Union Street ready for makeover

By Melissa Quinn

Alexandria City Council paved the way for Union Street, one of Old Town’s busiest thoroughfares, to get a makeover in the not-too-distant future Saturday.

The Port City’s top-elected officials approved short-term recommendations in the Union Street study and gave staff the go-ahead to look further into longer-range improvements.

The short-term changes include space for cyclists to make a left turn at the Mount Vernon Trail and Oronoco Park; a walking corridor between Oronoco and Pendleton streets; new paving lines at the intersection of Queen and Union streets to indicate bike lanes; part-time parking restrictions between Prince and King streets; widened crosswalks; raised crosswalks near Windmill Hill Park; turn restrictions; and the creation of a pedestrian plaza on the south side of King Street.

“[This] is really very exciting and very imaginative, and I think this helps us as we move forward,” said City Councilor Del Pepper.

The board also adopted an amendment delineating the boundaries of Windmill Hill Park to include treatment of the intersection of Franklin and Union streets.

But — unsurprisingly given the street’s proximity to the shoreline — the slew of recommended improvements met with a bit of controversy. Resident Bert Ely, an opponent of the waterfront redevelopment plan, called on city councilors to shelve the plan, which drew a sharp reply from Vice Mayor Kerry Donley.

“There’s no reason for us not to go forward with the short-term recommendations,” Donley said. “And you don’t exactly have the reputation for being a forward-thinking person [Bert] … if the boot fits, wear it.”

The city undertook the Union Street study after passing the shoreline redevelopment plan in January. At the time, residents against the blueprint argued traffic studies needed to take precedence over plans for redevelopment. At Saturday’s hearing, Ely argued future development might force officials to rethink their designs for Union Street.

But Mayor Bill Euille noted the construction along the Potomac would not happen overnight.

“One of the other perspectives we can’t lose sight of is … the waterfront plan redevelopment is not going to happen today, it’s not going to happen tomorrow, it’s going to happen in 10 to 15 years,” he said. “But we can’t ignore the problems at this intersection for 10 to 15 years.”

Other residents, including local cyclists, welcomed the changes. Jonathan Krall, chairman of the Alexandria Bike and Pedestrian Committee, spoke in favor of the recommendations. Rethinking Union Street would cut down on vehicle traffic in the busy corridor, he said.

“I’m very happy this is happening,” Krall said, asking for more parking for bicycles at the foot of King Street.

Though city council passed the proposed recommendations unanimously, the issue of flood mitigation and development made their way into the conversation. Several city councilors worried changes to Union Street would impede flood-mitigation efforts.

But Rich Baier, the city’s director of transportation and environmental services, was quick to note changes to the street would not substantially affect plans to end nuisance flooding, as they do not include changes to the grade and elevation of King Street.

While they embraced the short-term improvements, city councilors expressed skepticism about the shared-street concept. City staff will continue to flesh out the proposal in the next 10 to 15 years.

“I’m going to support this, and it’s not without some misgivings about the shared streets,” Pepper said. “We can explore that concept, but I really have a lot of concern about that. I just can’t see how that allowed a pedestrian to feel very safe when there’s a car that weighs 2,000 pounds more than the pedestrian.”

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