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Business Matters

Set in Stone

The city’s latest round of business and professional license taxes, which were due in March, reveal a city on the rebound. Car sales are speeding ahead. Janitors are cleaning up. Clothing sales are stitching together delicate gains. Grocery stores are bearing fruit. Public relations firms are preparing press releases showing their gains. And, of course, gas stations are making a stealing. Even sculpture is showing solid growth, with gross receipts for sculptors increasing $35,000 in the past year.

“Good,” responded Vice Mayor Kerry Donley when he heard that tax revenue from sculptors had increased. “I’ll sleep better.”

The unemployment rate in Alexandria is at 4.6 percent, well below the national average and the Virginia average. That’s the good news. But the bad news for Alexandria is that hotel occupancy rates are down over the last year for full-service rooms and extended stay suits. Even more disconcerting is the commercial office vacancy rate, which has spiked to 13.5 percent. That’s higher than the Northern Virginia average and the Washington metropolitan region.

“The trend has been that we were slowly closing that gap, now we’re exceeding it,” said Donley. The region is going to get more competitive as the federal government slows down it’s spending, and that’s going to make the competition that much stiffer.”

Commercial or Residential?

This weekend, City Council members will be considering yet another proposal to convert a commercial property to residential. It’s a trend that concerns city officials, who have seen a recent spike in office vacancy rates and sluggish property assessments. Because the commercial market is so soft right now, the developer of Braddock Metro Place is seeking to abandon a commercial development in favor of a residential one.

“I don’t want to prejudice my colleagues,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka, who will not be present on Saturday. “But we will be making it difficult for more commercial projects to come forward because we’ll be basically sending a signal to the marketplace that we’re not all that committed to our commercial projects.”

The property in question is the location of the old Parker-Gray Middle School, which was demolished in the late 1970s. Since that time, the site has been built out except one parcel, which remains vacant today. The development plan calls for a 62,800 square foot office building, but now the developer wants to construct a multi-family residential building instead.

“I worry about a trend that says we will regularly take residential over commercial when that’s the thing that’s in front of us,” said Krupicka. “I think at some point, we’ve got to be able to say no or we are going to lose all of our commercial opportunities.”

End of an Era

Sharon Dove has been showing up to Market Square before the crack of dawn since the 1950s, when she started coming with her mother as a 7-year-old. Since then, she has taken over the business, selling coffee and baked goods each Saturday morning at two tables. One of the tables is rented in her name and the other is listed in the name of her late mother. Nobody keeps exact records on this sort of thing, but Dove considers herself the longest serving vendor, essentially the dean of Market Square.

“I always tell people to come early,” said Dove last weekend. “You can always go home, take a nap and boogie the night away.”

Dove is among the long-time vendors who opposed the later hours to Market Square, which go into effect next month. Instead of beginning at 5:30 a.m. it will begin at 7 a.m. And instead of closing up shop at 11 a.m., the market will stay open until noon. Dove said she remembers a time when the market closed at 9 a.m. In some ways, she still considers that the tail end of the productive hours each Saturday morning.

“The earlier you come, the better selection you have,” she said. “After 9, it’s leftovers.”