City Council proceeds with Polk Avenue sidewalk, parking elimination

City Council proceeds with Polk Avenue sidewalk, parking elimination
A rendering of the new Polk Avenue sidewalk.

By Olivia Anderson |

City Council held its first public hearing of the 2022- 2023 year on Saturday, with a large portion of the meeting consumed by debate about a possible sidewalk on Polk Avenue in the West End. After hours of public discussion, council opted to reject an appeal from neighbors to keep the sidewalk from being built.

The decision follows the Traffic and Parking Board’s unanimous recommendation to remove nine parking spaces on Polk Avenue in support of the sidewalk installation. There is currently a sidewalk gap between Pelham Street and Palmer Place, forcing people to walk in the street or cross it in order to continue along the route.

The new sidewalk will fill the existing gap and connect the two dead-end parts. While the construction will likely help neighborhood students walk to James K. Polk Elementary School and Hammond Middle School, it will also eliminate about 18% of current parking spaces in the area.

During the public comment period, many neighbors expressed opposition to the sidewalk installation, asserting that the nine parking spaces in question were indispensable.

Kathy Burns – the appellant and nearby Polk resident who, along with 154 other neighbors, signed a petition to file an appeal against the Traffic and Parking Board’s July approval – encouraged council to at least defer its decision to a later date. She argued that the loss of nine parking spaces would negatively affect neighbors and claimed there is no recorded history of a car hitting a pedestrian in the area.

She asked council to further explore the possibility of implementing a crosswalk instead of a sidewalk.

“What the school officials and parents and concerned residents are looking for is a safe pedestrian crossing on Polk Avenue,” Burns said. “That option should not be limited only to impervious sidewalk.”

Another resident, Shirley Downs, echoed Burns’ sentiments. Downs said an audit still needed to be conducted of the amount of children going to Polk Elementary. She said that neighboring apartment and condominium complexes struggle to find parking spaces at varying points throughout the day.

“The need to complete an audit of schoolchildren going to Polk and review the environmental issues suggests that it might be a good idea to delay the final vote until data and cost estimates are available to try and reach an agreement which will not take away needed parking and still protect the park,” Downs said. “KMS [Townhomes] parking is so constrained and difficult that we regularly spend 20 to 25 minutes looking for parking.

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson asked Downs to specify what time of day she couldn’t find parking, to which Downs replied that there were two available spaces on her block on Vail Street at 8:30 p.m., and when she came back at 8:53 p.m., there were none.

“You can’t get in at Van Dorn, you can’t get Richenbacher, you can’t get Vail, and they just go like dominoes. They fill up … and then everyone has to go over to Pelham and to Polk in order to find anything,” Downs added. “And so everybody just spends all this time. If you’re at dinner, if you’re at school, if you’re at a job, if you run errands and come back, you’re stuck.”

Yet others expressed support for the project. One speaker, Andrea Deitz, who lives at the top of North Pelham Street, said that the Polk Avenue curve gets busy during school drop-off and pickup hours and is thus a hazard to pedestrians.

“I believe this is critical and demonstrates the city’s commitment to children, safety, education, and the environment by providing a safe ‘green’ way for children to get to school,” Deitz said. “I am excited about this project.”

Additionally, Laura Rodriguez, representing the James K. Polk Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, shared the group’s support for the project, after it was identified in the 2018 Safe Routes to School study.

“One of our highest priorities as a PTA is to advocate for the safety of students and we see the proposed sidewalk as a way to ensure that our students, and the students attending Francis C. Hammond Middle School, remain safely out of the street as they walk to school,” Rodriguez said. “We encourage the City of Alexandria to move forward with the proposed sidewalk continuation project. We are committed to supporting all students’ right to a safe route to school.”

During discussion, councilors discussed concerns raised at public comment, particularly regarding the elimination of parking spaces. Councilor Canek Aguirre questioned if there was any possible way for staff to keep parking spaces after installing the new sidewalk.

Complete Streets Program Manager Alexandria Carroll said the street does not have enough width to accommodate parking along the sidewalk. Allowing parking would change the condition of the street so that two vehicles could not pass side by side.

“Just a reminder that this is at a corner where there is a bend in the roadway,” Carroll said. “We do not recommend adding parking in addition to the sidewalk because we want to continue to allow residents to pass each other side by side.”

Jackson raised the possibility of installing a sidewalk, keeping the parking and making the road a one-way street. This way, she said, the street would be safe for pedestrians as well as able to accommodate those trying to find a parking spot.

But Yon Lambert, director of Transportation & Environmental Services, said staff has not analyzed that specific solution and would need to follow very specific criteria to introduce one-way streets.

“I think if we were gonna propose something like transitioning a street from two-way to one-way, we would want to step back and see what the implications would be for the wider street network, including bus and emergency vehicle access,” Lambert said. “… I think that that would require more study and analysis and cost and staff resources and time.”

Jackson requested that staff look into potentially conducting a traffic study in the area, to which Lambert said his office would “assess and prioritize that among the others that [they] have right now.”

During the meeting, Mayor Justin Wilson called for improvement of public discourse between staff and residents, specifically expressing disapproval of certain communications to T&ES, the Traffic and Parking Commission and the PTA. In the appeal, for example, several sentences read that the Traffic and Parking Commission is “programmed by staff to vote the way staff dictates,” “larded with members who are bikers and devotees of smart growth and safe streets policy approach” and includes several new members who are “not likely to buck staff.”

“We’ve got to focus on ideas and focus on the substance of the policy questions that we’re dealing with and not attack people who are involved in this process, particularly people who are voicing their opinion,” Wilson said. “As long as I’m up here, I’m not going to tolerate that.”

Ultimately, City Council generally agreed the benefits of the proposed sidewalk outweighed any potential negative impacts.

“Every street should have a sidewalk on both sides, full stop, period,” Wilson said. “I don’t believe that’s a debatable question in my mind. I think that’s a basic component of a road. We don’t question other components of roads and I don’t think we should question the fact that there should be a sidewalk on both sides.”

Aguirre made the motion to deny the appeal, with Councilor Sarah Bagley seconding. The motion passed unanimously.