Visit any major metropolitan city, and you’ll come across some kind of pedestrian plaza. From Broadway in New York City to the Winchester Pedestrian Mall, closing streets to traffic has become an important feature of the modern cityscape. City officials tried a version of that here in Old Town back in 2006, although it wasn’t much of a success.
“We weren’t able to give it the fully monty,” said Janet Barnett, who oversaw the ill-fated pilot project for the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. “It was a pilot, and we had limited resources.”
Pilot programs are known for soaring into the future. But this was a pilot program that crashed and burned, largely because of tension with code enforcement and public safety. Hazard-colored orange and white barriers bookended the one-block pedestrian plaza, giving the weekend street fairs the pizazz of a construction zone. Now city officials are considering launching a new pilot in 2020. The current thinking at City Hall is that the pilot would be limited to the 100 block instead of expanding it to the newly revitalized unit block or climbing up the 200 block toward Market Square.
“I’d like to see the first two blocks being chosen,” said Councilwoman Del Pepper. “And yes, even if the hill is too steep.”
The pedestrian plaza would be set up Friday afternoon and taken down Sunday evening from January to October.
At one point in May, Alexandria had about 800 scooters zipping along its city streets every day. For anyone who wasn’t paying attention to the ramp up, the pilot program seemed to be launching into the stratosphere. From January to March the number of scooters doubled, and then from March to May the number of scooters doubled again. All of a sudden it seemed like they were all over Old Town and Del Ray, although not so much in other parts of the city.
“I’m still baffled that the equity issue is a footnote,” said Councilman Mo Seifeldein. “I just don’t see a good faith effort on any side to address this issue.”
Now City Council members are considering extending the pilot program next year, perhaps tightening the regulations in a way that might reduce the crush of new scooters. These days, the number of scooters on city streets every day is closer to 300 — less than half of what it was during the highscootermark this spring. And when the new pilot launches next year, city officials are considering allowing scooters everywhere bicycles are allowed instead of limiting them to city streets.
“I’m not particularly sold on scooters just yet,” said Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker. “While I appreciate the opportunity to address the first-mile-last-mile with public transportation, I do share many of the concerns that we’ve heard from the community.”
Coming to a wooden utility pole near year you: small-cell technology. It’s the latest high-tech craze to invade Alexandria, which has received more than 40 applications for the devices this calendar year. The sudden interest from businesses like AT&T and Verizon followed a recent change to Virginia law that allows the tech giants to breeze through City Hall without having to worry about zoning concerns or architectural review. It was sold to lawmakers as a way to allow web streaming while driving through rural Virginia.
“This is not about rural service,” scoffed state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-34). “This is about going to localities that have a target-rich environment where people want better cell service because that’s where the customers are and basically they want to override local zoning authority.”
As it turns out, the senator’s prediction was correct. The result of the new law was not a flood of applications for new devices in rural areas. Instead urban areas like Alexandria have seen a flood of interest from AT&T and Verizon, and there’s little the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review can say about 10 locations in the historic district. Supporters of the effort say having access to the latest network for the next generation of technology is worth concerns about making Old Town look like a Hollywood set.
“Golly,” exclaimed Mayor Justin Wilson. “We should want to be up to date on technology.”