Newsletter

What an absorbing week in Alexandria.

Just as the ball gets rolling with reopening and loosened restrictions, the pandemic rears its ugly head. With coronavirus transmission levels climbing, Alexandria is once again recommending that residents go back to wearing face masks indoors.

Our weekly poll found that 37% of respondents (337 votes) don’t plan to wear masks indoors again unless required, 32% (291 votes) never stopped wearing masks and plan to continue, and 30% (275 votes) stopped wearing masks indoors and plan to start again.

In the meantime, Three Dog Night, Tanya Tucker, and more are scheduled to play at the Birchmere next month, and the Little Theatre of Alexandria has gone back to in-person performances with its latest farce, Neil Simon’s Rumors. The city’s annual sidewalk sale is also on track to be largest ever, with participation from more than 70 local boutiques on the pedestrian-only blocks between 700 and 1100 King Street.

Turning toward the Olympics, Alexandria boxer Troy Isley won his first contest earlier this week, but lost his second match in a close split decision on Thursday night. Next week, Alexandria City High School will host a watch party for alumnus star sprinter Noah Lyles, who is the favorite to win the gold medal in the 200 meter race.

Important stories

Top stories

  1. Alexandria car dealership receptionist busted for alleged credit card fraud
  2. One year of lane closures in Potomac Yard starts today
  3. Man arrested after armed carjacking in West End
  4. BREAKING: Potomac Yard Metro opening pushed back to September 2022
  5. New Potomac Yard luxury condo community sells 30% of properties before construction starts
  6. Residents protest against conditions at West End apartment complex
  7. Local Democrat challenges Rep. Don Beyer in 8th District Primary
  8. Cigar and vape shop to open on Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray
  9. EXCLUSIVE: Halal slaughterhouse opens, gives away free chickens for first two days in business
  10. Without School Resource Officers, Superintendent wants more private security inside and police patrolling outside
  11. Poll: Do you plan on wearing a mask indoors again?

Have a safe weekend!

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Without school resource officers and the next school year starting in less than a month, Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. has a plan to beef up security.

Hutchings and staff, on July 16, sent the School Board a three-page proposal acknowledging serious security implications, including “increased vulnerability at school sites, decreased deterrence of situations such as active threats to students, staff and visitors.”

Council voted 4-3 in May to redirect nearly $800,000 in SRO funding toward student mental health resources, a vote that has since been decried by the School Board. The reallocation means there will be no police presence at Alexandria City High School, Francis C. Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School.

“Please note that this decision only affords ACPS approximately three months to establish a contingency plan with regards to safety and security mitigations for our students and staff in the midst of our summer learning and reopening for fall during a global pandemic,” Hutchings told the Board in the report.

The options are to hire five more additional security officers for an estimated $185,000; pay detailed police officers $50 an hour to work the perimeter of a school location from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Hutchings’ option, which is a combination of the first two options.

“This option would allow for additional SSO’s to provide supplemental safety coverage and for detailed officer support in frequently patrolling the exterior of facilities,” the staff report said.

Mayor Justin Wilson voted in the minority against eliminating SROs, and previously told ALXnow that he is “dismayed” by the deteriorated relationship between Council and the Board resulting from the decision.

In the meantime, acting Police Chief Don Hayes said that the officers have been put back into patrol operations, and hopes a new memorandum of understanding will be signed with ACPS before school starts.

“Students are going to be students, and we will have things in place to ensure that schools are safe,” Hayes said.

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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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Alexandria Police are reporting no known threats to the city in the run up to the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Wednesday, Jan. 20, and the city is not planning to impose 6 p.m. curfew that night.

Mayor Justin Wilson told ALXnow that he sees no reason that a curfew will be necessary, as the Alexandria Police Department has been working closely with federal and regional law enforcement partners.

“At this point, we see no reason that will be necessary,” Wilson said. “Our police have been working closely with federal and regional partners for months to prepare for this period and I am confident they will keep our community safe.”

The city will activate its Emergency Operations Center on Jan. 20, and residents are asked to virtually observe the swearing-in of President-elect Joe Biden.

The governor imposed a 6 p.m. curfew on Alexandria and Arlington on Jan. 6 after the siege at the U.S. Capitol. The District will remain in a state of emergency until the day after Biden and Harris are inaugurated.

On Tuesday night, Police Chief Michael Brown briefed City Council on preparations in the run up to the inauguration, and said that the department’s civil demonstration unit is ready to be deployed.

Also this week, Alexandria Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker asked Alexandria hotels to cancel reservations for any members of the Proud Boys, an aggressive group that supports outgoing President Donald Trump.

See the full release from the city below the jump.

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The Alexandria School Board last Thursday approved a revised bi-annual memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Alexandria Police Department to provide school resource officers in the city’s public schools.

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. also said that all Alexandria City Public Schools employees will get racial diversity training.

“That is what’s going to help us to tackle some of those racial disparities, because unfortunately society has made black and brown people in general seem as if we are criminals, and that is the perception that people have in their minds,” Hutchings said.

Last month, parents, students and community advocacy representatives railed against SROs, and said they foster an inappropriate culture of prejudice against non-white students. LaDonna Sanders, president of the Alexandria NAACP, filed a Freedom Of Information Act and found that in 2018 there were 140 out-of-school suspensions, and that a “significant enough proportion of the suspensions involve referrals to law enforcement.”

However, “In the event of a significant and articulable threat to health or safety school or for school officials may disclose any information from student records to the appropriate parties, including law enforcement officials, whose knowledge of the information is needed to protect the health and safety of a student or other individual,” according to the MOU.

The Board approved the MOU 6-3, and Board Members Michelle Rief, Jacinta Green and Heather Thornton voted against its approval. As previously reported, the MOU has “measurable objectives” for SROs, meaning that the officers have to complete statistical reports, data collection for quarterly performance reports, and after-action reports after incidents with students.

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Alexandria is asking local drivers to be particularly mindful of safe driving this week as children, who may not adhere as closely to regulations as adults, take to the streets to trick or treat.

While traditional trick or treating has been discouraged this year in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s still likely that this weekend will see a noticeable uptick of children on city streets. City Council declared this week as “Pedestrian Safety Awareness Week” in early October in light of the potential risk.

“The last week of October and the first weekend of November coincides with Halloween and children are considered vulnerable road users that are more severely affected by crashes,” the city said in a proclamation, “and November 1st is when Day Light Savings ends, and sunset arrives an hour earlier during Standard Time.”

There is also a new law in Virginia for drivers to bear in mind.

“Alexandria Families for Safe Streets and the Alexandria Police Department want to remind drivers about a recent Virginia Traffic Law that requires drivers to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, instead of just yielding,” said Mike Doyle, founding member of Alexandria Families For Safe Streets. “Drivers must come to a full stop for pedestrians in any marked and unmarked crosswalks and remain stopped until the pedestrian passes your vehicle is stopped at a crosswalk, the driver of any other approaching vehicle may not pass the stopped vehicle.”

According to the proclamation, there were 184 vehicle/pedestrian crashes in Alexandria between 2017 and 2019, with 20 serious injuries to pedestrians and 8 pedestrians killed. Crashes have been more likely to occur in the fall and winter months as a result of the shorter days and inclement weather.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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City Councilman Mo Seifeldein says that the community police review board proposal going before City Council tonight (Tuesday, September 8) is “dead in the water.”

The proposal from Council was approved unanimously in June, and does not give the review board the ability to independently investigate police misconduct and issue subpoenas if necessary. The request to include the authority was made by the NAACP, Tenants and Workers, and other local groups, Seifeldein said.

“The Police Review Board Recommendation, while well intentioned, is DOA as it is deaf to the pain of over policed communities, disregards an expressed request by Council, and is essentially a glorified pacifier,” Seifeldein told ALXnow. “I am looking forward to the justification of this proposal.”

Seifeldein introduced the legislation that passed unanimously in June. In Virginia, there are such boards in Fairfax County, Virginia Beach and Charlottesville.

Council will also review a resolution that “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.”

The proposal, which was drawn up by the city manager’s office, states that the board will “provide meaningful assessments and corrective recommendations intended to remedy discriminatory practices, including race and social inequities, that it may find.”

The proposal would limit the board from investigating complaints that occurred before June 9, which is the date that council voted for the creation of the board. That includes any complaints against the department, “any financial management, or procurement decisions made by APD… individual hiring, assignment and promotional decisions made by the APD,” according to the proposal.

As previously reported, there has been a renewed focus on police activities this year. During the worst days of the pandemic, patrol officers were sent home to telework, and there were demonstrations throughout the city in the wake of the death of George Floyd. In July, an internal survey of one of the police department unions found that a majority of officers surveyed were upset over the firing of an officer for unjustified use of force. The survey by the Alexandria chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association found that morale was low and a majority of officers surveyed were wary of not receiving a fair administrative process if their conduct is called into question.

Police Chief Michael L. Brown said in June that such a review board has a negative connotation.

“I do not disagree with the concept of oversight,” Brown said. “I may be mincing words here, but a ‘review board’ as its phrased in our world, in policing, has a very negative connotation.”

The proposal states that the board would be made up of:

  • Seven city residents appointed by Council
  • Three members from historically racially or socially marginalized communities that have “commonly experienced disparate policing in the city”
  • A representative from a racial or social justice organization
  • A member with law enforcement experience
  • Four members would serve three year terms, three members would serve on the inaugural board for 18 month terms

Badge photo via Alexandria Police Department/Facebook

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The following Letter to the Editor was written by Alexandria Fire Chief Corey Smedley.

Like every emergency, the Alexandria Fire Department approached this pandemic with the mindset that we will win the fight, no matter the circumstances – and that is NON-NEGOTIABLE. We have found the courage to redefine ourselves and think outside of the box to try new things in response to something we have never faced before.

I believe that together we can all find that courage as we continue to adjust and hold on to some form of normalcy in this current situation.

When I was officially named the Fire Chief for the Alexandria Fire Department in December 2019, I would have never thought our city would be facing an ongoing, global public health crisis within a few short months.

As a new chief, this can seem overwhelming, and make no mistake about it, COVID-19 is one of the greatest nemeses I have ever encountered to-date.

However, I knew what I was signing up for and I want to be battle-tested for future challenges. But I am not facing this alone. Your Fire Department is a team of talented, skilled and prepared individuals who are risking their own safety to respond to every single emergency call we receive.

The inherent qualities of the fire service profession are compassion, care, preparation, adaptability and teamwork, and we get to demonstrate those qualities even more during this unprecedented global pandemic.

I have seen many AFD leaders emerge during the COVID-19 response, and that increases my passion for fire service and for helping the community. And that is the behavior and character I want to see spread throughout our department – especially in times of crisis. I am honored to be a part of the AFD team, and I could not be prouder of the work our members are doing during this emergency.

I want to reiterate that it is important that everyone does their part in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping your families and our community safe. We’re all in this together.

Over the past couple of months, we have developed new procedures for emergency calls to keep everyone safe as we continue to carry out our mission.

As you continue to do your part by staying home, maintaining physical distancing and donning face masks when in public spaces, your Fire Department is taking every necessary step to keep our members safe and healthy so we can continue to respond to emergencies.

I have served the public in various ways my entire adult life, including eight years in the U.S. Army Reserve, six years in the Alexandria Fire Department, and nearly 30 years in the National Capital Region. Like many of the members of AFD and our regional public safety partners, I have served my community through various local and national emergencies including major fire incidents, mass shootings, significant weather events, mass gatherings, 9/11, H1N1, and now the coronavirus.

Over the years and through all those incidents, I have learned that our response is only as good as our partnerships with the community and other stakeholders. As the city’s former emergency manager, I recognize that the very first responders are members of the community.

The Alexandria community has not disappointed. You have offered your assistance in helping to feed our firefighters and paramedics; identified gaps and developed ways to meet those needs; and created ways to obtain and/or clean our personal protective equipment (PPE).

Now, I acknowledge that after months at home you may be feeling stressed, anxious and even afraid. We understand, because during these unusual times we are experiencing those feelings as well. Through it all, AFD remains ready to assist the community. Because, like the rest of the Alexandria community, we are strong, courageous and resilient.

Stay encouraged. Stay informed. Stay safe and healthy and we will get through this together.

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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A survey of Alexandria City Public Schools’ drinking water sources has come back with relatively high levels of copper and lead in George Washington Middle School (1005 Mount Vernon Avenue).

Many of the schools had no outlets or very few that tested above action levels — amounts that require equipment replacement — for copper or lead. The EPA’s action levels for copper are 1.3 mg/L and much lower for lead, 0.015 mg/L. At T.C. Williams High School, 259 samples were collected and only four tested above actionable levels.

At George Washington Middle school, however, 15 of the 132 samples tested high for either copper or lead.

ECS Mid-Atlantic, which tested the water supplies, noted that efforts were made to collect a sample from every sink, water fountain, bottle refilling station and water fountain in the building.

“Some areas within the building were locked,” the report said. “ECS was informed by an ACPS representative that sinks were not located in the locked areas. Please note that ECS observed a sink in a locked closet in the cafeteria that was unable to be sampled.”

A map of the samples collected around George Washington Middle School shows that the samples with elevated lead were from across the school, though eight of them concentrated around the gym area. The report suggest that, going forward, the building be checked periodically, at a minimum of every three years.

It’s been a rough year for safety issues at George Washington Middle School, with a series of fire alarm incidents last fall and a student-led fight to prove the school still had a mold problem. The school was evacuated two weeks ago because of a gas smell, though the principal said there was ultimately no danger.

Francis C. Hammond Middle School didn’t fare much better in the water testing, with 7 of the 72 samples tested showing elevated levels of lead.

All of the high copper and lead water sources in both schools were in sinks, as were most across the other schools. The following schools had high levels of copper or lead in water fountains, though only generally in one per school.

  • Early Childhood Center
  • Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology
  • John Adams Elementary School
  • Matthew Maury Elementary School
  • Mount Vernon Community School
  • Patrick Henry K-8

Full reports on each school, and the final reports for each location, are available online.

According to the school website:

Any outlets with higher than usual levels have already been taken out of use and will continue to remain out of use until the issue has been fixed. Parts of the units will be replaced and/or the lines flushed. Once this work has been completed, the water will be retested and ACPS will collect follow up samples to ensure it remains within safe limits in the future.

Higher than normal levels of lead or copper in an outlet can be caused by deterioration of the pipes or from the faucet itself. Lead was sometimes used in metal alloys to make fixtures prior to 1987. It is anticipated that the replacement and/or repair of the outlets will quickly solve this issue.

ACPS is working closely with the Alexandria Health Department on this issue. Water testing will continue to be carried out throughout the school division and all reports made public on the ACPS website.

ACPS advised that parents concerned about their child’s exposure to lead should have them tested at a pediatrician or family doctor.

“If you do not have a pediatrician or family doctor, call Neighborhood Health at 703-535-5568 to make an appointment,” ACPS said on the website.

Image via Alexandria City Public Schools

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