By Carla Branch
In Mid-March, residents, businesses and property owners on and around King Street saw the results of the most recent King Street Retail study and not much has changed since the last look at this corridor except a worsening economy.
The City’s Planning and Zoning department hired Bob Gibbs of The Gibbs Planning Group Inc. to conduct this new study. Gibbs, a nationally known expert in the field of retail analysis, presented his findings to two groups of interested individuals two weeks ago. Essentially, Gibbs told those present, he agreed with most of the findings of the earlier study, which was conducted four years ago. He, however, went further with his analysis and updated some of the findings based on the changing economy.
Gibbs found that the King Street corridor, from the Metro station to the Potomac River, could be one of the premier Main Streets in the country. It is being kept from realizing that potential by residents who don’t really want more business activity, a city regulatory process that takes too long and isn’t welcoming and the businesses themselves that haven’t adapted to changing shopping habits.
Nearby residents heard that they are going to have to accept that more vibrant businesses bring more traffic. The King Street Trolley has helped to bring people to the area but cutbacks could make it less attractive because of longer wait times. The trolley and other shuttles have kept some cars off King Street but this could change. Parking remains a challenge and, like previous studies, Gibbs found no easy or inexpensive solution.
While the City has changed its regulatory process to be more “business friendly”, it is still time-consuming and unwieldy. Businesses that locate in malls sign a lease and often open within days. In many instances, according to the study, small businesses are paying rent for months before they are able to open and can begin to make money.
Gibbs recommended a better mix of small niche retail and national chains. He told his audience that, in many cities, tourists spend 70 to 80 percent of their time shopping. This is not the case in Alexandria, where tourists spend their time visiting historic sites. While visiting those sites is the goal, the merchants along King Street would like to see more foot traffic. Gibbs said that a 15-percent national retail presence would improve that traffic because people shop in establishments that are familiar to them in their hometowns.
Gibbs found that the businesses have also not adapted to changing shopping habits. Most week day shopping, according to Gibbs, occurs between 5:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. Most of the small shops on King Street close by 6:00 p.m.
A Bid for a BID
Finally, Gibbs recommended resurrecting the idea of a Business Improvement District, a concept that was considered and discarded by business and property owners on King Street some time ago. Businesses would pay a membership fee to cover streetscapes, signage and other improvements not paid for by the City or by businesses currently. BIDs in Arlington and Georgetown have been quite successful but there is a cost to business owners, which many small establishments cannot afford.
City Council will schedule a work session to discuss the study later this spring.