Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpArlingtonians take notice when one of their handy 7-11’s shuts its doors.

But some neighbors of the mini-mart familiar since 1958 at North George Mason Drive and Lee Highway are taking more than a passing interest in its successor: A branch of the TitleMax car loan service opened its doors on the site last month.

The result is a clash of values pitting the rights of legal but edgy businesses against a fear recalling the phrase “there goes the neighborhood.”

TitleMax, a ballooning national chain now permitted in 16 states (with 100 outlets in Virginia) promises that “getting a car title loan with TitleMax is easy! The entire process takes less than 30 minutes. And the best part is, you get the cash you need while continuing to use your car!”

But a different view is offered by the nonprofit Center for Responsible Lending, which says the high-interest loans “plague people with limited resources, making financial stability difficult to achieve.”

That’s why title loans are banned in many states – including Maryland and D.C. – and why members of several north Arlington civic associations resent the large loud retail sign now visible to all on heavily trafficked Lee Highway.

The objections to TitleMax are threefold, says Andrew Schneider, president of the Yorktown Civic Association. “People in our area crave businesses they feel are directed toward them, such as Starbucks and Harris Teeter” down the road,” he says. Though reluctant to broach issues of race and class, Schneider says “the fundamental problem is that TitleMax represents a line of business that offends sensitivities, and it’s not incorrect to call them predatory lenders.”

Many neighbors “are disappointed at a missed opportunity, that of all the businesses that could have gone in there, there wasn’t a more robust effort for a tenant with more appeal to folks within walking distance,” he adds.

Though Schneider says everyone respects the property’s owner – Virginia Hospital Center – there were other options. Sheila Raebel, owner of the Dogma Bakery at the nearby Garden City Shopping Center, wanted the site but couldn’t come to terms.

Another neighbor, James Gartner, has launched a crusade. “I consider this a fairly urgent matter for high-level attention to prevent Arlington from being overrun by these insidious businesses in fairly short order,” he wrote in a letter to civic associations proposing approaching county officials for a zoning change.

Zoning Administrator Norma Cozart confirmed that the Arlington TitleMax “was approved as a financial office” under the Virginia Code.

TitleMax’s next-door neighbor, the owner of Sam Torrey Shoe Service, told me he has no problem with the nice guys who run the loan operation. When I popped in, the staff confirmed that some neighbors had asked skeptical questions, but referred all comment to a national office that didn’t return my calls.

The defense came from Adrian Stanton, vice president and chief marketing officer for Virginia Hospital Center. He told me “7-11 unfortunately abruptly ended their lease, so we were scrambling. We had a difficult time finding anyone interested, partly because of the odd-shaped lot with little parking or access,” he said. TitleMax, he noted, believes it’s the right location and is a business that pays its rent. At least one police officer, Stanton added, has welcomed such a tenant with regular business hours, a contrast with the all-night attractions of the old 7-11.

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History lovers in today’s world must move fast. Tom Dickinson, past president of the Arlington Historical Society, recently emailed his successors an alert about a decades-old “unique piece of Arlingtoniana.” A truck door labeled with the ancient Robert Shreve Fuel Company was sitting in a shed by Lee Highway at the Falls Church border awaiting a trash truck. By next morning, museum director Mark Benbow had retrieved the item, which could soon be on display in the society’s Hume School collection.