Alexandria Sex Shop Revenge for Zoning Controls
Despite my being local and getting the Sunday Washington Post delivered to my driveway, I just encountered this story about an Alexandria shop owner’s renting his space to a sex shop to spit city planners on memeorandum.
To many in Old Town Alexandria, the sex shop that opened recently on King Street is nothing short of scandalous, a historical desecration just blocks from the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee.
But to Michael Zarlenga, it’s justice. Zarlenga spent $350,000 on plans to expand his hunting and fishing store, the Trophy Room. He worked with city officials for almost two years and thought he had their support — until the architectural review board told him he couldn’t alter the historic property. Furious and out of money, Zarlenga rented the space to its newest occupant, Le Tache.
Zarlenga’s saga with the building dates to 2001, when he opened his hunting and fishing store. In 2006, he bought the building with the idea of renovating and expanding it to include more retail space, a bathroom and an elevator. He hired a Washington architectural firm, which created eight designs for the project. The final one included plans to raise the roof on the back of the building and demolish a small section of a historic brick wall that was built about 1800. Most of the back wall would have been incorporated into the renovation.
Zarlenga said he consulted Alexandria’s historical preservation staff along the way to be sure everyone was on board with his plans. He said he relied heavily on the advice of Peter Smith, who at the time was the principal staff member of the city’s Board of Architectural Review. But when the project came before the review board in 2007, it was rejected partly on Smith’s recommendation that it would cause an “unreasonable loss of historic fabric.” Zarlenga said Smith did not explain to him why he changed his mind. Smith has since died.
Tom Hulfish, chairman of the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review, said the project was rejected because it would have altered the traditional “flounder,” or shed roof structure that preservationists are trying to protect around the city.
City planners have done a good job at restoring Old Town over the years and most of the downtown area is visually appealing as a result. But in doing so they’ve created a nightmare for local businesses and have created arcane rules that inhibit reasonable development. Some of them are bizarre.
For example, my wife’s firm outgrew its rented office space a couple years back and purchased a building formerly occupied by the Firehook Bakery. Getting the permits to make the rather substantial changes necessary — virtually all of them invisible to passersby — was a nightmare. And they faced one silly obstacle after another. For example, they were not allowed to paint over the old Firehook logo on the building, place a sign of comparable size in its place, or otherwise identify the new ownership in a way easily visible to someone driving by. Not the end of the world, of course, but maddeningly dumb. And they still occasionally get people stopping in for baked goods.
I’ve got no view on the matter of the “flounder” and whether Zarlenga should have been required to conform his expansion plans to maintain it. I’m quite certain, however, that a citizen should not have to spend six years dealing with his local government in order to get permission to expand his business.