Trying to coexist on ‘Main Street’

Trying to coexist on ‘Main Street’

“Where Main Street still exists.” It’s the slogan real estate agents use to sell homes in Del Ray and a mantra repeated proudly by matriarchs to describe their unique neighborhood, sewed together by the vibrant Mount Vernon Avenue corridor. It encapsulates the picturesque neighborhood, evoking a Mayberry-like image.

But less than 15 years ago, Del Ray was where Main Street didn’t exist yet. While always a definitive neighborhood, it wasn’t until the arrival of zealous businesses, residents and the housing boom that the area transformed into a highly desirable pocket of the city and the region.

Today the neighborhood’s success is sustained by more highly motivated residents and several niche establishments that provide the backbone for Del Ray’s individuality. 

Residents and businesses know they need each other. But a restaurant owner’s proposal for a new establishment with late-night hours is teaching all parties including the city government how to achieve those ends while maintaining “Main Street.”

“I’m concerned,” said resident Ashley Klick, who moved from Georgetown to Del Ray with her family to escape street noise. “I think there is a need for late-night dining and this is an opportunity for those who want that in Del Ray, but I think that’s more appropriate for the weekend in a family-friendly place like Del Ray.”

Klick and several of her neighbors are campaigning to make Hog Thaied, the new restaurant owned by Mike Anderson, acceptable in their eyes. The neighbors have submitted a 16-page document to the Del Ray Citizen’s Association stating their concerns, which range from noise pollution to air pollution. They’ve even filed a lengthy complaint with the Environmental Policy Commission to look into the owner’s wood-burning stove.

Anderson, who has a reputation for owning several good-standing restaurants in the city, has held community meetings with residents and members from the city’s Office of Planning and Zoning on the matter. He has since delineated from his original permit application to please his future neighbors and patrons by settling for a midnight closing time on weekdays and a 1 a.m. closing time on weekends.

“You’ve got to look at the end game, and the end game is that we want to be embraced by the neighborhood, loved by the neighborhood, and have people do a lot of business with us,” Anderson said. “You have to make concessions … but there comes a financial point where you can’t concede anymore and you have to know where that line is.”

Anderson said he has also agreed to invest in a hybrid gas- and wood-burning stove to mitigate air pollution, along with a “dilution fan” that shoots pollution 150-feet into the air, presumably away from the Del Ray residents below. He says it will cost him about $45,000 more than his original, legal all-wood-burning stove, but still residents like Klick worry it’s not enough.

“Alexandria is pro-business, which is great. So am I,” said Klick, whose child has respiratory problems. “I’m not an environmental activist or anything, we’re just worried that if we don’t have people investigate this and ask the right questions, that we’ll have a negative situation in the future.”

There is a market in Del Ray for the late-night barbeque joint. Residents, including Klick, say they are excited about the prospect. The question is how to reconcile the business model with its neighbors for a common goal.

With a 1 a.m. closing time, Hog Thaied would be in the minority of restaurant establishments in the neighborhood, but it would not be alone, according to Barbara Ross of the Department of Planning and Zoning.

Ross, who has facilitated the process by providing information to both residents and the business owner, said there is a significant contingent of Del Ray’s inhabitants who support the restaurant, even if there is a portion of the neighborhood that remains wary. Her job is to help all parties involved understand the facts for commercial citizens and residential citizens alike.

“It should be pro-resident and pro-business,” Ross said. “In this city, we live cheek by jowl, and we have businesses on top of houses and houses on top of businesses. When it works, we love it and we hold it up as an example of how mixed-use is supposed to work and when we have conflicts, we have conflicts, but we have to work it out because we have to live together.”

“In a residential neighborhood where you literally have homes right next to businesses, I think that it’s reasonable that you would have certain expectation for hours of operation,” said City Councilman Rob Krupicka, a Del Ray resident and former president of the citizen’s association.

“That being said, I would enjoy having a place to get a bite to eat after 10:30 at night,” he said. 

The city has been derided in the past for being business unfriendly, but its efforts with this issue may counter that undesirable image.

“The city’s been terrific,” said Anderson, who says he experienced ample resistance in 1991 when opening Radio Free Italy. “They’re not rolling over, and they’re still concerned about the neighbors and what’s going on in the city, but it’s a whole different ballgame than it used to be.”

residents are playing their part, too, just by being involved in the discussion.

“People do care, and people are involved and that’s all a good thing,” Ross said.

Krupicka said: “Being business-friendly does not necessarily mean that you let people stay open 24 hours a day and have a discotheque not if your also right next to a child care center or a family with kids. Being business-friendly means being consistent, not having an onerous process and being predictable with things like hours of operation.

“I think the neighborhood has a pretty high capacity to come to a resolution,” he added.

Anderson’s special use permit goes before the Planning Commission early next month. It goes to City Council for discussion and approval after that, but sandwiched in between those dates is a vote by the Del Ray Citizens Association on whether Hog Thaied is appropriate for the neighborhood. 

Their decision doesn’t carry any legal weight, but Anderson said their blessing is paramount to the long-term sustainability of his business and the neighborhood.

“We have a 20-year lease,” Anderson said. “We want to be good neighbors.”

Amy Slack, who runs the Citizen Association’s Land Use Commission, said she has made a recommendation to the group’s executive board, but would not comment on the specifics.