandria as strong winds hit the city
  11. What’s next for GenOn and the rest of Old Town North?

Have a safe weekend!

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Governor Ralph Northam on Friday endorsed Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson for reelection.

“Local government is where the policy rubber meets the road, and we need effective leaders like Justin there to implement policies and innovate solutions to the problems of everyday Virginians,” Northam said in a statement. “Under Mayor Wilson’s leadership, Alexandria has consistently created a model for the entire Commonwealth. From COVID response to affordable housing coalitions to equitable transit, Justin has led on the issues most important to Virginians.”

The endorsement comes after Northam also backed a number of other candidates, including former Governor Terry McAuliffe in his bid to retake the governorship, Delegate Hala Ayala for lieutenant governor, and Del. Jay Jones for attorney general.

Wilson is running against former Mayor Allison Silberberg in the June 8 primary, and then  the winner of that contest will go against Republican Annetta Catchings in November.

“I am honored to have Governor Northam’s support,” Wilson said in a statement. “Partnerships with our statewide leaders have allowed us to weather the current pandemic and preserve our local economy. Because of the coordinated effort between Alexandria and Governor Northam’s administration, we are in a place to rebuild stronger than when this pandemic started.”

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