It was a busy fall week in Alexandria. Here’s the rundown.
Our top story this week was on a plan to completely close off the 100 block of King Street as a pedestrian-only zone. The plan has been in the works since 2019, and was put into action last year. ALXnow’s poll on the subject had very one-sided results, showing 91% (791 votes) in favor of a permanent change.
There was a momentous groundbreaking this week, as city leaders converged for the $454.4 million RiverRenew Tunnel Project. The project is a major overhaul to replace Old Town’s combined sewer system and prevent 120 million gallons of combined sewage from flowing into the Potomac River.
School violence has become a major issue in Alexandria, as videos of fights at schools are surfacing on the internet, there have been arrests at Alexandria City Public Schools, and protests in front of City Hall on Monday and Tuesday this week.
As for the Alexandria juvenile who was shot in the upper body at the McDonald’s in the Bradlee Shopping Center last week, police say that there have been no arrests yet.
- AlexRenew breaks ground for massive Old Town RiverRenew project
- BREAKING: A bunch of student fights were recorded at George Washington Middle School and put on Instagram
- Last year’s Alexandria City High School class had the highest graduation rate and the lowest student dropout rate ever
- Union says low staffing within Alexandria Fire Department threatens to shut down a fire station
- Upcoming Alexandria City Council and School Board election forums announced
- School Board Chair Meagan Alderton says ACPS leadership will be challenged by high Board turnover
- First apartment building in massive Carlyle Crossing redevelopment starts pre-leasing
- DASH and city leaders celebrate launch of bus system overhaul
- Alexandria starts distributing COVID-19 booster shots
- City Manager lays out plan to push back on evictions in Alexandria
- City looks to permanently ‘pedestrianize’ a block of King Street
- UPDATE: Alexandria man charged with homicide after stabbing at BJ’s Wholesale Club in Landmark area
- Total Wine is taking shape in Potomac Yard
- ALXnow’s top stories this week in Alexandria
- Man buys luxury car with fake driver’s license at Lindsay Lexus of Alexandria
- Protestors rally to return police to Alexandria schools, but officials say behind-the-scenes talks have stalled
- Man arrested for posting lewd photos of Alexandria stepsister on Twitter
- Firecracker shuts down Alexandria City High School football game
- Adoptable Chihuahua Dory only weighs 3.5 pounds
- Mayor Wilson: Potomac Yard construction delay ‘could have nothing to do with Metro station’
- Police: Juvenile shot at shopping center near Alexandria City High School
Have a safe weekend!
The groundbreaking for AlexRenew’s RiverRenew Tunnel Project was about as Alexandria as events get. The event was a who’s-who of current and former officials, complete with bagpipes, a poem about local sewage presented by the Town Crier, and even a cartoon mascot representing the boring machine getting ready to drill the largest infrastructure project in the city’s history.
The smiles and enthusiasm from city and state officials and organizations like the Potomac Riverkeeper Network were a marked departure from the occasionally contentious process that led to the $454.4 million RiverRenew project. Plans include replacing Old Town’s combined sewer system with a new sewer structure that will prevent 120 million gallons of combined sewage from flowing into the Potomac River.
“The Tunnel Project will include a two-mile-long underground tunnel, an open-cut pipeline, and other infrastructure to capture, store, and transport millions of gallons of combined sewage to AlexRenew’s wastewater treatment plant,” AlexRenew said in a press release. “There, these flows will be treated and cleaned prior to being returned to the Potomac River, reducing harmful overflow events from 70 to fewer than four each year.”
The city didn’t willingly enter into the project: the clean-up was mandated with a July 25, 2025 deadline by the state, over the objection of some local leadership. The project is currently scheduled to be finished on time.
“I’m proud of our role in bringing this great infrastructure investment today to life,” said Nancy Stoner, president of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. “(T)his is critical infrastructure for protecting public health.”
Stoner said the eventual goal is to make the Potomac River swimmable again. Though later generations may not value the Herculean effort it took to get Old Town’s sewer system modernized, Mayor Justin Wilson said if it helps get the river into a cleaner state it will have been worth it.
“This investment prevents things from happening and provides an investment most people won’t really appreciate,” Wilson said. “People swimming in the Potomac years from now won’t really appreciate the investment. They’ll never see the investment, never understand it, but we will know, and we’ll know it was this generation that made the investment.”
Radhika Fox, assistant administrator for water for the Environmental Protection Agency, tied Alexandria’s experience in with nationwide efforts to improve water quality.
“This was one of the first loans I got to approve as part of the Biden-Harris administration,” Fox said. “One of the best bets we can make as a nation is to make these investments in our water infrastructure. It leads to environmental health, community vitality, that’s what this project is about. That’s a big, huge step Alexandria is taking today.”
On the heels of rampant flooding across the city this weekend, the city is hosting a meeting later this week to discuss plans to fix a broken sewer pipeline in southern Old Town.
Tomorrow (Wednesday) the city is planning to host a meeting in the Lee Center (1108 Jefferson Street) from 7-9 p.m. to discuss the upcoming sewer pipe replacement. According to the city website, inspection of the sewer found that the pipe had been damaged and was causing residential sewer backups in the nearby area.
The repairs will involve construction of a new pipe, manholes, and other materials.
“The City has contracted Anchor Construction Corporation to install new 10-inch sanitary sewer pipes, replacing the existing 8-inch sanitary sewer line that runs along the City right-of-way on the north side of Franklin Street, east of South Patrick Street,” the city said in a press release. “The project will relocate 130 linear feet of sanitary sewer and install four manholes towards the center of the street to facilitate the long-term maintenance, as well as reconnect all existing laterals and restore the existing roadway surface.”
Construction is scheduled to begin starting Monday, Aug. 30, and the project is estimated to take approximately six months.
“Crews are permitted to work Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and Saturdays, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.” the city said in the relese. “The project will require the temporary closure of the sidewalk on the north side of Franklin Street and staggered parking restrictions. The flow of traffic, plus access to all businesses, driveways, and parking lots, will be maintained by flaggers during construction hours. Sanitary sewer service will be maintained using a bypass system.”
According to a press release, Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew) — which runs the RiverRenew project — has been recommended to receive a $50 million grant to support construction on the project. The RiverRenew project is an overhaul of the city’s combined sewer system in Old Town that results in millions of gallons of sewage flowing into the Potomac River ever year.
The grant funding is part of the $411.5 million American Rescue Plan (ARP) dedicated to restoring water and sewer infrastructure.
“Investment in our water infrastructure is crucial to a thriving Alexandria, and we are greatly appreciative of the Governor, our local delegation, and state leaders for their support of this historic program,” said AlexRenew General Manager Karen Pallansch in the press release.
Pallansch added that the funding could offset some planned sewer rate increases. A rate increase by 6.9% was deferred last year due to coronavirus but was implemented earlier this year. In the press release, Pallansch said the sewer rate increases to fund the RiverRenew program could last for decades.
The ARP investments will still need to clear the General Assembly at a special session on Monday (Aug. 2).
“We feel very good about the prospects of the General Assembly agreeing to the Governor’s proposal,” said Pallansch. “The Northern Virginia legislative delegation has been an important partner in this effort.”
Former Mayor Allison Silberberg very publicly didn’t plan on running against Mayor Justin Wilson in the Democratic primary, but as weeks slipped by and no other challenger came forward — and Council Member Mo Seifeldein dropped out — Silberberg said she felt she needed to step up.
Three years after Silberberg lost her reelection bid to Wilson, she’s back to reclaim the position.
“I couldn’t just stand by and watch our city put at risk by destructive policies of our current mayor,” Silberberg said.
Wilson has racked up several endorsements from current and former members of city leadership, including other City Council members and state legislators, but Silberberg said she isn’t particularly worried by that. Silberberg said in the last week, her campaign has raised over $64,000, while Wilson recently announced that he raised $90,000.
“I’m not concerned,” Silberberg said. “In many cases, that’s the old guard. I’m honored to have support form people across our city. We’re at a crossroads in our city. I’m a person who gets things done and I listen to people.”
Silberberg’s list of objections to Wilson is, beyond a “greatest hits” of concerns that have emerged from local advocacy groups like Bring Integrity Back to Alexandria, an extension of many of the same battles Silberberg fought with Wilson on when the two were locked in opposition during her tenure as mayor.
Silberberg said some of the biggest issues fueling her campaign are:
- Reverting Seminary Road Changes — “Wilson took away vital travel lanes on Seminary Road,” Silberberg said. “I would restore them. It’s a major arterial road to our only hospital. It was one of the safest streets in the city, the data showed that, but in a distorted kind of way he said this is a vote about public safety. Thirteen civic associations banded together and said do not do this, it affects every resident in the city.”
- Opposition to City Stream Restoration Projects — “I’m fighting to save Taylor Run… saving the forest there, and Strawberry Run,” she said. “I would listen to environmentalists, scientists and experts who have come forward on their own to say that this is a disaster in the making, to destroy the forest. This is some of the last remaining forests in our city, you can’t just replant and wait 30 years, because it’s not just the trees but the environment around it.”
- School-Affordable Housing Colocation — “I’m committed to protecting limited school properties from housing,” Silberberg said.
- Opposition to Eisenhower Slaughterhouse — “He pushed through the slaughterhouse where the existing businesses a football throw away banded together and banded the Mayor not to do that,” Silberberg said. “There are no other slaughterhouses within the beltway, and not one in our city. The impact on environmental waste is really upsetting — not to mention the smell. It was dismissive of the fact that the business owner has had numerous code violations in other states. I would not have supported that.”
Some of the reversals could be a challenge. City staff recently laid out the costs to alternatives to the Taylor Run Stream Restoration the city could be required to pursue to keep up with its Chesapeake Bay Watershed credit requirements.
Silberberg is dubious of staff’s claims.
“Staff, with all due respect, seems to be inflating or misrepresenting the costs for alternatives,” she said. “We need to have all that vetted openly and discussed.”
Silberberg said she was also surprised and frustrated that staff hadn’t tested the soil at Taylor Run before committing the city to funding the overhaul.
“Nobody on the city staff, and they admitted this, that they hadn’t tested the soils at Taylor Run,” Silberberg said. “Someone on their own volition hired a highly regarded laboratory, tested the soils, and it came back with negligible amounts of phosphorous, that’s one of the driving forces. So basically the city admitted that they were basing their analysis and conclusions on a generic version of soil samples in a whole other region. That’s not how we want to do analysis when it comes to a treasured spot in the city.”
Taylor Run, along with some of the other issues, go back to what Silberberg sees as a recurring problem with transparency and ethics in city leadership. Silberberg and Wilson have clashed over issues about ethics for nearly a decade, including a protracted battle over a proposed ethics pledge in 2016.
“We must restore integrity and transparency and adopt meaningful ethics reform,” Silberberg said. “That is certainly a top ethics reform, and we need a leader with demonstrated record of truth, transparency and ethics, and I am that leader. I led with an ethics initiative, and the person who led the effort to water that down was then Vice-Mayor Wilson. We did accomplish some goals, but didn’t go nearly as far as what I wanted.”
Silberberg argued that information that came to light from public Freedom of Information Act requests, and later printed by the Alexandria Times, not only showed that there were behind-the-scenes discussions on issues like Seminary Road and the Potomac Yard southern entrance that the public should know about, but also that there was too much information in those that was redacted.
“Some of the lines that weren’t redacted, which wasn’t very much, showed that he distorted the truth or lied and misled the public,” Silberberg said. Read More
The old Robinson Terminal North, once the abrupt northern end to the Old Town waterfront, is no more.
Demolition was mostly wrapped up this weekend after a quick tear-down, and the plan is to make the location part of the broader effort to reform Old Town’s sewer system called the RiverRenew program.
“Behind me is the Robinson Terminal North warehouse,” said Kelvin Coles, deputy design manager for the RiverRenew program, in a video. “Many residents and visitors will recognize this large steel building as the dividing landmark between Oronoco Bay park and Founders Park.”
The property a coal storage facility, along with other industrial uses, and ultimately a Washington Post shipping hub before it was decommissioned in 2013.
The property is adjacent to outfall 1, one of four sewer outfalls in Old Town that is the subject of the combined sewer system overhaul. On average, there are around 30 overflow events at outfall 1 alone. The plan is to build a diversion facility to direct the outflow into a tunnel.
Scene from my Sunday Morning Run: One less warehouse on Alexandria’s waterfront.
Robinson Terminal North is no more. pic.twitter.com/O28vdFjwPk
— Justin Wilson (@justindotnet) November 22, 2020
Construction on the new project is expected to begin in spring 2021 and continue through winter 2024. The facility will be mainly below ground once complete.
Above ground, the plan is to extend Pendleton Street into a promenade. The program is planned to feature benches and potential space for programming.
Pendleton Street Extension image via RiverRenew
(Updated 4:25 p.m.) Local wastewater management service Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew) is still going to need that $370 to $555 million for the massive upcoming infrastructure project, but due to COVID-19 the organization is cutting down the planned utility rate increase.
“Recognizing the impact COVID-19 has had on the Alexandria community, AlexRenew has updated its previously planned budget, which included an 11% rate increase that was approved last year to support RiverRenew, a state-mandated program to address Alexandria’s combined sewer pollution,” AlexRenew said in a press release. “While an increase is still necessary to support the project, AlexRenew has reduced its rate increase to 6.6%, which will go into effect July 1.”
The utility service said that the average residential customer could see an average monthly bill increase of less than $3 per month with this approved increase.
The reduction comes amid widespread job loss that’s hit Alexandria harder than some of its neighbors, like Arlington. Ongoing construction, and a state-manded 2025 deadline, means that AlexRenew can’t eliminate the bill increase entirely.
“The updated Fiscal Year 2021 budget will allow AlexRenew to continue essential operations to clean wastewater while fulfilling its commitment to complete RiverRenew, a state-mandated program to address Alexandria’s combined sewer pollution, by the 2025 deadline,” Alexrenew said. “To continue the needed investment in this construction program, parts of which are currently underway and the bulk of which will be awarded this December, a rate increase is needed.”
After it came to light that the city was dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac River, the state required Alexandria to completely reform its sewer system by 2025. The city has assigned that task to Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew), which in been pushing forward with RiverRenew — the largest infrastructure project in Alexandria’s history.
AlexRenew also announced that the RiverRenew project has also earned low-interest loans through state and federal programs. Additionally, in April 2019, the Virginia General Assembly appropriated a $25 million grant in support of RiverRenew. The organization also made internal cuts, like freezing pay increases for staff, hiring freezes, reducing discretionary spending and deferring capital projects.
“We understand the impact COVID-19 has had on the lives of Alexandrians, and we have adapted to continue to serve our community 24/7/365 by keeping our community healthy through cleaner waterways,” says Karen Pallansch, AlexRenew CEO. “AlexRenew remains focused on fulfilling its vital mission to manage wastewater and improve the waterways that connect us.”
Top photo via Alexandria Renew Enterprises/Facebook
A global pandemic is not stopping forward progress on RiverRenew, a project that aims to overhaul the city’s sewer infrastructure that is annually dumps 11 million gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac River.
The project is the largest infrastructure project in the city’s history, with a price tag that increased last year to an estimated $464 million. The project recently cleared its environmental assessment by the National Park Service that was required because portions of the project run through Jones Point Park, George Washington Memorial Parkway and the bed of the Potomac River.
“The National Park Service (NPS) has completed an environmental assessment for Alexandria Renew Enterprises’ (AlexRenew) proposed RiverRenew project,” AlexRenew said in a press release. “The NPS (Regional) Acting Director… signed a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the RiverRenew environmental assessment on April 14, 2020.”
This #TunnelTakeoverTuesday, AlexRenew and the National Park Service announced the Finding of No Significant Impact…
The environmental assessment outlined several points of concern, like potential erosion and sediment, damage to historic parks, and noise generation. In each of these instances, however, the “no action” alternative that would result in continued dumping of sewage was considered more damaging and would violate legislation requiring the city to take action.
City Manager Mark Jinks said in a recent budget meeting that the project, being managed by AlexRenew, is not impacted by cuts made in the city’s budget.
The press release said that construction is planned to start this December — slightly earlier than had been initially scheduled — and is expected to last through mid-2025.
Image via National Park Service
During an update at the City Council meeting on Dec. 10 (Monday), Mayor Justin Wilson said the price will be towards the upper end of the $370 to $555 million price range.
“We’ve been able to refine the pricing… the numbers do not ever get smaller, they get bigger,” Wilson said. “The current estimate is around $464 million. Those numbers have gone up.”
The massive infrastructure project — the largest in the city’s history — was an unfunded mandate from the state legislature. The state will require Alexandria to completely overhaul its centuries-outdated sewer system by July 1, 2025, to prevent sewage from flowing into the Potomac River during rainstorms.
The good news, for Alexandria, is that since the initial mandate the state has started putting some funding into the project. The General Assembly adopted a budget earlier this year that included $25 million for the project. This year, Wilson said the city government is back requesting $75 million more.
“We will hear in a couple of weeks whether there’s money in the governor’s budget,” Wilson said.
Meanwhile, Wilson said three design-build teams have been shortlisted for the project, and will have to submit proposals for the project by Feb. 11. From there, Wilson said it will be a pretty quiet year in terms of news on the project as Alexandria Renew Enterprises chooses who is awarded the contract. The goal, Wilson said, is to have a design selected by December 2020.
“We still have a substantial amount of work to do,” Wilson said, “[but we’ve] made a lot of progress.”
Photo via Alexandria Renew Enterprises/Facebook
It has been years since the City Council has been giddy during a meeting discussing its state legislative package.
Mayor Justin Wilson previously told ALXnow that the win opens up doors for several longstanding city goals, like more free-reign to control local financing. At a City Council meeting last night (Tuesday), some of those goals took shape in a draft of the city’s legislative package.
Every year, the city assembles a selection of local requests for Alexandria’s legislative representatives to take to Richmond. Proposals have ranged from increasing the minimum wage to changes in the minutiae of preschool management, and most of the requests were ignored or shot down by the Republican majority.
“As everyone understands, this is going to be quite a different General Assembly session,” Wilson told the City Council. “That’s certainly a very exciting thing.”
Officials warned, however, that the city had to exercise some restraint to ensure that most of the goals would be approved.
“This is a clear double-edged sword for us,” Sarah Taylor, the city’s legislative director, told the City Council. “The opportunities are really good. The legislature and our delegation will be able to do some really great things, but we have to be very smart and very strategic in how we approach things.”
Taylor said the city priorities were broken up into three categories:
- State investment in infrastructure
- Protection and expansion of local authority and funding for localities
- Access, equity and equality
The big ask for the infrastructure investment is assistance with the RiverRenew project, the largest infrastructure project in Alexandria’s history and the result of an unfunded mandate by the state legislature. The project is estimated to cost between $370 and $555 million. It secured some funding earlier this year, but the city is requesting $65 million more.
Taylor said state Sen. Richard “Dick” Saslaw (D-35) asked for $75 million. Several members of the City Council noted that they wouldn’t say “no” to higher funding than what they requested.
Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means local authorities can only exercise powers expressly granted to them by the state, but several of the items in the legislative package aim to pick away fractionally, like granting localities the right to regulate firearms in government buildings and property.
“There’s a lot that could be done with local authority,” Taylor said. “There are a lot of pieces that could be done incrementally.”
Other specific asks in the legislative package include:
- Incrementally raise the minimum wage in Virginia to $15/hour
- Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment
- Allow voters to use an otherwise valid but expired photo ID
- Amend the Virginia Constitution to establish the bipartisan Virginia Redistricting Commission
- Additional state funding for K-12 education
- “Red flag” gun control laws and stronger background checks
- Broaden the coverage of the Communications Sales and Use Tax (CSUT) to include audio and video streaming services and prepaid calling services
- Comprehensive tax reform to allow more types of taxes and reduce reliance on property taxes
- Add Alexandria to the list of localities where a state income tax credit is available to landlords accepting Housing Choice Vouchers
- Full restoration of funding to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority for local transit projects
- Legislation that will allow the city to increase recycling rates in our community and reduce the use of plastic bags, single use plastics and Styrofoam
A public hearing on the legislative package is scheduled this Saturday, Nov. 16. Final adoption of the package is scheduled for Dec. 12 with the legislative session beginning Jan. 8.
“To undo the amount of damage that has been done to the Commonwealth — to move the Commonwealth forward to a more progressive agenda — we may have to roll up our sleeves,” Councilman Mohamed “Mo” Seifeldein said. “We’re playing with house money and let’s clean up.”
“Gambling is still illegal in Virginia,” Wilson was quick to note.
“Well, maybe we can get a bill on that too,” Seifeldein said.
Staff photo by Kalina Newman