By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Outdoor diners and shoppers have reason to rejoice: City Council voted unanimously during Saturday’s public hearing to permanently close the 100 block of King Street to vehicular traffic. The permanent change comes after the block had served as a pedestrian plaza and outdoor dining destination for the past year during the pandemic.
After prior attempts to close the block failed for various reasons, including business and resident resistance, city staff came to council with another plan to transform the 100 block of King Street in early 2020. The initial plan involved a hybrid approach, with one travel lane running down the center of the block. In May 2020, council voted to close the entirety of that block to drivers and, in response to the pandemic, allowed businesses to use the sidewalk and parking lane for outdoor dining not only in the 100 block but all along King Street and throughout the city.
Some residents and business owners expressed concerns about crowded sidewalks, traffic at the intersection of Union and King streets and noise. But as the pandemic wore on, most residents and visitors embraced the changes to King Street and the city’s dining environment.
Cyrus Coleman, owner of The Wharf at 119 King St., said he supported the closure and what it has done for businesses in the 100 block.
“The temporary closure, in my opinion and the opinion of some other businessowners, has been a huge success,” Coleman said.
Representing the Old Town Business Association, Charlotte Hall expressed support for the closure but said there is still room for improvement when it comes to how the city manages the space. Hall said traffic at Union and King remains an issue and that the city needs to better organize buskers, who were an omnipresence in the 100 block even before the changes.
“It’s not appropriate for five buskers to play in one block at one time. It does not make for a hospitable environment when you’re dining outdoors,” Hall said. “We do want to be a part of accommodating our buskers, but let’s create some order to the chaos.”
Alongside the King Street closure, City Council also voted to set in stone a more permanent structure for the outdoor dining and retail measures it put in place during the pandemic. For the past year and a half, restaurants and businesses in commercial zones have been able to apply for permits to use the sidewalks and parking spots in front of their storefronts for outdoor service.
At a time when indoor dining and shopping posed a genuine health risk, businesses quickly shifted to outdoor operations and “parklet” operations. Parking spots transformed into patio-style dining with planters and creative design elements; sidewalks became outdoor bazaars. According to the staff report, the city has issued 57 permits for the use of 131 on-street parking spaces; 43 permits for the use of sidewalk space in front of businesses and 23 permits for the use of parking lots.
Although some residents raised concerns about negative impacts on parking and traffic, the vast majority of the 2,776 residents, visitors and businessowners surveyed expressed overwhelming support to continue both the closure of the 100 block of King Street and the outdoor dining and retail programs.
Staff will later propose a yearly encroachment fee for businesses that utilize parking spaces. Businesses that want to use parking and sidewalk spaces already must apply for permit approval, which involves a set of standards for safe locations, design and Fire Department access, followed by an administrative review to evaluate the impact on the neighborhood.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for the customers who are not comfortable inside four enclosed walls,” Hall said. “… All of [city staff] accepted the challenge and, with patience and perseverance, each of you have enabled our shops and restaurants to not only survive but thrive.”
Steve Milone, president of the Old Town Civic Association, said both changes, while welcome, have curtailed space on King Street sidewalks and created congestion. While staff’s proposal requires that businesses maintain a minimum of 5 feet of open space on sidewalks, Milone pushed for an 8-foot minimum.
“If you’ve tried to walk along King Street in the last year, now again we’ve all supported these extraordinary measures and trying to maximize on-street and on-sidewalk dining area and retail space, but it’s become a hostile pedestrian environment out there,” Milone said.
According to Corey Smedley, chief of the Alexandria Fire Department, AFD came up with some solutions to manage the 5-foot minimum, including the creation of signage that would guide people off sidewalks and into middle pedestrian area. Smedley said he will come to council with recommendation at a later date.
In discussing the city’s outdoor dining and retail policy, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker proposed an amendment to staff’s proposal that would allow for more collaboration between retailers.
“The purpose of this would be to make it clear that retailers that have a parklet would be able to collaborate with other businesses to host, essentially, pop-ups,” Bennett-Parker said. “I think this flexibility could not only serve to help new businesses or micro-businesses within Alexandria but also would give retailers new marketing opportunities if they choose to use [this].”
After a motion from Bennett-Parker and a second by Councilor Del Pepper, council unanimously approved the outdoor dining and retail text amendment, 7-0.
When speaking about the close of the 100 block of King Street, Mayor Justin Wilson said that the closure and expanded outdoor operations have been a boon for local businesses, which ultimately benefits the city as a whole.
“Obviously, we want to end up in a place where [our businesses] are successful,” Wilson said. “As I keep reminding folks, we get 6% out of everything that happens in these spaces, so we clearly want them to have as much economic activity as possible in these spaces.”
Councilor John Taylor Chapman ultimately made a motion that was seconded by Councilor Amy Jackson to approve the permanent closure of the 100 block of King Street. Council approved the motion 6-0, after Councilor Mo Seifeldein, who was present virtually, left the meeting early.