Auld lang syne


As the fireworks fade over the Old Town waterfront Monday night, the book closes on Alexandrias 259th year, or 232 years as part of the new Republic, in case youre counting.  In that time of year of pause and reflection, 2007 was a year, of well, challenges. The citys residential real estate market, which had ballooned to $22 billion in assessed value, made its long-anticipated appointment with a pin prick, deflating in value like much of the rest of the country.  Some Realtors scrambled temporarily for second jobs as the air was slowly let out of the balloon. I havent sold a property in six months, one Realtor sighed. And I used to sell three a month. Alexandrias School Superintendent, Rebecca Perry, saw her contract not renewed in a controversial 5-4 vote by the School Board in May, splitting School Board activists into two camps, those who saw Perry as a respected visionary, indispensable to the direction of the citys 10,000-pupil school system, and those who wanted fresh leadership. Perrys last day at the helm is June 30.

Economically, 2007 was a mixed bag. Some of the citys 10,000 smaller retailers and restaurants cried uncle to the giant sucking sound of the mighty Rt. 1 big box corridor, with its plethora of national retailers with massive pricing power and mighty TV advertising budgets, not to mention stadium-sized lots of parking.  In parting shots, it was difficult for King Streets institutionalized Cash Grocer to compete against Whole Foods and equally tough for the quaint A Likely Story to meet Barnes & Noble on price, selection (and parking). A few of the citys venerable restaurants closed or changed hands. The 30-year-old Portners, which often resembled Cheers at Happy Hour, shuttered to make way for a high-end steakhouse, Bookbinders, opening Jan. 21. Two days later, the $110 million Hotel Monaco makes its debut, one of three boutique-y Kimpton Hotels coming to town. Bohios Cuban Restaurant made way for Hanks Oyster Bar, duplicated from Dupont Circle, and Ernies Crabhouse, anchored to Richmond Highway since 1947, opens next week on upper King Street.  The West End continued to grow, landing the Carlyle Club, a 1940s art deco supper club with the booming sounds of big-band orchestras, and a swank new Westin Alexandria Hotel, whose vibe celebrates Alexandria as a city of invention with the Patent & Trademark Office now based here.  Often we forget that the Washington areas second largest city is really not much different than Andy Griffiths Mayberry. Old Towns historic homes, quaint cobblestone streets, mom-and-pop merchants and neighborhood restaurants give it the small town feel which helps to draw an estimated one million tourists each year. On any given day, one can stroll down King Street and hear Japanese, French, Italian, even Chinese spoken.  That dynamic may change even more in 2008, when National Harbor, the eastern seaboards largest hotel, opens across the river and stands to pump 250,000 conventioneers into the region. The city plans to spend $1.2 million next year courting these visitors to our more historic shores.

Movie treasures
Who could forget that memorable scene in No Way Out starring Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in which the two cinema stars warily eye each other in the shadows of a townhouse, ostensibly Georgetown.

Wrong. The 1986 sequence was shot in Old Town, off N. Union Street. Quite a few blockbuster movies are filmed here, and another has just debuted. The new Walt Disney movie, National Treasure: Book of Secrets opened Dec. 21 and some of the movie unfolds in Alexandria locations. A sequel to the 2004 release, the movie stars Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight and others as history-savvy hunters who set out to uncover the truth behind Abraham Lincolns assassination.  Eagle-eyed film buffs will notice places like the George Washington Masonic Temple masquerading as the Library of Congress, and the back lawn of the Mount Vernon Estate playing host to a tented cocktail party, doubling for the White House.