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The Year That Was — Snow, Bill and Isabel

2003—Looking Back

A way to summarize 2003 might be to paraphrase that often asked question by children on a long journey, "Are we there yet?" Applicable to the last 12 months may be, "Is it over yet?"

The year started with a blizzard that smothered the city's Washington's Birthday festivities. That was followed by a spring and early summer that rained out just about every event and put a damper on many retail items geared to hot, dry, summer weather. Thereby, adversely impacting the economy.

Then, just as everyone was prepared to enjoy nature's palette of fall colors, along came a very unwanted shrew named Isabel. And, as an added attraction, 2003 was all wrapped in the ongoing war on terrorism with its roller coaster alert status and emergency preparedness drills and warnings.

But there were highlights — emergency aid from FEMA and SBA to businesses and homeowners alike; the "Berg" redevelopment finally became a reality; a potentially new Alexandria annual event was initiated known as the Arts Festival; the City gained a new fire chief; and there were a variety of anniversaries that defined the city's resilience and tenacity.

The city also saw the election of its first-ever African American mayor. William Euille was voted to the post in May's elections, leading a Democratic sweep on City Council.

Redella "Del" Pepper was the top vote-getter in the election, giving her the vice mayor's seat. New Council members included Paul Smedberg, Ludwig Gaines, Rob Krupicka and Andrew Macdonald. Joyce Woodson was re-elected to another term.

But before the year really got started, and just as Alexandria was preparing for the annual George Washington birthday celebration and parade, which is billed as the largest parade for the occasion in the nation, along came the first blizzard of the 21st century. It dropped 16-plus inches on the city.

Snow began falling Friday afternoon, February 21, and continued until Monday morning. Crews, operating 40 plow/salting vehicles, worked 12-hour shifts to clear paths for emergency vehicles and freeing neighborhoods of cabin fever.

A positive to the storm, as assessed by Douglas McCobb, deputy director of Operations, Transportation and Environmental Services Administration, was, "It occurred on a long weekend" which cut down on traffic and allowed people to stay at home and, "It started when it was very cold with the temperature steadily increasing." This enabled the melting agents to work better and faster.

Next came the spring rains and rains and rains — well into the early summer. After several years of severe drought, the snows and rains began to erase the deficit and push the area well into the plus column. Year end statistics had area rainfall at 20-plus inches above normal.

But this also brought another unwanted visitor in greater number — mosquitoes and their travel companion, West Nile Virus. It was the second straight year the virus had been discovered in Alexandria. This time the actual disease carrying mosquitos were caught in a trap located near Ivy Hill Cemetery on King Street.

"The wet spring weather has greatly increased the mosquito population compared to last year," said Joseph W. Fiander, senior environmental health specialist, Alexandria Health Department. It was predicted that this escalation in the mosquito population and their transportation of the virus will continue.

First detected in Virginia in 2000, the virus has increased each year. The greatest concern to the Health Department, according to Dr. Charles Konigsberg, Jr., Alexandria Health Director, is that certain species may be able to survive over the winter and gain strength the next season.

JUST AS THINGS appeared to be settling out for a picture perfect autumn along came Hurricane Isabel. With her eye passing further to the west than expected, she caused some of the most devastating flooding and damage to occur in the last 100 years.

Due more to the tidal surge than actual rain and wind, the flood waters consumed Alexandria businesses, homes and possessions. Establishments on lower King and Union streets were some of the most devastated — some inundated with as much as six feet of water.

"We lost everything downstairs. It was neck-high on the first floor," said Bob Lorenson, owner, The Virginia Company on South Union Street. Union Street merchants were hit even harder than those on lower King Street.

One of the worst hit housing complexes was Backyard Boats. Residents suffered extensive damage and losses in the lower level of the townhomes which serves as garages and additional living area.

As the Potomac River tidal surge expanded, the water rushed through Windmill Hill Park dog exercise area and up the bike/walking path, which runs along the edge of Ford's Landing, and cascaded into the garage level of Backyard Boats townhouses. There it engulfed all vehicles, storage items, and living quarters on that level.

"It was all underwater. They even pulled big fish out during the pumping operation," said Mike Garten, a resident. He had recently moved to Alexandria from Arizona. "Coming from Arizona, why would I think about flooding," he reflected rhetorically as he cleared away debris the next day. He had just moved here in July and his new Lexus was a total loss.

In stark contrast to the devastation at the Backyard Boats complex was the virtually untouched area of Ford's Landing just across Union Street. Not one drop of flood water touched any of the homes. As described by one resident at the time, "We were an island."

But, as quickly as the water receded aid from the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) became available to businesses and home owners alike. Just three days after Isabel held the river side of Old Town in her lethal grip Virginia's two U.S. Senators, John Warner and George Allen, stood at the highwater point on King Street and declared, "We are all working together to get this recovery underway."

Melanie Sabelhaus, SBA deputy administrator, declared, "We want you back in business as soon as possible. We hope to have a turn around time no longer than 21 days."

Immediately, a Disaster Workshop opened at the Nannie J. Lee Recreation Center. There to help businesses owners and residents from both Alexandria and the Mount Vernon area were SBA and FEMA representatives as well as the American Red Cross. A second center was opened later at the South County Government Center on Richmond Highway.

ISABEL WAS ONE of the costliest natural disasters to strike Virginia in modern times. Within 21 days of the storm more than $18 million in assistance had been approved for individual and household assistance. It has topped $80 million with claims still being processed, according to FEMA/SBA.

Less than a month after they first stood in front of The Fish Market to declare aid was on the way, Virginia's two senators again gathered at that eatery to participate in the presentation of more than $350,000 in disaster assistance from SBA. As noted by U.S. Representative James Moran (D-8) at the time, in praise of SBA, "This is the way government relief is supposed to work."

On the plus side of the recently exited year was the culmination of more than 10 years of on-again, off-again false starts for what now could become a model for the nation in redevelopment and public housing. The Samuel Madden Homes (Downtown) Redevelopment Project, known locally as "The Berg," began to take form and substance.

After a multitude of disagreements within the city, with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with various groups, and a last minute lawsuit by the Alexandria Residents Council (ARC) against HUD, a contract was signed with the developers, Eakin/Youngentob, in late summer. Official groundbreaking is set for early 2004.

As noted by Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority Commission chairman A. Melvin Miller, "Of all the developments I've seen in the nation, this is the most complex I've ever seen."

In addition to the 152 units of public and fair market townhouse-style units at The Berg site, the project also calls for additional units at three off-site locations.

Crucial to the entire project was the approval of tax credits by the Virginia Housing Development Authority. These were nearly derailed by the ARC lawsuit. When the court rejected ARC's suit ARHA received the credits which will amount to approximately $11 million over the next decade, according to William Dearman, ARHA executive director.

The Berg was not the only Alexandria development project that focused the attention of officials and citizens throughout 2003. Construction and renovation continued at its frantic pace throughout the city.

Projects ranged from new housing, to hotels, continued proliferation of restaurants, to the mother of all construction for this area — the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project and the new Route 1 Interchange. The latter is the largest construction contract let in the history of the Virginia Department of Transportation covering the department's largest single project ever awarded.

Tidewater Skanska, Inc., of Virginia Beach, submitted the low bid of $146.6 million. They are also the lead company in building the foundation for the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Work on the interchange is scheduled to commence in early 2004 with completion projected for 2009.

Throughout 2003 major advances were made on construction of the new span which encompassed construction of the foundations, demolition of one Hunting Tower building and three Hunting Terrace buildings and demolition of a variety of structures on Route 1 just South of Alexandria. The outline of the new ramp from the Beltway to Route 1 South began to take shape late in the fall.

Other non-construction elements of the multibillion undertaking also achieved reality in 2003. They included approval for a sound wall on the city side of the new bridge; preservation and replanting of wetlands on Hunting Creek; and approval of Freeman's Cemetery Park. Acquiescence for the sound walls was described by John R. Undeland, project Public Affairs Director as "a real win/win for everyone."

Commuters using South Washington Street and the George Washington Memorial Parkway south came face-to-face with "bridgitis" in 2003. Beginning in June and scheduled to last until mid 2007, Washington Street and the Parkway began alternating traffic patterns between Porto Vecchio and Church Street to accommodate traffic volume during morning and evening rush hours.

SOME OF THE MORE expansive/innovative projects which gained approval of the Alexandria Planning Commission in the year just ended included:

*A proposal to change the North Ridge/Rosemont Small Area Plan to alter the designation of a narrow strip of land along West Glebe Road from Utility/Transportation to Residential. This will allow for the construction of 24 townhomes in a cluster development plan.

*Redevelopment of one square block of Old Town with a large residential building bounded by new and existing commercial establishments. The site, contained within Green, Jefferson, Columbus, and Washington streets, will include 75 new condominium housing units. Additional commercial enterprises on Jefferson Street will join those now existing on Jefferson and Washington streets.

*A 5,300-square foot expansion to James M. Duncan Library at 2501 Commonwealth Avenue at a projected cost of $1.8 million. It will bring the library's overall square footage to 13,130.

*Moving forward with the Potomac Greens project to build 227 townhomes on the 36.6 acre parcel tucked between the south bound lanes of the George Washington Memorial Parkway and the Metrorail tracks. The site stretches from Slaters Lane to where the Parkway and Metro rails nearly converge. It is the first of nine sites within the total Potomac Yard/Potomac Greens plan.

*Revising the Carlyle Development plan to put more emphasis on home ownership complimented by a luxury hotel/conference center. This was described by Eileen Fogarty, director, Alexandria Department of Planning and Zoning, as "a better balance of business and residential uses." Work on the underground walking tunnel to move the planned 7,000 plus employees of the PTO from the King Street Metro Station to the group's new headquarters finally commenced in late fall. Expected completion is mid 2004.

IN EARLY 2003, the Carlyle Towers area was the site of one of the most extensive emergency preparedness drills staged in the Metropolitan area. Code named "Operation Furies," the five hour drill was designed to test the readiness and ability to work in concert of the Alexandria Fire, Police, and Sheriff departments, Federal Marshals, FBI, Federal Protective Service, Virginia Department of Emergency Management, U.S. Attorney's Office and U.S. Marine Corps.

Many Carlyle Towers residents volunteered to become "victims" during the drill which tested not only emergency response to a series of mock terrorist incidents but also the city's responses in answering multiple alerts simultaneously. This was followed by other informative session sponsored by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and Small Business Development Center.

IN JUNE, ONE of Alexandria's first responder elements gained a new leader when Gary A. Mesaris was named head of the Alexandria Fire Department. After serving 12 years as Fairfax City Fire Chief, Mesaris commenced his new duties on June 9.

Prior to Fairfax City, Mesaris served with the Fairfax County Fire and rescue Department for 22 years, including three years as chief deputy fire chief. He replaces Thomas Hawkins who retired in December 2002, after nine years at the helm of the Alexandria department.

Alexandria's economic picture continued the mixed bag trend initiated by the tragedies of 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terrorism. But overall, it still registered below the high point reached prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks.

According to statistics supplied by the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, Inc., (AEDP) the local economy did better than average considering the national picture. Local unemployment was well below both the state and national averages. And new business licenses rose.

Real estate remained high, both in demand and in price. There was some fear early in 2003 that the hot market was about to cool but that has not proven to be the case. Existing homes are bringing record prices in nearly all sectors of the city and new construction continues at the ever-diminishing available sites.

THE DOWN SIDE is that Alexandria continued to lose businesses, particularly in the Old Town core area. And some sites that have been vacant in that same area remain so. One long-time retailer to close in 2003 was The Pineapple.

After 26 years as one of Old Town's prime shopping venues, it closed its doors last summer. Owner Sherry McMahon Jessup, cited 9/11 and the sniper incidents for a drop in tourist clientele. "Tourism is just not happening and we desperately need the tourists," she said at the time of her closing.

A more recent experiment in entrepreneurism that proved flawed was the reopening of the Old Town Theater. After a total renovation and change in repertoire, Mark W. Anderson, who leased the theater from the owners, threw in the towel in early 2003. "We lost $500,000. We would have gone on but we didn't have any more money to lose," he lamented as the "For Lease" sign again appeared on the marque.

Just prior to Christmas one of the new ventures on lower King Street fell victim to hard times of its parent company Toys "R" Us. The Imaginarium is scheduled to close its doors no later than January 31. Toys "R" Us decided to close all its Imaginarium stores in a reorganization attempt to cut its losses.

In juxtaposition to these losses, the resilience and tenacity of the city and its people was marked by a series of anniversaries in 2003. Two of the most significant occurred in July, both marking their 250th birthdays.

The Alexandria Farmers Market, which operates year round at Market Square, boasts some vendors whose family connection to the market spans more than one half its history. It's motto as described in an 1876 edition of the Gazette was, "To sell here you got to grow it or make it at home."

Recognized as the oldest continuously operating farmers' market in the United States, Alexandria's is used as a model for others nationwide. It's 116 vendors begin greeting customers at 5 a.m. every Saturday.

Just across from the Square, another Alexandria landmark also greeted its 250th year of existence in August — The Carlyle House. On August 1, 1753, Colonel John Carlyle and his wife Sally, moved into their newly completed home on North Fairfax Street. She gave birth to their son in the house that same day.

In November, the Alfred Street Baptist Church reached the bicentennial mark. Founded in 1803 with 12 members, the church, located at the corner of Duke and South Alfred streets, is now the spiritual home of 2,500 parishioners.

On January 27, 1873, the Alexandria Infirmary officially opened its doors to patients. It was housed at the Dr. Francis Murphy House on the southwest corner of Duke and Fairfax streets. Today it is known as Inova Alexandria Hospital and in 2003, it was 130 years young.

AS FOR THE COMMUNITY service arena, the Alexandria Rotary marked its 75th anniversary and Alexandria Senior Services celebrated 35 years of involvement with the city. In September a new tradition began in Old Town known as the Alexandria Festival of The Arts. Artists from throughout the nation displayed their creations during the two-day event held on King Street from Union to St. Asaph.

Finally, a historic moment was entered into the record books in 2003 that will surely be revered by all those that ride the rails of Metro. After a long running battle between riders and their supporters and officials at Metro, the first truly public restroom was unveiled at the Huntington Station on the Yellow Line.

A true marvel of modern science and innovation, this stainless steel unit will be used on a one year trial basis to determine if others should be installed throughout the system. This event is a testament to 2003 being remembered as a year flush with notable occurrences.