Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mid-Winter Roundup

Is It Really Over?

Now that the first shock and anguish has abated, is there a chance we'll get another grocery store in place of Harris-Teeter?

At a recent ICCA meeting Planning & Zoning Deputy Chief Jeffrey Farner declared the City was committed to continuing the search. (Oh dear, AEDP again.) He noted that the store design finally hammered out for the Madison might lend itself to another chain that is less fussy than Harris-Teeter, whose corporate parent finally killed the deal over the grade of the parking ramp. That could make approvals move faster if a new tenant could be found. (Yes, we have Mr. Farner's word on the record.)

Mr. Farner solicited suggestions from the audience at the meeting, and of course Wegman's came up. The Growler would die and go to grizzly heaven if that happened, but it seems unlikely given the enormous size of most of the Rochester, NY chain's stores. Plus it would reduce traffic in the neighborhood to perpetual gridlock, since the only other Wegman's currently in the area is in far-off Sterling.

Another Whole Foods appears to be out due to the proximity of the store on Duke Street. Frankly, it's also very pricy and not much good for non-food staples. Oddly enough, Fresh Fields was mentioned as a less expensive alternative to Whole Foods. That puzzled the Growler, since Whole Foods acquired the chain back in the late 1990s. It seems most stores have now been converted to Whole Foods.

Other names included Safeway Town House, which would be marginally acceptable. But these scaled-down urban Safeways are pricier as well as smaller than regular stores. Perhaps that's the best we can expect.

At this point, the Growler has no confidence that a grocery store will really materialize. But hope springs eternal in the ursine breast.

King Street Steals Our Thunder!

In the meantime, retail fans may be interested to hear that the condo project originally planned for 1500 King Street has now morphed into a hotel, specifically a Kimpton Hotel. DSF Long (the property owner) will be leasing the site to the hotel chain for 10 years.

Kimpton Hotels are trendy boutique hotels with each site sporting a different look and feel. The chain operates a number of chic properties in Washington, D.C., including the Hotels Rouge, Helix, Madera, Paloma, Monaco, and Topaz. The company has jumped feet first into the Alexandria market by purchasing the Morrison House as well as the Holiday Inn on lower King Street, which is currently undergoing a major renovation.

Through their development attorney M. Catherine Puskar, Kimpton let it be known that they plan to fill the retail space with a first-class, sit-down restaurant directly on King Street (not buried in the back of the hotel) as well as a cafe that functions as a coffee shop in the morning and a wine bar in the evening. The low red-brick historic buildings will house a day spa.

The D.C. hotels feature some of the hottest restaurants in town, including Bar Rouge, Firefly, Poste Brasserie, and Urbana, so there's every likelihood Kimpton will live up to its word here.

Kimpton plans to implement valet parking, not a porte-cochère where guests and cabs drive in off the street to disembark and pickup passengers. Instead, they intend to ask the City for a reduction in four public parking spots immediately in front of the hotel. Retail customers will be able to utilize valet parking as well as hotel guests, but rates have not been discussed yet.

Watch What We Do, Not What We Say

Well, the Alexandria City Public School system is once more treating Jefferson-Houston elementary school like a forlorn stepchild with ringworm.

Last week, the Alexandria Gazette reported that in December:

Superintendent Rebecca Perry suggested eliminating the band and orchestra instruction for students in grades Kindergarten through the third grade — essentially creating a music program that is identical to schools without an arts focus. The School Board is set to make a final determination on the budget by Jan. 31.

The potential loss of a band and orchestra instructor at the school is a move that Superintendent Rebecca Perry considers necessary during a tight budget year in which every dollar will be closely scrutinized.

Although she wants to focus attention at the school on academic improvement, she recommended keeping the arts-integration specialist to give the teachers tools for using the arts to teach core curriculum.

"Because Jefferson-Houston is a struggling school, we need to focus on the academics,” said Superintendent Perry. "If the arts fit into that, fine."

But is this measure being taken because of a plan to refocus on academics at Jefferson-Houston or simply as a cheap and easy way to tighten the school system's belt with little anticipated parental blowback?

And by the way, the Growler may not have mentioned that at last November's Upper King Street Neighborhood Association meeting Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks let it slip that Jefferson-Houston is the only elementary school in Alexandria not to have undergone any remodeling or major capital improvements in recent years. Is it just the age of the school (which is only 30+ years old) or is it the location and population of the school that's responsible for this neglect?

Finally, ACPS has just released its official "Jefferson-Houston Update to the Board," which outlines its remedial activities at the school since the town meeting last fall. (There's also another report on the Virginia Department of Education School Support Team visit in December 2006, which was necessitated because the school has only been accredited with a warning since 2004.)

The update spells out the specific actions the school is taking to bring up test scores, but as one might expect, the real concerns that were brought up at the meeting were barely addressed, if at all, in this update. In fact, the report states: "As a result of the November 1st dialogue, a sixth topic emerged that transcended all areas: communication."

Oh really. The woes of Jefferson-Houston are all about failure to communicate?

Can you say "white wash"?