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Last updated: Sat, 23 Feb 2019 06:31:15 GMT

 New Mexican restaurant brings a touch of urban(o) flair to King Street Thu, 21 Feb 2019 21:35:40 +0000
By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com Crossing the hot pink entryway into Urbano 116 feels more like slipping into a high-end cocktail bar off the streets of Mexico City than it does going out for a bite in Old Town. Geometric tiles line the floor and bar. Sleek black barstools are offset by whitewashed, exposed brick […]Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Crossing the hot pink entryway into Urbano 116 feels more like slipping into a high-end cocktail bar off the streets of Mexico City than it does going out for a bite in Old Town.

Geometric tiles line the floor and bar. Sleek black barstools are offset by whitewashed, exposed brick walls. Masked luchadores glare out from brightly lit display cases. A neon pink sign has you longing for churros.

The bar at the front of Urbano 116 features a bar top along windows that will open onto King Street, as well as a walk-up churro window advertised with a neon pink sign. (Photo: @shootjoec)

“What we wanted to create was the opposite of what Old Town is known for,” Chad Sparrow, a member of Common Plate Hospitality, the three-man restaurant group behind Urbano 116, said. “We wanted something where you walk in, and you don’t feel like you’re in Old Town. You feel like you’re in New York or Miami or D.C., just somewhere that has a more urban vibe, a more hip, trendy vibe.”

Years in the works, Urbano 116 has been one of the most anticipated restaurants not only in Alexandria, but the entire D.C. region. Since opening on Jan. 21, it’s been riding a steady buzz of nonstop patrons and margarita orders.

The 160-seat, authentic Mexican restaurant’s success thus far can be attributed to the fast-growing restaurant group that brought it to life.

Common Plate Hospitality is made up of brothers Chad and Justin Sparrow and Larry Walston. Native Alexandrians and longtime friends, the trio in 2010 formed a construction company, Advanced Construction Group, which they still manage in addition to their restaurants.

It was Chad Sparrow who led the group’s expansion into the food industry, and four years ago, they opened their first venture, Mason Social, on North Henry Street.

From the beginning, Chad Sparrow said, they had been interested in opening more than one restaurant. In the last year, that dream has taken off – they opened Catch on the Ave in Del Ray in December and are on track to open Augie’s Mussel House on upper King Street this summer – but early on, the group knew a Mexican restaurant would be its crowning jewel.

Larry Walston, Justin Sparrow and Chad Sparrow make up restaurant group Common Plate Hospitality. (Photo: Missy Schrott)

“We always wanted to do a Mexican restaurant,” Chad Sparrow said. “That was always kind of my passion. Growing up, I went to culinary school and trained in the southwestern cuisine, so that was always going to be something that we wanted to do.”

They had begun looking at restaurant spaces for their Mexican concept in 2016, and when they heard about an opening at 116 King St., they acted quickly.

“It was kind of a no brainer on the location,” Chad Sparrow said. “Even though there was a lot of work and a lot of stuff to do, it was like, okay, this location doesn’t come up very often, so we thought this was definitely the place we’d go all in. We were like, ‘This is definitely going to be our Mexican place, kind of our main, main location.’”

Before Urbano 116, the space had been occupied by a pop-up shop called 116 King and, before that, a home and gift store called Decorium. Because it had never been a restaurant, extensive renovations were necessary.

“We also had the luxury of owning a construction company here in the city and so we took that through ourselves and did all the buildout,” Justin Sparrow said.

The group faced some challenges as it went through Alexandria’s administrative processes, including getting permission for a carryout churro window.

“You can go across the [river] at the [D.C.] Wharf and do administrative approvals and just sort of roll into construction,” Justin Sparrow said, “Versus here, [where] you’re kind of subject to all the public approvals and all the hearings, opinions, and so that’s a big hurdle.”

Despite the challenges, they decided it was worth it for the restaurant group to have its flagship restaurant in its hometown.

“Our plans are to eventually expand into D.C.,” Chad Sparrow said. “But we’re from Alexandria. We’re born and raised here, so we always wanted to have the foundation in Alexandria. With Augie’s coming up as well, another big King Street spot, and we have Catch [on the Ave] in Del Ray, I think those four locations, we’ll have a strong blueprint and foundation.”

Carnitas Tacos (Photo: @shootjoec)

After moving past the permitting phases, the group began to fine-tune Urbano’s design. The partners said their ultimate goal was to provide an authentic Mexican dining experience. Part of that meant straying from the food and atmosphere of a typical American Tex-Mex restaurant.

Design-wise, Chad Sparrow said they chose the Luchador theme because it was different from the Día del los Muertos design that most Mexican restaurants have. They hired a Mexican artist, David Amoroso, to paint Urbano’s walls with the statement Luchador masks that mark each of the restaurant’s booths, as well as the mural-sized Mexican fighter that dominates the back dining room.

“It’s something we’re trying to do across all of our concepts: give something from a design side that’s just a little bit different that people feel is fun and new and adds some vibrancy,” Justin Sparrow said. “We’re trying to bring some flair.”

Regarding food, Chad Sparrow said their menu challenges customers to view Mexican food differently.

“There’s just a preconceived notion, I think, in the United States that Mexican food should be cheap, Mexican food should be abundant, it should be really fast, it should be rice and beans, it should be heavy,” he said, “and that’s not what this is. Real Mexican food is not like that, so I think a lot of it is an education process.”

While planning the restaurant, Common Plate Hospitality team members took a trip to Mexico to educate themselves. They hired a food blogger to take them on a tour of everything from street markets to farms to high-end restaurants to help them determine what kind of ambiance to create in Urbano 116.

During the tour, Chad Sparrow said the group was especially inspired by Polanco, a neighborhood in Mexico City reminiscent of Los Angeles’ Beverly Hills.

“Polanco is one of the more trendy neighborhoods in Mexico City,” Chad Sparrow said. “It’s a very industrial, vibrant, craft cocktail scene and just a really cool scene, so we wanted to kind of bring that vibrancy here, and I think we really have it. It’s very reminiscent of walking into the places that we went to over there.”

Chef Alam Méndez moved to the United States from Mexico City to be head chef at Urbano 116. (Photo: @shootjoec)

The group also found Urbano’s chef, the award-winning Alam Méndez, on the food tour. Eating at Méndez’ Oaxacan restaurant Pasillo de Humo, Chad Sparrow said he was impressed with the tortillas and moles.

“We started talking to him and asked if he’d come over for a week and train our staff,” Chad Sparrow said. “I was like, ‘We’ll just bring him over and train the staff and that’ll kind of give us a one up and some real authenticity.’”

In the early stages of the collaboration, however, Chad Sparrow said he realized he wanted Méndez to be a permanent part of Urbano 116 and offered him a job. Méndez accepted, and after getting his O1 Visa, moved to the United States to become head chef at the restaurant.

“We feel really fortunate that we have him here,” Chad Sparrow said. “I think we would’ve been really good if he hadn’t come, it still would’ve been a good spot, but with him, it just was that extra step of higher-level execution and just an authenticity that you don’t get in D.C. at all.”

Like everything else about Urbano, its menu and ingredients exude authenticity.

“Moles are a huge part of our menu,” Chad Sparrow said. “We have seven different moles. There’s the black mole … a 100-year-old recipe — it’s 32 ingredients and takes two days to make. They’re very labor-intensive processes to make these sauces.”

They also make their corn and flour tortillas in house.

“We source all our corn from Oaxaca, Mexico,” Chad Sparrow said. “There are only six varieties of corn in the U.S. In Oaxaca, they have 59 varieties still. … We never know what heirloom corn we’re going to be seeing. Sometimes it’s red variety, pink, purple, blue, yellow, dark yellow, all these different colors, and they all have a unique flavor. So when we get the corn, we go through a process called nixtamalization. This is a 2,000-year-old process that was before the Mayans.”

On the bar menu, Urbano 116 has 20 mezcals – more than any location in Virginia.

The interior of Urbano 116 (Photo: @shootjoec)

“You don’t know a lot about mezcal if you’re in the United States and forever, like Mexican food, it was the really cheap mezcal that had the worm in it. It was considered below tequila,” Chad Sparrow said. “In Mexico, instead of drinking wine when you sit down, they give you mezcal. And you drink mezcal in a shot format. You can either sip it or take the whole thing, and you finish it with an orange that’s dipped in worm salt. So we actually bring the worm salt in from Mexico as well.”

While getting buy-in for the level of authenticity that Urbano 116 provides has required some customer education, the owners said the response thus far has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We’re under a spotlight, and the bar is extremely high, and the tolerance for mistakes is very, very low,” Justin Sparrow said. “But that comes with the territory. It’s great, we’re excited, we’re glad that we’re under that microscope, because … everything that we’re doing is a labor of love, so to be able to showcase that to everyone is fabulous and exciting and once you taste it, experience it, it’s different.”

He attributed much of Common Plate Hospitality’s fast-growing success to its team.

“We can’t do what we do without the wonderful people that we have,” Justin Sparrow said. “Everyone plays a vital part, and you’re only as good as the people that are in front of you, and that’s a constant reminder that it’s not just three of us, it’s a few hundred people that make this happen.”

Urbano 116 is open daily for lunch and dinner. Its hours are Monday through Wednesday 11 a.m. to midnight, Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to midnight.

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 City manager proposes FY2020 budget Thu, 21 Feb 2019 20:51:08 +0000
By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com City Manager Mark Jinks’ Fiscal Year 2020 proposed budget involves no real estate tax rate increase, no major service reductions and full funding for the school superintendent’s request. Jinks formally presented the proposed operating budget of $761.1 million, a 1.7 percent increase over last year, to members of city council […]Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

City Manager Mark Jinks’ Fiscal Year 2020 proposed budget involves no real estate tax rate increase, no major service reductions and full funding for the school superintendent’s request.

Jinks formally presented the proposed operating budget of $761.1 million, a 1.7 percent increase over last year, to members of city council at a special meeting Tuesday night.

While putting together the budget, Jinks said he had directed city departments to submit budget reductions to offset the estimated budget gap and to ensure that the proposed budget maintained city services, as well as funding for schools and transportation.

The proposed budget fully funds Superintendent Gregory Hutchings’ request of $232.3 million in operating funds for Alexandria City Public Schools, a 3.8 percent increase over last year.

Jinks said Hutchings had originally thought schools would need much more funding, close to roughly an 8 percent increase over last year, but that they had done a “thorough scrubbing” of their needs to keep the request down.

“I am proposing a direct transfer to ACPS of 30.5 percent of the general fund budget, or $232.3 million,” Jinks said in a statement. “This represents 100 percent of Superintendent Hutchings’ request and is possible because he and his team crafted a responsible budget.”

The proposed budget also invests $1.62 billion over 10 years in Alexandria’s Capital Improvement Program. The proposed CIP is down 26.2 percent from the approved FY19 to FY28 CIP, primarily because the combined sewer outfall remediation project has transferred to AlexRenew’s purview and budget. Jinks’ CIP proposal represents continued investment in city and school infrastructure and facilities, according to the proposed budget document.

For the second straight year, Jinks’ proposal maintains the real estate tax at $1.13 per $100 of assessed value. Based on average increases in assessments, however, the average homeowner’s tax bill will rise by 1.9 percent, or $118 per year.

Jinks’ proposal does not include hikes in any other tax rates or in the stormwater or sewer fees. However, there is a proposed increase in the annual fee for residents who receive city recycling services, from $373 to $406, in response to market conditions.

Jinks said his budget plan seeks to continue Alexandria’s progress as a “smart, green and equitable city.”

Proposals linked to the “smart city” pillar include funding a new customer service system called Alex311, which would replace the Call.Click.Connect system. Jinks also proposed expanding online payments for taxes and fees and implementing a new system for development and code permit applications.

Another technological advance includes adding new tools for delinquent payment collection. One major change will be eliminating the vehicle windshield decals that indicate payment of personal property taxes and deploying license plate reader technology instead.

On the “green city” front, Jinks proposed funding for major improvements to the city’s municipal vehicle fleet and for the purchase of only hybrid and electric vehicles. He also proposed setting aside $3.5 million for new clean diesel DASH buses and funding to power city facilities with 100 percent alternative power, including wind, biomass and solar energy.

Regarding “equity,” Jinks proposed establishing a new racial and social equity officer in the city manager’s office.

Jinks called his budget “exceedingly fiscally prudent.”

“More than ever, communities must make difficult choices about how to allocate limited resources,” he said in a statement. “Faced with slow economic growth in the region, Alexandria is no exception. Because we have worked thoughtfully together to express our values and prioritize our investments, we have been able to maintain core services while pursuing progressive goals.”

In response to the presentation, city council members expressed few, if any, questions and concerns about the proposed budget. However, Jinks’ presentation was just the beginning of a three-month-long budget adoption process.

“I am thankful to our city manager and city staff for their hard work in preparing a budget that was responsive to council’s guidance,” Mayor Justin Wilson said in a statement. “I am especially appreciative that the manager prioritized our growing schools in this budget. Now the council’s hard work begins as we work to balance our community’s priorities in a constrained revenue environment.”

In the coming months, council will hold 10 work sessions to review the proposed budget. There will be a public budget presentation at Charles Houston Recreation Center on Feb. 28. Council is scheduled to adopt a final budget on May. 1.

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 Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Mental health initiative helps all stakeholders Thu, 21 Feb 2019 20:05:30 +0000
In January 2018, my office implemented our new Mental Health Initiative, a collaboration with a number of city agencies that aims to provide treatment and services to defendants suffering from a mental crisis. Specifically, the MHI seeks to avoid incarceration and, where possible, convictions in those cases where the interest in community safety can be […]Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

In January 2018, my office implemented our new Mental Health Initiative, a collaboration with a number of city agencies that aims to provide treatment and services to defendants suffering from a mental crisis. Specifically, the MHI seeks to avoid incarceration and, where possible, convictions in those cases where the interest in community safety can be served by pretrial services, mental health treatment and probation monitoring.

Any adult defendant who has a serious mental illness that contributed to a criminal act is eligible for consideration to join the MHI. Additionally, defendants who served in the armed services and suffer from PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury are eligible. If the crime involved a victim, the victim’s input is solicited. In order to be accepted into the program, the defendant and his or her attorney must agree to participate. Priority is given to non-violent offenders and no one who injured another person is eligible.

Data is in on the MHI’s first year. Due to privacy concerns and the well-being of those involved in the program, specific cases or names can’t be disclosed. The program has been administered by my Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney, Molly Sullivan, who compiled the first-year statistical analysis below.

During 2018, 47 defendants were adopted into the MHI. The Commonwealth Attorney’s office worked closely with allied professionals, including members of the city’s Community Services Board, the Magistrate’s Office, Local Probation and Adult Probation and Parole, to effectively serve these program participants. To date, 13 participants have successfully completed the program, meaning that they have complied with all conditions of treatment and have not committed any new offenses during their supervision.

Nine additional participants have compliance review dates in the near future and we anticipate all will successfully complete the program within 90 days. Fifteen more participants are currently in active treatment with target completion dates farther out, but these participants are doing well in the program and will likely complete it successfully. If so, as many as 37 of the first 47 participants may successfully complete the MHI within the first two years of its existence.

Only five cases at this point can be classified as unsuccessful, in that the participant did not complete the program. The final five cases are in wait-and-see mode – these participants have experienced some setbacks in their treatment but continue to address their mental health diagnoses and may soon be able to successfully complete the program. Just about half of the program participants have received services through the Alexandria Community Services Board while others are undergoing treatment in adjacent jurisdictions.

I also note that other localities are interested in the MHI, which was recently the subject of a presentation at a state-wide conference in Blacksburg, Virginia. Representatives from my office, the Magistrate’s Office and the Community Services Board described our program and detailed several anonymized case studies in an effort to explain our paradigm. As our program establishes its efficacy through statistics, it will hopefully expand to other jurisdictions interested in addressing the intersection of mental health and criminal justice.

As I have previously noted, when a citizen successfully completes the MHI, all interested stakeholders can be considered winners. The citizen wins because he or she has finally obtained treatment to address a mental health diagnosis, society wins because the citizen will likely not recidivate and law enforcement wins because it can focus its resources on violent criminals.

-The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.

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 Your Views: Keep Alexandria’s lights on Thu, 21 Feb 2019 19:59:18 +0000
To the editor: Recently it dawned on me that with all the ideas flowing into the city about alternatives to bolster the traffic flow for the businesses that depend largely on the Metro that the soon-to-come shutdown of the service has one thing left that has not been explored and if it has, it was […]Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

To the editor:

Recently it dawned on me that with all the ideas flowing into the city about alternatives to bolster the traffic flow for the businesses that depend largely on the Metro that the soon-to-come shutdown of the service has one thing left that has not been explored and if it has, it was done when we didn’t need it.

I’m talking about not just the buses running more frequently, but to keep the tree lights on through the Metro closure from Memorial Day through Labor Day. It seems to me that the rustle of the leaves in the summer will make the lights sparkle even more and the glimmer will inspire those who do come to see the new city and the new waterfront all lit up like other famous cities.

So, what I’m trying to say is don’t turn off the lights. Keep the city lights on. The entire city needs to sparkle, not just the riverfront and we are so happy with that. We must remember there is more to Alexandria than the waterfront.

-David Martin, Alexandria

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 Your Views: What vitality and livability share Thu, 21 Feb 2019 19:56:16 +0000
To the editor: The Feb. 7 Times editorial, “Vibrancy must be balanced with livability,” characterized an intriguing tension between vitality and livability in Alexandria. But the two manifest a core commonality. In each, the city would physically be generating a high level of energy, and hence, change. Change works on systems. Without sounding too pedantic, […]Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

To the editor:

The Feb. 7 Times editorial, “Vibrancy must be balanced with livability,” characterized an intriguing tension between vitality and livability in Alexandria. But the two manifest a core commonality. In each, the city would physically be generating a high level of energy, and hence, change.

Change works on systems. Without sounding too pedantic, a system is any pattern of information that manipulates energy to perform work. In an efficient system, information coordinates work on initial energy to create more subsequent energy.

An example of a system is the relationship between the brain and our muscles when performing a task like hunting. If we spend too much energy pursuing a rabbit, the energy from calories obtained is less than that spent. The same principle of economy applies to information and work.

Imagine a brain that acts by reason instead of instinct when hunting. This increase in information cost would consume more energy but would presumably get fewer net calories. Finally, consider if we never felt fatigue in our exertions. We would fast wear out our muscles: increasing work and sharply reducing energy metabolism soon thereafter.

The above limitations in a system are also true when applied to Alexandria, even if a city is more complex. We can spend too much energy on nonessential projects. We can reduce information efficiency with too many redundant or harmful ordinances. And when we numb our sense of total work exertion, we can fast rip through and damage our ability to obtain and use energy.

The result of violating this basic economy of relationships is spending energy, not to grow net energy, but to pay for information costs and strain work limits. This cycle can rapidly dissipate energy, moving in a very short time between the appearance of progress and a sudden correction.

Livability and vitality are rightfully seen by council as positive steps forward. But to focus too intently on the slider between them is to miss and neglect the foundation shared by each. They are the surface-level products of spending energy to make net energy for this city. They are not referenda on whether we want the city to change or not. Change will come inevitably, as it always does. How we handle this change, in other words, how we spend the energy it can produce, is the real question.

So next time you assess a proposal, whether for stricter or looser guidelines, more or less engagement or greater or fewer liabilities, try asking how the proposal changes our city’s balance between energy, work and information.

-Kevin Dunne, Alexandria

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 Your Views: This is Gov. Northam’s chance for real leadership Thu, 21 Feb 2019 19:50:28 +0000
To the editor: The hue and cry over a blackface photo in the 1984 yearbook of the Eastern Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, which Governor Ralph Northam attended, affords an opportunity for Virginians to weigh whether outrage or judgment should define our politics. Outrage displaces judgment. It fuels self-righteousness, stabs at pain, stokes division and […]Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

To the editor:

The hue and cry over a blackface photo in the 1984 yearbook of the Eastern Medical School in Norfolk, Virginia, which Governor Ralph Northam attended, affords an opportunity for Virginians to weigh whether outrage or judgment should define our politics. Outrage displaces judgment. It fuels self-righteousness, stabs at pain, stokes division and blocks attention to facts.

No person seriously entertains that Northam is a racist now. Even whether he was a racist then is questionable. The photograph that Northam now questions is one of a number of problematic photographs of people in costumes in a yearbook published 35 years ago. What is clear is that our common judgment of these photos today reflects a heightened and justified sensitivity to the pain that stereotyped images of African-Americans still cause and a greater historical understanding of how they helped enable Jim Crow segregation – Jim Crow being a rural blackface stereotype in 19th-century minstrel shows.

From the reporting to date, it appears that a medical classmate of Northam deeply opposed to abortion contacted the editor of Big League Politics, a small website aligned with Virginia’s GOP, regarding the yearbook images. Posting the images has in fact produced the outrage Big League Politics hoped to generate.

The outrage seems to have blocked any questioning of how a decades-old yearbook might cast light on Northam’s views on pending abortion legislation. Northam’s views are complex and grounded. As a pediatric neurosurgeon, Northam has, through his practice, a deeper understanding than most that decisions to abort are deeply painful and personal. How images from a decades-old yearbook could ever illuminate issues surrounding abortion is a mystery and was clearly not a concern for Big League Politics.

In this context, it is worthwhile to recall that then-candidate Barack Obama had to contend with controversial statements by the pastor of his church in Chicago, The Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Prodded by that controversy, candidate Obama delivered a brilliant speech aimed at healing wounds that more recent candidates have preferred to prod.

Like Obama then, Northam now has an opportunity for civic leadership when, out of fear or blindness, too many of our political leaders are shying away.

-Tal Day, Alexandria

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 Our View: Residential parking is a core livability issue Thu, 21 Feb 2019 19:44:18 +0000
Balancing competing demands is one of the most difficult tasks of government at any level. Parceling out pieces of the proverbial pie – whether it’s budgets, services or amenities – is often seen as a zero-sum endeavor. People from different parts of town or people with competing priorities view their own, often narrow perspective as […]Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Balancing competing demands is one of the most difficult tasks of government at any level.

Parceling out pieces of the proverbial pie – whether it’s budgets, services or amenities – is often seen as a zero-sum endeavor. People from different parts of town or people with competing priorities view their own, often narrow perspective as paramount.

Just such an issue is currently causing controversy: the pilot pay-for-parking program in Old Town that is on the docket for Saturday’s public hearing. Staff recommends not only making the program permanent, but also expanding it to other parts of the city.

How can Alexandrians, our leaders as well as regular citizens, balance controversial and often complex issues like this that wind up pitting individuals, groups or sectors against one other?

First, in our era of relativity, it’s important to note that not all claims on the pie are equal. Our elected leaders get paid the “big bucks” to discern what’s most important when competing interests clash.

It will probably come as no surprise to frequent readers of the Times that we think the livability concerns of those most impacted by decisions should generally take precedence.

That doesn’t mean minor complaints or inconveniences should stop most development or other change. But it does mean that when the quality of life in a neighborhood is threatened, when that neighborhood is increasingly unlivable, then the concerns of those neighbors should take precedence. In our automobile-dependent society, not being able to park within blocks of your own home meets that threshold.

Such is the case currently in Old Town and increasingly in Del Ray, which is why this pilot pay-to-park program was launched in 2016.

The cynics among us might simply view this program as a money-grab by the city – after all, city coffers now receive payments from visitors to Old Town that they previously didn’t. However, the amount of money at stake, roughly $8,000 in annual revenue per block, means this program would have to grow exponentially to generate enough money to make that the main motivating factor.

As our page one story, “Parking pilot sparks tensions” illustrates, the program has achieved its desired aim of making parking more accessible to residents on blocks where it’s been implemented.

The competing interests in this instance are businesses, whose patrons must now park further away or else incur a new cost, and visitors, who are likewise impacted.

This issue, like most, is multi-faceted and the program has had several unintended consequences:

• It is difficult for the elderly, who are often not technologically adept, to use.

• It has depressed attendance at St. Paul’s church, the first house of worship to fall within the program’s boundaries.

• The kiosks, which are used to pay if people don’t use the smart-phone app, are intrusive and inappropriate in historic neighborhoods.

We think this parking crunch has multiple causes. Prior city councils were short-sighted in approving parking reductions for every development special use permit that came before them, going back years. The last council made a bad trend worse by approving parking reductions citywide for new developments and redevelopment projects. Also, signage for Old Town’s parking garages is inadequate, meaning people who might otherwise get their vehicles off the streets don’t.

As Alexandria’s waterfront continues to redevelop, Old Town’s parking crunch is going to get worse. And as Del Ray gains more development projects, parking is becoming increasingly difficult there. Residents within a few-block radius of significant development, regardless of where in the city they reside, must be protected.

While we don’t love it, and certainly some of the unintended consequences need to be addressed, pay-to-park is the best option on the table. It should be made permanent.

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 Parking pilot sparks tensions Thu, 21 Feb 2019 19:33:36 +0000
By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com The pay-to-park pilot program currently operating in Old Town, which is slated for possible permanent implementation at Saturday’s city council public hearing, is causing tempers to flare citywide. The program has achieved its intended objective of making it easier for impacted residents to park on their blocks. But others in Old […]Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

The pay-to-park pilot program currently operating in Old Town, which is slated for possible permanent implementation at Saturday’s city council public hearing, is causing tempers to flare citywide.

The program has achieved its intended objective of making it easier for impacted residents to park on their blocks. But others in Old Town decry the program’s accessibility and the potential for kiosks, which are generally considered unsightly. Residents in other parts of the city as well as businesses bemoan the loss of free parking for visitors to the Old and His- toric District.

At the Feb. 12 city council legislative meeting, representatives from the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services requested that council dock- et the pilot program, which expires on March 1, 2019, for final passage during Saturday’s public hearing – with the intent of making the program permanent. Council unanimously agreed to schedule the ordinance for discussion.

Even in its pilot stage, the program has sparked controversy. The pay-by- phone parking program launched in November 2016 with the intent of providing Old Town residents some re- lief from non-residents who were parking on residential streets. Under the program, residents can choose to pe- tition to make their block a pay-by-phone block.

In order to get a city block involved in the program, at least 50 percent of residents on a block must sign a petition recognizing they want their block to be designated as pay-by-phone parking. The petition then goes before the Traffic and Parking Board, which makes a recommendation to Yon Lambert, director of T&ES. A block can only petition if it is adjacent to another block already in the program.

If accepted, signage is put up to indicate that the block is pay-by-phone, and non-residents can use the ParkMobile app to pay for parking.

According Lambert, the intent of the program is to help Old Town residents secure parking by transforming residential blocks that previously offered two- or three-hour free parking into pay-by-phone blocks, thus encouraging more turnover and leading more non-residents to parking garages and metered parking.

“What the residents have been telling the city for a number of years is, ‘Help,’” Lambert said. “They’ve essentially been saying to us, ‘Give us some support and understand that we want people to come to Old Town. We want people to experience everything we have to offer, but residents live here too.’”

During the legislative meeting, T&ES also proposed several modifications to the program, namely making the program permanent, changing the code to allow multiple adjacent blocks to apply for the program as long as one is adjacent to a current pay-by- phone or metered block and expanding the scope of the program so that any residential block, not just those east of Washington Street between Princess and Wolfe streets, can petition as long it meets the requirements.

For the pay-by-phone pilot program, Old Town residents on blocks east of Washington Street between Princess and Wolfe streets could petition to make their blocks part of the program. Proposed changes to the program would allow blocks outside that area – but adjacent to pay-by-phone blocks — to petition. (File photo)

City staff assert that the pilot program has been a success. Thirteen blocks are currently part of the program, and there are two more petitions being processed.

According to responses from an online feedback form and parking occupancy surveys conducted by the city, 79 percent of residents on pay-by-phone blocks found that parking was more available on their blocks after the pilot program was implemented. According to the same results,

67 percent of residents also indicated they would like to see the program continue as it currently stands or with modifications after the pilot expires.

“We did parking occu- pancy surveys on the blocks that had the program and then adjacent to the program and we found that there were fewer non-residents parked on these blocks but that the number of cars parked on ad- jacent blocks didn’t change significantly,” City Planner Megan Oleynik said.

However, despite the positive responses from residents, many non-residents and Old Town residents alike have started to voice opposition to the program, creating tension within Alexandria and Old Town ahead of the public hearing.

For some Alexandrians, the idea of paying for parking deters them from venturing out to Old Town.

“Part of the reason I go into Old Town is because I can park several blocks away from King Street for free,” Linda Joy, an Alexandrian, said in an email. “If they remove the free parking, I will not continue to support most of the restaurants and other businesses in Old Town.”

During the legislative meeting, T&ES also proposed several changes to the program in response to feedback from the community. Oleynik emphasized that the city is identifying ways of better informing residents of their parking options, more effectively directing people to garages with better signage and working with organizations, like Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, that have been negatively impacted by the program.

However, community members still have concerns about the program and how it has been rolled out. Yvonne Callahan, vice president of the Old Town Civic Association, said she has been wary of the city’s choice to change and implement the program with little input from the broader community.

“When Old Town solves its problems, it does so with more time, more opportunity to listen to other people’s views, more opportunity to say, ‘Well, if that doesn’t work, what about this?’” Callahan said.

Callahan said she is also concerned the suggested modifications to the program would allow it to expand beyond just Old Town.

According to Lambert, the city staff intend to remain mindful of the consequences should the program expand.

“If pay-by-phone becomes more pervasive and we start adding more blocks, the question is, are we just really reallocating that space just entirely for the residents or are we making it more difficult for visitors to come?” Lambert said. “I think that’s an ongoing question we’re going to have to answer.”

Opponents of the pay-by-phone program are concerned it could affect local businesses, exclude seniors and impact community organizations like St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. (File Photo)

Barbara Beach, a citizen activist for the elderly and former Alexandria attorney, said she worries that the program, with its focus on technology, excludes senior citizens from the city’s parking plan.

“In our society, one of the worries about seniors is isolation, so we want seniors to get out and attend programs and participate in life,” Beach said. “Basically, we’re telling seniors, ‘Don’t bother coming down to Old Town.’”

Council member Amy Jackson expressed similar concerns during the legislative meeting.

According to Oleynik, T&ES will present payment alternatives for seniors to city council during the public hearing.

“We’ve been researching what other cities do that have similar programs and looking into potentially offering a voucher program where you could buy [vouchers] at city hall and maybe keep five or six in your car and scratch off when you park, like the time and date,” Oleynik said.

Without cell phones or familiarity with apps, Beach said, a pay-by-phone system makes parking difficult for seniors whose only other options are to walk several blocks to pay at a parking kiosk or, if they don’t use apps, call ParkMobile and incur a $5 charge for each call until they create an account.

“I’m going to be on the 600 block of South Pitt Street wanting to go into Lyles-Crouch and I’m going to have to walk to half a block from King Street, right across from the court- house parking lot, to pay if I can’t use my mobile phone,” Beach said. “That’s pretty ridiculous.”

Kiosks remain one of the more contentious elements of parking in Old Town. While kiosks would help seniors, many Old Town residents say that the structures would disturb the historic fabric of their streets.

“I don’t want this to turn into a modern mall where slowly but surely the fabric is built over or removed until the historic aspects become subverted,” Robert Ray, owner of Cavalier Antiques and an Old Town resident, said.

The city maintains that kiosks are not part of the vision for the program.

“As part of the pilot program we committed that we would not be adding kiosks, the pay stations, to residential blocks,” Katye North, Mobility Services division chief, said.

In the middle of all these competing viewpoints stands St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The church fronts South Pitt Street, a pay- by-phone block, making St. Paul’s the first house of worship affected by the pilot program.

“Suddenly there was a deterrent or people were fearful of getting tickets, which they hadn’t been worried about before,” Junior Warden Lisa Eskew said.

Caught between the needs of its parishioners and neighbors, St. Paul’s is trying to find compromise in the middle of a polarizing issue.

“Our perspective on this is to try to make things as open and accessible as possible, while at the same time trying to keep the balance of our neighbors happy, which is why we didn’t come out in opposition to the program,” Eskew said.

The church is working with the city to find middle ground where possible. St. Paul’s sent a letter to the Traffic and Parking Board on Jan. 24 advocating for potential solutions, including free parking on Sundays until 1 p.m. for churchgoers, reduced garage prices and, much to the dismay of many parishioners and residents, the potential placement of a kiosk near the church.

“Achieving that balance of being good neighbors, meeting the needs of our parish, meeting the needs of our community which we serve. It’s not easy,” Eskew said. No decision has yet been made on any of the suggestions.

As controversy continues to surround the pay-by- phone program, Old Town residents, community organizations and a city council made up of mostly new members ready themselves for the upcoming public hearing. T&ES staff will present the pilot program to city council at the hearing.

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 Northern Virginia Amazon HQ2 plans still on track Thu, 21 Feb 2019 19:15:41 +0000
By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com Amazon announced its break up with Long Island City, Queens on Valentine’s Day last week, causing Northern Virginians to wonder: What does this mean for us? Amazon pulled out of the New York deal after experiencing protests from local politicians and officials. “A number of state and local politicians have […]Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Amazon announced its break up with Long Island City, Queens on Valentine’s Day last week, causing Northern Virginians to wonder: What does this mean for us?

Amazon pulled out of the New York deal after experiencing protests from local politicians and officials.

“A number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build to type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many other envisioned in Long Island City,” Amazon said in a post on its blog on Feb. 14.

Despite the New York fallout, Northern Virginia officials have made it clear that Amazon’s National Landing headquarters in Arlington and Alexandria is still on track.

“After speaking with an Amazon representative earlier today, we have confirmed that we are moving forward as planned with Amazon’s upcoming headquarters in Arlington – nothing has changed,” Arlington County Board Chair Christian Dorsey said in a statement on Feb. 14.

In the blog post, Amazon said it has no plans to reopen the search for an additional headquarters: “We do not intend to reopen the HQ2 search at this time. We will proceed as planned in Northern Virginia and Nashville, and we will continue to hire and grow across our 17 corporate offices and tech hubs in the U.S. and Canada.”

Amazon has plans for a new 5,000-job Operations Center of Excellence in Nashville.

Cara O’Donnell, director of public relations for Arlington Economic Development, did not say whether National Landing could end up absorbing any of the 25,000 jobs that were expected to go to New York. Instead, she said Arlington is keeping with the terms of its original proposal.

Amazon’s first announcement that it would split its headquarters between New York and Virginia said it would also split 50,000 new jobs, 25,000 in each location. The original Northern Virginia proposal that O’Donnell referenced, however, allows for up to 37,850 jobs in 20 years.

When asked whether the construction in Northern Virginia would be expedited with the cancellation of the New York headquarters, O’Donnell said it would be continuing on its current path at this time.

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 Events: Alexandria celebrates George Washington’s birthday Fri, 15 Feb 2019 20:57:05 +0000
By Hannah Himes | hhimes@alextimes.com Starting tomorrow, Alexandria is celebrating the 287th anniversary of George Washington’s birth with a week’s worth of special events. Washington, who considered Alexandria his hometown, will be honored with more 15 events throughout the city, including the George Washington Birthday Parade, George Washington’s Birthnight Banquet and Ball and free admission […]Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

By Hannah Himes | hhimes@alextimes.com

Starting tomorrow, Alexandria is celebrating the 287th anniversary of George Washington’s birth with a week’s worth of special events.

Washington, who considered Alexandria his hometown, will be honored with more 15 events throughout the city, including the George Washington Birthday Parade, George Washington’s Birthnight Banquet and Ball and free admission to historic sites like Mount Vernon.

Events will begin tomorrow at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, located at 134 N. Royal St., with George Washington’s Birthnight Banquet and Ball. The banquet begins at 5:30 p.m. and the ball begins at 9 p.m. The event includes an 18th-century banquet, English country dancing, a dessert collation and character re-enactors including George and Martha Washington. Period dress is optional, and formal attire is recommended. Reservations are required, and tickets are $125 per ticket. To dine in the same room as the Washingtons, tickets are $150, and to dine at the same table as the Washingtons, tickets are $250. To purchase last-minute tickets, visit alexandriava.gov/shop.

Route of the 2019 George Washington Birthday Parade (Map: Visit Alexandria)

George Washington’s Birthday Parade will take place on President’s Day, Feb. 18, from 1 to 3 p.m. The event is free and will take place in Old Town. The one-mile parade route starts at the intersection of Gibbon and Fairfax streets, travels north along Fairfax Street until it intersects with Queen Street, then pivots to travel south along Royal Street to end at Wilkes Street. There will be a reviewing stand at the intersection of King and Royal streets.

Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, will also hold birthday celebrations for its former owner on Feb. 18 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Feb. 22, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. In honor of Washington’s birthday, admission will be free at both events.

The event on Monday features a wreath-laying, speakers at the Official Observance Ceremony of George Washington’s Birthday, Continental military demonstrations and drills and patriotic music from the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.

During the celebration, visitors will be able to take a “Pose like the Prez” photo in Mount Vernon’s Education Center Lobby, see character performances around the historic site and take tours of the Washington Library reading room. In addition, guests can partake in fun activities like sampling Falling Bark Farm’s Shagbark Hickory syrup and going to a book signing by Jeff Finegan, author of the series “I Knew George Washington.”

On Feb. 22, visitors can create a birthday card for Washington, as well as attend a concert and a ceremony honoring new citizens.

For history buffs wishing to celebrate Washington’s special day, there will be free “Walking with Washington” tours on Feb. 17 and Feb. 24. Starting at the Alexandria Visitor Center at 221 King St., the tours of historic Old Town begin at 2 p.m. and will last two hours. The guided walking tours will explore and contextualize significant sites associated with Washington including Ramsay House, Wise’s Tavern, Gadsby’s Tavern, Washington’s townhouse and more.

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