Calling West Main ABC “a menace,” locals petition for closure

The controversial ABC store on West Main Street will remain in its current location. Photo: Michael Johnson The controversial ABC store on West Main Street will remain in its current location. Photo: Michael Johnson

More than 30 prominent Charlottesvillians, including Delegate David Toscano, City Councilor Bob Fenwick, neighborhood association presidents and West Main Street business owners, have signed a letter to the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control demanding that the West Main Street store be moved because of the unsavory behavior it brings to the neighborhood.

“The store is a public menace in its present location,” wrote Michael Signer, the local attorney and president of the Fifeville Neighborhood Association who is leading the effort to force the store out of the West Main corridor when its lease expires on May 31, 2015. The letter cites more than 1,500 criminal complaints in the two blocks surrounding the store since 2011, and in an interview, Signer said he has witnessed numerous instances of public urination, drug dealing and blocking public access when he’s walked in the area with his wife and children.

The ABC has met four times with the community about its concerns, according to spokesperson Becky Gettings, and has made some changes, such as additional security cameras at the store, increased trash pickups and repackaging popular mini-bottles into 10 packs rather than singles.

That didn’t satisfy critics. “The last straw came in October when the ABC refused additional reasonable measures we requested, including putting a security guard on premises and establishing active new programs to protect the large vulnerable populations at the three shelters within walking distance (the Haven, the Crossings and the Salvation Army),” said Signer in the letter. “That’s when we decided enough is enough.”

Charlottesville Police Lieutenant Steve Upman said the numbers police sent the community leaders are raw data, and include EMS and fire reports, as well as incidents that are called in but are considered unfounded or unverified.

“We have no indications that the ABC store is responsible for the crimes that take place in the two-block area,” said the ABC’s Gettings, who said statistics from the Charlottesville police show that complaints of public drunkenness have decreased by almost half in 2014 compared to the prior three-year average.

Not everyone supports the store’s ouster.

“Where are local people who don’t have cars supposed to go?” asked Mel Walker, owner of Mel’s Cafe on West Main and a lifelong area resident who is concerned about people moving in from other places and trying to change the neighborhood. “There will always be people who are homeless and who like to drink,” he said. “If you don’t like that, you should move to the suburbs.”

Blue Moon Diner owner and letter signer Laura Galgano said she’s had issues with littering and public drunkenness outside the restaurant, and she no longer allows public use of the diner’s bathroom after having to call a plumber multiple times. She has also long been frustrated by ABC patrons using her restaurant’s parking lot.

“I think gentrification may be part of the reason” people want the ABC store closed, she said, “but it’s not all the reason. I don’t see us as a gentrifying organization. For me, it’s the abuse of my parking lot.”

City Councilor Kristin Szakos is aware of the gentrifying aspects of high-end shops, and the new hotel and high-density residential structures going up on West Main that can push people out. “On the other hand,” she said, “liquor stores have always targeted low-income neighborhoods where people struggle with addiction. They’re there for a reason.”