As Halloween approaches, the ghost of Frank Bruffey's hardware store in the Williamsburg Shopping Center hangs over the surrounding North Arlington community. Bruffey was forced to close the store in July after the rent was tripled, and residents of the single-family neighborhood are afraid of what may come to their community.
Rumors of possible video game rooms, a state-operated liquor store or even "a porno store" attracted more than 70 residents to a community meeting of the Williamsburg Civic Association last week at Nottingham Elementary School.
"This is the most people I've seen at a meeting like this since this shopping center was built," said one woman. The crowd came to hear and ask questions of Nicholas Kalis. Kalis, 28, of Alexandria, paid $1.1 million for the fairly typical block-long, service-oriented center. Several tenants of the center whose leases are still valid sat quietly in the audience, allowing residents to ask questions in a tense, but controlled, atmosphere.
The shopping center faces Sycamore Street at the intersection of Powhatan and Sycamore streets and Williamsburg Boulevard. A center island creates mazes of traffic patterns complicated by numerous stop and yield signs and traffic signals.
Customers are drawn from North Arlington, parts of Falls Church and McLean. The center, and a three-tenant commercial center diagonally across the street, are the only commercially zoned properties along Sycamore and Williamsburg between the I-66 Sycamore exit and Old Dominion Drive.
Frank Bruffey's hardware store had become a neighborhood institution, a Saturday gathering place where lawn mowers were rented by the hour. When Kalis bought the center, he hiked Bruffey's rent from $600 to $2,000. Bruffey tried to sell the business but finally closed the store July 24.
Current tenants include restaurants, a dry cleaners, beauty and barber shops, a quick-shop grocery, a dentist, a tanning center and a bank.
"No one dragged me to this meeting," Kalis said, adding that he came to dispel rumors. He said his standard lease will not allow video parlors, or anything pornographic in the center: "I would not do business with those types of people." Kalis has hired Danac Associates, a Bethesda-based leasing firm, to rent the space, which he is now willing to divide into two stores.
Association President Michael Murtha repeatedly asked Kalis to consider working with a committee from the civic association in planning the center's long-range future. Kalis didn't reply directly, but said "I'll talk to anyone anytime."
Residents asked how Kalis plans to deal with present tenants when their leases expire. He told them he would be asking "market rate" rents.
"The center was in many ways crumbling when I bought it," Kalis said. He said he has spent $9,000 on repairs recently and has asked tenants to upgrade signs.
Referring to Charlie's Pizza, a 12-year-old family-owned restaurant in the center, one resident asked Kalis why he rented another vacant store to another sandwich shop. "Don't you protect your tenants?" the resident asked.
Kalis replied he was not in the business of "protecting monopolies."
Issa and Najwa Ayoub and their grown children operate Charlie's. They have several years left on their lease and don't know what will happen when it expires. Charlie's specializes in pizzas and sandwiches. It, too, is a neighborhood tradition. Meanwhile, a few stores away, Dong Lee has opened his own "family business"--a doughnut shop that also makes sandwiches.
Several tenants and residents who asked not to be identified said they worry that the shopping center could be replaced with offices in five to 10 years. Kalis backed off from answering a question about the impact on the center of the opening of a nearby Metro station in the future and traffic already generated by the opening of the I-66 exit onto Sycamore Street.
But this week, in a telephone interview, he said the convenience to those facilities would certainly be good for the businesses in the center. However, Kalis and Arlington County are trying to solve parking problems at the shopping center. On-street parking complicates what is already considered to be one of North Arlington's most confusing intersections.
The long-range worries about the center generated a tense atmosphere but both developer and residents stopped short of personal attacks.
When asked if he had interests in other commercial shopping centers in the area, Kalis replied, "I'd rather not answer that." His wife called the question "personal."
After the meeting, Kalis admitted that he does have other commercial interests--in New York, not in Northern Virginia.
Meanwhile, what used to be Frank Bruffey's hardware store is empty. "I'm prepared to sit it out until the property is rented," Kalis said. "I hope it remains a service oriented center. But, quite frankly, we will insist on fair market rates."
According to Kalis, the market rate is $11 a square foot. Over and over again last week, Williamsburg area residents asked Kalis about renting to a hardware store. This week, Kalis said he and his agents have talked to several hardware store operators, but most want more space than the store's 2,500 square feet.
When the store closed, Jim Robisch, retail research manager for the National Retail Hardware Association, said, "Its closing follows a national trend in the decline of the so-called 'mom and pop' stores who have enjoyed a very lucrative past." To make a go of it in the small hardware operation today, an owner must open at the crack of dawn and stay open until 9 p.m. to get all the customers necessary to support the business, experts agree.
One resident told Kalis he may have "made an economic miscalculation" coming in and "tripling the rent" at the hardware store. "You misunderstand the neighborhood. We're not a trendy neighborhood. We may not be able to afford to patronize the establishments that can afford your rent," she said.
This week Kalis said the quality of the neighborhood was one of his reasons for buying the center in the first place.
But last week he told homeowners he wanted to create a shopping center he'd be proud to show his children.
"If we were in it just for the money, we wouldn't have invested in North Arlington. There are a whole lot better places to make money," Kalis said.