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2004: A Relatively Normal Year — Finally

From the rebirth of old institutions to outdoor dining.

In stark comparison to 2003, Alexandria got through 2004 without any major catastrophes, either natural or man-made. However, the year proved to be a mixed bag in terms of city economic achievements, planning and land use development, historic preservation, and controversies ranging from various aspects of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project to dogs and outdoor dining.

And stretching its shadow over everything, as it has been since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is the ever-present need for preparedness. This encompassed institutions throughout the city, from the fire department, to Inova Alexandria Hospital, to private citizens.

Although it actually launched in 2003, Alexandria's Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program took a leap forward in 2004 when the Alexandria Fire Department graduated its largest CERT class and initiated "Be Ready, Alexandria" this past September. Its purpose is to help local residents and businesses prepare for emergencies — natural or terrorist inspired.

As a year-long effort, all city residents and businesses will be contacted by CERT volunteers distributing literature on emergency preparedness. The CERT program has also been expanded from individual participants to classes designed for specific businesses operating within Alexandria and enhanced by a variety of forums throughout the year.

As if to accentuate the need for preparedness, Alexandria was among the areas hit by the region's serial arsonist last year. Early in the year, a residence in the 4400 block of West Braddock Road was set ablaze in a manner that had all the identifiers of the other cases believed to be attributable to the serial arsonist, according to the Arson Task Force.

This was the first attack by the serial arsonist in Virginia, according to authorities. Since then, there has been at least one other suspicious case in Northern Virginia, but no arrests.

A MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENT of 2004 for Alexandria was the groundbreaking and construction initiation of the decade plus struggle to revitalize Samuel Madden Homes Downtown, known locally as "The Berg." Plagued by a almost endless series of setbacks, the official ceremonies took place in a rain-soaked tent in early spring.

That was the day "The Berg" morphed into "Chatham Square" and Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille, a resident of The Berg, in his youth, declared it "both an exciting and sad day," for some. "The sad part is that a great deal of my first 22 years, which I spent living here in public housing, is now gone," he said.

"The great part of today is that we are providing hope for a large part of this community. This is all about pride in Alexandria and those that live here," Euille said.

Two other revitalization efforts chalked up during 2004 were the reopening of The Dixie Pig and the Old Town Theater. After nearly three years of on again, off again false starts, coupled with endless code enforcement requirements, contractor troubles, and public hearings, "The Pig," as it's called by locals, glows again at 1228 Powhatan St.

It all happened on March 1, which is, believe it or not, "National Pig Day." But there is a difference. Below the dancing porker neon sign atop the restaurant is the name Ruffino's.

Mansur Rad and Robin Gamzeh, owners of Ruffino's Italian Restaurant in Crystal City, now own The Dixie Pig. The new menu reflects both their expertise in Italian Cuisine as well as the traditional barbecue and spare ribs.

As for the Old Town Theater, it has not merely reopened, but has established a whole new identity. "Because our entertainment will be more flexible, we hope to draw from the community where walk-in will be more viable. It's going to be a pretty good mix with certain time frames for live entertainment and certain times for movies," said Roger Fons, theater co-owner with Brenda Meyer.

This was borne out on election night 2004, when they staged an election night party with a full array of food and drinks plus live on-stage entertainment. It also introduced Old Town Theater not only as a theater but also as one of Alexandria's largest seating capacity restaurants.

Fons' newest addition to the theater's staff in 2004 was his head chef Alex Mejia, a former sous chef at both the Old Town Holiday Inn Select and Santa Fe East Restaurant. "I'm very excited about this. It's very different," Mejia said. A new stainless steel "Roast N Hold" oven in the newly-installed kitchen just behind the front lobby entrance gives Mejia a place to exhibit his skills.

OLD TOWN THEATER was also the first establishment to participate in Alexandria new experiment with outdoor dining. On Sept. 28, 2004, City Council passed an ordinance for a pilot program "to allow up to 20 outdoor seats for restaurants along King Street and the first block of side streets," to encourage a combination of dining and shopping in Old Town. It was part of the "King Street Retail Strategy," according to Ellen Fogarty, director, Alexandria Planning and Zoning Department.

Initiated as part of Alexandria second annual Festival of The Arts, the program was scheduled to run through the end of 2004 followed by an evaluation. "A more permanent program will be set up after the winter with the adoption of the "King Street Retail Strategy," Fogarty said. It has been highly successful and operated through the onset of winter weather at various eateries.

This strategy grew out of the "King Street Retail Study," designed to analyze the viability of Old Town to its surrounding competitors. Although completed at the end of 2003, the study was officially unveiled in 2004. Its authors, Development Economics of Washington, D.C., and The Odermatt Group of Berkeley, Calif., said, "The variety of markets [in Old Town] is actually one of the strengths of the King Street corridor."

Ironically, the outdoor dining program was initiated on the heels of a major controversy involving the intermixing of outdoor dining and the presence of dogs. Much to the surprise of both Euille and City Council, the Alexandria Health Department unleashed an assault on local restaurants which permitted dogs to accompany their owners at outside dining establishments.

In early summer, Health Department officials descended upon three prominent city restaurants that had allowed dog owners to be accompanied by their pets in a specified outdoor area. One was the Holiday Inn Select on King Street, which has gained recognition for its "Doggie Happy Hour." The others were Pat Troy's Restaurant and Pub, 114 N. Pitt St., and Chadwicks, 203 S. Strand St.

If there is a lethal political third rail in Alexandria politics it might well be named "Dogs." That was proven by the Tavern Square rally led by Troy, which drew an overflow crowd of canines and their human family members.

Just before that rally, City Council and Euille summoned Robert Custard, the city's environmental health director, to a meeting of City Council to explain his actions against the restaurateurs, which Euille admitted, "caught us off guard."

After stating that he was enforcing "an ordinance prohibiting dogs in restaurants," Custard said he was "charged to uphold both the City and State Food Code."

Euille countered that, "Alexandria has been known as a dog friendly community. This is an issue council is not going to be dogged by."

Ultimately the problem was resolved when, "Everyone got together, used common sense and resolved this thing," Troy said. Since then, sidewalk cafes have been booming and the dogs have been present or walking by on the same sidewalks occupied by outdoor diners.

All of this has contributed to a marked increase in Alexandria tourism throughout 2004, rebounding from the free fall brought on by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, according to Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association (ACVA).

THE USO MEMORIAL DAY weekend, commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion and the dedication of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., highlighted that rebound. It kicked off 100 days of special events, exhibitions, performances, dedications and tours throughout Northern Virginia.

In Alexandria those 100 days encompassed the city's Fall for The Arts program which included the second annual Festival of The Arts on King Street, from the river to Washington Street, as well as Art on The Avenue in the Del Ray area of the City. 2004 also marked the 20th Anniversary of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts, which was highlighted in a gala festival on May 10.

During the first eight months of 2004 ACVA reported total tax collections from overnight visitors amounted to $6.8 million, up from $6.2 million for the same period in 2003. "Hotel occupancy figures, averaging 63 percent for the first eight months of 2004, are three percent above last year's figures," said Laura Overstreet, vice president, ACVA Communications.

But there was also dissension in Alexandria's tourism sphere during the last year. One of the most evident was the area under consideration as the site for a new Visitors Center, which surfaced at a presentation of a plan to replace the Ramsey House.

What became clear was that no one present at the public meeting wanted a new Visitors Center on Market Square. The upshot was that the Ramsey House could be renovated to provide additional space and services.

One of the primary vehicles serving both Old Town tourists and local residents has been DASH. A bus service initiated in 1984, Driving Alexandrians Safely Home (DASH) celebrated its 20th anniversary during the past year.

During the celebration, Sandy Modell, general manager, Alexandria Transit Company, said, "Our growth reflects the growth of the entire area. We are constantly working with the City's Department of Transportation and Environmental Services to develop an overall comprehensive transportation plan."

COMPLEMENTING THIS rebound in tourism is the continuing economic growth of Alexandria and its diverse business and retail establishments. Two of the most prominent are Landmark Mall and the varied businesses of the city's West End. Both experienced a reawakening in 2004.

Euille made revitalization of the West End a touchstone in his election campaign. A central part of that was the restructuring of Duke Street's Landmark Mall.

That goal was outlined during a press conference in the mall's atrium when Euille, joined by representative of the mall and Fogarty, unveiled their vision not only for the shopping center but also the entire surrounding area. It would reconfigure the mall into a town center creating another Alexandria focal point.

"We are looking at a number of scenarios. But, we don't know where we are going at this time. We have to look at what the demand is and what the components might be. But, whatever we do it will be exciting for the city," said Jenny Forest, vice president marketing, Eastern Region, General Growth Properties, owners of the mall.

Not waiting for the future, but designing their own, is the newly formed West End Business Association (WEBA). On Sept. 15 a group of West End business owners gathered at Koons Collision Repair Center on Edsall Road to officially form the city's newest business alliance under the slogan, "It's About Business."

On Dec. 7, they held their first annual "Business Extravaganza Event" at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center. It was at this event they introduced their new official officers and Board of Directors headed by Christopher St. Pierre, owner of "Authentically Amish" in the Fox Chase Shopping Center.

DESPITE THE CITY'S commercial success, it still faced problems in planning and zoning. This was particularly true in the categories of open space and affordable housing, the city's perpetually competing interest factions.

The recent Harambee proposal to create eight affordable housing units in the area of Shiloh Baptist Church pointed up the continuing struggle on this subject. Developers are urged to provide units rather than making contributions to the Housing Fund.

On the open space agenda, probably the most contentious proposal of 2004 was the proposed acquisition of the property at the intersection of Quaker Lane and Seminary Road, the former site of the Second Presbyterian Church, which is owned by the National Capital Presbytery, Inc. It presented the largest potential open space acquisition remaining in the City.

Sold by the Presbytery to Elm Street Development, Inc., of McLean, it will be the site of eight single family homes, planned to sell in the $2 million plus range. A large demonstration was staged last summer, supported by City Council members Ludwig Gaines and Andrew Macdonald, to halt the sale and have the city purchase the land for open space.

In the final analysis it was decided that the price was too high, estimated in excess of $7 million for the six-plus acre site. Purchase was not recommended by the city's Open Space Committee. However, the developer offered to set aside two plots for open space.

TWO OTHER PLANNING issues that drew particular public attention in 2004 were the removable of Mirant's Potomac River Power Plant and historic preservation centered on the threatened demolition of Gunston Halls Apartments on South Washington Street. The first raised a chorus in favor of eradication; the second was just the opposite.

Commencing with an air pollution study undertaken by Poul Hertel and Elizabeth Chimento, the position of advocates for the closing of the Mirant plant at the north end of Old Town was summarized by Euille in a Council work session when he said, "We would like Mirant to close shop and leave the City as soon as possible."

This sentiment eventually culminated in the revocation of Mirant's Special Use Permits by both the Alexandria Planning Commission and City Council. However, as noted by Mirant's attorney, Harry P. Hart, during the Planning Commission hearing, "This revocation raises serious problems for the commission and the council." The plant's ultimate demise is probably a long way in the future given the potential legal battles ahead.

On the historic preservation front was Gunston Hall Apartments on South Washington Street. Approved for demolition by the Board of Architectural Review in August to make way for a mixture of townhomes and condominiums, the action was overridden by the council after strong citizen and civic association objections.

The proposal by developers Basheer & Edgemoore to replace the 1930's square block apartment complex faced opposition from the outset. Greg May, Historic Alexandria Foundation, summarized that opposition. "The real question is whether Gunston Hall Apartments are worthy of preservation. We feel they are," he said.

IN THE BUSINESS AREA, several significant changes occurred:

* Video Vault, acclaimed as one of the nation's most complete video stores with 50,000 VHS tapes and 10,000 DVD's in its inventory, moved from 323 S. Washington St. to 113 S. Columbus St.

* After 20 years, Gordon King sold the buildings housing Bullfeathers restaurant and Hats In The Belfry, 112 King St. In their place in 2005 will emerge a new, upscale eatery known as "Daniel O'Connell's Irish Restaurant."

* At 6 p.m. on March 31, after 39 years at 420 S. Washington St., Lonnie and Teddy Marchant formally turned over ownership of Shuman's Bakery to Pierre Abushacra, owner of Firehook. Shuman's was established in 1876 and had been previously located at two other sites on King Street.

* After 40 years of rock and roll and bucket seats, Morris Katz & Sons Car Radio and Seatco Center, 200 S. Peyton St., officially closed its doors March 16. The 8,200-square-foot building is undergoing a major transformation to take on its new role as headquarters of a landscape design firm known as Land Design.

OTHER MEMORABLE EVENTS of 2004 included:

* After 60 years in the same location, the Alexandria Department of Health moved its headquarters at 517 N. St. Asaph St. to 4480 King St. on Aug. 16. The new building provides 30,000 square feet of space.

* A visit by the 2004 National Capitol Holiday Tree on its way to adorn the lawn of the Capitol. As the first such tree from Virginia, the 70 plus foot red spruce arrived at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial to be greeted by a host of Alexandrians lead by Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper.

* Alexandria Fire Department introduced its new 34-foot, jet drive fireboat. As one of the most modern pieces of fire apparatus in the region, it puts the department's Marine Operations Team in the top ranks of river rescue and fire protection.

* Senior Services of Alexandria named Eileen Longstreet as their new executive director on Sept. 16. She comes to the post with an extensive background in health care and non-profit administration.

* The pedestrian concourse under Duke Street connecting the Carlyle complex with King Street Metro Station was finally completed and dedicated in late summer. The project took nine months to complete.

* Alexandria's Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association celebrated its 230th anniversary.

* The Most Rev. Desmond M. Tutu, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus, Cape Town, South Africa, presided at the ordination of his daughter and three others at historic Christ Church.

AND FINALLY, there was the continuing saga of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project in all its manifestations — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

In the later category were the late-night eviction notices slipped under the doors of Hunting Terrace residents by VDOT representatives, giving them 48 hours to vacate due to falling ceilings. This was quickly reversed after a torrent of accusations by irate residents and being called to account by Euille, who termed VDOT's actions as "just plain arrogant."

The notices were rescinded by WWB Project Manager Nick Nicholson after then VDOT district manager, Thomas F. Farley, admitted to the residents and Euille, "The letter you received ... is incorrect." This put into play a series of negotiations which eventually enabled the residents to have their belongings secured and temporary residences provided while work was underway to repair and secure their residences.

As for the bad, there is the ongoing battle between Alexandria residents, particularly those of Yates Gardens, and VDOT representative over the future uses and access pertaining to Jones Point Park. After Sept. 11, 2001, the entire parking and access plans originally envisioned for the park area immediately adjacent to the new bridge were changed.

Questions of where to park vehicles for future park use, how to gain access to the park and river front, and whose plan is best has been the center of the latest meetings of the WWB Neighborhood Task Force and continues to escalate as the new year arrives. The ire of the citizenry was summed up by statements at two recent meetings.

"The bridge has impacted us enough. Leave the park alone," Richard Campbell, president, Yates Gardens Civic Association, told Nicholson. And, Barbara Lynch, a Yates Gardens resident, said, "Don't waste the public's money even looking at any access from Lee or Fairfax street." 2005 will be critical to future plans for access and egress to the park and where to position a planned 230-plus parking spaces.

WWB Project's good category during 2004 was primarily limited to the VDOT side of the equation. Construction is ahead of schedule and on budget, according to officials. There have also been pluses in the environmental impact area of bridge construction.

The good of the construction workers themselves was highlighted by two who prevented an attempted suicide. When a woman jumped into the river from the draw span, Danny Davis and Mike Pamperin pulled her into their boat and prevented a tragedy.

When she asked why they had saved her, Davis answered, "You picked the wrong bridge, lady. We won't allow that here."