By Carla Branch and James Cullum
Last night, the Alexandria City Council approved the purchase of hybrid trolleys for Old Town, made changes to the route for the George Washington Birthday Parade, authorized testimony regarding the design for buildings on the BRAC 133 site at Mark Center before the National Capital Planning Commission, postponed a decision on forgiving a loan to the Arlandria Chirilagua Housing Cooperative and congratulated the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities on its national re-accreditation.
Council received the City’s October monthly financial report, which showed that, “while I wouldn’t say that things are good, they aren’t getting any worse,” said Budget Director Bruce Johnson.
Alexandria’s unemployment rate is 4.8% and has held relatively steady from January through September. Sales tax revenues are still declining, but less rapidly: Year-over-year sales tax revenue dropped 1.1 % compared to last year for the three month period ending in September, a noticeable Nationally, retail sales were down seven percent in September.
Through the end of October, year-to-date residential real estate sales volume in Alexandria increased 3.5%, while the average price is 5.7% below last year’s price. The Urban Land Institute predicts that in 2010, commercial “transaction markets will begin to thaw and value declines will average more than 40% off mid-2007 pricing peaks,” according to the report. “However, the nation’s capital always ranks number one… in market surveys during a recession… it’s dominant employer-the federal government never shrinks and often expands in bad times.”
As of October 31,2009, actual General Fund revenues totaled $93.9 million, 0.2 percent below FY 2009 revenues of $94.2 million for the same period last year. Personal Property Tax revenues collected to date represent 94.9 percent of budgeted revenue. As discussed at the November 7, 2009, retreat, preliminary collections to date indicate revenues may exceed the budget by $200,000.
Hybrid Trolleys For Old Town
The Transportation and Environmental Services staff recommended that Council authorize the purchase of five clean diesel trolleys for use along King Street. Council disagreed and approved the purchase of four hybrid trolleys with a $2.4 million federal stimulus grant.
“It was a very close call whether to purchase five clean diesel or four hybrid trolleys,” said T & ES Director Rich Baier. “We decided on the five clean diesel trolleys because it will allow us to have an extra trolley and reduce our time between trolleys to 15 instead of 20 minutes.”
Councilman Paul Smedberg expressed concern about the recommendation. “If we really are going to take being an Eco City seriously, what better way to showcase our commitment than to have hybrid trolleys running along King Street? This money wasn’t something we were counting on and we should really use it wisely and to promote our principles,” he said.
Over the life of the vehicles, each trolley will cost $50,000 more than the clean diesel model because the batteries must be replaced at the life-cycle midpoint. Also, the annual cost to operate the hybrids is about $5000 more per vehicle than the diesel. There will be offsets from the lack of need to lease vehicles but that cost is not yet known as the City must negotiate an operating contract with a vendor, likely DASH.
The vote was unanimous to purchase four hybrid vehicles. Once ordered, it will be a minimum of 18 months before they are delivered and running on King Street.
Co-Op Loan Forgiveness Decision Deferred
Last spring, the Arlandria Chirilagua Housing Cooperative applied to City Council for the forgiveness of a City loan. Council voted to defer a decision on the matter until April.
“There is a new Board of Directors for the Coop and we have been in communication with their attorney with whom we are trying to set up a meeting,” said City Housing Director Mildrilyn Davis. “It appears that the new Board wants to work with us and is making changes. We just need more time before we can come to Council with a recommendation.”
The City loaned the Coop $537,000 between 1994 and 1996 to purchase and rehabilitate the Potomac Village Apartments for the purpose of establishing a housing cooperative. The initial $232,000 loan was subject to forgiveness as of July 15, 2009, if the property was being successfully operated as a cooperative; otherwise, the loan was due and payable at that time. In June, Council developed a series of criteria to determine whether ACHC was operating the property as a cooperative and asked the law firm of Mercer Trigiani to evaluate ACHC’s compliance with the law and the ability to function efficiently.
“There have been a lot of problems there and simply electing a new Board isn’t sufficient to get us to forgive a loan,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka. “We have all been made aware of facility issues and these need to be addressed. I certainly wish them well because this is one of the first places that people can move when they wish to relocate to Alexandria.”
Davis will make recommendations to Council by the first legislative meeting in April, 2010.
First Night Alexandria
Mayor Bill Euille declared Dec. 31, 2009, “Fair Weather Day in Alexandria” as preparations get into high gear for this year’s First Night Alexandria festivities. “I checked the weather site and they wouldn’t give me a forecast for Dec. 31, so I declare that it will be 75 degrees and sunny, just right for our First Night celebration,” Euille said.
This year, the First Night celebration will begin at 3:00 p.m. With a “Fun Hunt.” “It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt that will begin at the Torpedo Factory and wind its way through Old Town. Teams will follow clues for two hours and, at 5:00 p.m., will assemble to get their prizes. Then, at 7:00 p.m., the rest of the entertainment will begin,” said Charlotte Hall, this year’s First Night Alexandria Chair. ” We will have 19 different venues with 26 stages and more than 100 entertainers. We will end the evening with fireworks at midnight.”
Special Event Policy Changes
Before the Council meeting, there was a work session to discuss funding for public art and the City’s special events. Looking ahead to saving money on these special events, Council approved changes to the parade route for the George Washington Birthday Parade.
The City plans to reduce City costs from $400,000 a year to $175,000 this fiscal year. “I’m not against spending money to make these events happen, but we need to get a return on our investment, which we aren’t getting,” Euille said.
The proposal is to reduce City expenditures by asking event promoters to defray more of the costs and to combine smaller events. One way to accomplish this reduction is to modify the GW Parade route. “By reducing the number of intersections that we have to block, we can reduce the manpower that is needed and we won’t really change the route that much,” said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley.
On the consolidation of the smaller ethnic festivals: “If you want to make the event work, there needs to be the opportunity to sell booths,” said Krupicka. “If you don’t do that, the incentive to do the festival doesn’t exist.”
Although the public has had many opportunities to comment on these proposals, Council will hold another public hearing on them before taking a final vote. The goal is to implement the additional proposed cost-cutting measures as part of the FY2011 budget.
The Department of Defense has completed preliminary building design for the Washington Headquarters Services facility at Mark Center. A member of Council will testify before the National Capital Planning Commission about the City’s preferences.
“We don’t have a lot of control over what happens on this site but it is important that we testify at the Planning Commission hearing so that our opinion is on record,” said Councilwoman Del Pepper.
The five-level above-grade northern parking structure will be one of the most visible of all the buildings on the proposed BRAC campus and will be the building first experienced by most of the visitors. Unlike most of the parking within the City, which is located below-grade, this facility is a five-level above-grade structure with two levels of underground parking. While staff generally does not support above-grade parking structures, because of the limited City review authority over federally owned projects such as this, the northern parking structure is proceeding as part of this DoD facility. Staff is recommending that the north parking structure be designed to better integrate into the campus setting of the Mark Center, and also express the transportation function housed within the building.
As the roof of this structure will be visible from most of the surrounding office buildings and the Hilton Hotel, staff requested at Council’s direction and at the request of the BRAC-133 Advisory Group that the parking structure incorporate a green roof. It was determined by DoD that it was not financially feasible to provide for the entire garage to have a green roof. However, it was discussed that some green elements be incorporated into the design of the top level of the garage. Staff requests that NCPC indicate to DoD that the applicant should study this issue further – looking at possibilities such as a trellis structure that could support some landscaping elements, or alternatively, the use of a lightweight shade structure, such as a fabric tensile solution, that could provide both shade for the parked cars, and an attractive feature for the buildings that will look down at this large roof area.
To address the remaining design concerns, staff is recommending the following:
“¢ Incorporation of public art on the ground level referencing aspects of the history or prehistory of the site. This artwork should be required to be installed prior to completion of the building.
“¢ The use of color and metal accents to enhance the horizontal expression and reduce the perceived length of the Mark Center Drive facade.
“¢ Integration of signage into the overall design.
“¢ Refinement of the stair towers and other pedestrian circulation elements.
In spite of objections from city officials and the entire Congressional delegation, DOD is proceeding with plans to put the Remote Inspection Facility on the Mark Center site.
The strategy proposed by staff is to design the RIF as an earth-sheltered structure that would be virtually invisible from Seminary Road or 1-395. Staff is also recommending that the proposal be revised to maintain a larger portion of the existing tree canopy-buffer adjacent to Seminary Road.
Staff is recommending that the RIF design continue to be restudied to accomplish the following:
“¢ Greater use of bermed walls, particularly on the Seminary Road and 1-395 faces, to reduce the perceived height of the structure, and reduce its overall visibility.
“¢ Incorporation of a channel section planter beam for the perimeter of the roof, to achieve better integration of the structure into the landscape.
“¢ Simplification of security fencing and site walls, including the use of more field stone walls, to better integrate the design into the vocabulary of the Mark Center campus.
At 272 feet, the WHS facility is not as tall as the neighboring Hilton Hotel but will still be one of the most visible landmarks in the western portion of the City. Staff has worked with the BRAC design team to refine the expression of the top floors of the BRAC-133 towers. Starting with modification of the original roof form proposed by the applicant, staff helped develop a curved wing that addresses the long-distance views of the building from 1-395, giving both towers a strong and distinctive, yet integrated skyline presence.
This feature will also help to minimize the visual impact of the large mechanical penthouses that were required for both towers. Staff also worked with Duke Realty and DoD to refine the expression of the top floors of the building to create a stronger vertical expression, and enhancements to the building tops on the sides facing the Mark Center campus..
Staff is recommending that the top expression be refined to provide the following:
“¢ The top metal expression be revised to be curved rather than segmented as currently proposed. This is consistent with the City’s position as part of the conceptual approval and what until recently the City thought Duke and DoD were going to proceed with. However, City staff recently learned that DoD is not proceeding with refined roof design, so NCPC needs to be aware of this and urged to approve the City roof design recommendation.
“¢ Lighting be incorporated as an integral element of the building-top design.
“¢ Because of the visibility of the mechanical penthouses, they shall be designed as extensions of the building and utilize materials consistent with the exterior treatment of the building.
Euille will send a letter to NCPC detailing the City’s recommendations and a member of Council will testify at the Commission’s hearing on the facility.