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Votes

Convenience or Nuisance?

City Council members to decide the fate of an Arlandria store.

For many Arlandria residents, the 24 Hour Express on Mount Vernon Avenue is the epitome of a convenience store. The aisles of the store offer an extensive array of goods, everything from luggage to fresh produce.

But some residents in nearby Lenox Place say that the store contributes to alcohol abuse in Arlandria and crime rates in the neighborhood. They are hoping to turn City Council’s Oct. 14 public hearing on the business’ special-use permit into a discussion of safety and values.

“This store has been the focus of concern for more than a decade,” said Lenox Place Homeowners Association President Jim Rorke. “Much of the area’s public drinking, violence and litter seems to have originated there.”

But other Lenox Place residents disagree, charging that the homeowner association’s campaign against the convenience store is an ill-informed crusade against a respectable Arlandria business. They say that the store is a conscientious neighbor and a valuable member of the community.

“The association has unilaterally decided to launch this unfair attack based on their very limited knowledge of surrounding neighborhood, and, quite frankly, it is most likely based on prejudice toward the surrounding community,” said Lenox Place resident Mark Maurice. “The bottom line is that there will always be problems with drunk and disorderly residents in Alexandria so long as our city government insists on maintaining slum housing and ghettos.”

THE STORE IS OPEN from 5 a.m. to midnight, serving about 700 customers a day, according to a city report. Because it is located in an area that is zoned “Neighborhood Retail,” its owners need a special use permit to operate under the city’s zoning ordinance. Under the rules of the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, the store’s owners must get a permit from the City Council to continue operations — a process that requires periodic renewal and one that is open to public comment during Saturday sessions at City Hall.

“Typical of other grocery, convenience and pharmacy businesses within the area, the 24 Express also carries beer and wine,” wrote Tom Thomas, an attorney who represents the store’s owners, in a letter to city officials. “It is noted that 24 Express has maintained an excellent record with Virginia ABC for all of its 20 years in existence and has an equally spotless record in the enforcement of and adherence to cigarette sales restrictions.”

In the past six years, according to a report prepared by the Alexandria Police Department, 13 incidents of aggravated assault were reported at the 24 Express — a statistic that includes crimes that occurred inside the store or in its parking lot. Eight of the incidents involved a knife, three have involved the use of a blunt object and one involved the use of a beer bottle.

Yet calls for police service at the location have decreased from 250 in 2000 to 121 in 2006 — a reduction that the store’s owners attribute to the addition of a security guard during certain hours. Police reports of public drunkenness in the area have remained relatively constant, with 51 in 2000 and 49 in 2005.

Last week, the Alexandria Planning Commission voted unanimously to approve the renewal of the special-use permit. This Saturday, council members will consider a recommendation by the Planning Commission to add a condition that “no alcohol consumption shall be permitted on the property.”

They will also consider staff review of the store that suggested that the store prohibit “single sales” of alcohol to discourage littering and a recommendation that the store stop selling alcohol at 10 p.m.