Architectural Review Rejection Leads to Sex Shop Opening in Old Town Alexandria

By. Neil Williamson

The front page of Sunday’s (3/1) Washington Post included a facinating article by Allison Klein, “In Old Town, The Sex Shop Is a Kiss-Off”

According to the article, the building’s owner Michael Zarlenga worked with Alexandria since acquiring the property in 2006 to try and expand his business in the space. 

Zarlenga spent $350,000 on plans to expand his hunting and fishing store, the Trophy Room. He worked with city officials for almost two years and thought he had their support — until the architectural review board told him he couldn’t alter the historic property.

Furious and out of money, Zarlenga rented the space to its newest occupant, Le Tache. …

The store opened in January to both horrified and curious passersby at 210 King St., next to an art gallery and two doors from a boutique that sells children’s clothing. Le Tache owner Bo Kenney said sales are booming, even in this economy.

The Board of Architectural Review was able to preserve the traditional “flounder”, or shed roof structure and in the process Historic Old Town Alexandria now has a sex shop located next to an art gallery and  just blocks from Gadsby’s Tavern and the boyhood home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

To some, the actual use of the building is less important than the preservation of the building itself.  To others, the strong hand of the Board of Architectural Review has pushed out a growing business and the business has been replaced with one that is “so out of place”.

The Free Enterprise Forum does not take positions on projects.  While we have no opinion on this particular project, we consider this example to be an extreme condition. 

Historical Preservation continually ranks low on Citizen Surveys.  Given the potential for adaptive reuse of historical structures and our current economic conditions, the Le Tache example raises several questions:

  1. Across our region, how many businesses have chosen to move out of preservation or high regulatory environments?  
  2. Should government do more to retain such businesses?
  3. Should Government be involved in Historic Preservation?
  4. If so how does one balance the business needs vs. the historical preservation?  

There are no easy answers but it is helpful to look at the outliers, like Le Teche, as examples of unintended consequences of inflexibility.

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