By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
To close or not to close? The question has been at the heart of ongoing conversations about whether the 100 block of King Street should be made into a pedestrian-only zone.
Those discussions between the city and business owners and residents in and around the 100 block of King Street have evolved quite a bit, resulting in city staff’s first presentation of the King Street Place concept to council on Tuesday.
Like previous versions of the design, the proposed pilot program would remove parking on the 100 block at all times. However, from there, the current design diverges significantly from previous pedestrian-only concepts.
Staff proposed keeping one directional eastbound traffic with one lane dedicated to travel and one dedicated to pick up, drop off and delivery and valet services. Parking on the south side of the block would be used to expand the pedestrian walkway and extend outdoor seating on that side of the street. With vehicle traffic integrated back into the pilot, the changes would now apply throughout the week instead of just on weekends, as was the case in the pedestrian-only design.
The city plans to seek council approval on April 14 with a projected launch on May 16. The pilot would last through October or November.
The concept behind King Street Place has evolved quite a bit since Mayor Justin Wilson and Councilor John Chapman requested staff explore closing the 100 and 200 block of King Street to vehicle traffic in May 2019.
Wilson was, and still is, interested in “repurposing some of this public space and using it for pedestrians, using it for increased outdoor dining, using it for programming and places for people to sit and pass the time away,” he said.
In doing what cities like London and Charlottesville have done – and what Alexandria tried to do in another pilot in 2006 to little success – Wilson and Chapman hope to make the area more welcoming for pedestrians.
But once the concept got out into the community, business owners and residents became concerned about transforming the foot of King Street into a public plaza.
The business community was worried about how restricting vehicle access could impact loading and unloading, rideshare and valet for elderly customers and patrons with disabilities and access for delivery services like Uber Eats and Grubhub. Residents worried that closing a heavily trafficked area of the city – even just on the weekends – would create spillover traffic on neighboring streets.
At that point, King Street Place was still a vague idea, one that staff hadn’t fully explored or sought input on. It wasn’t until staff presented an initial plan for the pedestrian-only design to the Waterfront Commission in December 2019, that business owners actively got involved in the process and voiced their concerns.
Charlotte Hall, advocacy chair for the Old Town Business Association, was present at the meeting in December. After seeing the design, she asked whether staff had sought input or support from the business community in the area.
“That’s when I learned that they had only talked to merchants in the 100 block,” Hall said. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s not the same thing I’m hearing from people in the 100 block and it has not been presented to Old Town Business Association or the Chamber of Commerce.’”
City staff came back to Hall in January 2020 and asked if she would call a meeting of OTBA so that staff could hear the concerns of the business community. More than 35 business owners showed up to the meeting, and staff heard one thing loud and clear:
“The merchants spoke and they said, ‘We don’t want it closed,’ in a nutshell,” Hall said. “‘If you must do something, let’s come to a compromise on something.’”
Even then, some business owners floated the idea of one-directional traffic.
“I think one-directional traffic could make everybody happy and still allow every- body to have benefits from the increased size,” Noe Landini, owner of Landini Brothers, Pop’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream and Fish Market in the 100 block, said at the time. “It would bring more tables, which is the least important thing to me, or wider sidewalks, which is important to me, but still [leave space] for Uber, pick-up, drop-off.”
The city met with business owners again on Feb. 20 and presented a new design with one-directional traffic. Hall and the business owners were overwhelmingly supportive of the design, which addressed almost all of their concerns.
“It really kind of reflected all the concerns and needs of everyone,” Landini said. “I think it was a crowd pleaser in terms of the plan itself. And the city seemed very optimistic about it and they were very cooperative.”
“I would say the plan that we’re presenting … to council really came out of the conversations we have had with the businesses,” Hillary Orr, deputy director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said.
The current design still removes all parking spaces on the 100 block. The available roadway will now be split between the dedicated pick up and drop off lane and a traffic lane, with the 20 feet of requisite space required for the city’s emergency service vehicles, Orr said.
With traffic moving eastbound on the 100 block, the King Street trolley route would only need to change on westbound trips. If the proposal is adopted, westbound trolleys would turn onto Union and then Cameron streets in order to loop around the 100 block of King Street.
The new outdoor seating layout – with expanded seating placed entirely on the south side – is also a boon for businesses that have long asked for more patio space.
“This’ll be our 10th year and for eight of those years, because of the sidewalk configuration, we couldn’t do any patio,” Ruth Gresser, owner of Pizza Paradiso, said. “And then we figured out how we could have a small presence, but for us, this would be a great improvement to our patio service because it would give us a little bit more space for people to feel more comfortable.”
Staff will continue to discuss and tweak its proposal before presenting a final pilot recommendation to council in April. As with all pilots, the city is aiming to create a program that’s flexible enough to react to public input and challenges throughout the process, Orr said.
Council members already voiced a few recommendations for changes to the current proposal at Tuesday’s legislative meeting, as Wilson and Chapman came to terms with a design that differs drastically from the pedestrian plaza they originally envisioned.
Chapman expressed concern about the $190,000 price tag attached to the pilot and questioned whether the new design would increase vibrancy the same way a pedestrian plaza would.
“I know when we were looking at a pedestrian plaza, there was programming and some of that other stuff to kind of pull people out, and I don’t know if we can do that here,” Chapman said.
Despite his misgivings, Wilson was optimistic that, if the current design works, the pilot could expand to include a pedestrian plaza.
“I’m not going to let the perfect, at least in my mind, be the enemy of something that is probably a good step forward, but it does seem like something that, if it works, we might want to expand further,” Wilson said.