But while city police say they have no intention to ticket cars parked in front of West Broad Street businesses after 11 p.m. — a long-unenforced parking restriction dating to the early 1990s as a tool to combat then-rampant teen cruising — neither side of the issue seemed ready to yield space during a meeting between the parties held this morning at the Empress.
Police Sgt. Michael Snawder, who admitted to cruising in his car as a teenager in California, defended the parking restrictions as a necessary tool to combat a return to teens cruising in the neighborhood. Cruisers, back in the 1990s, brought noise, crime and vandalism, and removing the restrictions could well bring a swift and dangerous return of the practice.
“For me, you say that cruising won’t come back,” Snawder said. “I don’t think we can sit here with a straight face and say it won’t happen again.”
But to take such a fatalistic view of where the neighborhood might go with the removal of a few dozen parking signs that have been largely ignored for more than a decade is to consign the resurgent Broad Street corridor and its life-giving businesses to die a slow, choked death as customers abandon the area in frustration, said an united group of about a half-dozen business owners and an equal number of Fan District residents at the meeting.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand about your rationale,” said Carol Piersol, artistic director for the Firehouse Theatre Project, which shares a block with The Camel, a music venue and restaurant near Lombardy Street where the current controversy erupted on March 31. “If you’re saying it may come back, it hasn’t been there.”
Piersol made the point, as did many others opposing the regulations, that cruising by teens in cars hadn’t been a problem for so long that many people had forgotten the reason for the restrictions in the first place.
And citing issues of safety for customers and employees walking after-hours to their cars on surrounding Fan District side streets — as well as worries that parking restrictions might encourage more drunken driving — business owners say sudden enforcement of long-dormant restrictions has already badly cut into their businesses’ bottom lines.
“I’ve noticed a big difference since the ticketing started,” said Chad Stambaugh, owner of Emilio’s, a Spanish tapas bar and music venue at Broad and Meadow streets.
Residents’ concerns mostly mirrored those of businesses, with both groups — often on opposing sides of disputes — imploring city officials to do away with the restrictions.
“The reason there was a cruising problem 10 or 15 years ago was because there were no businesses on West Broad Street,” said Alyse Auernheimer, president of the West Grace Street Association, which has come out vocally in opposition to the parking restrictions.
But Richmond Police Major Mike Shamus, who is the ranking official overseeing the corridor, said residents should think twice before seeking to lift the restrictions.
“I can tell you there is still cruising that goes on on Broad Street,” Shamus said.
The fuss began in March, when police, responding to a single citizen complaint from two weeks earlier, began ticketing cars in front of The Camel. During the dust-up, the club’s owner, Rand Burgess, was arrested and charged with obstruction. Burgess has disputed the charge that he was obstructing police, countering that he was seeking leniency from officers so his customers had time to move their cars.
During today’s meeting, Burgess — who has collected more than 1,100 signatures on an online petition that calls for an end to the parking restrictions — read aloud a June 2000 letter of support from then-Mayor Tim Kaine seeking a variance to allow the Firehouse Theatre to operate in spite of the parking restrictions. By the time of his letter, the cruising issue had already faded to mostly memory.
“Unfortunately, most of the properties in the area could be used for little more than storage facilities,” Kaine wrote, without opening up the parking to allow access to businesses that were beginning to open and to revitalize the area.
Burgess suggested that the letter “may have sparked the non-enforcement” of the ordinance back then.
And most residents and business owners now seem to agree that things along West Broad have only continued to improve since Kaine’s letter.
Second District City Councilman Charles Samuels, in whose district much of the affected neighborhoods are located, said he had already taken action to try and resolve the restriction controversy to the satisfaction of business owners and residents. It was Samuels’ response to a citizen complaint in March that initially triggered the renewed police enforcement of the signs.
Samuels told residents he’d drafted a resolution asking the administration of Mayor Dwight C. Jones to take action on the issue within 45 days. Samuels says he chose that route, rather than seeking to have Council amend the ordinance, because a new ordinance would necessarily take 60 days to move through the legislative process.
“Council can do it like two and a half months from now,” Samuels said. “Administration can do it tonight.”
As the meeting concluded, it was Auernheimer who sought at least a temporary assurance of a reprieve: “Can we please agree to stop ticketing until this whole issue is taken care of?
Snawder said he’d already instructed his officers not to do any “directed patrols” or ticketing of cars inside the 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. parking-restriction areas.
Burgess suggested that in the meantime, police had little to worry about.
“Your best police is your community,” Burgess said. “We protect and serve our customers unequivocally.”