The demolition of a late 18th century warehouse wall in Old Town Alexandria has touched off a court action by the city, an interdepartmental feud and the anger of a local historic preservation group.
The back wall of a warehouse at 107 King St., owned by Fish Market restaurateur Ray Giovannoni, recently came tumbling down before Alexandria's Board of Architectural Review had sounded the affirmative trumpets. In response to Giovannoni's action, the city has asked for an injunction to stop him from further renovating the 107 King St. building, which he says he will use as an addition for the Fish Market.
Although the injunction has not yet been issued because Giovannoni promised the judge that he would stop construction and resubmit plans to the the board, the city still wants Giovannoni, his architect Michael Wind and building contractor Patrick Blue to pay $1,000 each in fines for violating a city ordinance intended to preserve historic buildings.
The rubble of the late wall also has inspired a jurisdictional snafu between two city agencies -- the Board of Architectural Review and the Department of Public Safety's code enforcement division. The latter issued a demolition permit to Giovannoni after an engineer working for him declared the wall unsound and dangerous.
The story of the wall also has raised the ire of a local preservation group and the Old Town Civic Association. Morgan Delaney, president of the Historic Alexandria Foundation, said the demolition of the wall may be seen as a sign that developers can violate preservation laws and get away with a $1,000 fine.
"We are rather appalled by it. We plan to write a letter to the mayor and council expressing our chagrin that the city agencies have failed to preserve a historic building," Delaney said.
Assistant city attorney Barbara Beach said that in order to take down the wall, Giovannoni needed both the certificate of appropriateness from the Board of Architectural Review and the demolition permit from the Department of Public Safety.
"Both permits have equal standing. They knowingly demolished the wall," Beach said.
While the architectural review board says Giovannoni willfully demolished the wall, Giovannoni says the wall fell by itself when electrical wiring was being removed.
"The wall was a dangerous wall. When the old electrical panel was taken out, the wall fell in and the outside of the wall fell out. The wall had to come down. I don't think the board has as much authority as they think they have. They have no authority over structural situations," Giovannoni said.
"This is just a deal to hold us up. If they want to hold up the jobs of 38 to 40 people, our company is not going to die financially. They're holding up 38 people from going to work," Giovannoni said.
Chairman of the Board of Architectural Review John Bernard Murphy said the renovation plans presented by Giovannoni's architect, Michael Wind, which the board approved at its last meeting, did not include wall demolition.
"We made it abundantly clear that we did not want the wall demolished. If they wanted to demolish, they would have to come back before the board with new plans. It would be a whole new ball game," Murphy said.
Uwe Hinz, the Department of Public Safety's acting building official who issued the demolition permit, said his department tries to coordinate zoning matters with the city's department of Planning and Community Development.
"It seemed everything was in order. It appeared to us that all the approvals had been obtained by Giovannoni ," Hinz said.
William Warwick, past chairman of the Board of Architectural Review for 12 years and board member for 20 years, said that the board is not effective because many in the city government don't support it. He said there have been numerous cases in the past in which people, defying the board's recommendations, broke the law and the city did nothing.
"I think there are many people in the city government who consider the board a nuisance," Warwick said.
Robert Crabill, division chief for special projects in the department of Planning and Community Development, disagreed with Warwick's statement.
He said that the city council has shown support for the board by raising the fine for unauthorized demolition of historic buildings from $250 to $1,000 in March.
The recent action by the city attorney's office against Giovannoni also shows that the city is determined to defend the board's actions, Crabill added.
For 30 years the black-and-white storefront, which now stands gutted and awaiting renovation, was the location of the Snack Bar, one of the few cheap eating places amid lower King Street's trendy restaurants. The Snack Bar drew about 800 customers a day, a crowd that often included the mayor and City Council members, judges and lawyers, laborers, shop clerks and shoppers.
Giovannoni, who bought the Snack Bar building from the estate of Edward Lawler for $687,500 in January, said he plans to have the addition to his restaurant opened in July or August.