A prominent Old Town realtor is suing the Alexandria Board of Zoning Appeals in an effort to stop construction of a three-story office/retail project in a residential section of Old Town.

"What concerns me is the massiveness of the whole project . . . and that a traffic management plan was not required of the developer," said India Benoit, owner of the India Benoit Inc. realty firm.

Benoit lives across the street from the planned development at Franklin and South Washington streets.

Benoit filed the lawsuit Aug. 3 in Alexandria Circuit Court, alleging that the Board of Zoning Appeals "erroneously granted" permission for the developer, Edward R. Carr and Associates, to build the 53,440-square-foot building 33 feet from the center line of Franklin Street, rather than 60 feet from the street as required by city zoning laws.

The board approved the project July 9, and the city's Planning Commission approved it July 7.

The project will require razing the building that houses Cates Restaurant, known for its jazz shows, and another building that was formerly used by a sail board store.

"The BZA {Board of Zoning Appeals} does not have the authority to grant the variance," said Barbara Beach, Benoit's attorney.

"The state law requires that if {a BZA request} is something that can be legislatively changed, then it should go that route. It should be considered by the city council, not the BZA. The courts do not want the BZA acting in a legislative capacity."

Meanwhile, Benoit and her neighbors in the south Old Town area say they object to the size and traffic impact of the project, specifically a 20,000-square-foot Sutton Place Gourmet grocery store that will occupy the first floor.

On July 21, 30 people signed a petition opposing the project and appealing the Planning Commission's approval of the development's preliminary site plan.

The city council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the appeal Sept. 12.

"We regret that this lawsuit was filed," said William Fetsch, senior vice president of Edward R. Carr and Associates. "We had planned to start construction in late September.

"Until recently, we thought we were well accepted by the neighbors. We have petitions with 135 signatures of support for the project that were signed by people who live near it," Fetsch said.

But Benoit said, "The fact of the matter is, it's big and massive, and it's in the middle of a totally residential area." The site for the project is surrounded partly by residences and partly by commercial properties.

"The biggest complaint is that much more thought should have gone into the traffic and safety of this project, but it was a hurry-up thing that had to be done right now," Benoit said. "We have trouble finding parking on the street now; I hate to think what it will be like when the grocery store opens."

The project will have an underground parking garage with 179 parking spaces.

Larry Robinson, who lives in the 600 block of South St. Asaph Street, about a half block from the project, agrees with Benoit: "The fact is that the largest grocery store in Old Town is going to be built without adequate parking or traffic flow."

The developers argue that all the parking and traffic flow requirements made by the city were met and that they agreed to a list of 14 transportation improvement recommendations given to the city by a group of citizens.

Soon after the lawsuit was filed, Yates Gardens Associates, a partnership that owns the property, filed a motion to intervene in the suit. The motion was granted and Yates Gardens Associates, while not an actual defendant in the case, will work on the side of the zoning board in fighting the suit.

According to deputy city attorney Robert L. Murphy, legal appeals of zoning board decisions are rare -- about two a year.

"All the city has done in response to the lawsuit is to begin to get the record together," Murphy said. "These cases very seldom are settled out of court because there is usually no basis for a compromise. The order of the Board of Zoning Appeals is either upheld or not."

Murphy said in the suit, "There are no real allegations as to what was wrong" with the board's decision.

CAPTION: Cates Restaurant and another building would be razed if profect plans of Edward R. Carr and Associates are upheld.