Elements of Urbanism: Alexandria, VA

October 7, 2009 9 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville looks at a community that has successfully integrated mass transit and modern infill transit oriented development into a historic urban setting: Alexandria, VA.

Tale of the Tape:

Alexandria Population 2008: 143,885 (City); 5,358,130 (Metro - Washington, DC) - (incorporated in 1779)

Jacksonville Pop. 2008: 807,815 (City); 1,313,228 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Alexandria (61,787)

Metropolitan Area Growth rate (2000-2008)

Alexandria: +11.72%%
Jacksonville: +15.86%


Urban Area Population (2000 census)

Alexandria: 3,933,920 (ranked 8 nationwide)
Jacksonville: 882,295 (ranked 43 nationwide)


Urban Area Population Density (2000 census)

Alexandria: 3,400.8
Jacksonville: 2,149.2


City Population Growth from 2000 to 2008

Alexandria: +15,602
Jacksonville: +72,312


Convention Center Exhibition Space:

Alexandria: Alexandria does not have a convention center
Jacksonville: Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center (1986) - 78,500 square feet

Adjacent to Convention Center:

Alexandria: N/A
Jacksonville: N/A


Tallest Building:

Alexandria: Hilton Alexandria Mark Center - 338 feet
Jacksonville: Bank of America Tower - 617 feet


Fortune 500 companies 2009 (City limits only):

Alexandria: zero (0)
Jacksonville: CSX (240), Winn-Dixie (340)


Urban infill obstacles:

Alexandria: N/A
Jacksonville: State & Union Streets cut off Downtown Jacksonville from Springfield.


Downtown Nightlife:

Alexandria: Historic King Street, the waterfront
Jacksonville: East Bay Street, located between Main Street and Liberty Street.  


Common Downtown Albatross:

Both cores have to compete against sprawling suburban commercial districts and attractions.

Who's Downtown is more walkable?

Alexandria: 98 out of 100, according to walkscore.com (downtown Alexandria as keyword)
Jacksonville: 88 out of 100, according to walkscore.com

City Land Area

Alexandria: 15 square miles
Jacksonville: 767 square miles

Green = Jacksonville's city limits (current urban core) before consolidation in 1968
Red = Jacksonville's current consolidated city-county limits

Jacksonville's current and original city limit boundaries over Alexandria's limits (highlighted in purple).

About Alexandria, VA

Alexandria is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Located along the Western bank of the Potomac River, Alexandria is approximately 6 miles south of downtown Washington, D.C.

Like the rest of northern Virginia, as well as central Maryland, modern Alexandria has been shaped by its proximity to the nation's capital. It is largely populated by professionals working in the federal civil service, the U.S. military, or for one of the many private companies which contract to provide services to the federal government. The latter are known locally as beltway bandits, after the Capital Beltway, an interstate highway that circles Washington, D.C. One of Alexandria's largest employers is the U.S. Department of Defense. Others include the Institute for Defense Analyses and the Center for Naval Analyses. In 2005, the United States Patent and Trademark Office moved 7,100 employees from 18 separate buildings in nearby Crystal City into a new headquarters complex in the city.

Alexandria is home to numerous trade associations, charities, and non-profit organizations including the national headquarters of groups such as Catholic Charities, United Way, and the Salvation Army. In 2005, Alexandria became one of the first cities of its size to offer free wireless Internet access to some of its residents and visitors.

The historic center of Alexandria is known as Old Town. With its concentration of high-end boutiques, fine restaurants, antique shops and theaters, it is a major draw for tourists and those seeking nightlife. Like Old Town, many Alexandria neighborhoods are compact, walkable, high-income suburbs of Washington D.C.

It is the seventh largest and highest income independent city in Virginia. A 2005 assessed-value study of homes and condominiums found that over 40 percent were in the highest bracket, worth $556,000 or more.


King Street Metrorail Station

King Street is a Washington Metro station in Alexandria, Virginia on the Blue and Yellow Lines. It is the southernmost transfer station for the Blue and Yellow lines, as the two lines converge just south of the station. During inclement weather, Crystal City is commonly used as an unofficial transfer point, being the southernmost underground station common to both lines. King Street was originally served only by the Yellow Line, until the Blue Line was extended from National Airport to Van Dorn Street in 1991. The station entrance pylon on the street still reflects this period of Yellow-only service, lacking a blue stripe.

King Street is the second fastest growing station on the Washington Metro (behind Gallery Pl-Chinatown). Over the past 10 years, its ridership has increased 104%.

The station is located at King Street and Commonwealth Avenue. Entrances to the station are located on King Street and on the Diagonal Road side of the station. The station is above ground, and utilizes a center platform, which includes tactile paving strips to aid passengers who are blind or visually impaired. Access to the platform is provided by one pair of escalators, one staircase and one elevator. Service began on December 17, 1983.

An expansion to the station has been completed, which adds a second entrance and mezzanine across Commonwealth Avenue from the existing mezzanine, with the new entrance located on Cameron Street, across from the nearby Hilton hotel. The expansion also includes a new canopy over the north end of the platform, designed to match the original canopy. The two canopies do not connect in order to preserve the view of the George Washington Masonic Memorial from Old Town.


This image captures several components of a well designed suburban intermodal center. The rail spine that connects the community with the center city, buses that feed suburban passengers to the rail spine, PCTs that provide quick service to adjacent activity centers, park-n-ride facilities for those driving to the station and high density transit oriented development that creates a built-in rider base to support the public's transit investment.

King Street Station

King Street Station is a mega block transit oriented development directly across the street from the metrorail station.  Designed to be pedestrian scale, a series of pedestrian promenades break up the mega block allowing walkability and greenspace to co-exist on the site.

In addition to King Street Station, additional transit adjacent development has taken place with in a ten minute walk of the metrorail station.  High density in nature, it is well designed to fit into the adjacent historic blocks of Alexandria.

Old Town (Historic King Street)

Old Town, in the eastern and southeastern areas of Alexandria and on the Potomac River, is the oldest section of the city, originally laid out in 1749, and is a historic district. Old Town is chiefly known for its historic town houses, art galleries, antique shops, and restaurants. Some of the historic landmarks in Old Town include General Robert E. Lee's boyhood home, the Lee-Fendall House, a replica of George Washington's townhouse, Gadsby's Tavern, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop, and the Torpedo Factory art studio complex (see the "Recreation" paragraph below). River cruise boats and street entertainers frequent the large plaza at the foot of King Street; the Mt. Vernon Trail also passes through. Old Town is laid out on a grid plan of substantially square blocks. The opening of the Washington Metro King Street station in 1983 led to a spurt of new hotel and office building development in western Old Town, and gentrification of townhouse areas west of Washington Street which were previously an African-American community.


Many people equate higher density with highrise development. However, there are several infill developments and adaptive reuse projects in the area that are high density, yet are designed to fit the flavor, character and scale of the neighborhood.

Adaptive Reuse and the Potomac Waterfront

The Alexandria Torpedo Factory has been transformed into a waterfront art studio complex and attraction.


Alexandria can serve as an example of how transit and supportive infill high density land uses can be designed and integrated into a historic community, in a manner that improves that neighborhood's sustainability, atmosphere and quality of life.  For those worried about the impact of rail transit to a historic district like Springfield or Riverside, Alexandria's experience is a good model to follow.

Article and Photos by Ennis Davis