Serving Up Outdoor Dining

Serving Up Outdoor Dining

Outdoor dining in Old Town Alexandria is on its way to becoming a permanent reality. On Saturday Feb. 12, the City Council approved an ordinance to extend the pilot project initiated last year to allow outdoor dining along King Street and for two blocks north and south.

The initial program which ran from September through December 2004 proved so successful that council unanimously approved its extension through 2005. At that point, consideration will be given to making it permanent.

"Outdoor dining has been favorable to businesses and enjoyable for residents and visitors. There seems to be strong support throughout the community to continue this program on a permanent basis," said Mayor William D. Euille.

However there were those that raised questions about its impact on the city's core area. "This needs close study so that both the public and private good are balanced. It is really a benefit only to the restaurants," said former Alexandria mayor and now state Sen. Patricia S. Ticer (D-30).

Her concerns were echoed by Councilmen Rob Krupicka, Andrew H. Macdonald, and Paul C. Smedberg. "We need to monitor this in close association with local retailers. Any permanent ordinance should include strict enforcement tools," Krupicka said.

"I HAVE DONE a lot of traveling in Europe and I enjoy outdoor dining. There is definitely a public benefit to this. But, there is also a public cost that we must keep in mind," Macdonald said.

"The restaurants are getting a significant benefit. Therefore, this has to be kept in balance," Smedberg said.

Some of the concerns raised by retailers and individual citizens was the width of the present sidewalks and the difficulty of getting to some retail shops when the streets are being occupied by diners. There was also discussion about closing the Unit, 100 and 200 blocks of King Street to vehicle traffic in order to allow pedestrians to walk in the cartway on weekends.

However, Planning and Zoning Department Director Eileen Fogarty cautioned about creating a permanent "urban mall" saying, "This is something [urban mall] that is not desirable. Some planners made a living in the '70s advocating closing street and now they are making a living advocating opening them."

There were some who viewed the closing of the three blocks of King Street on weekends as a way to solve what they perceive as "the motorcycle problem." Both, merchants and citizens complained that motorcycles created "too much" noise and consumed too much parking in the 100 and 200 blocks of King Street.

City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa was asked if motorcycle parking on King Street could be banned. "No. But, there is the possibility of limiting the number of spaces available for motorcycles," he said.

The outdoor dining experiment was initiated as an element of the "King Street Retail Strategy" which the City Council had directed Planning and Zoning Department to undertake as a guide to increasing "the overall competitiveness of King Street's retail sector." When it is finally adopted, outdoor dining is expected to be a permanent part of the plan.

THE OTHER MAJOR item considered by council this past Saturday was the recommendation from the Planning Commission to approve the plans for the revitalization of Foxchase Shopping Center, 4513-4657 Duke St.

At the core of the revitalized center, being proposed by Washington Real Estate Investment Trust (WRIT), the applicant for a development special use permit, will be a new Harris Teeter grocery store. It was its requirements that were brought forth by attorney Catharine Puskar representing WRIT.

The primary points under consideration, in addition to the reduced parking being requested by Harris Teeter, were: Security measures to be instituted for center patrons' safety; undergrounding of utilities; and the amount of time before a re-analysis would take place to assess the parking situation.

Parking suggestions both at the council and Planning Commission meetings encompassed everything from employee parking at the rear of the mall, to underground parking, to it being incorporated into the new Harris Teeter structure. As noted by one speaker, "The parking lot has never been more than 50 percent full even when the stores are full of customers."

Ellen Pickering, a community activist, said, "The only real answer to the parking question is underground parking. We are trying to revitalize this center not merely redo it."

SMEDBERG SUGGESTED that additional parking be incorporated into the new Harris Teeter building. He noted, "This is done all the time in the District."

One of the stumbling blocks to undergrounding utilities was the cost which was estimated by Richard Baier, director, Transportation and Environmental Services, to be approximately $1 to $1.5 million. Council was asking that Harris Teeter pay part of that expense.

Krupicka pointed out that "two other undergrounding of utilities in the city were being paid for by the city." He also said, "Commercial values have not escalated like residential values."

Puskar said, "What this all comes down to is economic reality. A supermarket is a loss leader. But, we [Harris Teeter] could agree to pay $250,000 toward the undergrounding if we could get the retail approval now."

Christopher St. Pierre, president, West End Business Association, and business owner in Foxchase, pointed out that the center "frequently loses power" and that undergrounding would be a "great benefit." He also said, "WEBA members overwhelmingly support the revitalization plan."

In approving the proposal by a unanimous vote, the applicant and council agreed to the have security patrols at the center rather than or in addition to cameras; reduced parking; the applicant contribute $250,000 to undergrounding utilities; and the reevaluation take place in two years rather than 18 months.

VICE MAYOR Redella "Del" Pepper said, "This is still not what we wanted originally. This is still a strip mall."

Council also approved the following Planning Commission recommendations:

* Opening of a Quizno's Restaurant at 1640 King St.

* The operation of a 7-Eleven convenience store at 3412 Mount Vernon Avenue

* Parking reduction as part of the conversion and renovation of a residential structure at 1219 Oronoco St.

* Approval of a request by the Society of American Florists and Ornamental Horticulturists to construct a new headquarters building at 1601,1603 and 1607 Duke St.