Pizzeria conversion: with one city’s Italian loss is another’s gain.

It’s a busy time of year and I need to meet my monthly blogging goals, so I’m going to cheat a little bit and piggyback on my previous article.  To be frank, it’s a double-cheat, since I usually try to avoid featuring the same state for two blog articles in a row.  But here I am, returning to Old Dominion after covering a small town just a few days ago.  This time I capture my tried-and-true city of Alexandria in northern Virginia, a place I have covered numerous times in the past.  At a key intersection—where George Washington Parkway meetings a small but important connector street (Slaters Lane)—a boarded-up building sits at a corner with a banner out front, indicating a new tenant coming soon.  A pizzeria conversion, whereas my previous article was a church conversion from a former pizzeria.

Pizzeria conversion: from dry cleaners to Pupatella

As the photo proves, Sam’s Custom Cleaners looks a little worse for wear.  It definitely shows all the trappings of a place that’s been vacant for quite some time.  Yet a quick trip back to an archived Google Street View image reveals that it really isn’t a derelict property; it was still an operable business as recently as June 2021.  Based on the property’s current state, it’s reasonable to assume that Sam’s Custom Cleaners was yet another casualty of the pandemic and the era of teleworking.  It was an industry already confronting an ebb in demand, since many white-collar work environments had stopped expecting formal attire on a typical work day, prompting more workers to wear semi-casual, wash-and-wear fabrics.  Even necktie usage has plummeted, and silk is a material that doesn’t thrive in domestic washers/dryers.

But teleworking wasn’t the cause for the demise of Sam’s Custom Cleaners.  In January 2022, the long-time owner passed away suddenly, plunging a 20-year business into uncertainty.  It closed the next month.  The property sat dormant for a little over a year before the owner of Pupatella, a regionally based Neapolitan pizza mini-chain, indicated interest and applied for a Special Use Permit (SUP) to repurpose the former dry cleaners into an Italian restaurant.  So, while my previous blog post was a conversion from farfalle, this time it’s a conversion to tortellini.  

I can find very little additional information on this pizzeria conversion, which isn’t a great surprise, because there’s nothing happening in this transfer in ownership here that would be earth-shattering.  A little old building is getting a new tenant.  Only one aspect gives me pause: the reference to a “Special Use Permit”.  According to the Alexandria Zoning Map, the tiny triangular parcel is Commercial General (CG), a classification with few restrictions and specifications, which typically can accommodate a restaurant as easily as dry cleaners.  But the City of Alexandria identifies the need for an SUP if the proposed new business has “the potential to create noise, odors, fumes, pollution or significant parking impacts”—in other words, the loose legal definition of nuisances.  By filling out a mandated SUP, the new building tenant agrees to a higher degree of legal scrutiny—review by both the Planning Commission and City Council—as well as an opportunity for community input.  Between the June article I cited and my November photos, Pupatella must have walked the SUP tightrope with relatively few complications.  As the exterior banner indicates, the pizzeria conversion is on its way.

My surprise comes less with the approval processes in place—those are to be expected—than the level of oversight that seems to be absent: a transfer of use from a business that handled potentially caustic chemicals, to one that involves cooking and consumption of food.  Such a shift is, not surprisingly, rare.  I indicated a few years ago with a Jersey City article that a shuttered dry cleaning service usually transitions to one of two outcomes: another dry cleaner (a new owner) or a long-vacant business that goes derelict.  Dry cleaners tend to become an albatross, a Locally Unwanted Land Use (LULU).  The likely presence of such solvents as perchloroethylene renders even the most expertly-run (or short-lived) dry cleaner a mini-brownfield site, with suspected contamination that poses hazards to any subsequent business operations.  Any restaurateur, let alone a pizzeria conversion, would have to jump through far more hoops than if they were claiming a former clothing boutique.

It’s possible that Sam’s Custom Cleaners ran a tight ship, or that the owner, prior to his death, had included provisions in his will that ensured a remediation of the site after the business closed, to help expedite its sale.  It is also possible that Sam’s Custom Cleaners modernized its operations in the last twenty years or so, to the point that it obviated the use of perchloroethylene.  That these circumstances are possible, however, does not mean they are likely.  Thus, the most credible alternate instigators of a brownfield remediation were either the new owner (“Mr. Pupatella”) or the City of Alexandria, if such a funding mechanism exists.  Then again, it’s possible that Virginia DEQ provisions do not put a parcel of this modest size to the same scrutiny as a major industrial site.  Again, this is unlikely.  Something had to happen to this place to ease people’s mind before they’d be willing to buy a pizza there.

The primo location of this parcel in a city with already high land values does incentivize a speedy remediation process; it’s too good of a location to let it go to waste, and a five-figure investment (minimum) on cleanup is more likely to yield a return here than in a town with low land values, where a pizzeria conversion would be hard to justify.  It’s still amazing that Sam’s Custom Cleaners only sat vacant for a little over a year, or that a relatively small restaurant operation like Pupatella still decided that this was the best place for Pupatella Branch Number Nine, even with all the baggage attached to the land after a dry cleaners had operated there for a couple decades.  But, if a motorist ventures southward along the George Washington Parkway from crossing the Potomac around the Jefferson or Lincoln Memorial, this little brick building at Slaters Lane is one of the first private businesses visible after driving in a largely park-like setting for several miles. A beacon for a hungry tourist on the way to George Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon.

As the Italians might say, it’s buona terra.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on email

17 thoughts on “Pizzeria conversion: with one city’s Italian loss is another’s gain.

  1. Chris B

    OMG. Eric, you wrote what I would have written…and I am a retired drycleaner.

    The site COULD be fairly clean if the drycleaning use started in 2001. By then new equipment and operators were far less leak-prone than their predecessors. It would be very clean if it had been only used as a shirt laundry or if no cleaning at all was done on site.

    Not only that, but look hard at the building configuration: before it was a drycleaner, it was a gas station with three service bays. (It’s been highly modified but looks Sunoco or Esso/Exxon-ish.)

    With all that said, I would probably not eat any food with fat (i.e. cheese, pepperoni, ham, sausage…basically any pizza topping) that was stored in that space overnight unless the Virginia environmental authorities have done an extensive site investigation.

    Reply
    1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

      My first thought when I saw the photo was “hey look an old gas sta…oh, a dry cleaner? ” There’s not many neighborhood retail situations that would have the potential to be more contaminated, but I can think of an Asian grocery that operated in just such an environment for several years before being scraped off the face of the Earth almost overnight . *shrug* https://maps.app.goo.gl/RJTEPFRmUyFZTKAt5

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Those were common conversions in the 70s and 80s, as the environmental issues with gas stations were commonly known before those of drycleaners, and in the 80s everyone wanted a neighborhood drycleaner on a busy corner. Yuppie days.

        But the cleaner opened in 2001; one would hope after a major oil company removed the tanks and cleaned up the site.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I wish I had referenced its former use in the article. I noticed those details when I snapped the photos, but then forgot to write about it. Props to those of you who pointed out that it obviously was an auto-oriented biz.

          Most of the research I found suggested it was a dry cleaner for 20+ years, but a few details suggest that Tony Tran, the late former owner, was in the business long before that.

          It is indeed possible that no actual cleaning operations took place on the property, thereby reducing the permitting hurdles it has to jump through. Then again, as another poster noted, Pupatella has a habit of christening certain locations as “Coming Soon” and then nothing materializes for years. That could end up being the case here.

          Reply
      2. AmericanDirt Post author

        Hmm, that Ottugi store was a real mid-century curiosity. I’m not saying it deserved to be saved, but I’ve seen much worse that didn’t get “scraped off the face of the Earth almost overnight”. Seeing the two bays, was it previously a mechanic shop? Those high-durability, translucent block-glass windows (is there a better name of them?) seem more akin to a dentists office. The most recent Google Street View suggests the ground is getting cleared again; are they finally redeveloping the site? What would have made it so contaminated?

        You’re almost certainly right that Sam’s Custom Cleaners was an old gas station (with auto repair) back in the day, but it was a dry cleaning operation for a long time before the pizzeria conversion.

        Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Who needs pepper flakes? All those chemicals give it an extra zing! And sanitize your esophagus to boot.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        I just can’t joke about that. I ran a pretty clean operation, but still worry about potential long-term neurological effects. You can’t help inhaling some fumes over time, and no one knows what the long-term effects of low-level exposure really are.

        True story: when some colleagues and friends were trying to start a neighborhood coop grocery, one of the sites we looked at had been a drycleaner back in the day. So it was a brownfield and eligible for some incentives. I was on the site selection committee and strongly counseled to pick a different location.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I would be curious if you knew much about the public health consequences of working at dry cleaners for long periods of time. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but the owner of Sam’s Custom Cleaners died suddenly and was not old (only 58). He complained of a loss of appetite in his final months. Apparently he was a workaholic, and it was his extreme efforts that kept his business alive during peak COVID. But plenty of other jobs require long hours without exposure to chemicals.

          Reply
          1. Chris B

            As with everything, it all depends on the job function.

            In the “olden days”, drycleaners used “transfer machines”, which are essentially a chemical washer and a separate dryer. Moving the clothes from one to the other would entail physically handling the clothes still damp with solvent and giving off fumes. The person actually doing the unloading would have a very high exposure to the vapors. But someone standing at the front counter…not so much. The garment pressers would typically be closer to the drycleaning machine, and when steam-pressing would be driving out residual (low level) fumes and breathing those.

            Starting in the 70s, transfer machines were phasing out and newer “dry to dry” machines were developed. Those machines did not require the transfer step, but the solvent fumes were typically vented outdoors (like a home dryer vent). It eliminated the worst work exposures, but did not eliminate the low-level exposures to the person loading/unloading and the people pressing.

            Clean air regs then required “closed system” dry-to-dry machines, where the vapors were run over a condensing coil, and the machine cycle would remain locked until the residual solvent vapors reached a certain (low) level. This reduced workplace exposure even more.

            It was this type of machine that I owned/operated in the 90s and early 00s. EPA recognizes the progress:

            “Occupational exposure to tetrachloroethylene primarily occurs in industries using the chemical (e.g., many dry cleaning facilities) and at industries manufacturing the chemical. New dry cleaning technologies and practices introduced over the past couple of decades result in substantially reduced occupational exposure.”

            But the long-term effects of such low-level exposure are still not well understood. They may very well have combined environmental and biological/genetic components, so that every individual reacts differently.

            Here’s what EPA says:

            “The primary effects from chronic (long term) inhalation exposure are neurological, including impaired cognitive and motor neurobehavioral performance. Tetrachloroethylene exposure may also cause adverse effects in the kidney, liver, immune system and hematologic system, and on development and reproduction. Studies of people exposed in the workplace have found associations with several types of cancer including bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma. EPA has classified tetrachloroethylene as likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

            Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good point; I had forgotten all about that. I think that was the site of a place called Romeo and Juliet, which closed before I moved here. Pupatella has had signage there for years, and whoever owns the property now is facing fines for leaving it in a derelict state. Since that location in Capitol Hill was a restaurant to begin with, it shouldn’t face too many permitting hurdles.

      Reply
  2. tdhovis.photo

    That was our dry cleaner for years but we are excited about having two pizza options on Slaters.

    Dry cleaners are struggling because so many people have stopped going to the office and mostly work in casual clothes now.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Yep, you nailed it in terms of dry cleaners. Though in this case, Sam’s closed due to death of the owner.

      Reply
    2. Chris B

      This is why I am a “retired drycleaner”. Too many drycleaners and not enough drycleaning to keep everyone in business.

      Only one of my former locations is still a drycleaner location, but I believe it’s only pickup and dropoff (with cleaning and pressing elsewhere). Oddly enough, two locations became ice cream shops and one a nail salon. No pizza.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Bingo. I end up consolidating all comments on the blog itself, and you’ll see a few others have surmised the same thing. That occurred to me when I originally took the photos but I neglected to mention that in the article. Given the location, it would make sense for it to have begun as an auto service center. It has been a dry cleaners for a long time, and it was probably a smoother transition from mechanic to cleaners than it is from cleaners to restaurant.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. You are not required to sign in. Anonymous posting is just fine.

Verified by MonsterInsights