A Matter of Convenience

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As the city government looks for ways to fill its coffers, one glaring opportunity has been to fill vacant storefronts with businesses that will contribute taxes and amp up consumerism in the city.

But when the City Council held a public hearing last Saturday on the prospect of a 7-11 convenience story coming to the Carlyle neighborhood along Eisenhower Avenue, some residents were up in arms at the idea of a 24-hour store in their neighborhood, part of an area created from bare land in hopes of adding an urban, mixed-use sector to the city.

It would be an affront to their security, some said, because the nature of the national chain will lure criminal activity and loiterers from other jurisdictions. Aside from their safety, residents worried that their property values would decrease if the 7-11 moved in as a corporate neighbor.

The business is not in keeping with the long term goals to create a high-quality neighborhood and maintain our property values, said Laurie Geftic, a resident of the Carlyle Square condominiums who performed a survey depicting her and her neighbors concerns. The 24-hour nature of the business is inconsistent with the needs of the patrons that 7-11 purports to serve.

Some residents opposed to the store believe the notion of a 7-11 is a negative addition to the neighborhood because of its perception in the community as a place for nuisance and troublemakers attracted to its late-night alcohol sales and round-the-clock access.

Given such concerns, 7-11 worked with residents and the planning commission, adding stipulations to the companys desired permit closed-circuit security cameras and allotted space for an Alexandria Police Department workstation in hopes of assuaging residents.

Most notably, the permit includes language that would give the city broad powers over 7-11, allowing the government to bring the company back to augment or restrict the permit within the next three years should any problems arise.

If I understand this, we are a bit unique in this regard, Vice Mayor Kerry Donley said. In many jurisdictions this would be by-right. So in some cases one might view that we have actually exercised more control and more protection as going beyond normal course.

City staff members agreed. In jurisdictions like Arlington and Fairfax, the city government has less control over retail businesses, and the stipulations in the 7-11 permit are extraordinary conditions for a business to accept, according to a member of the Planning and Zoning Department.

The controversy came down to residents worst fears and the citys attempts to protect them while protecting itself as a destination for much-needed commercial activity, particularly in the the Carlyle neighborhood.

Fifty percent of the propertys retail space is vacant and has been a hard sell to businesses for various reasons, whether it be not enough activity, not enough parking, said Cathy Puskar, attorney for Post Properties. She said her client found a national chain to be an enticing endeavor under the circumstances.

When you talk about a national chain like 7-11, forgoing any concerns relevant to the quality of life I think we would be sending a death knell to other types of businesses, said Mayor Bill Euille.

Alexandria has 15 7-11 stores, and the company has operated here for about 40 years, according to Mike Vanderpool, the applicants attorney. Some stores maintain noticeable police and sheriff presence daily to deter crime and most are open 24 hours a day.

The Council attempted to gain cooperation from a 7-11 last year when the government wanted to limit alcohol sales in the Arlandria area to 11 p.m. instead of the statewide midnight deadline. The 7-11 did not comply because it would lose sales receipts. But the current application for the Carlyle 7-11 preempts unforeseen issues.

If there is a problem, we want to hear about it, Vanderpool said. And we want to fix it right then and there because we are a part of the community and if we dont fix that problem, we wont have any customers.

But for some residents, such issues are not so unforeseen.

Surveillance cameras prevent honest people from stealing or shoplifting, said Robert Harris, a resident of the neighborhood who works in the security field. So Id like to say that those preventive measures do not prevent crime, they just keep honest people honest.

What I will tell you may prevent crime is carrying a concealed weapon, he said. I will file my $50 application along with other members of my community for concealed weapons permits. I will protect myself and do whats necessary to protect my property.

Paranoia around the convenience store existed before the hearing, according to resident Seth Geftic, who quoted a Planning Commission member who eventually voted to recommend the permit as saying, I have an uneasy feeling when I go into a 7-11 at night. I dont know why, its just a perception.

Its something that will significantly impact the way people view the building and surrounding neighborhoods, which I think will have a negative impact on my property values and the property values of my neighbors, Geftic said.

Citing the extra efforts made by the 7-11 and city staff to rectify neighborhood concerns and the need for retail businesses in the city and the neighborhood, the Council awarded the permit to the corporation unanimously, calling the notion of necessary handguns an overreaction.

You have the right to carry a gun properly licensed and so forth, Euille said. But I certainly would not advocate that citizens feel they need to take police matters into their own hands and begin going around getting a permit for a gun because they feel threatened from something that hasnt even happened yet.

Donley said, I just dont buy the hyperbolic argument of you feeling you need to arm yourself because a 7-11 is coming over there.

Councilwoman Del Pepper said, A 7-11 is not what I had envisioned for here however I want you to know that as I stood [on the property], I had to kind of reorient myself because this is a different world. And this is kind of a different concept for [the neighborhood] and it does and it will fit.

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