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Old Town's 'Main Street'

Diverse groups plan the future for a vibrant, user-friendly retail corridor.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third of a three part series on retail along Alexandria's King Street.

The vision of the King Street Retail Study is to become "Alexandria's and the nation's "Main Street." A primary goal of the study's Advisory Committee as stated at the fourth workshop was to draft a vision statement "to create a common understanding of the role of King Street" within the total fabric of the city. That mission statement will be debated at a meeting now scheduled for May 24.

"It is our hope that through those discussions a common mission statement will be arrived at by the committee," said Eileen Fogarty, director, Alexandria Department of Planning and Zoning. "Planning and oversight should be consistent with the mission," according to the study.

In support of the goal to make the city's primary commercial/retail artery also the nation's "Main Street," the study's vision statement describes King Street as "where history reveals the story of commerce, art and urban living from the time of the birth of the nation to the 21st century."

This is founded on the notion, "The Old Town neighborhood provides the experience of a 250-year-old, living American town with cultural experiences, dining, lodging and traditional entertainment." In arriving at this conclusion the committee centered on six key words: historic, vital, charm, authentic, fun and active.

Contributing their expertise and insights to this vision were representative from three key Alexandria constituencies — members of boards and commissions of a governmental and quasi governmental nature; business leaders who have enterprises that concentrate on local customers, those who focus on tourism and those who cater to both; and residents, as presented primarily through various civic associations.

Within each of these groups there was a broad consensus of support for the study and a strong desire that it prove successful in making King Street Alexandria's "Miracle Mile" not only in a retail/commercial sense, but also in terms of livability and accessibility for all groups — residents, tourists, workers and business owners.

But with all the creative ideas bubbling forth from the committee and its sub groups, it is essential that the prime impetus not get lost, according to Chip Carlin, representing the Upper King Street Neighborhood Association.

"Since City Council approved this study it seems their goal was to make the retail core more successful. They should emphasize this central idea even more — to have the retail core generate more revenue," he said.

"This study has been a very good thing, particularly in its role of bringing all the various interests in the city together. It is certainly money well spent. But there has been a tendency not to keep the central focus front and center," Carlin said.

"We can talk about all the possibilities but we have to keep it tied to revenue growth. My property taxes have increased 76.5 percent in the last five years even with the rate reductions. The city budget has doubled. We need to relieve the tax burden on homeowners," Carlin insisted.

Poul Hertel, representing the Federation of Civic Associations and Northeast Civic Association, emphasized, "The consultants have done a very good job of giving us a statistical basis of what's been done. Now we have to decide when to move if we want to move to keep Alexandria, Alexandria in the future."

He added, "It's necessary not to disrupt what brings tourists here in the first place which is the city's historic value. We need to ask what's attractive to both residents and tourists. The key questions are 'what do we want to achieve' and 'where do we want to go?'"

Mark Feldheim, one of Old Town Civic Association's representatives on the committee, saw the study as "any opportunity to do something great. In a nutshell, I think it is really exciting."

But he added, "It's not going to be easy. King Street needs to become more business and tourist-friendly. And the tough part is going to be parking.

WE CAN TALK all we want about venues, and outdoor cafes, and entertainment. But if there's not readily available parking, it all goes for naught."

Weighing in on the business side of the equation was Charles Collum, chairman of the board, Burke and Herbert Bank and Trust Company. "I think this is a great study. What I hope comes out of it is that we do something with the waterfront as well as King Street. The waterfront has to be made a viable part of the Alexandria destination," he said.

"The study itself is going to have a good impact on making this space more user-friendly. We need a good mix of uses. The upper part of King Street is getting more of this than the lower. But we are finally making progress on the three corners at King and Union," Collum noted.

That fact was verified by George R. Viteri, owner, Raul's of Old Town, 604 King St. and Casual Tees, 113 King St. "I will be moving Casual Tees into 103 King St., and hopefully, a furniture store will be going into 101 King," he revealed.

"The tenants planning to occupy 101King St., will take both the first and second floors," he said. The third and fourth floors will be renovated into upscale apartments, according to Viteri. He consummated the purchase of the building in December, 2003.

The former Seaport Inn is now home to Starbucks and a soon to open Thai restaurant known as Mai Thai. The former has the first floor corner location of the building with limited outdoor seating on King Street. The latter will operate in the rear of the first and second floors.

AS FOR UPPER King Street, "When the PTO [Patent & Trade Office] becomes fully operational it's definitely going to change the way we do business. In fact, it already has," Mike Chouri, general manager, Hilton Old Town, pointed out.

"There are many people here now that weren't here before. We need more entertainment and dining on the street like they have in Annapolis. And we need more diversity in foods — more ethnic foods," he said.

"This all needs to be looked at. Now we have the opportunity to put together some modern living styles. This study was really needed. Hopefully, it will bring forth other studies," Chouri said.

"We really need to thank Eileen Fogarty. Without her expertise this probably wouldn't have happened. She brought all the diverse factions together and got everybody talking. The city manager is also doing great. [Philip] Sunderland is really listening to us," Chouri emphasized.

In addition to City Council, members of both the Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review are on the firing line every month when it comes to citizen input as to Alexandria's present and future development. To paraphrase an old saying, 'they have to deal with the devil in the details.'

"This study is really a cool thing and we should capitalize on this natural town center we have," said Planning Commissioner John Komoroske. "This study is being very well developed and the consultants have developed excellent ideas that are outside the box."

HIGHLIGHTING SOME of the improvements he wants implemented, Komoroske said, "I would like to see the lights in the trees left on year round. And we need to put more benches on the street to make it more user-friendly.

"We need to draw in more shoppers. There needs to be more sidewalk cafes. They do this a lot in Europe. It might clog the sidewalks somewhat, but it works elsewhere and it makes the whole area come alive."

Komoroske agreed with Collum that not enough is being done to accentuate Alexandria's waterfront. "We should put sails up on flag poles to play up the waterfront. It would give real identity and draw people to the waterfront," he explained.

Thomas Hulfish III, chairman, Board of Architectural Review, found the study to be an "excellent effort that's been needed. The consultants have done an excellent job."

But his concern was, "I just hope that something will be actually implemented. So often we hire consultants and then say 'thank you' and nothing happens. I also wish we were paying more attention to the infrastructure along King Street so that the right hand knows what the left hand is doing."

A positive set of economic indicators for Alexandria bode well for something to happen at the completion of the study. According to the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership's latest figures:

*Alexandria unemployment rates have dropped to pre 9/11 levels;

*Office vacancies are down to 10.32 percent;

*Industrial vacancies are the lowest since the fourth quarter of 2001;

*Overall assessed value of real property has increased 18.4 percent to $22.76 billion. 16.4 percent of this is in new construction;

*Overall, the city's commercial real property tax base increased 19.2 percent to $8.76 billion. Of that 69.1 percent come from appreciation of existing commercial property and 30.9 percent is attributable to new construction.

AS THE STUDY nears its completion, the various groups have stated their imperatives in not only revitalizing King Street but in making it the "Alexandria's and the nation's "Main Street."

Some of those are:

*Consider a business improvement cooperative organization;

*Maintain a full time downtown manager;

*Create a Steering Committee made up of block captains to ensure all actions are in support of the mission statement;

*Expand staff effort with the business community;

*Education programs for merchants;

*Common hours important for retail;

*All overhead wires to be placed underground;

*Increased street lighting;

*More trees to provide shad;e

*Minimize office use on the ground floor and increase retail/restaurant use;

*Increase outdoor dining;

*Re-evaluate King Street gardens;

*Encourage residential use on the upper floors of retail;

THE ELEMENT THAT received the greatest single input from the committee was the waterfront — seen by most of committee members as Alexandria's greatest natural asset. As stated, there is a "need for a vision for the waterfront from King to Franklin streets."

That should encompass consideration of a pedestrian mall; continuous water front access; making the area friendlier and more inviting to boaters; consider a design competition; and "no more privatizing the waterfront as has been done with townhouse developments."

In considering a mission statement for Alexandria's King Street, the advisory committee turned to one from a much younger city in terms of American history, Albuquerque, N.M. Their statement concludes:

"The Old Town neighborhood will become the historical and cultural heart of Albuquerque's past, present and future..."