Pig Wins, Peppers Lose

Pig Wins, Peppers Lose

Commission denies townhomes application.

The Pig and The Peppers came before the Alexandria Planning Commission Tuesday night. The Pig got a reprieve. The Peppers got chopped.

The Dixie Pig restaurant's new owners Robin Gamzeh and Roma's Inc. were given until Oct. 15 to have all construction activity completed and "the restaurant in operation" by that deadline. Otherwise, they risk losing their special use permit (SUP).

Located at 1225 Powhatan St., the restaurant, an Alexandria landmark that has gained national recognition, has been closed for several years after a previous owner experienced financial difficulties. It was then purchased by the owners of Ruffino's Restaurant in Crystal City. Gamzeh is one of those owners.

Reconstruction began nearly two years ago but has been dormant since late 2002. As noted in the staff report, "The restaurant was not open at the time of the one-year review (of the latest SUP issued on June 12, 2001) and is still not operating."

Although there has been a series of complaints by neighbors ranging from building material debris being scattered on the property to code citations, neighbors came to the Commission meeting to lend their support to granting more time to Gamzeh.

Addressing the Commission, Gamzeh said that it was his intention to reopen the restaurant as soon as possible and that the delays were attributable to construction difficulties. In a letter submitted to the Commission with the staff report, Jonathan Levine, attorney representing Ruffino's, said, "It has always been and it remains Ruffino's desire to finish this project as quickly as possible and begin operations of the restaurant, and Ruffino's has taken significant steps, including retaining this firm (Law Office of Daniel S. Fiore) to apply pressure on Rose Construction to finish the job."

The Commission voted unanimously to grant the extension as recommended by staff with the possibility of allowing Ruffino's to delay the opening until the end of 2003. This was supported by those neighbors in attendance.

ONE ELEMENT OF concern to the Commission was the disposition of the original neon sign situated on the roof of the establishment depicting a pig. It has become a classic icon and was featured in a premier segment of the award-winning television show "The West Wing."

Gamzeh explained that the original sign was so badly deteriorated that it had to be removed "or could have fallen in a high wind." He assured the Commission that the reproduction was "nearly" an exact replica "with just brighter colors" including the pig's nose.

Gamzeh also offered to work with the city in making some arrangement to preserve the original sign. It is now boxed awaiting a decision on its future. No decision was reached Tuesday night.

IN A SECOND restaurant docket item, the owners did not fare as well. After a series of confrontations over the past couple of years between the Department of Planning and Zoning and the owner of The Dancing Peppers Restaurant, 4111 Duke St., the commissioners voted unanimously to revoke that establishment's SUP.

Unless City Council overturns that decision, this action will effectively close the restaurant. It has been operated as an eatery since the 1970s under a variety owners and names.

The present owner, Grupo Dos Chiles, has had a variety of actions before the Commission relating to signage, failure to enclose the Dumpster, and landscaping, among other complaints. As noted in the staff report, "Since its approval (SUP) in June 2000, there have been notable problems achieving compliance with outstanding site work required by City Council in its initial approval."

The report further explained, "When the required work was not performed by ... May 2002, staff brought forth the case for revocation. ... At its hearing on June 4, 2002, the Commission deferred the revocation case after the applicant represented that it would lower the sign, fully enclose the Dumpster and work with staff on an acceptable landscape plan."

In its final analysis, staff stated, "Because the applicant has not complied with the requirements of his SUP, and has had three years to do so, staff recommends that the permit be revoked." Further exacerbating the Commission's frustration was the fact that the owner failed to attend this meeting to explain his noncompliance.

Arguing for revocation, Commissioner John Komoroske exclaimed, "I have never seen such a disregard for us and the planning process as long as I have been on the Commission. If we do not act to revoke at this time, there will be no incentive by other applicants to take us seriously." He went on to point out that if the decision is overridden by Council, the Planning Commission will be on record. The vote was unanimous.

ANOTHER ITEM that consumed extended discussion during the 4 1/2-hour meeting was a proposal to construct eight townhouses at the intersection of Duke Street and Quaker Lane. Although the commissioners expressed nothing but praise for the overall plan, design and land use of the proposal, they were troubled by the potential accident threat posed by such use at that location.

Staff had recommended approval of the plan based on its opinion that the "plan for eight residential units is more compatible and appropriate with the existing residential neighborhoods, and enables a less intensive use than the current office use permitted within the commercial low zone."

Presently, the site "has an existing proffer restricting use of the land to a 17,000-square-foot commercial office building," staff noted. If this site were to be used for its permitted purpose, the same traffic concerns would not only exist but would be heightened, Duncan Blair, attorney for the applicant, The Jade Development Group, stressed to the Commission.

COMMISSIONER Donna Fossum, in referring to the suggested proposals to control traffic ingress and egress, cited her personal experiences observing many accidents at that location. She stated, "I don't think we can improve this intersection."

Buttressing her argument, Vice Chairman Richard Leibach added, "It's all very attractive. It just doesn't belong here. We have overbuilt on Duke Street."

Plan developments proposed removal of the existing "hot right" turn lane from Duke Street onto Quaker Lane thereby creating a more traditional T-shaped intersection. This, coupled with extending a median barrier on Quaker Lane to prevent left turns into the site, was put forth as creating a safer vehicular flow pattern.

However, "input from the community and the nearby fire station on Duke Street (Station 207) indicated a desire to retain the existing ‘hot right’ turning movement," according to staff. The fire department indicated that its removal could delay critical response time, staff pointed out.

Following a motion to defer, which was defeated on a 5-2 vote, Komoroske moved to deny the application. This passed on a 6-1 vote, with Commission chairman Eric R. Wagner voting against. The matter can be appealed to City Council.