Lower King Street could become a pedestrian-only zone

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The 200 block of King Street (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

From the historic Trafalgar Square in London to the eight-block-long pedestrian mall in Charlottesville, it’s not unusual for cities to feature pedestrian-only zones in major dining and shopping districts. With a recent proposal, Alexandria could be next.

Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor John Chapman have requested that city staff look into closing the unit block, 100 block and 200 block of King Street to vehicle traffic, according to a May 14 memo to city council.

“There is very much a yearning for rethinking the way we use public space,” Wilson said. “Here, you have a space that attracts a lot of people, a lot of visitors, a lot of residents, and I think there’s a way to make that even more vital, even more attractive to the community.”

The 100 block of King Street. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

In the memo, Wilson and Chapman requested that staff look into expanded outdoor dining, streetscape infrastructure enhancements, programming expansion, expanded bicycle infrastructure and public art integration.

“It’s very much looking at [King Street] as a broader community amenity,” Wilson said. “I think the way I envision this, at least in my head, is you’re expanding outdoor dining, you’re expanding activities that are occurring there and events. You’re using it as almost essentially a park, where today it’s asphalt and a street.”

Staff is planning to bring a recommendation to council this fall with a process and timetable for studying a lower King Street pedestrian zone, according to Sarah Godfrey, city public information officer.

Since staff is still in the early stages of crafting the proposal, a clear image of what the pedestrian-only zone would look like has yet to emerge. Parameters haven’t been solidified yet, meaning a recommendation could involve partially or completely closing any combination of the unit, 100 or 200 blocks of King Street.

Creating a lower King Street pedestrian-only zone isn’t a new idea. In fact, the city already held a trial program 13 years ago.

For four weekends in the summer of 2006, the city closed the 100 block of King Street to vehicle traffic and studied its impact on residents and businesses, according to a city staff report. Surveys found that 83 percent of pedestrians supported the street closure while business owners gave the effort mixed reviews. Most merchants reported that sales either remained the same or decreased, according to the report. The total cost to the city for the four weekends was $17,300, which included staff cost, entertainment, police and streetscaping.

Wilson, who wasn’t on council in 2006, said it was unclear why council never moved forward with the pedestrian zone after the pilot ended.

“I think council kind of shelved for further discussion and I don’t think that ever came back. I’m not 100 percent clear on why that is,” Wilson said.

Now that Wilson and Chapman are attempting to bring it back, the potential pedestrian-only zone is again drawing mixed reviews from King Street businesses and nearby residents.

Yvonne Callahan, vice president of the Old Town Civic Association, said the group hasn’t formally taken a stand for or against the pedestrian zone. However, she said that she’d be in favor of a trial period.

“I tend to, as a policy matter, really favor pilots,” Callahan said. “A pilot can help people decide if it’s tolerable, if it’s intolerable, how much it adds to the community or how much it takes away from the community. … I am not convinced that it’s going to bring in much more revenue, but if it turns out that the restaurants do in fact create more revenue, they’ll tell you and tell you they like it. They want it. So I’m willing to give it a try.”

The intersection of Union and King streets is a popular through street. Staff’s recommendation for a pedestrian-only zone on lower King Street may involve closing the intersection. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

Callahan said her main concern was traffic on through streets. Both Union Street, which intersects King Street between the unit and 100 blocks, and Lee Street, which intersects King Street between the 100 and 200 blocks, are popular through streets.

“The biggest issue is going to be how many blocks are included,” Callahan said. “If you close off Union Street in order to make this two continuous blocks, okay, you’ve just created yourself a massive traffic jam up at Lee … and spreading up towards Fairfax.”

Wilson said that traffic and parking would be addressed in staff’s recommendation to council.

Noe Landini, owner of three restaurants on the 100 block of King Street – Landini Brothers, Pop’s Old Fashion Ice Cream and Fish Market – said completely closing the blocks would have a negative impact on business.

“We have a lot of clients that need to be dropped off out front, whether it’s because they’re disabled, whether it’s because they’re elderly,” Landini said. “We have a very successful valet program that I think accommodates a lot of these issues, and if you don’t allow people to be dropped off out front and if you don’t allow there to be a valet program, then there are people that just aren’t going to be able to come to my restaurants or the other restaurants on the block.”

As an alternative to completely closing the area to traffic, Landini proposed limiting it to one-way, one-lane-only traffic.

“What I suggested was, at the very least, provide one-way traffic with either short-term, limited parking or one-side parking, which would allow you to significantly expand the sidewalks, pedestrian traffic and outdoor dining,” Landini said. “You don’t really sacrifice accomplishing anything by allowing single-lane traffic through the lower end of King Street, because you still gain so much by eliminating at least one side of the parking and one direction of traffic.”

Pat Dunn, owner of the Silver Parrot, said he was completely opposed to the pedestrian zone because of parking.

“I am opposed to anything that reduces the number of parking spots available in Old Town,” Dunn said in an email. “Closing off the lower blocks of King Street will remove dozens of parking spots available throughout the day. Parking is already scarce and this will magnify the problem.”

Both the Silver Parrot and Landini’s restaurants have been Old Town institutions for decades. Some of the newer businesses on lower King Street, however, have expressed different opinions about the proposal.

“I think it would be great for the businesses down here,” Courtney Boone, general manager of Pizzeria Paradiso, said. “Just having it open, it would feel more European. With the Market Square being right there, people could bleed in, patio tables could go out. Traffic on this street, Union and King, is terrible anyway. I think it could help out a lot.”

Pizzeria Paradiso opened in 2010. The Lucky Knot is another newer business that opened at the corner of King and Union streets in 2012.

“So far, I’ve just heard some of our local customers talking about it and it’s been kind of mixed reviews,” Raven Rutherford, manager at The Lucky Knot, said. “In this location, we are very much foot traffic based, so the more the merrier for us.”

While some businesses and residents had firm opinions about a pedestrian zone, several said they’d have to wait until further along in the process to decide.

Staff will bring forth a recommendation at some point this fall. Wilson said he hoped to implement something, whether it’s a pilot program or permanent pedestrian zone, in 2020.

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