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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”