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After months of back and forth, Alexandria’s City Council ultimately rejected an appeal from neighbors to keep a sidewalk from being built on Polk Avenue at the western edge of Seminary Hill.

The north side of Polk Avenue directly abuts Polk Park with no sidewalk, meaning anyone walking along the north side of the street is forced to cross the street — without a crosswalk at the western end. But the proposed sidewalk would also involve eliminating nine parking spaces neighbors say are desperately needed and would slightly cut into Polk Park.

Kathy Burns, who lives close to the sidewalk, said that there was no recorded history of any pedestrian, child or otherwise, being struck by a car in the area in question. Burns said the main concerns from neighbors were both the loss of nine parking spaces and concerns that there was no clear, evidenced-based reason presented by Transportation and Environmental Services (TES) that the sidewalk was needed.

Many of the speakers were neighbors expressing opposition to the city’s plans, though others were in support — like one who said she lived in townhouses overlooking the site, who said she was in favor of the sidewalk and hoped her two-year-old daughter could eventually use it to walk to Polk Elementary School.

Mike Doyle, founder of Alexandria Families For Safe Streets, said his group supported the installation of the sidewalk.

“We understand the challenge of parking,” Doyle said. “We’re not engineers, but we do know speed kills and speed maims.”

Doyle offered a middle way that some on the dais expressed an interest in: adding the sidewalk but converting one of the travel lanes into a parking lane and making Polk Avenue a one-way street. City Council member Amy Jackson asked staff whether this was a possible alternative.

“I hesitate to offer an assessment; we have not considered turning that street one way,” said Yon Lambert, the director of the Department of TES. “Typically there is an alternative for one-way traffic… There are one-way streets in some neighborhoods, but studying that would cost more.”

Lambert said any additional study of converting Polk Avenue into a one-way street could still happen, but would require additional staff work that would need to be allocated by the city. Still, the discussion left the door open for a potential future where parking spaces are restored but Polk Avenue is converted to a one-way street.

Ultimately, Mayor Justin Wilson said he would likely always side with building a sidewalk.

“I appreciate the input of residents on both sides of the issue,” Wilson said. “Honestly, this is pretty basic for me: I believe every street in the city should have a sidewalk on both sides. Full stop. Period. I don’t believe that’s a debatable question in my mind. That’s just a basic component of the road. We don’t question other components of roads and I don’t think we should question that there should be a sidewalk on both sites.”

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Rendering of new Polk Avenue sidewalk (image via City of Alexandria)

One month after the Traffic and Parking Board unanimously approved a new sidewalk along Polk Avenue, neighbors in opposition to the project are appealing the decision.

The city’s plan is to build a new sidewalk connecting two dead-end parts of sidewalk at either end of the bottom of Polk Park. The park’s thick undergrowth comes right up to the road, where the  side of that road is used as a stretch of parking for nine vehicles.

The city said the sidewalk construction will help students in the neighborhood walk to Polk Elementary and Hammond Middle School.

The project brooked some opposition from nearby neighbors, though, who lamented both the loss of parking spots and expressed concerns about damage to the park by cutting into the toe slope of the hill. While the Alexandria Geologic Atlas identified potential issues with construction on the slope of Polk Park, Jack Browand, chief of Parks and Cultural Activities, said his department reviewed the project and is in support.

The appeal filed by the neighbors is scheduled for a City Council public hearing on Saturday, Sept. 17.

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Gibbon Street in Old Town, where the city is scheduled to do sidewalk maintenance (image via Google Maps)

Alexandria’s streets have been getting the spotlight for the last few months of repaving efforts, but through August: it’s the sidewalks’ turn.

Alexandria’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services released the street repaving and maintenance schedule for August, showing prioritization of seven sidewalks city-wide.

Over the course of this month, the following sidewalks are scheduled to get repairs:

  • Gibbon Street (from South Payne Street to South Union Street)
  • West Braddock Road (from King Street to Russell Road)
  • John Carlyle Street (from Eisenhower Avenue to Duke Street)
  • Hancock Avenue (from West Braddock to End)
  • Queen Street (from North West to North Union Street)
  • Rutland Place
  • East Windsor Avenue

Maintenance this month is also scheduled to work on the West Reed alleyway (between Evans Lane and Wilson Avenue) in the Lynhaven neighborhood and Westview Terrace (between Janneys Lane and Hilltop Terrace) in Taylor Run.

The city is also making guardrail repairs this month on the eastbound side of Duke Street and on Van Dorn Street.

Image via Google Maps

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Where the sidewalk ends on Polk Avenue (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

While several neighbors along Polk Avenue shared thoughts on city plans to replace a stretch of parking with a sidewalk, there was no discussion from members of the Traffic and Parking Board before they unanimously approved the plan.

The city is planning to build a new sidewalk that connects two dead-end stretches of sidewalk that cut off abruptly into dense underbrush. The city said the sidewalk construction will help students in the neighborhood walk to Polk Elementary and Hammond Middle School.

“There is an existing sidewalk on the north side,” said Alex Carroll, complete streets program manager for the City of Alexandria. “What this forces people to do when they’re walking on the north side is make one of two choices: cross the street or continue walking in the street to continue on their journey. When there are cars parked on the north side, they end up being placed virtually in the middle of the street.”

Carroll said this problem is exacerbated at the west end of that stretch of road, where the street curves and drivers don’t have the best view of pedestrians crossing the street.

The city’s plan is to remove nine parking space and a small portion of Polk Park — including three trees — to complete the northern sidewalk.

“There are currently 50 on street spaces on Polk Avenue,” Carroll said. “There are three single-family homes on Polk, each of which has a private driveway. Based on staff’s assessment, we feel there is sufficient parking supply to meet demands in this area.”

Rendering of new Polk Avenue sidewalk (image via City of Alexandria)

Some neighbors, meanwhile, shared concerns about the project’s impact on neighborhood parking and, to an extent, the impact on the park.

“We worked to get the land for this park for many many years,” said Shirley Downs. “Maybe you think it’s proprietary, but we really care about this park. We also care deeply and extensively about permit parking.”

Jeremy Hogg, whose children attend Polk Elementary, said he was one of the individuals that originally requested something be done on the street to help pedestrians, but said he disagreed with the plans staff drew up.

“I saw buses come around the corner, I saw vehicles going very quickly: It is an area that needs to be addressed,” Hogg said. “That being said, I’m not in support of this area as put forward. I think even one of the board members said ‘wait a minute, only two options have been put forward and they both involve the elimination of nine spaces?'”

Hogg said the parking spaces on the far side of the street are frequently full and removing them will eliminate the street parking in front of his home. Instead, Hogg suggested removing a few spaces and reconfiguring the plans to add a slightly larger retaining wall.

“Will effectively eliminate all the parking on my side of the road and we will be forced to walk a block away,” Hogg said. “I’m concerned that we’re not going to have ample parking.”

But Jack Browand, division chief of Parks and Cultural Activities, said any plans that involve pushing further into the park could compromise the well-being of some of the park’s largest trees.

“There’s both direct and indirect tree loss,” Browand said. “By pushing the sidewalk in there would be a direct loss of trees. Also, we have to be wary of the critical root zone. When you start cutting into the hill and putting in other stuff, you start cutting into the root zone. So you may not have direct tree loss, but if you start cutting into the root zone you start losing trees outside of the footprint of the construction area because with some of these larger trees that critical root zone is quite large.”

Browand said the city is interested in getting more people to explore Polk Park, but said there are also no plans to make significant improvements. A single trail runs through the park, but it’s in poor shape.

“There are opportunities and we’ve had internal [discussions] with the installation of this sidewalk,” Browand said. “It would provide a better access route to the entrance of this park… There could be opportunities to get more people into this park. It is a naturalized park, there aren’t significant improvements planned because it is intended to be more natural.”

Without discussion, the Traffic and Parking Board voted unanimously to endorse the city’s plan to remove the parking spaces to create the sidewalk connection.

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Alexandria’s expanded outdoor dining — a laissez-faire approach to sidewalk regulation brought about by Covid — is coming to an end in September.

The City announced this morning (Monday) that the Temporary COVID Business Relief Measures, which permitted the expanded outdoor dining operations along King Street, will expire on Friday, Sept. 30. Starting in October, restaurants will be required to go through a city program for permission to expand their restaurant to the city sidewalks.

Not long into the pandemic, the city approved a temporary relaxation of handful of ordinances to help make life a little easier for local businesses going through the worst throes of the pandemic’s economic impact.

“As a result, the City will resume its King Street Outdoor Dining (KSOD) program for outdoor dining on sidewalks for restaurant properties which abut King Street (from the Waterfront to the King Street Metro Station) and one block north and south of King Street,” the release said.

Businesses can check eligibility for the outdoor dining program and apply online.

“Businesses in other areas of the city may consult Planning & Zoning staff about pursuing an alternative approval path for outdoor dining opportunities on sidewalks,” the release said.

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Sidewalk sale, via Visit Alexandria/Facebook

Alexandria’s annual Summer Sidewalk Sale is returning next month.

The sale will feature over 40 local boutiques from around the city including local favorites like Old Town Books, fibre space and The Dog Park, Visit Alexandria said in a release. As the name suggests, the sale will feature sales set up outside stores along King Street in Old Town.

The release noted that live music is also planned for the event.

The event — now in its 13th year — is scheduled for Saturday, August 13.

Photo via Visit Alexandria/Facebook

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The update on the Transportation Master Plan Pedestrian and Bicycle Chapter wasn’t planned to coincide with a sudden uptick in bicycle ridership and walking around the city, but it could help explain why many Alexandrians exploring their local pedestrian/bike infrastructure might find it different than they remember.

An update prepared for the canceled June 17 Transportation Commission meeting shined some light on the progress the city has made since it a chapter specifically about that infrastructure was added to the city’s Transportation Master Plan in 2016. The primary goals the city laid out at the time were to improve safety, engineering, encouragement and education of bicycle and pedestrian facilities in Alexandria. The move corresponded with a push towards Vision Zero — a project that aims to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2028.

Data shows that crashes and fatalities for pedestrians have generally gone down over the last four years — though the numbers are low enough that it’s impossible to accurately extrapolate trends. Crashes have gone down from 69 in 2016 to 60 in 2019. Fatalities have gone from 4 to 2 in that same timeframe, though not with consistent year-after-year declines. The number of serious injuries has gone up from 6 to 8.

The city has added substantial new infrastructure, though.

“There has been a 43% increase in intersections with pedestrian countdown signals at crosswalks from 68% in 2016 to 97% as of the end of May 2020,” city staff said in the report. “Over 9,000 total linear feet of new sidewalk has been installed and over 1,600 linear feet of sidewalk have been upgraded with widened sidewalks or adjustments to provide improved access for wheelchair users since FY16. Approximately 1,300 linear feet of temporary, protected shared use path space was installed to fill the sidewalk gap on the #9 highest priority sidewalk on Seminary.”

The update also included information about progress made for off-street trails, though noting that flood damage has set back some of the city’s progress on that front.

“One additional off-street trail (a segment of Four Mile Run Trail leading to a future bridge) has been installed since plan adoption, bringing the citywide total to approximately 21 miles,” staff said in the report. “A new 150-foot pedestrian bridge was completed on the Four Mile Run trail that connects the Four Mile Run Wetlands Trail to the larger Four Mile Run trail network. The City suffered a setback with the July 2019 storms that severely damaged the trail and recent completion of a bridge connecting Holmes Run Parkway to N. Ripley Street as well as other bridges along Holmes Run. A 2021 budget request is made for the repair work.”

The report also notes the progress made for new bicycle infrastructure.

“Since 2016, 11.9 miles of shared lane mile markings and 11.4 miles of bike lane miles were installed making for a total of approximately 39 lane miles of on-street bicycle facilities,” staff said. “This is a nearly 46% increase in facilities since 2018.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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The same day that take out and delivery for mixed drinks opened up throughout Virginia, the City of Alexandria announced a suite of eased restrictions on businesses in Alexandria.

The biggest of these is opening up sidewalks and parking lots to vending for restaurant and retail establishments. In a press release, the City of Alexandria announced that retail and restaurants can set up shop on adjacent sidewalks or parking lots.

These locations are still only permitted for placing orders and customer pick-up, and the city said businesses should still comply with state orders limiting engagements to no more than 10 people. Outdoor dining is also prohibited at these locations.

“The City of Alexandria and the Alexandria Health Department strongly urge all restaurants and retail businesses, that are permitted to remain open and who choose to engage in outdoor sales, to adhere to Governor Northam’s Executive Orders 53 and 55,” the city said. “These prohibit all gatherings of more than 10 people and require maintaining at least six feet from any other person, with the exception of a family or household member or a caretaker.”

The city noted that these restrictions will still be heavily enforced by the Health Department.

The city is also suspending hours-of-operation restrictions on restaurants, convenience stores, catering operations and automobile service stations (gasoline stations).

The city’s delivery regulations are also suspended to allow all restaurants to provide delivery service and pick-up service.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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Electric scooters’ tempestuous relationship with Alexandria sidewalks has just come to an end.

At the City Council’s public hearing on Saturday, Dec. 14, the council voted to approve a second phase of the pilot program with a few notable changes from the current program.

The biggest change is the removal of scooters from sidewalks. Under the current system, scooters were only prohibited from two sidewalks near the waterfront, where bicycles are also banned from sidewalks. The original plan for the second phase of the pilot program was to have scooters banned from Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray and a large portion of Old Town, but concerns were raised by some on the City Council about enforcement and education of the public on where exactly scooters could or could not be ridden.

Instead, at the Saturday meeting, the City Council amended the language to ban electronic scooters from sidewalks across the city. The new ordinance reads: “Riding a micro-mobility device on all sidewalks within the city shall be prohibited.”

Other changes included requiring the scooter companies to distribute scooters more equitably across the city, one of the goals pushed for by several members of the City Council. Of scooters in the city, 15 percent will be required to be located west of Quaker Lane and east of I-395, while 10 percent will be required west of I-395. An additional five percent will be required to be placed in Arlandria. Currently, most are scattered around Old Town.

Council members Amy Jackson and John Chapman also pushed for the language to be refined to ensure that the Ad Hoc Scooter Task Force include representatives of the West End, rather than being monopolized by Old Town residents.

City Council members noted that scooter corrals recently added to Old Town — intended to reduce instances of scooters being scattered across sidewalks — could also be coming to Del Ray, Carlyle and Potomac.

The new regulation also specifically banned more than one person from riding a scooter, though Mayor Justin Wilson joked that after passing the regulation the companies would come back with tandem scooters.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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As part of its controversial efforts to improve bicycle and pedestrian access to Seminary Road, the city is planning to install a sidewalk on the north side of the road — if it can get the money.

Much of the Complete Streets project on Seminary Road has been completed but the city is still hoping to add a new sidewalk next to the seminary from which the road draws its name.

“It’s still ridiculous that in 2019 that there are places in Alexandria where we don’t have sidewalks,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “For me, priority was not about bike lanes, it was about pedestrians. It was about completing the sidewalk network.”

Wilson said the sidewalk would go from just west of Quaker Lane, where an existing sidewalk currently ends, up to the Virginia Theological Seminary.

The sidewalk has been in the plans for the road since the concept stage, according to Sarah Godfrey, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. Construction will require the approval of a grant request to VDOT made by the City Council in September.

As of December, city staff said work from road resurfacing and roadway markings to new median islands has been completed. Wilson met earlier this week during the morning rush hour with local residents, many of whom expressed frustrations with traffic caused by the narrowed street and the lack of cyclists using the new bicycle lanes.

“It was a good session,” Wilson said. “Probably better to have these discussions in person rather than social media.”

Wilson said he understood the concerns of the local residents, who have labeled it #JustinsTrafficJam in the nearly 1,000-member Facebook group Alexandria Residents Against the Seminary Road Diet. Wilson is, ironically, listed as a member.

“There’s always an adjustment whenever you make a traffic change as people get used to it. I think we expected that going in,” Wilson said. “There’s kind of a rush on both sides to draw conclusions very quickly, but the full story of this will be told over time. We’ve committed to being data-driven — looking at this when it’s done and making sure we’ve achieved the goals of the project.”

Godfrey noted that the city will continue to post weekly updates on the Seminary Road Complete Streets page and update the FAQ.

Photo via Google Maps

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