Frustrated Property Owner Sends A Giant “Screw You” To All Of Alexandria, Virginia

Anyone who has dealt with the pettiness that often finds itself residing in zoning boards is likely to understand this one completely:

To many in Old Town Alexandria, the sex shop that opened recently on King Street is nothing short of scandalous, a historical desecration just blocks from the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee.

But to Michael Zarlenga, it’s justice.

Zarlenga spent $350,000 on plans to expand his hunting and fishing store, the Trophy Room. He worked with city officials for almost two years and thought he had their support — until the architectural review board told him he couldn’t alter the historic property.

Furious and out of money, Zarlenga rented the space to its newest occupant, Le Tache, which is French for “the spot.”

“I can’t say I didn’t know it would ruffle feathers,” said Zarlenga, 41. “Actually, I was hoping for a fast-food chain because I thought that would be more annoying to the city.”

As you can imagine, this has ruffled the feathers of quite a few people in Alexandria and has even sent the local prosecutor on a pornography hunt in an effort to find some way to shut the business down.

Considering the way they treated Zarlenga, though, it’s pretty clear that the City of Alexandria has nobody to blame but itself:

Zarlenga’s saga with the building dates to 2001, when he opened his hunting and fishing store. In 2006, he bought the building with the idea of renovating and expanding it to include more retail space, a bathroom and an elevator.

He hired a Washington architectural firm, which created eight designs for the project. The final one included plans to raise the roof on the back of the building and demolish a small section of a historic brick wall that was built about 1800. Most of the back wall would have been incorporated into the renovation.

Zarlenga said he consulted Alexandria’s historical preservation staff along the way to be sure everyone was on board with his plans. He said he relied heavily on the advice of Peter Smith, who at the time was the principal staff member of the city’s Board of Architectural Review.


Zarlenga said he felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under him. He appealed to the City Council but lost in September 2007. Council members suggested he go back to the staff of the architectural review board and submit new plans.

For Zarlenga, it was the final straw. He choked back tears as he told the council he was finished: “I have no faith in the staff. . . . They have completely taken the integrity, as I see it, out of the system. . . . The simple fact is there’s no money left, okay?”

And so, he rented the space out to a business sure to ruffle feathers and piss people off, and he’s not done yet:

[T]here’s another piece of Zarlenga real estate that might start causing buzz. He owns a shuttered, dilapidated building several blocks away at Princess and Royal streets. Some of the broken windows have been patched with duct tape.

“As far as I’m concerned, that corner will always be an eyesore,” Zarlenga said. “That’s a little slice of revenge.”

As far as I see it, they have nobody to blame but themselves.

  • Akston

    The abuse of power on the part of the City Council is a sad example of a tyrannical majority democratically trampling even compliant members.

    But I see another theme here too.

    When it’s not your money, it’s so much easier to demand expenditures. No one on that board cared about Mr. Zarlenga’s expenses as much as Mr. Zarlenga. So why not require him to spend more? Yes, he “owns” the property, but their sensibilities were more important than his property rights.

    And he’ll find the money, right? When it’s someone else’s money and effort, there’s always more, right?

    It’s actually a recapitulation of the national trend. “Government” should fix that! Where does “government” get its funds? Whose effort does “government” appropriate? Who’s working the first four months of every year simply to make down payments on programs which will require their children to work five?

    Millions become billions become trillions. Easy to spend, cause it’s not ours. We sure about that?

  • Jono

    The Australian system seems just as bad.
    My local council has sent me notification of its plans to include my property as part of a “heritage overlay”.

    This is supposedly justified by the local city council because some other neighboring retail properties have historic architectural features. Many have been redesigned and modernised in the last 100 years.

    Once an area is designated within a heritage overlay, than it is extremely difficult for property owners to make modifications. And of course, they need to get council approval by submitting plans and paying them for a permit.

    This particular city council already includes 36 regions in its heritage overlay. Surely not each and every single property is a historic gem.