The 100 block of King Street, between Lee Street and Union Street, is permanently closed to vehicular traffic after the Alexandria City Council approved the ordinance on Saturday.
The section of street is popular with Alexandrians due to its selection of restaurants with outdoor dining and retail stores. On weekends the street is bursting with life and buzzing with the sound of street performers.
The hearing followed a Planning Commission meeting on Oct. 5 to review whether the closure of the 100 block to vehicular traffic was consistent with the city’s Master Plan. The commission unanimously approved the closure.
“On behalf of the Old Town Business Association, we support the permanent closure of the 100 Block of King Street to vehicular traffic,” said Charlotte Hall, managing director of the Old Town Businesses Association at the City Council hearing.
Hall has been overseeing and managing the project since it’s conception as a trial in May 2020. She proposed that the street closure first be tested out for three months. If the majority of restaurants felt like they were losing business during the trial, changes could be made.
“I talked to everybody, retailers and restaurants, and they felt like, ‘Well, what do we have to lose,’” Hall said in an interview.
The trial last summer proved to be a success, and the restaurants invested in better tables, chairs, planters and umbrellas, improving the quality and aesthetics of the outdoor dining experience on the street.
“I can tell you that every restaurant their business is up from where it was this time last year,” Hall said.
Leu Amir, the manager of Il Porto Ristorante on 121 King Street said the closure helped revitalize the area and increase foot traffic.
“I believe the outside patios have helped all the restaurants here,” Amir said.
After 18 months, the closure of the 100 block of King Street to vehicular traffic is now a permanent fixture of the city.
“We’ve been dealing with Health Department, we’ve been dealing with Virginia ABC, we’ve been dealing with police, fire, you name it. You know, Trash, cleanliness, making it look good and we’ve come a long way in two years,” Hall said.
Old Town Business also wanted some changes made to a required 5-foot minimum clear access path on the sidewalks between buildings and their outdoor seating areas as required by the Alexandria Fire Department.
The requirement reduces the number of tabletops restaurants can fit in the outdoor space and can cause collisions between restaurant staff and pedestrians using the sidewalk.
Hall said she was working closely with Alexandria Fire Department Battalion Chief Michael Sharpe to come up with compromises.
Some Old Town residents think that the decision to make the closure permanent is short-sighted as it may have unintended consequences on surrounding areas.
Members of the Historic Alexandria Resources Commission said the closure of the 100 block of King Street is increasing the rate of deterioration on the 100 block of Prince Street, known as Captain’s Row.
Chairman of the commission Danny Smith said he spoke to several commission members and residents of Captain’s Row who reported seeing displaced cobblestones and noticed an increased rate of deterioration to the street since the closure of the 100 block of King Street.
The cobblestone streets, first laid down in 1795, lack a solid foundation underneath, Smith said. As vehicles drive through the street, the stones are pounded further and further into the ground, which is difficult to repair.
Chair of the Alexandria Archaeological Commission Ivy Whitlatch said the street is a vital part of Alexandria’s image.
“The most visible brand image of Old Town Alexandria is Captain’s Row, the cobblestones, the houses, the proximity to the Waterfront, the history, the story, the urban legends are all about the 100 block of Prince Street,” Whitlatch said.
Camila Gonzalez, an Alexandria resident who frequents King Street, said before the closure, King Street was already a high traffic area. “Now with the street closed and with a bunch of tables outside, it’s even worse,” Gonzalez said.
Smith sent a letter to the Planning Commission and City Council proposing solutions to decrease traffic and slow down the deterioration of the cobblestone. He said Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennet-Parker and Mayor Justin Wilson have responded to his email letting him know they understand the issue and that they’ll be taking it into consideration.
Smith said the preservation of the street is an important part of keeping the tourism industry healthy, and serves as a benefit to the economy of the entire city.
“I think that garnering the support of the businesses who benefit from Visit Alexandria and the tourism that heavily displays Captain’s Row should be as much in their interest to preserve it as it is to open up the 100 block of King,” Whitlatch said.