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Votes

King Street Strategy, Outdoor Dining Deferred

Unawareness of year-long study frustrates Planning Commission.

<bt>After more than a year of study and public meetings by a 27-member Advisory Committee comprised of all elements of Alexandria, a proposed amendment to the city's master plan known as the "King Street Retail Strategy" ran into a torrent of objections Tuesday night at the regular meeting of the Alexandria Planning Commission.

Opening the presentation, Eileen Fogarty, director, Planning and Zoning Department said, "We are very excited about this proposal. We had tremendous cooperation from business, residents, and others to make this study happen." That excitement and expectation of approval was short lived.

The primary complaint from an array of speakers, during the meeting's public hearing portion, was that they knew nothing of the plan until the last few days. This brought forth a statement of combined amazement and frustration from Commission Chairman Eric Wagner.

"Why do we go through all these outreach processes and then people say they have not heard of it. I'm more than a little chagrined by this," Wagner said.

On the 27-member Advisory Committee were representatives of the business community, residents, civic associations, the Chamber of Commerce, and two members of the Planning Commission, Vice Chairman John Komoroske and Commissioner H. Stewart Dunn, Jr. There were several public meetings held as the strategy evolved plus wide-spread publicity through the media.

"I thought that there was community knowledge about this plan. There were many people at the public meeting we held at the Alexandria Hilton," Komoroske said.

MOST WHO SPOKE against adoption of the plan suggested a deferral until May so that objections to and questions about certain elements could be clarified. In general there seemed to be consensus, even among opponents, that the overall plan was needed to maintain King Street's viability.

Primary concerns centered around four elements within the strategy:

* Why the plan was limited to the King Street corridor

* Factors pertaining to the establishment of more restaurants in the area and the permanent approval of outdoor dining

* Parking in general and valet parking specifically

* The substitution of an "Administrative Permit" process instead of the regular "Special Use Permit" process in the case of approving "restaurants west of Washington Street, limited to 60 seats; outdoor dining limited to 20 seats; and valet parking."

The latter raised concerns about the commission, and residents, losing control over the approval process for new restaurants. This applied regardless of seating capacity. It also focused on the potential to encourage more "fast food" eateries along upper King Street.

"SUP's are the only real protection residents have to know what is coming into their neighborhood. I have always been against giving up the SUP process," Commissioner Richard Leibach said.

Among those offering recommendations for further study by the commission and staff of the City Planning and Zoning Department was Old Town Civic Association. They submitted a 10-page document to the commission that included a list of 11 recommendations for amendments and additions to the Strategy.

"We believe the future of King Street needs to be considered in the total context of the historic district and the neighborhood of which it is an integral part," said Michael Hobbs, president, OTCA.

In its letter to the commission, OTCA made the following points:

* The Old Town Small Area Plan is the essential policy charter for land use planning in Old Town. The King Street Strategy should not supplant that in any respect except as the council and commission make a specific determination to do so.

* The SUP process should be maintained in the approval of restaurants regardless of seating capacity. "OTCA endorses the encouragement of non-restaurant independent retail and mixed-use residential development on King Street."

* Implementation of the Strategy should "not have the result of exacerbating the shortage of available parking" on nearby residential streets. Finish the "incomplete investigation" of the supply and availability of on-street parking.

* Waterfront planning "should in no way be regarded as a mere ‘appendix’ or afterthought" to the Strategy. Planning for the future of the waterfront OTCA sees as "the single most important such investigation to be undertaken in recent years."

* As for delegating implementation of the Strategy to a "King Street Partnership" OTCA is totally opposed. OTCA urged city officials to "not delegate to a private or quasi-private agency ... any of the public policy responsibilities" now exercised by the Planning Commission, Board of Architectural Review and City Council.

SPEAKING TO THE POINT of the King Street Partnership, Poul Hertel, civic activist, said, "Originally this was to be a partnership between residents and businesses. Unfortunately, input from the residents got lost. Therefore, I would ask you to defer adoption of this tonight."

Others urged the commission to adopt the Strategy so that implementation could get underway. Sherrie Brown, a resident and business owner in the King Street area said, "We need this to happen because King Street is dying. It is time to move forward without further delay."

She was joined in that plea by Pat Troy, local restaurateur, long-time Old Town resident, and member of the 27 member advisory group. "This is the future. Let's move on this. Please pass it tonight," he said.

When it came to outdoor dining, the primary concern was the width of sidewalks, the interaction between diners and pedestrians, and the storing of tables and chairs during the cold months.

Ellen Pickering, a regular speaker at commission meetings, urged that strict standards be put in place to monitor outdoor dining. "Many places in Europe offer outdoor dining. It's very good for the diners, but not necessarily good for the walkers," she said.

Outdoor dining was implemented on a trial basis last summer and extended by Council in September 2004 as a pilot program. Tuesday night's agenda proposed it be instituted as a Text Amendment and rezoning proposal to create the "King Street Outdoor Dining Overlay" zone.

That would allow restaurants "adjoining King Street, from the Potomac River to the intersection of King Street and Daingerfield Road, and along all intersecting streets north of Cameron Street, and south of Prince Street, and along a portion of the south side of Diagonal Road," to implement outdoor dining.

According to the staff explanation of the proposed change, it would "create a permanent mechanism for the approval of sidewalk cafe dining on the public right-of-way along King Street and its intersecting streets in Old Town."

IN ADDITION to proposing the process of administrative review for approval of smaller restaurants, staff also recommended that process apply to the granting of approval for outdoor dining. However, they stated, "In order for such an administrative review to be possible, specific standard must be followed." These included:

* Total number of outdoor seats may not exceed 20

* Hours of outdoor serve would be 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

* At least five feet of unobstructed sidewalk space must be maintained for pedestrians. "Exceptions may be granted on a case-by-case basis."

* ADA requirements must be met

* No food preparation is permitted in the dining area and the area must pass all public health code requirements

* Design of such areas must comply with all design guidelines approved by BAR

In order to highlight the ambiance afforded by outdoor dining, Fogarty, said, "This is a world class city and we need to maintain the public space. We are going to look at occasion when parts of King Street should be closed to vehicular traffic to allow for more pedestrian use." This is done now during the Festival for The Arts.

PRIOR TO FORMALLY deciding to defer a vote on the two amendments, commission members offered their appraisal of the proposals instructing staff to reevaluate the text amendments in light of public comments and questions. Even they were split on a number of points.

"The problem I have with this is not the concept of business versus residents but business versus business. And the valet parking seems to be mainly staff driven. I didn't hear any business that is interested in it," Dunn said.

"We tried valet parking before and it was an abysmal failure. But, if you want to try it again good luck," said Liebach. He also argued in favor of small fast food restaurants on upper King Street to serve the predicted increase in business employees tied to the Strategy's growth plan.

Small restaurant encouragement was also backed by Komoroske.

"I like the idea small restaurants could come into upper King Street under the concept of administrative approval rather than an SUP," he said. "I also like the idea of valet parking."

In the final analysis, staff was instructed to remove the language dealing with administrative approval.

After giving instruction to staff on changes to the proposed Strategy and outdoor dining, Wagner said, "It seems we are at a place where we should mark up all the suggestions. I would suggest we defer this to next month for a decision. There will be no further public hearing at that time." Deferral was approved unanimously.