Dining tables sometimes would get in the way of pedestrians and sidewalk space seemed tight on occasion, but Alexandria planners say the addition of outdoor dining in Old Town has been a boon for the city, and the City Council voted last week to extend the special program through the end of the year.
Alfresco dining was first offered formally along King Street in September when officials launched an effort to see if the popular streetscape could remain competitive with other areas such as Shirlington, which boasts many opportunities to dine outdoors.
The pilot program, which was open to restaurants on King Street between the waterfront and the King Street Metro station and to those on the blocks nearest to King Street on the intersecting streets, ended in December.
Now officials have decided to resume the program in March and continue it through the end of the year.
"It's a wonderful thing for Old Town," said Tom Fairchild, a business facilitator for the city who has been helping coordinate the pilot project. "It's brought it alive. It's one of the more universally liked programs we've had in Alexandria for a while."
The King Street retail advisory committee has been meeting for a year to identify strategies to strengthen the retail appeal and vibrancy of King Street. Outdoor dining was one of the concepts that surfaced during those workshops.
City staff are still trying to hammer out issues related to handicapped accessibility, the standardization of umbrellas and making sure that merchants situated between multiple restaurants on King Street aren't blocked physically or visually by the outdoor tables and umbrellas. After those issues are addressed, the City Council will vote in April or May on whether to make outdoor dining a permanent fixture, Fairchild said.
"It's been a long time overdue," said Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D). "It's good for citizens, it's good for businesses and it's good for tourism."
Before the pilot program was launched, a restaurant that wanted to offer outdoor seating in an area that encroached on a public right of way had to apply for a permit from the City Council. The pilot program was designed to cut that administrative red tape.
Still, restaurants that want to participate have to show, among other things, that there is adequate space on the sidewalk beyond the seating area to allow the free passage of pedestrians. The outdoor seating plan must leave a usable sidewalk area, free of any obstructions, that is at least five feet wide at all points adjacent to the outdoor seating area.
While officials say there are about 75 restaurants in the geographic area covered by the program boundaries, about 25 participated in the pilot. No applicants were turned away.
Although the program has not been without its problems -- such as tables encroaching on the street and squeezing out space for pedestrians -- more eateries are likely to take up the call and start serving outside, officials said.
The pilot program offered some lessons.
Fairchild said it is clear that restaurants will have to monitor themselves better during this next phase and the city will have to do more to monitor the restaurants in order to strike a healthy balance between the public good provided by outdoor dining and the need for open space for pedestrians.
"We need to impress upon the restaurants that they have to adhere to the boundaries" the city has set, Fairchild said. "They have to be sure their tables don't creep into that pedestrian zone," particularly during the peak tourist season.
Even if the program is granted permanent status, it can always be revoked, he said.
"The council has granted an opportunity for restaurants," Fairchild said. "They have a reason to be vigilant to maintain that boundary. . . . If it's abused it's like anything else."
Glenda Giovannoni is one of the owners of the Fish Market restaurant and Pop's Old Fashioned Ice Cream shop on King Street, near the waterfront. She and her partners are pushing for permanent outdoor seating, which she describes as "wonderful."
"Everyone was happy with it," said Giovannoni, whose eateries offered a total of 26 seats outside. "Before we'd hear people say, 'We don't come here as often as we could. We go where there's outdoor dining.' That's hard to swallow."
If the program is made permanent, Giovannoni said she and her partners would opt to install outdoor heaters and potentially a wrought-iron railing to better divide the restaurant from pedestrians on the sidewalk.
"Let's hope we get it," she said.