Public input sought into restoring Bolton Avenue, North MacArthur Drive

By Bill Sumrall

Efforts began Thursday to restore a sense of place for Bolton Avenue and North MacArthur Drive areas using public input.
“When you think about it, in the ’60s, Bolton Avenue was the hub,” said Jeffrey Carbo, who was among a team of architects and urban developers addressing about 50 people at the first in a series of two-hour public workshops.

Two additional public workshops at the Bolton Avenue Community Center will be tonight from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday, May 22, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

A nationally-recognized landscape architect, Carbo will be leading the Bolton Avenue Corridor Enhancement project along with MESA Design Group, an international landscape architecture firm based in Dallas.

World-renowned architect Frederic Schwartz will be leading the North MacArthur enhancement and safety project, along with his colleagues Professor Mark Schimmenti of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Carlton Brown, a Harlem, NY/Jackson, MS–based developer with Full Spectrum NY.

The workshops held at the Bolton Avenue Community Center are to hear citizen’s ideas about revitalizing Bolton Avenue and North MacArthur Drive as part of the city’s SPARC project.

SPARC stands for Special Planned Activity Redevelopment Corridors and is the city of Alexandria’s largest redevelopment project in its history, a $96 million infrastructure investment project in three separate Cultural Restorative Areas.

Those three CRAs are: (1) Downtown, Riverfront, and Lower Third; (2) North MacArthur Drive and Bolton Avenue; and (3) Masonic Drive and Lee Street.

As a native of Alexandria, Carbo recalled the vitality of life 40 years ago on Bolton Avenue.

Carbo said he attended Bolton High School, rode his bicycle to the former library, went on his first date at the Don movie theater and sat on Santa Claus’s lap on the second floor of the old Sears building.

“It wasn’t until 1972 that the world and Alexandria changed,” with the advent of the Alexandria Mall, and things on Bolton Avenue also began to change, Carbo said.

In researching the history of Bolton Avenue, Carbo found photos showing what the area used to look like, which he displayed for the crowd in a Power Point presentation.

“If there’s one thing that I can tell you that’s different, 40 years ago the buildings responded to the street,” Carbo said.

“We saw these nice-looking buildings and people and there was a connection to the street and sidewalk,” Carbo said.

“What we see now is parking lots — up and down Bolton, buildings have been pushed back. It’s the development trend from the late ’60s to now,” Carbo said.

One goal is to re-establish Bolton Avenue with sidewalks that are “safe and friendly,” as has been done in other urban settings, Carbo said.

North MacArthur Drive area issues were also addressed by Frederic Schwartz in his remarks.

“The issues, as we see it, are one of transportation, of making this a safer place, improving traffic flow, helping business have a better opportunity to grab the cars and the pedestrians and maybe bicyclists, to increase business,” Schwartz said.

“Whatever we do, we’ll improve the sustainability, particularly in ideas of drainage and maybe somehow recapturing rainwater, which we’ve done in places like New Mexico and California. We hope to spend your money wisely,” Schwartz said.

“We think, because of the problems existing already in North MacArthur, we’re going to be able to find additional funds from DOT (Department of Transportation) … to make the corridor a safer and better place,” Schwartz said.

Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy opened the meeting by talking about the importance of the SPARC infrastructure projects.

“All these things are interlaced,” the mayor said.

“Keeping your neighborhood up, having the grass cut, keeping broken windows from being proliferated in an area, having proper infrastructure, having a walkable neighborhood, having sidewalks, preserving historic structures — all those things add to how a community feels about the area it’s in,” Roy said.

“And then it translates into how people treat their own property, treat others property, crime rates, all those things we think are related,” the mayor said.

“Infrastructure is king … investing in infrastructure is always the right thing to do,” Roy said.

Rhonda Reap-Curiel, a local economic development expert, told the crowd that North MacArthur is either the first place people see when they come to town or the last place they see when they leave.

Since 1976, Reap-Curiel said she has observed the area has “either grown up or grown down. You’ve got the slums, extreme decline in that area, in terms of building the businesses that have come and gone.”

Despite new hotels and redevelopment of old hotels, challenges remain, such as the need to fence off junk yards and address abandoned structures like the former state police headquarters building, Reap-Curiel said.

“If it’s going to be a gateway in, it should make an impression,” Reap-Curiel said.

Residents gathered into groups at separate tables to look at maps and to discuss their concerns about crime and traffic flow with the team of urban planners and to write their ideas on notepads for later reference.

Johnny Augustine, 48, and Sandra Augustine, 46, who live on Levin Street, were among the residents who attended the meeting.

“Hopefully, we’ll get some family-oriented homes,” Sandra Augustine said, as well as middle-income families to live on Bolton Avenue and rid the area of dilapidated housing.

“Lighting is going to be a key,” Johnny Augustine said, with Sandra Augustine chiming in “to eliminate crime.”

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