By Derrick Perkins
City councilors overrode concerns from neighbors and parents Saturday, approving the proposed South Peyton Street hostel — Alexandria’s first — unanimously.
But they did not make the decision lightly. The 7-0 vote came after a lengthy debate that saw councilors grill co-owners Paul Cianciolo and James Brogan on the hostel’s operations, particularly their plan to sell beer and wine.
The presence of alcohol and the demographic the hostel is expected to attract — young people — have residents on edge. City officials received 17 emails and about seven phone calls about the hostel in the lead up to the public hearing.
Stephen Able, the parent of a child who attends a nearby daycare, argued the dormitory-style lodging house is a bad fit for the neighborhood.
“I’m not talking about Hollywood; I’m talking about a real concern of children’s safety,” Able said, waving aside Cainciolo’s claim that opposition stems from the film industry’s portrayal of hostels. “I understand the tragedies in the news are rare — they’re the exception to the daily human experience. But putting a hostel here, in this location, seems like inviting a problem, more than trying to prevent one.”
Resident Dino Drudi called Cianciolo and Brugan’s idea of serving beer and wine a “formula for catastrophe.” He argued the vacant 200 block building should become home to apartments rather than a 94-bed hostel.
Drudi drew the ire of Mayor Bill Euille, though, when he held the hostel up as an example of city officials of playing favorites for business owners. Drudi also accused city council of rubber-stamping projects over resident concerns – a claim the mayor took issue with in the lengthy hearing’s sharpest disagreement.
“You’re saying we’re breaking rules, or waiving rules,” Euille said. “If you make statements you need to be able to be defensive and support them with facts.”
But Alexandria’s top elected officials did struggle with the sale of alcohol. City Councilor John Chapman favored phasing in beer and wine service only after the hostel proved itself as a good neighbor. Even that, though, wouldn’t completely alleviate his concerns, he said.
“[I] also don’t want us to open up the Pandora’s box where we sort of deny [alcohol sales] and then we have a bigger problem … folks going out to the bars and then stumbling back to the hostel late at night and then going to their room,” Chapman said.
In response to the concerns, city council tacked an amendment onto the project’s special use permit requiring a six-month and one-year review of the operation. If problems arise, City Hall could slap the hostel with a zoning violation or – in a more serious situation – revoke the hostel’s permit.
Though the public hearing featured few speakers in support of the project, Cianciolo and Brogan enjoyed the enthusiastic support of City Councilor Tim Lovain.
“We talk a lot about affordable housing in this city, but we need to think about affordable accommodations for our visitors as well,” he said. “We can’t expect all of the visitors to Alexandria to stay at upscale boutique hotels.”
Cianciolo, who spent the past few years hammering out regulations for the popular style of lodging house with city staff, hopes to open the hostel in the fall at the earliest. Along with the 94 beds and cafe, the hostel will boast five private bedrooms, a communal kitchen and bathroom, laundry, and lounge areas.