In Old Town, The Sex Shop Is a Kiss-Off

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009

To many in Old Town Alexandria, the sex shop that opened recently on King Street is nothing short of scandalous, a historical desecration just blocks from the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee.

But to Michael Zarlenga, it's justice.

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.

"I can't say I didn't know it would ruffle feathers," said Zarlenga, 41. "Actually, I was hoping for a fast-food chain because I thought that would be more annoying to the city."

King Street's upscale restaurants and shops are the quintessence of commercial Old Town, near Gadsby's Tavern, where George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams overnighted. A short stroll away is the boyhood home of Lee, the Confederate general.

"I believe it's an inappropriate business to be located in our old and historic district," Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille (D) said of Le Tache. "I get e-mails and calls every day from people who want us to do something to make the business leave."

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.

"People like our products. They want that escape, and that's what we're trying to do -- give them a little pleasure in their day," said Kenney, who owns nine similar shops in Northern Virginia. "We're doing a community service."

In the windows of Le Tache, which means the spot, scantily dressed, voluptuous mannequins beckon. Peekaboo lingerie, adult movies and sex toys are displayed throughout the three-story building, which has the original hardwood floors and beams dating to the early 1800s.

The city cannot act because the store is complying with the law. "There's nothing I can do to encourage its demise," the mayor said.

But he added that city staff is drawing up proposed changes to zoning laws in hopes that future adult entertainment stores can be regulated. Le Tache would be grandfathered in.

Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel said his office has received enough complaints about the store that he is looking at legal options. Virginia law allows for courts to declare sexual material obscene and to ban its sale, he said.

"What is acceptable in one community might not meet the standard in the neighboring community," Sengel said.

Kenney, who says he caters to couples, had no retail presence in Old Town before because he hadn't found a receptive landlord. But in Zarlenga, he got an owner who didn't mind rankling city leaders.

Zarlenga's saga with the building dates to 2001, when he opened his hunting and fishing store. In 2006, he bought the building with the idea of renovating and expanding it to include more retail space, a bathroom and an elevator.

He hired a Washington architectural firm, which created eight designs for the project. The final one included plans to raise the roof on the back of the building and demolish a small section of a historic brick wall that was built about 1800. Most of the back wall would have been incorporated into the renovation.

Zarlenga said he consulted Alexandria's historical preservation staff along the way to be sure everyone was on board with his plans. He said he relied heavily on the advice of Peter Smith, who at the time was the principal staff member of the city's Board of Architectural Review.

But when the project came before the review board in 2007, it was rejected partly on Smith's recommendation that it would cause an "unreasonable loss of historic fabric." Zarlenga said Smith did not explain to him why he changed his mind. Smith has since died.

Tom Hulfish, chairman of the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review, said the project was rejected because it would have altered the traditional "flounder," or shed roof structure that preservationists are trying to protect around the city.

Zarlenga said he felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under him. He appealed to the City Council but lost in September 2007. Council members suggested he go back to the staff of the architectural review board and submit new plans.

For Zarlenga, it was the final straw. He choked back tears as he told the council he was finished: "I have no faith in the staff. . . . They have completely taken the integrity, as I see it, out of the system. . . . The simple fact is there's no money left, okay?"

He closed his store and the building sat empty until January, when Le Tache opened.

Zarlenga said he has no regrets about renting to the sex shop, and he is selling the building to Le Tache's owners.

Bob King, who owns an adjacent building and lives upstairs, said he's concerned about his property values. "My preference would be [that] it not be my neighbor next door," he said.

On a recent afternoon, several people walked past the store, looking quizzically at its window display.

"It's pretty surprising because it's so out of place," said Amy Kraft, 24, who lives and works in Old Town. "It's caused a lot of buzz."

And there's another piece of Zarlenga real estate that might start causing buzz. He owns a shuttered, dilapidated building several blocks away at Princess and Royal streets. Some of the broken windows have been patched with duct tape.

"As far as I'm concerned, that corner will always be an eyesore," Zarlenga said. "That's a little slice of revenge."

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