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Helping King Street

How to encourage more pedestrian traffic?

Residents and merchants got their first in-depth explanation of what is planned for Old Town's commercial heart when the King Street Retail Strategy was unveiled during a community meeting Tuesday night, Feb. 15.

Held at the Hilton Alexandria Old Town, the meeting gave the audience a broad overview of the plan that is designed to "maintain the uniqueness of the King Street corridor" while addressing the challenges of other retail urban cores throughout the region. It was chaired by Robert Odermatt, head of the planning consulting firm hired by the city to undertake the study.

First unveiled more than a year ago, the plan offers a long-term strategy to maintain and increase the viability of not only the entire Old Town portion of King Street, from the river to the King Street Metro Station, but also the area two blocks north and south of King Street and two blocks north and south on Washington Street.

Although its title refers to a "Retail Strategy" the study actually analyzes all facets that impact that strategy from streetscape design to parking needs to transportation and pedestrian needs. Each attendee received a copy of the six- part document and were encouraged to study it in detail in preparation for public hearings to be held by both the Alexandria Planning Commission and City Council.

IN OPENING the meeting, Planning Commissioner John Komoroske took the audience on a verbal tour of King Street as it existed when he came to Alexandria in 1955. "This was not an area you wanted to walk in at night. Nor did you want to eat in any of the restaurants that existed along that street. If you did you had better be ready to go to the Alexandria Hospital," he said.

Then he painted a verbal portrait of today's King Street corridor, with its tree-lined sidewalks and unobstructed views in both directions. But, he cautioned, more has to be done to maintain its vitality and make it competitive with other urban shopping/retail areas in the region such as Georgetown and Pentagon City.

Odermatt said, "What we are really talking about is a strategy. King Street is doing very well. But, there are a lot of competitive areas in this region."

At the present time there are 539 business along the one and one-tenth mile long corridor from Metro to the Potomac. These contain 883,000 square feet of retail space, according to Odermatt.

"The question is how do we sustain ourselves during a period of regional change?" he asked. Some of the suggestions put forth in a quick highlight of the study were making the area more pedestrian friendly, encouraging the growth of outdoor dining, increasing parking capabilities, widening sidewalks and making them all brick, and creating seating areas every three or so blocks to encourage pedestrian traffic.

ONE OF THE SUGGESTIONS put forth was the creation of a public/private partnership that will involve both merchants and residents in the evolution of the plan. Rob Kaufman, resident, business owner, and former board member of KSMET, pointed out that the success of this plan rests with both the merchants and residents.

"When things have been brought forth before, there have been a lot of people who were willing to talk the talk. This time it's going to be up to us [merchants and residents] to not only talk the talk but to also walk the walk," Kaufman said.

He stated that "there is an 11 percent office vacancy rate in Old Town" and he asked why there has not been better marketing. He also noted that many businesses were "doing OK" but not growing. "We need to establish a King Street Partnership," he said.

During the question period, various attendees discussed the width of sidewalks in relation to outdoor dining, the need for more coordinated parking, better directional signage, and the potential closing of the Unit, 100, and 200 blocks of King Street on weekends. All of these points and more were noted by Eileen Fogarty, director, Department of Planning and Zoning, and members of her staff that organized the meeting.

As stated in the introduction to the strategy, "Old Town has evolved incrementally over the years from a seaport community serving the commercial needs of the region to Alexandria's primary retail area with King Street as its signature tourist attraction."

HOWEVER, it also notes, "While King Street is alive and well, its future is by no means assured. The Street's retail vitality is threatened by significant events that affect travel and visitation, as well as by new competition in the region."

It emphasizes, "The Vision for King Street is one that looks forward and enhances the existing environment to ensure an attractive, vital pedestrian place serving local residents and visitors alike."

That vision is expressed in the Strategy "through a series of

Guiding Principles that outline what should occur in the physical improvements and operational management of King Street." Those principals are divided into six chapters: Urban Design, Land Use, Parking, Transit, Waterfront, and Strategy Implementation.

It also emphasizes, "The Vision for King Street is one that is important to both the residential and commercial/retail communities ... The Vision for King Street provides a balance for both ...."