Lower King Street is the heart and soul of Old Town, forming an important bridge between the city’s scenic waterfront and its historic corridor. During certain times of the year, it’s crawling with people — pedestrians, as they are called at City Hall.
Whatever their label, their appearance on lower King Street, darting in and out of shops and restaurants, is a welcome sign of progress for an area that was known as "skid row" in the 1950s.
Yet pedestrians and automobiles have a tenuous relationship with each other Old Town.
"This is an area that has cars, bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians," said Mayor Bill Euille during a recent public meeting at City Hall. "It can be very chaotic at times."
Chaos can breed contempt, and so many city officials have been trying to create a welcoming environment for pedestrians. Yet the boldest plan seems to have bit the dust — for now, at least.
For 12 weekends last year, the city officials closed the 100 block of King Street to automobiles in an effort that was billed as a "pedestrian plaza." The trial program included low-key amusements, expanded outdoor dining options and a festive atmosphere, including flowers, benches and flags. During a meeting at City Hall last week, City Council members voted to kill the plaza concept for the time being. Vice Mayor Del Pepper made the motion, although she admitted that she was reluctant to do so.
"I made the motion with a sad heart," said Pepper. "I hope that it will come back again."
"It will come back," promised the mayor. "When it comes back, it will come back with a lot of fanfare, and it will be done the right way."
THE RIGHT WAY is a matter of opinion, of course. Some did not like the clowns, others thought the jugglers were pedantic. Jeff Albert, owner of Decorium, said that the idea had merit, although the city’s execution lacked finesses. He openly opposed the plaza last year, then met with the mayor to share his concerns. He said that the plaza lacked excitement.
"All they did was close off the street to traffic and call it a plaza," said Albert. "Nothing was planned, and the whole thing seemed haphazard."
The cost to taxpayers was $32,805, a sum that funded streetscaping, entertainment, rerouting traffic and posting signs. The objective of the trial program, according to documents outlining the plan, was "to provide a unique space in Old Town for the enjoyment of local residents and visitors, and to enhance the business climate for local merchants." Although a survey of pedestrians demonstrated that the plaza successfully created a space for the enjoyment of residents and visitors, interviews with merchants unveiled a number of frustrations. According to a recent memorandum on the issue from City Manager Jim Hartmann, the trial program didn’t meet the bottom line.
"Some of the merchants reported a drop in sales, and no merchant reported a significant increase in retail sales in either the 100 or the 200 block of King Street," wrote Hartmann. "Either businesses wanted a livelier and better landscaped pedestrian plaza, or they did not want a pedestrian plaza."
THE MODEL FOR creating a lively stretch of land where automobiles are verboten is Charlottesville, where city leaders closed off seven blocks in 1975 to create an area known as "the mall." According to Travis Lively, visitor relations manager for the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Charlottesville model for creating a pedestrian plaza had its roots in the urban renewal movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
"This was an area of town that was going through a decline, especially during the 1980s," said Lively. "But now it’s turned into a destination."
The seven blocks of Main Street are off-limits to cars, except a northbound cross street. Recently, Charlottesville officials experimented with creating a new cut through with southbound 4th Street — a sort of mirror opposite from what Alexandria officials instituted with last year’s failed pilot program. Lively said that one of the major reasons that Charlottesville’s mall concept works is that visitors have access to a downtown area with two large parking decks — one to the north of the mall and one to the south.
"I guess our pedestrian plaza is a little different because King Street is a major thoroughfare," said Lively."So I can see how that might complicate things."
Sales tax data for October, when Alexandria’s pilot program was in full swing, showed that retail sales tax decreased by 28 percent compared to last year. Hartmann noted that this decline was similar to the kind of sluggishness experienced by street-to-plaza conversions that happed in the 1970s and 1980s, when many jurisdictions across the country experimented with similar proposals.
"A significant number of these localities, when faced with declining retail sales, eliminated the pedestrian mall and reopened the street," wrote Hartmann in a June 4 memo to City Council members. "With far fewer eyeball counts passing storefronts, retail sales suffer."
AND SO HERE’S THE Catch-22: Closing streets to cars makes them less visible from cars. Charlottesville officials admit that most of the 1970s-era storefronts are long gone. Yet they have now been replaced by new stores — ones that are apparently less dependent on being visible from the passenger seat of an automobile. Similarly, Alexandria lacks the parking infrastructure enjoyed by Charlottesville, and closing down valuable spaces in the heart of the city’s commercial district is a concern to many survey respondents.
"Loss of parking makes the program a loser," wrote one anonymous survey respondent.
"City should provide free parking," suggested another.
"Don’t do it again," commanded another.
In the end, democracy ruled the day at City Hall. Thirteen businesses reported a loss of revenue while only one saw an improvement, and while only eight businesses said that had "strongly support" for the plaza, 11 said they were "strongly against" it. Yet city leaders are already planning for ways to retool the idea for the future.
"During the coming year, staff will continue to explore event opportunities in order to make the King Street corridor more vibrant and festive," said Hartmann. "This is timely as National Harbor with its planned events and festivals will become a major new potential competitor for restaurants and retail dollars as well as the guests of its 4,000 hotel rooms are a potential new clientele for the city to draw."