Ramona Younger, president of the Charles Houston Civic Association, says that the local 7-Eleven at 915 N. Columbus St. in Alexandria is convenient for everyone but its neighbors, who are disturbed by the noisy late night gatherings in the store parking lot.
"We do care about our neighborhood. We have our right to have our peace. If this was in Old Town, the city wouldn't put up with it," Younger said.
Younger and others in her neighborhood have appeared before the Alexandria City Council to voice their complaints, and in response officials are seeking to regulate convenience stores in the city. Residents say that some of the stores' late night hours continue to attract people intent on rowdy behavior, drinking and loitering.
In the past police have received as many as 1,500 complaint calls in one year for disorderly conduct, larceny, drunken behavior, assault with an automobile, fighting and suspicious persons or automobiles at the city's 17 7-Eleven stores.
But the number of crimes at the most troublesome sites has dropped significantly since 1984 when off-duty police officers were hired as night security guards by the Southland Corp., which owns the 7-Elevens, according to officials from the city's Department of Public Safety.
"The crime problem has been solved at the stores," said police spokeswoman Lucy Crockett.
Although city officials have worked with Southland to overcome some problems such as robberies and minors buying alcohol, new zoning regulations could prevent stores from being constructed in neighborhoods whose residents do not want them.
"Despite Southland's efforts, the nuisance problems have persisted, especially at the North Columbus Street store," said councilman Carlyle Ring.
"The problems generate around the stores being an attractive place to congregate. It's related to crowds, access to alcohol late at night, drugs and minors involved with alcohol bought by adults . A certain amount of robberies occur," Ring said.
During the last two years, Southland Corp. has started a number of programs to address problems at its Alexandria stores, including one for stricter detection of minors attempting to buy alcohol. Landscaping, store renovations and removing public telephones from the premises have also helped make the stores more attractive and have reduced loitering, said Southland spokeswoman Robin Young.
The city Planning Commission is scheduled to decide Feb. 4 whether to recommend to the City Council that it require special use permits for new convenience stores. Special use permits would allow the placement of restrictions on the hours of operation on a case-by-case basis. The stores could be limited to commercial, industrial and Metro-related zones.
The city might define a convenience store, which currently has no definition in the City Code, as an establishment with a maximum floor space of 3,500 square feet that sells mainly food and beverages in small quantities. This would prevent grocery stores, with a much larger floor space, from falling under the same requirements.
Convenience stores already operating would be required to obtain a special use permit if the store was expanding.
Councilwoman Patricia Ticer said she favored requiring special use permits for convenience stores. "It's not an infringement on store owners' liberty to operate. It's just a negotiating tool. It gives us a little more leverage," Ticer said.
If nuisance problems persist at established convenience stores, the city could consider enacting an ordinance to cut back the hours of stores in residential neighborhoods, city officials said.