During his election campaign, Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille developed the slogan, "One Alexandria — Putting The Pieces Together." When viewed both individually and as a social and physical mosaic, those "pieces" are what Alexandria is really all about.
It is a city that has taken civic activism to a level that is rarely seen elsewhere. No matter what the subject — planning and zoning, recreation, dog parks, affordable housing, property assessments, waterfront development or open space preservation — there is always a crowd ready, willing and able to speak on all aspects.
Nothing in Alexandria just happens. That is particularly true when it comes to changing the physical landscape, or trying to prevent it from changing. The process of planning and zoning, when addressing urban development, is sacrosanct to city residents.
For that reason those "pieces" come under great public scrutiny, not only on a citywide scale but also within individual neighborhoods. That has brought about a series of Small Area Plans in the development sense and specialized studies in the economic arena.
NAMED FOR THE AREA under study, each area plan attempts to take into consideration all the various facets that will eventually determine the final outcome. There is nothing stagnant in Alexandria, not even the preservation of its two primary historic districts — Old Town and Parker Gray.
This process particularly applies to the few remaining virgin areas in the city. The largest, at 167 acres, is known as Potomac Yard. It is the area between Route 1 leading into Crystal City, and the rail/Metro line paralleling the George Washington Memorial Parkway. It encompasses Potomac Yard shopping area.
The overall concept plan for developing the Potomac Yard area was approved by City Council in 1999. At that time the concept plan called for a mix of residential and commercial development with a small amount of open space. This was to be supported by a Transportation Management Plan that envisioned a new Metro station.
The area was divided into 12 land bays to identify the specific type, location and amount of development for each area as it came online.
One of the major concerns impacting the configuration of the development has been the Monroe Street Bridge. It presently makes a dog-leg turn over the existing rail line. It was proposed that this be straightened, at an estimated cost of $15 million. As the development process unfolded, Pulte-Centrex, the developers who purchased the property in 2004, agreed to carry this cost. Upon completion this will change a long-existing Alexandria landscape.
OTHER EXAMPLES of small area plans addressing specific City sectors include Braddock Road, Landmark/Van Dorn, Hunting Creek and Eisenhower Valley. Each of these plans looks at both the physical and sociological aspects of future development and/or transformation of that area.
Coupled with this process is that of assessing the city's economic well being. This is less centralized, with input from not only planning and zoning but also the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association and the city's business community.
Of primary concern has been the development, or in some cases the lack thereof, pertaining to King Street from the river to the Metro station. For the area between the river and Washington Street that concern also encompasses Cameron and Prince streets.
To address this issue the city undertook a detailed study through a consultant to: evaluate the perception that the area was in economic decline with an increasing commercial/retail vacancy rate; and suggest ways to revitalize that retail corridor and stimulate economic rejuvenation. Known as the King Street Retail Study, it was vetted through a series of public hearings and eventually brought to the Planning Commission and City Council. It proposes a comprehensive game plan to stimulate existing retail/commercial ventures and attract new ones.
One of the most visible offshoots of that study was the introduction of outdoor dining at restaurants throughout the city. First authorized on an experimental basis as an adjunct to the 2004 Festival of the Arts last September, it was made permanent by City Council last winter.
Another direct response to the study is the proposed Business Improvement District in the city. Initiated by commercial property owners in the area defined by the Retail Study, it proposes a special tax assessment be levied on those owners at a rate of $1 per $100 of assessed value.
The tax would be collected by City government and turned over to the BID's governing body to carry out its programs that would be provided on a regular basis in addition to city services. It is estimate the assessment will raise approximately $1 million per year.
Another example of business collaboration in the past two years was the establishment of the West End Business Association, known as WEBA. Composed of business owners in the city's west end it has undertaken a series of initiatives to not only improve the commercial/retail climate in that section but also to give them a concerted voice in city decision making.
In tandem with these organizational activities and as a compliment to them, a series of developments and physical changes have emerged throughout the city. Some of these include:
* Introduction of the first Harris Teeter and Whole Foods grocery stores. The former will be part of the renovated Fox Chase Shopping Center on Duke Street. The latter will occupy the first and lower level of a multi-use building now under construction at the intersection of Duke Street and Holland Lane.
* New hotels such as the Marriott Residence Inn on Duke Street, the Alexandria Hilton and Hampton Inn on King Street. Plus, many existing hotel properties have been upgraded.
* A host of new restaurants have opened in all sectors the City. Alexandria is now home to 400-plus eateries catering to every taste.
* There are a variety of mixed-use projects either on the drawing board or underway. One of the most visible encompasses the block between Green and Jefferson streets along Columbus Street. It will contain both housing units and commercial uses as well as underground parking.
* The Old Town Theater in the 800 block of King Street has been completely renovated, getting an Alexandria landmark up and running once again. It offers not only first run movies, but also other entertainment some nights. Food can be enjoyed either inside while watching a movie or at sidewalk tables.
* The 100 block of South Columbus Street is the new home of Video Vault, one of the nation's most prolific video stores. It has one of the most complete collections of videos, of all types and eras, to be found in the region and state. For any movie buff, particularly those with a love for classics, a trip to Video Vault is a trip to the promised land of celluloid.
* Alexandria Health Department left its 60-year-old location in Old Town within the last year and now occupies three stories of a new headquarters at 4480 King St. They offer a variety of public health services and monitor health conditions within the city.
* Inova Alexandria Hospital is a major contributor to the well-being of Alexandrians and other area citizens. Two of its primary sources of pride are its cancer center and heart center. It has undergone extensive renovation in recent years to improve its medical services and make it more compatible with its surrounding neighbors. Those renovations will continue in the months ahead.
* One of the greatest changes in Alexandria's landscape over the past two years was the demolition of the public housing project known as Samuel Madden Homes Downtown or "The Berg." It has been replaced with an innovative combination of public and market-rate housing units now called Chatham Square.
IN THE AREA of public safety, Alexandria Fire Department continues to upgrade its equipment and capabilities. One addition to the department is a new fireboat. Its advanced technical capabilities have greatly increased the mobility and response of the department's Marine Operations Team, a critical element to a city situated on a primary waterway.
The city's Emergency Management Teams also operate under the aegis of the Fire Department. They have taken on increased responsibilities as of Sept. 11, 2001 and are actively developing and honing the capabilities of their Community Emergency Response Teams. Alexandria's Fire Department was intimately involved with the response to the terrorist attack on the Pentagon in 2001.
Alexandria's Police Department has recently been approved to increase its ranks as a result of the latest city budget process. They have also increased their emergency response capabilities with special units capable of dealing with biological/radiological threats.
TWO SUBJECTS of ongoing controversy within the city are Mirant's Potomac River Generating Plant, at the north end of Old Town, and the future development of Jones Point Park, at the south end of Old Town. Both inspire passionate responses from residents.
Mirant has been accused for years of causing harmful air pollution with its coal burning units and a lack of modern purification equipment. There is now a pending federal court case on the subject as well as action by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The primary controversy around Jones Point Park centers on its future development. There is a schism between those who want it to contain large athletic fields that would neighbor a protected wetland area and those who are urging it remain a primarily passive recreation site.
The National Park Service will be holding environmental impact hearings this fall based on plans submitted by City Council. Those hearing will determine the final outcome on this controversy. However, no development will take place until the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project is complete in 2011.