An eleventh-hour display of public protest against the widening of almost two miles of Duke Street may cause the Alexandria City Council to take a second look at the project, which was approved unanimously four years ago.
About 200 residents gathered at Patrick Henry School on Taney Avenue last week for a hearing held by the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation. Only one person favored the $5.35-million construcion project, which would widen a four-lane section between Jordan Street and Long-view Drive to six lanes, with a grassy median, sidewalks, bus turnout areas and a bike trail, for a total of 112 feet.
The city would pay 10 percent of the cost, with state funds covering 20 percent and federal funds paying for the remaining 70 percent, according to Nora Lamborne, vice mayor of Alexandria. Estimated cost of the project was $4.35 million when the council first allotted funds for the proposed widening in its 1971-72 capital improvements budget.
Lamborne said no protests were voiced at the city public hearing on the proposal in 1974 or the City Council meeting the same month, at which the project was unanimously approved. Only in the past two months, she said, have complaints begun to surface. The council approved the project after considering it for many years, she said.
Alexandria resident Ross B. Capon, of 129 S. Ingram St., said at the hearing that "there's been a lot of water over the dam" since the Duke Street project was first conceived. "People are more sensitive now," he said.
State highway department engineer Gene Hull, who is in charge of the Duke Street widening, said after the meeting that publis sentiment about such projects is changing, adding that "people just don't want roads widened now."
Duke Street, also known as Rte. 236 and Little River Turnpike as it crosses Fairfax County from east to west, is a major artery for traffic to Landmark Shopping Center and into Alexandria. From Shirley Duke Shopping Center at Jordan Street heading west, Duke Street passes through a strip of businesses and apartment complexes and past Cameron Station Army Supply Corps headquarters. From Longview Drive east, the street has already been widened. The Jordan-to-Longview stretch is a residential area that includes a few businesses.
Lamborne said that because the street is a "bottleneck," the coucil asked the state highway department to plan for an outside lane for buses and right-turning traffic, as well as parking lanes for residents who now park on service roads in front of their property. She called the stretch "a dangerous, high-accident area."
Opponents of the project attending the hearing included members of the Strawberry Hill Civic Association, representing the residential area of Alexandria bisected by Duke Street, and owners of several small businesses on the south side of the street who would be displaced if the street is widened.
Pablo Govino called the project "extravagant" because "it is suitable only where land is abundant" and not along Duke Street, where homes have narrow front yards. He said that his house, which he estimates to be worth about $55,000, would lose half its front yard and that its value would fall to less than $25,000. Another resident, Wanda Dowell, of 3 N. French St., said that if the street is widened, her bedroom will be 121/2 feet from the sidewalk.
The most poignant testimony was that of Mae Cookston, of 2 N. French St. In a trembling voice she rose to inquire which were the three or four houses marked for demolition. Baker gestured toward an aerial map affixed to the auditorium curtains.
"Is that the No. 2?" Cookston asked.
"I think so, ma'm," Baker said quietly.
In a choking voice, Cookston blurted, "I'm a widow, I lost my husband; now you want to take my house away from me?" She sank into her chair and covered her tears with brochures the highway department had handed out earlier in the evening.
Wayne Smith presented the Strawberry Hills Civic Associations' proposal of a five-lane road, with no median, which would reduce damage to property along Duke Street.
Other residents said they were concerned that a lack of left turn cuts in the proposed median strip would force them to take circuitous routes into and out of their neighorhoods; that streets designed for median turns would become undafe as new traffic was diverted onto them; that because some streets would be closed and barricaded at Duke, and that they might have trouble getting out of their neighborhood via steep and icy hills in the winter.
Bettina Cole, of 18 N. Floyd St., presented a petition containing 300 signatures of opponents to the project.
Richard A. Baker, highway department right of way specialist, said that the state will pay from $2,500 to $10,000 per firm as a one-time-only compensation for lost business, based on the business' net income for the past two years, and appraised market value for the lands and buildings. If an owner elects to relocate the business, the state would pay for the move instead of the compensation sum.
The department also estimates that three or four homes will be demolished to make way for the project. Displaced homeowners would receive what the state determines to be fair market value for their homes and lands, and up to a $15,000 differential for a replacement dwelling.
Council member Robert Calhoun said the city will hold another hearing later this year after the council receives the state highway department's final report. "If I don't get answers to some of my questions I will not support this project," he said.
A highway department official said that the department "will not build this project if the council doesn't want it." He said citizens have until Sunday to submit to the department written material pertaining to the project.