Del Ray residents fight to keep Walgreens out

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Photo - A woman and her son eat frozen custard in the  Delray neighborhood of Alexandria Virginia, Mar 14, 2006. Brig Cabe/Examiner
A woman and her son eat frozen custard in the Delray neighborhood of Alexandria Virginia, Mar 14, 2006. Brig Cabe/Examiner
Local,Virginia,Taylor Holland,Alexandria

Residents in Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood are mobilizing to stop a chain retailer from moving in and threatening their small-town atmosphere.

Walgreens, one of the nation's largest drug retailers, is close to acquiring a building at the intersection of Mount Vernon and East Monroe avenues, which could force five small businesses there to close.

Del Ray residents say the arrival of the store could lead to an influx of corporate retailers along the neighborhood's commercial strip, and fear their downtown and its independent stores may soon be overtaken by bigger businesses.

"We've been working very hard over the past 20 years to get stores that have character to them, to get stores that are independent in nature," said Bill Hendrickson, president of the Del Ray Citizens Association. "I'm not sure we need a large national retailer."

Purple banners touting the neighborhood's motto -- "Where Main Street Still Exists" -- adorn much of downtown Del Ray. But evidence that corporate America may soon penetrate the area and take over its main drag is already visible.

Major car dealerships, including Hyundai and Audi, sit just blocks from the five small businesses that would likely be pushed out if Walgreens moves in: Potomac West Interiors and Antique Gallery, Not Too Shabby Antiques & Consignments, Universal Market, J and M Electronics and Norge Laundry & Dry Cleaning.

And just six blocks from the proposed Walgreens site sits the Neighborhood Pharmacy of Del Ray, a small, independent drug store that may soon be forced to go head-to-head with a retail giant.

Stacey Swartz, the store's owner, said she's confident that the store won't lose its client base, however.

The pharmacy "provides a higher personal level of service" to its customers, she said, and workers there strive to create personal relationships with them.

"People that come here come here for something different than a chain pharmacy," she said. "We make sure people feel comfortable."

Lee Blunt, co-owner of Potomac West Interiors and Antique Gallery, said the area's high rents would likely force the business out of the city if it is displaced. The shop has been open 14 years, he said, and frequently hosts community events and fundraisers.

"Walgreens will not have the effect on the community that we have had," Blunt said.

Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille, who lives in Del Ray, said the city is trying to determine whether Walgreens needs a special use permit to move in. But the building's age, coupled with a 2005 zoning change that reduced the number of parking spaces required for businesses on Mount Vernon Avenue, may make it exempt, he said.

Should a permit be needed, however, it would require a pair of public hearings that could allow lawmakers to reject the application. Without the hearings, the site probably soon will be occupied by Walgreens.

The owner of the property, Philip Hochberg, declined to comment on the impending sale. Walgreens spokesman Robert Elfinger said he was not sure about the status of the project but he expects the store to open by summer 2014.

"Believe me," Euille said, "I'm going to try to do everything I can to try and encourage Walgreens to look elsewhere."

tholland@washingtonexaminer.com

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Taylor Holland

Staff writer
The Washington Examiner