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A Double Edged Sword

"Dixie Pig," now Vaso's Kitchen, again a neighborhood asset.

Alexandrians' love/hate relationship with outdoor dining rose to the surface again Tuesday night during Alexandria Planning Commission's meeting. One docket item addressed the overall issue as a text amendment to the City zoning ordinance and another dealt with yet another restaurant increasing their capacity by adding outdoor seating/service.

In the first case, the text amendment, proposed by the Department of Planning and Zoning, dealt primarily with those eateries along lower King Street and proposed some basic refinements to the program which was officially inaugurated January 2006.

Those refinements included: Maintain the required five feet pedestrian pathway adjacent to each restaurant's outdoor dining area. Maintain the prohibition against outdoor storage of tables, chairs and barriers during the winter months. Amend the minimum umbrella height from the present seven feet to six feet eight inches, bringing it in line with the Code requirement for the lowest edge of an overhang on a post or pylon. Require an annual renewal of the permit beginning in 2008, with an annual application fee of $100 plus $1 per square foot over 100 square feet of outdoor dining area.

As noted in the staff report, "The outdoor dining program has been very successful. Over 36 restaurants are enthusiastically participating in the program and report enjoying increased business as a result." They also stated no fines had been imposed for code violations since the program's commencement.

But not all elements of the program are being enthusiastically embraced by residents according to testimony offered by Townsend Van Fleet, president, Old Town Civic Association. "There are obstructions within the five foot pathway and restaurants are pushing their barriers out further and further," he said.

"We all know Code Enforcement doesn't work on the weekends and that's why the five foot pathway requirement is not being enforced and no fines have been levied," he said. Van Fleet's claim of lack of Code enforcement was buttressed by Poul Hertel. "The fact that no one has been fined since the program started is testament to the lack of enforcement," Hertel stated.

Another problem cited by Van Fleet was the presence and parking of motorcycles on lower King Street adding to the exhaust fumes immediately adjacent to outdoor diners and increased noise. "They back their bikes into the curb spewing exhaust into the diners. Motorcycle parking should be moved off lower King Street," he said.

Protection of trees along lower King Street was also raised as that relates to maintaining the five feet, unobstructed pathway for pedestrians. "When there is not enough room for pedestrians to get by the diners they tend to step into the tree wells and damage the root structure. This will eventually kill the trees," said Julie Crenshaw Van Fleet.

COMMISSION CHAIRMAN ERIC WAGNER noted that in many areas where he has enjoyed outdoor dining there have been metal grates over the tree wells to protect the root structure from pedestrian traffic. He requested that P&Z staff look into securing such grates for the trees along lower King Street.

Adding to Van Fleet's objection concerning motorcycle exhaust fumes, Commissioner J. Lawrence Robinson questioned the allowance of smoking in the outdoor dining area. "Although I voted against banning smoking within restaurants and bars when it came before us because I felt restaurateurs were making adequate provisions for non-smokers, I believe that smoking in these outdoor dining areas should be banned," he said.

It was noted that Alexandria City Council has not acted on the restaurant/bar smoking ban recommended for approval by the Commission at their May meeting. "As Eric [Wagner] pointed out last month, outdoor smoking when walking down the street can be more offensive to those with respiratory problems than indoor properly controlled smoking," Robinson said.

He then moved to amend the text amendment to ban smoking at restaurant outdoor seating areas when those seating area are part of the public sidewalks. It passed unanimously as did the overall proposed text amendment.

HIGHLIGHTING THE LOVE/HATE relationship between outdoor dining and neighborhood tranquility was an application by Vaso's Kitchen, once known as the "Dixie Pig," 1225 Powhatan St., to add 17 "seasonal outdoor seats." Located within a residential neighborhood the application raised concerns about noise, parking, and overcrowding the pathway.

Primary objections to the application came from the Northeast Civic Association, which said that the restaurant owners had not met with the association to explain their requests to amend the Special Use Permit. "The restaurant has been a good neighbor but they have not met with us to explain their plans for outdoor seating or to discuss parking problems," said Mary Ella Posey, president, NECA.

"This is the first time we have seen the drawing describing their outdoor seating plans. The owners have not come to any civic association meetings," said Poul Hertel a neighborhood resident.

In addition to the outdoor seating, the applicants also were seeking a reduction in the parking requirements and the approval to allow on-site alcohol service. Increased seating automatically impacts parking requirements under the SUP process. In this case, the 17 additional seats would require four additional off-street parking spaces.

Several speakers noted that parking in the northeast neighborhood is already at a premium during the evening hours. To accommodate residents, staff recommended a requirement that "at least nine off-street parking spaces be provided off-site during the evening hours."

In recommending approval of the application, staff stated, "Over the past year the restaurant has become a vital part of the community. Staff has not received any complaints from the neighborhood concerning the operation of this restaurant. The neighborhood has expressed great interest in outdoor dining facilities at this location."

That was buttressed by Michael Lane, a nearby resident. "Approving this application will further enhance this restaurant as a neighborhood asset," he said.

All speakers praised the restaurant's operation but most questioned the number of tables to be allocated to outdoor dining, the parking problems by both restaurant staff and patrons, and the possibility of outdoor music. Conditions were added to the application to deal with each of these concerns.

Due to the fact that there is no Commission meeting scheduled for June, the application was recommended for approval unanimously with the proviso that the owners meet with the civic association to clarify their plans before the June 16 City Council meeting. If that meeting does not take place the recommended approval by both area residents and P&Z staff could be changed to deferral which would prevent any changes in the SUP until the September meetings of the Commission and Council, according to staff.