Post-mortem on La Bergerie

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Del Ray Cafe owners Laurent and Margaret Janowsky had been working to reopen La Bergerie at 329 N. Washington St. for more than three years. They announced June 18 they can no longer move forward with the relocation. (File photo)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Four years after a lawsuit prevented Margaret and Laurent Janowsky from relocating their Old Town restaurant La Bergerie to a historic building on North Washington Street, they announced they no longer have the resources to move forward with the project.

The proposal to relocate La Bergerie from Crilley Warehouse on North Lee Street to 329 N. Washington St. and rezone the property from residential to commercial drew ire from neighbors before it went before council in October 2014.

Despite their protests, the planning commission and city council unanimously approved the rezoning. Residents in 24 neighboring properties responded by filing a lawsuit against city council a month later.

Even though the neighbors lost the lawsuit and subsequent appeals, the fight dragged out over the course of four years, and the Janowskys announced on June 18 that it had cost them the money and investors they would have needed to move forward with the project.

The Janowskys, who also own Del Ray Café, purchased La Bergerie from its former owners in 2000.

“If you wanted a good meal, if you wanted something a little different and very French, you came to La Bergerie,” Laurent Janowsky said. “We had a restaurant that was extremely warm, extremely cozy. … It was just a relaxed atmosphere – you were a little bit lost in time.”

In July 2014, the Janowskys signed a contract to purchase the fully restored four-story Federal-style historic residence on Washington Street. In addition to operating a 153-seat restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining, they planned to run a five-room inn upstairs.

“We had decided for our business model that it made sense for us to own our own real estate and not to be sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to some other person, some landlord, where we could, in fact, be our own landlord,” Margaret Janowsky said.

When neighbors caught wind of the project that summer, they approached city staff and city council with concerns about parking, vehicle and foot traffic, deliveries, hours of operation and noise.

“We were shocked that they had moved so far forward without even coming to the community for input,” said Cathleen Curtin, one of the plaintiffs who lives near the proposed site of the restaurant on Princess Street.

Curtin said once they initiated the engagement process, the neighbors had several meetings with city staff, city council, the Janowskys and their land-use attorney Cathy Puskar leading up to the October hearings.

“They listened to us, but none of them seemed concerned,” Curtin said. “To be factual, city staff in zoning laughed at us. They actually laughed at us when we brought up concerns about parking, noise, hours of operation and how this was occurring in a historic neighborhood, how it was a total reversal on the zoning for that property.”

Margaret Janowsky said because of the restaurant’s high-traffic location, a switch from residential to commercial wasn’t totally unprecedented.

“You have to realize on North Washington Street, there’s tens of thousands of cars going past there on a daily basis,” she said. “You’d have to talk at the top of your lungs to be heard if you’re standing in front of that building, so it’s not a quaint, quiet street like if we were going down the 200 block of Wolfe Street. It’s not comparable.”

Another of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, former Old Town Civic Association President Carolyn Merck, said the property was deliberately zoned residential because it represents the gateway into a historic neighborhood.

“Any business person seeking a substantial rezoning like this in the City of Alexandria knows that there are risks [associated with] a rezoning that is from residential to commercial in a residential area, with no provision in the master plan or the small area plan,” she said. “That was a big risk, and my experience is that such a risk is rarely taken and such a request is rarely approved in this city.”

In October 2014, the neighbors still felt that their concerns had not been adequately addressed after the project was unanimously approved by the planning commission.

Ten days later, when it went before city council, the neighbors brought forward a 125-signature petition in opposition to the project that invoked a requirement for a supermajority of council for approval, rather than just a majority.

Before the hearing, John Kester, an attorney with the law firm Williams & Connolly, which later represented residents in the lawsuit, demanded city council recuse itself from voting on the project because of its relationship with Margaret Janowsky’s mother, Patsy Ticer, who was a former Alexandria mayor and Virginia state senator.

Despite the demand, then-mayor Bill Euille and the other members of city council chose not to recuse themselves. After the testimony of several residents on both sides of the issue, council voted unanimously to approve the project.

A month later, 24 residents filed a lawsuit against city council over the decision, accusing them of bias toward the applicant. The City of Alexandria ultimately won that lawsuit in circuit court. Later, Virginia’s Supreme Court twice declined to hear the neighbors’ appeal of the decision.

“The action and the decision by the court speaks for itself,” Euille said. “I always said that that was never a bias on my part, certainly not on the part of any of the members of city council, so I just think that’s smoke and mirrors.”

Still, the years it took to conclude the case proved financially troublesome for the Janowskys, who said the suit had cost their family a personal investment of $400,000. They said they also lost investors in the restaurant, who decided, over time, to invest elsewhere.

In the midst of the proceedings, La Bergerie’s lease at Crilley Warehouse expired, and the Janowskys closed the restaurant in December 2016.

Margaret Janowsky said she believed that the neighbors had never expected to win their lawsuit.

“Even though they technically lost the lawsuit and all of their filings, we believe that they expected that all along,” she said. “They were only hoping for this outcome – to bankrupt the business and have it drag on so long that it would just die.”

One thing the Janowskys and the neighbors agree on is that the time it took the lawsuit to conclude was, at least in part, the city’s fault.

“There were a lot of issues because the city had hired an outside firm, [McGuire Woods], and every time we would go to court, they would have someone different and the first thing they would say is ‘Can we have a continuance, because I just got a folder, I’m not ready for it,’” Laurent Janowsky said.

While the Janowskys were not initially a party to the lawsuit, they became involved in 2016.

“The city attorney’s office did a bad job of managing this case,” Margaret Janowsky said. “It wasn’t the plaintiffs’ attorneys that drew us into the case, it was the city’s attorneys that drew us into the case and made us a party to the suit, which, in fact, more than doubled, close to tripled our legal fees related to this lawsuit.”

Both Merck and Curtin said it was the city’s fault, not the plaintiffs’, that the Janowskys had been bankrupted.

“The Janowskys were not involved in the suit. It didn’t cost them a dime in legal fees. Not a dime,” Merck said. “Through their own wonderful request – the city’s attorney’s – to bring them in, then I guess they incurred some legal fees. None of our doing. We didn’t ask them to be part of the case.”

Curtin said that the Janowskys’ representation of the neighbors was in “poor sportsmanship.”

“This group of 24 neighbors, we’re not like a vigilante group,” she said. “We acted lawfully and we sought a determination from the court. We hoped we would succeed and we didn’t. It was never an injunction that the Janowskys could not move forward with the opportunity to work on that house. They chose not to. They were never legally impeded from proceeding on that project, so for them to say that we were a threat to small business is simply silly. Absolutely silly.”

“We didn’t do anything with any financial consequence to them in mind at all,” Merck said. “We wanted the restaurant to not ever be there, and we were going to follow every legal action available to us to try to have that happen. Now, if their investors went away…” she shrugged. “They took on a big risk. They got involved in a very high-risk business proposition.”

Mayor Allison Silberberg, who was vice mayor in October 2014, said that while she didn’t agree with the neighbors’ claims of bias on council, it was their constitutional right to take action. 

“As part of our country, it’s the right to take legal action,” she said. “Certainly the Janowskys are incredibly valued members of the business community, and their two restaurants, La Bergerie and Del Ray Café are two beloved spots to dine in, [but] criticizing someone for exercising their legal rights is not where I would go. They had a legal right, and the city prevailed.”

Alexa Epitropoulos contributed to this article.

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