Neighboring businesses at odds over Brookland Park parklet

Al Muhammad discusses the parking challenges along Brookland Park Boulevard. (Photos by Jonathan Spiers)

On a recent morning on Brookland Park Boulevard, traffic veered around a tractor-trailer that was parked in the westbound travel lane, its hazard lights flashing as the driver made a delivery to a nearby market.

Inside Your Sandwich Shop & Sweet Spot, the deli counter he runs with his family, Al Muhammad called out to his wife in the kitchen, letting her know a parking space out front had opened up and she could move her car from a no-parking zone nearby.

“This is what we’ve got to go through,” Muhammad told a reporter.

Muhammad, who has been in business there seven years, contends that parking is at a premium along the corridor, with double-parking a frequent occurrence that contributes to traffic woes.

He’s leading an effort pushing back against recent changes to the boulevard, representing a group of business owners and residents that he said opposes last year’s addition of traffic-calming curb extensions, called “bump-outs,” and a patio-style parklet that was set to be installed a few doors down from his shop.

“It’s a beautiful idea,” he said of the parklet, “and it would be dope if we had the space, but we don’t have the space.”

In recent weeks, city workers removed six of the 14 bump-outs, which had been installed using funds awarded by the state, at a cost of $300,000. The city also put a hold on the planned parklet, which Richmond’s Urban Design Committee and Planning Commission had endorsed earlier this year.

About 30 feet long, the custom-designed parklet – an outdoor seating space intended to help area businesses during the pandemic – would take up nearly two full-size parking spaces in front of Ms. Bee’s Juice Bar, which requested and raised funds for it, and neighboring storefronts on the north side of the boulevard’s 100 block.

Brandi Battle-Brown in front of the dormant Brookland Theatre building, where she’s said she would move the parklet across from her Ms. Bee’s Juice Bar.

Ms. Bee’s owner, Brandi Battle-Brown, worked on the parklet with Venture Richmond, the local nonprofit also involved in the city’s “Picnic in a Parklet” program, which purchased and placed five prefabricated parklets at locations across the city.

While those five parklets were purchased using city funds, at a cost of $10,000 apiece, the parklet for Ms. Bee’s was funded with private donations and a $20,000 grant that Venture Richmond helped secure. HKS Architects designed the parklet pro bono.

Muhammad, who circulated a petition opposing the parklet and bump-outs, said business owners were not informed of either before the bump-outs were installed and the parklet was lined up to be. Supporters maintain that they were similarly not notified before the bump-outs were removed and the parklet was put on hold.

While he’s happy that some of the bump-outs have been removed, Muhammad said the parklet would be the same as having a school bus permanently parked on the street, eliminating parking and reducing access and visibility of adjacent businesses.

“Our customer base, most of them are from here, meaning they grew up in Northside. They might’ve moved to the suburbs, but they come here to service their community that they grew up in, and they drive here, so we need parking,” Muhammad said. “This is a drive-up type of situation.”

Signatures that Muhammad said he’s compiled for a petition against the parklet. (Courtesy of Al Muhammad)

Public process

Battle-Brown, who opened Ms. Bee’s last year just before the pandemic, said she was required to notify her immediate neighbors and received letters of support from adjacent property owners. She maintains that the parklet would be more of a benefit to the community than a couple of parking spaces.

Noting that public meetings and hearings were held during the city review process, Battle-Brown said, “The parklet was made public. Now you want to go back and do a petition for it, when you had every opportunity to say what you said before I went through all the formalities of getting a parklet.

“What harm can my one parking space do to the neighborhood?” she said. “Even with me not having that one parking space, (parking is) still going to be an issue. It’s public parking. You don’t go out of town, to D.C. and California and Maryland, and think you’re going to park in front of the establishment you’re visiting.”

While the parklet would provide outdoor seating for her restaurant, and was designed in the likeness of her logo and brand, Battle-Brown said it would also serve other businesses and be open to the public – a requirement due to its placement in public right-of-way.

“It’s branded in my brand, but it’s for the public,” she said. “It’s for everybody to use.”

A rendering of the custom-designed parklet that’s been planned for Brookland Park Boulevard. Battle-Brown said she’s since offered to remove the canopy. (HKS Architects)

Having gone through the process of applying for the parklet, raising funds for it and securing city approvals, Battle-Brown maintains that she’s done everything right and shouldn’t have to compromise – even though she has, agreeing to remove the parklet’s canopy and even place it across the street, in front of the dormant Brookland Theatre building with its owner’s agreement.

“I have compromised with the neighborhood business owners on more than one occasion. We removed the canopy on the parklet, they still were not satisfied with that,” she said. “I’ve got to live with these people, because my business is here. So, I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes and I don’t want to have anybody feel like I don’t take their business as serious as my own.

“I’m taking it personal, because y’all are hindering my business from growing,” she said. “People don’t want to eat inside. I’m more likely to patronize a restaurant that I can eat outside, because it’s more comfortable.”

Investigation sought

Battle-Brown said she’s circulating her own petition in support of the parklet and was scheduled to meet today with Ann-Frances Lambert, the City Council representative for the area, on how the parklet can go forward.

At a district meeting on the issue late last month, Lambert told attendees that the pause on the parklet was appropriate in light of the community concerns. She later said she had met with Muhammad and his group to walk the corridor and hear their concerns.

It was after that that the bump-outs were removed and the parklet was put on hold. That decision was made by Bobby Vincent, director of the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW).

But the events have drawn scrutiny from supporters of the parklet and the bump-outs, a group of whom have filed a complaint with the city’s inspector general office.

Contending that Lambert had a hand in directing the removals, the complaint requests an investigation “to determine if Lambert’s actions constituted a ‘direct order’ by a councilperson to a City of Richmond employee.” The complaint argues that such an order would violate a city ordinance prohibiting elected officials from giving orders to city employees other than the chief administrative officer.

At the City Council’s meeting this week, Willie Hilliard, president of the Brookland Park Area Association – and Lambert’s opponent when she was elected last fall – called for the city to investigate the matter, alleging misuse of funds on top of the violation allegation.

“Being that this was a capital improvement project that was voted on by council, the level of work that was just done would require another vote of council that did not happen,” Hilliard said during the meeting’s public comments portion, adding that “this level of work was not done at DPW’s discretion alone.”

“We believe that a violation of the city code of ordinances has occurred and needs to be investigated,” he said.

The complaint filed with the inspector general’s office, a copy of which was obtained by BizSense, was copied to Interim City Attorney Haskell Brown. A call to Brown on Thursday was not returned.

One of the removed bump-outs was outside Ms. Bee’s Juice Bar

‘It’s personal’

Muhammad, who said he has compiled 1,000 signatures and that most of the businesses in the vicinity oppose the parklet, said it’s nothing personal against Ms. Bee’s or Battle-Brown. He said he’d like to see the funds put toward a rooftop space or addition that doesn’t involve a loss of parking space.

“Brookland Park loves Brandi,” Muhammad said. “I send people to Brandi. But when you want to put something out here the size of a school bus, depending on the size of the car that could be four parking spaces. It’s definitely two SUVs.

“We love Brandi and we want her to continue to be successful,” he said. “But I think it’s extremely selfish, after being made aware of the facts, to still desire to put something 30-feet long, whether it’s across the street from her business or directly in front of her business. It’s just not healthy or conducive to the parking circumstances on Brookland Park.”

Battle-Brown said she is taking it all personally.

“All this was public notice. When the bump-outs were put out, there was public notice. It’s not my fault or anybody else’s fault if they did not attend the meeting and say whether they did not want the bump-outs,” she said.

“At the end of the day, give citations for parking. People double-park. You act like this one issue I’m going through is going to stop people from parking. It’s not,” she said. “It’s personal. I feel like y’all don’t want to see me grow.”

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Jason James
Jason James
1 month ago

The whole discussion about parking in this part of Brookland Park Boulevard never includes that people are allowed to park for 3 hours here. This is not uncommon in Richmond (it’s the same in Carytown), but reducing the time would allow for more turnover.

Garry Whelan
Garry Whelan
1 month ago

“Al Muhammad called out to his wife in the kitchen, letting her know a parking space out front had opened up and she could move her car from a no-parking zone nearby.“This is what we’ve got to go through,” Muhammad told a reporter.”

Uh, using parking space outside your business for your own parking is one parking space your customers can’t use.
I’m not sure anything will help here.

Jackson Joyner
Jackson Joyner
1 month ago
Reply to  Garry Whelan

I had the same thought. You would take away the best parking spot for your customers to stay in the kitchen all day?

Talon Karrde
Talon Karrde
1 month ago
Reply to  Garry Whelan

I came directly to the comments to say the same thing… This makes ZERO sense!

Arnold H Hager
Arnold H Hager
1 month ago
Reply to  Garry Whelan

What about when it’s time to close shop? How far would you walk down the dirty blvd. to get to the safety of your car, with the day’s receipts? Parking close to the door, is a good way to avoid any trouble.

Rik Nary
Rik Nary
1 month ago

As a resident in the area, I’d love to have the parklet and I’d probably try that deli instead of ordering from Nomad’s every time. I don’t understand where the business owner is coming from complaining about parking since there aren’t many no-parking zones nearby unless you aren’t willing to walk for longer than 1 minute from Garland. They also have dedicated parking behind the business. I honestly don’t think it’s a parking issue; this is a culture issue where most people in the US are looking for the quickest route we feel we deserve. That isn’t going to change… Read more »

Jackson Joyner
Jackson Joyner
1 month ago

I’m glad to see pushback from business owners over reduced parking. There is a fantasy that our residents just need a push to ditch their cars and rely on the Pulse, Ubers and scooters. Maybe you can get by with that scenario in Carytown and maybe VCU. The reality is that most will avoid a business if they have to park two blocks away to pick up a coffee a sandwich or browse for a small gift. Also, I can’t understand how you justify $10k for what is essentially a deck with benches sitting across three parking spaces.

Garry Whelan
Garry Whelan
1 month ago
Reply to  Jackson Joyner

BPB is one of the last high density small retail streets left in the city. Passing trade will be better if passing on foot and not in a car. I can’t see the other businesses if I’m driving.
The reality is that if a city is made more appealing with better public transport and better pedestrian and cycling options then that’s what it becomes. If you keep telling me ‘cars only’ then you might be a car driver with a sense of entitlement.

Arnold H Hager
Arnold H Hager
1 month ago
Reply to  Garry Whelan

I do hope you realize the high cost of being a car driver. The amount of fees/tax revenue generated helps pay for the other services, you must think, comes from money falling from the sky, or the federal gov’t. The number of jobs from the auto industry is enormous, in the millions and millions. That entitlement you speak of is paid for. Without it, your bicycle would have fees/taxes applied to it to cover the cost of your public transport and bike lanes. You should be thinking the drivers for the enormous amount they contribute to help fund your crappy… Read more »

Arnold H Hager
Arnold H Hager
1 month ago
Reply to  Arnold H Hager

Come to think of it; I think bicyclists should be required to purchase bicycle insurance.

SA Chaplin
SA Chaplin
1 month ago

Parklet “ABCs”

Al: “[T]he parklet would be the same as having a school bus permanently parked on the street.”

Bee: “What harm can my one parking space do to the neighborhood?”

City: “Put it right over here, fella’s—”

Al: “[I]t’s nothing personal against Ms. Bee’s. Brookland Park loves Brandi . . .  .”

Bee: “It’s personal. I feel like y’all don’t want to see me grow.”

City: “Okay, boys, get that thing outa here —pronto!”

Andy Kaplan
Andy Kaplan
1 month ago

Me personally, I would not fear very safe sitting so close to traffic whizzing by.

Andy Kaplan
Andy Kaplan
1 month ago
Reply to  Andy Kaplan

Of course I meant I would not feel safe. Fear does enter the equation though. 🙂

Marvin Crouch
Marvin Crouch
1 month ago

City council needs to focus on one thing – more murals

Coleman W Wall
Coleman W Wall
1 month ago
Reply to  Marvin Crouch

More empty pedestals too.

Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith
1 month ago

It doesn’t sound like there’s a parking problem. There’s a walking problem.

ERIC BADER
ERIC BADER
1 month ago

You can’t live in a city with a metro population of 1 million+ and expect parking to be as easy as it is on main street in a town with a population of 2,500.