Don’t look for a sign announcing the Old Town Grocery. There isn’t one. But customers and investigators have been flocking to the business in the 800 block of Pendleton Street. Earlier this month, the Alexandria Police Department arrested two employees of the store and charged them with trying to sell stolen goods. Now Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Sengel says police are investigating whether items for sale at the store were stolen from automobiles in Rosemont over the summer.
“There’s an ongoing investigation as to other activities in the building to see if there’s anything else that else that could possibly result in prosecution,” said Sengel. “So we are waiting for information from the Police Department and looking at other sources of information that I’m not going to talk about.”
Lots of people are talking about the Old Town Grocery, which became the subject of a heated City Council discussion last week. Since then, Mayor Bill Euille says he’s been receiving more calls and emails about this topic than any other business currently before the city government. Neighbors in the Parker Gray neighborhood are pressing city officials for action.
“The city can’t just revoke a business license or shut a business down just because we get a few complaints,” said Euille. “So we’re making sure we’re following all the proper procedures.”
“This is not just a few complaints,” responded Councilman Paul Smedberg. “There’s been a history here.”
OVER THE SUMMER, law-enforcement officials raided the business. City officials say investigators have gathered evidence of food-stamp fraud, and police officers have recorded a number of nuisance activities in the neighborhood. Although the business has raised alarms at City Hall, planning officials say that the business does not need a special-use permit because it applied as a grocery store, which is exempt from the SUP process. Nevertheless, elected officials are talking tough about Old Town Grocery.
“Its days are numbered,” said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley. “When businesses open here in Alexandria, we expect them to be good neighbors and to be contributing members not only to the body of commerce but also to the neighborhoods where they reside. That has not been the case, unfortunately, with this store.”
Members of the City Council have received more than 100 letters complaining about the business. Neighbors are calling on the city to use its regulatory powers to respond, but city officials say they have limited authority.
“We do not have today anything in the state law or the city law that would say that just because a business is being investigated for criminal activity that we have the power to close the business,” said Barbara Ross, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Zoning. “We do not have that today.”
Councilwoman Alicia Hughes says the city should use its police powers to confront what she calls a “nuisance.”
“It’s difficult to tell citizens that their government cannot provide a form of redress,” said Councilwoman Alicia Hughes. “You’ve got citizens who are having altercations and saying threatening things. That’s a matter of public safety.”
TO PREVENT this kind of situation in the future, city officials are talking about adopting an amendment to the zoning code. Instead of allowing grocery stores to be exempt from the special-use permitting process, the amendment would align it with the requirements of convenience stores. The amendment is slated to be on the schedule this fall.
“Let’s face it, you’re either a grocery store or a convenience store,” said Donley. “Let’s put them all on an equal footing, and requires special-use permits for all of them.”