Closing King Street, even temporarily, is an emotional subject in Alexandria. Those who broach the topic are likely to hear parking worries and possibly a few curse words. That’s why City Hall’s experiment with the “pedestrian plaza” evokes a rainbow of sentiment — everything from jubilant elation to outraged discontent.
For four summer weekends, city workers closed the 100 block of King Street to traffic — expelling parked cars and routing drivers to side streets. Merchants in the area reported no increase in business, and some complained that they saw their revenues decline. Nevertheless, City Council voted on Tuesday to extend the experimental program from Sept. 15 to Nov. 3. Respondents to a city-sponsored survey about the plaza minced no words about their feelings.
“These things usually end up badly, providing a forum for people to loiter, not shop or eat,” wrote one respondent.
“While some may complain about the parking lost, the benefits far outweigh this cost,” wrote another.
Survey results ranged from brief but positive feedback — “good for both residents and tourists alike” — to clipped negativity — “will come back once your experiment has failed.” Those who wrote in favor of the plaza program said that the ambiance was “relaxed” and “peaceful,” fashioning “a sense of community” on lower King Street. Those who opposed wrote that the plaza created a “traffic nightmare” with “cluttered sidewalks” that “invite loitering.”
Many respondents had suggestions as to how to improve the plaza. One suggested that hanging overhead string lights would create “a welcoming nighttime canopy” while another suggested that city “provide free food.” Other recommendations included jazz bands, retail vendors, margarita machines, face painting, dancing groups, sidewalk chalk and live DJs. One person even suggested adding a petting zoo. Merchants also gave a mixed review.
“Shoplifting increased fourfold during the plaza weekends,” one merchant wrote.
“We believe the results were so overwhelmingly positive that there is no more need of a pilot program — make it permanent,” wrote another merchant.
THE PROGRAM cost $14,300 for the original four weekends, and city officials expect the next eight weekends to cost $21,000. In a memorandum to the City Council, City Manager Jim Hartmann explained the fiscal impact of the plaza: Asking city workers to post signs and place barriers is expected to cost $8,000, posting police officers around the periphery of the plaza adds $5,000 and installing all those flags and plants comes with an $8,000 price tag.
“Some of the merchants in the 200 block reported a drop in sales, and no merchant in either the 100 block or the 200 block reported a significant increase in retail sales,” Hartmann wrote. “However, the four summer pilot weekends were not a representative sample, so testing the pilot closing of the 100 block of King Street through the first weekend of November 2006 is recommended to get more data and feedback, as well as a longer evaluation period.”
City Council members agreed with Hartmann, voting to extend the program. But they had their own two cents to add. Councilman Paul Smedberg said he heard feedback that the city installed too many plants on the plaza.
“It was almost jungle-like,” Smedberg said. “Many people are concerned that this could become a bazaar.”
Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald suggested that the City Council consider extending the pedestrian plaza concept from the Potomac River to the King Street Metro station.
“We would certainly learn some things about parking,” Macdonald said.