Our View: How to enhance lower King Street

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The 200 block of King Street (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)
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When considering a life-altering change, it’s important to carefully analyze the benefits and costs associated with the potential transformation. This is true for both individuals and cities.

Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor John Chapman are proposing such a change in Old Town: They suggest turning the bottom blocks of King Street into a pedestrian promenade. Staff has yet to complete a study or propose a recommendation for the pedestrian-only zone, which could include all or parts of the unit, 100 and 200 blocks of King Street.

It’s important for our entire community, not just our local government, to consider and weigh in on this proposed dramatic change.

The benefits would be considerable in a vacuum. An automobile-free area, full of sidewalk dining, trees and a parklike setting, would be aesthetically pleasing. It would likely make Alexandria more of a destination for regional millennials. It could enhance the overall tourist experience.

If such a change brought more visitors spending more money, the primary beneficiaries would be city coffers as well as the bottom line of companies that own multiple properties on and near lower King Street, such as Alexandria Restaurant Partners and Asana Partners.

As appealing as that sounds, the cost of permanently banning automobiles on lower King Street, especially if the city were to close the street from Fairfax Street to the Potomac River, is prohibitive. The drawbacks primarily pertain to safety, livability and transportation.

Not all businesses on lower King view the change as beneficial, particularly those like Landini Brothers Restaurant and The Silver Parrot that existed during the trial of this concept back in 2006. City data from the pilot shows that most businesses on lower King Street reported either no change or a decrease in revenue during the trial period.

Safety is another concern, as emergency vehicles would not be able to access the streets if they were permanently configured to prevent vehicles.

And then there’s traffic.

Old Town residents already have difficulty driving during events such as parades, fireworks or the King Street Art Festival. While inconvenient, those events are sporadic and therefore tolerable. Consider the commute of residents in the southeast quadrant of Old Town to and from work – or to and from anywhere – if they can’t go north on Union or Lee streets. If property values in Old Town fall because impassible traffic makes it a less desirable place to live, the city might not net more revenue from such a change.

While we don’t view a potential three-block closure from Fairfax Street to the waterfront to be worth the substantial costs involved, a limited modification of lower King Street, along the lines of what Landini Brothers owner Noe Landini has suggested, might work. See the Times’ page 1 story, “Lower King pedestrian zone proposed.” Landini suggests modifying lower King Street to become one way, while eliminating parking on one side of the street. This would allow for enlarged sidewalks with more outdoor dining and a wider promenade area. Yet it would keep Union and Lee open as north-south streets, which would alleviate safety and commuting concerns.

We have another, three-pronged suggestion:

1) Close the end unit block of King Street to traffic and have it become a promenade between the Torpedo Factory boardwalk and Waterfront park.

2) Make the 100 and, possibly, 200 blocks of King street one way and valet-only parking.

3) The city could operate a valet service, or contract with a company, to serve all businesses near the river. This way businesses wouldn’t suffer, and patrons’ vehicles would wind up in city garages rather than on the street.

This solution would make lower King Street more vibrant, assuage safety and livability concerns and help alleviate the parking crunch in Old Town.

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