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Dispute over Brookland Park Boulevard parklet project stirs debate about politics, gentrification
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Dispute over Brookland Park Boulevard parklet project stirs debate about politics, gentrification

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The first major test of City Councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert’s stewardship of Richmond’s 3rd District is centering on Brookland Park Boulevard, a commercial strip in one of the city’s most rapidly gentrifying communities.

The thoroughfare in Richmond’s North Side, long home to Black-owned salons and barbershops, in recent years has seen vacant storefronts fill with a dog-washing parlor, a fitness studio and a kombucha shop, among others.

The longtime middle- and working-class Black stronghold is seeing more and more white families move into homes flipped by developers, driving up real estate assessments and driving conversations about walkability and protected bike lanes as newcomers join the ranks of area civic associations.

Al Muhammad, whose family owns a takeout restaurant on the boulevard, appreciates the growing diversity, but said he and others are beginning to find some changes grating. He says civic group leaders and some business owners went too far trying to replace a few of the limited on-street parking spaces in the heart of the neighborhood with curb bump-outs and a “parklet,” a public patio-like structure in the parking lane. Supporters say it would calm speeding motorists and make the area more inviting and livable.

“It’s just not conducive to our circumstances as far as parking is concerned,” he said.

Lambert recently intervened after Muhammad submitted a petition that she said had more than 1,000 signatures. That compelled the Department of Public Works to pave over six of the 14 new bump-outs and put a hold on the parklet project weeks before it was scheduled for installation across from Ms. Bee’s Juice Bar, a Black-owned business.

Some are livid, saying that their civic associations were not consulted before the city changed course on those plans. Muhammad, on the other hand, said it was a victory for longtime residents who feel they were being ignored and usurped by newer community members.

“There’s a disconnect,” he said. “There’s two different worlds on Brookland Park Boulevard: You have the gentrification world that’s mostly Caucasian. And then you have people who have been here, working and struggling through the highs and lows, that are mostly Black.”

The tension came to a head Sept. 30 at a community meeting Lambert held to discuss the city’s decision to freeze the parklet project and remove the bump-outs.

Brandi Battle-Brown, the owner of Ms. Bee’s, sought to build the parklet after hearing about five others the city built earlier this year as part of a program with the nonprofit Venture Richmond.

She said that change is inevitable, and that Muhammad opposes her project because of an inability to imagine what benefits it could yield for the neighborhood and its entrepreneurs, both Black and white.

“This is going to be the new Carytown whether people like it not,” she said. “Businesses are doing great over here right now. ... I chose this location because I’m a real estate agent as well. I knew being here would be a great opportunity. Businesses are growing.”

Growth has amplified parking challenges along the corridor crossing historic neighborhoods that formed as one of North Richmond’s first streetcar suburbs.

Over the past decade, the white population tripled to 1,700 people in the surrounding Brookland Park, North Barton Heights and Ginter Park Terrace neighborhoods, 2020 U.S. census data shows. In the same period, the Black population decreased about 40% to 2,700 people, as the overall population declined by about 150 people.

A 2018 parking study commissioned by the city found that there’s usually ample parking along the side streets and a few blocks away from the busy commercial core, but that perceptions about tight parking supply comes from the city’s “inadequate management” of on-street parking. Tension over solutions to the problem simmers.

Lambert, the daughter of Benjamin Lambert, a longtime state senator who died in 2014, grew up in the area and said changes along Brookland Park Boulevard concern her. “I see how gentrification is pushing out the culture that was once there, and I want to make sure that’s not lost,” she said in an interview.

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Battle-Brown won a $20,000 grant from AARP and privately raised $4,000 to build a parklet in front of her business. HKS Architects, working pro bono, drew up the designs for a rectangular, 28-foot-long, 6½-foot-wide structure incorporating a yellow honeycomb-shaped design on its sides.

As the plans wound through City Hall, people along Brookland Park Boulevard debated over whether the new curb bump-outs the city installed the year before were worth the loss of eight or so parking spaces. The city said the businesses that had them in front of their stores were responsible for cutting the grass in them. Some didn’t and it became overgrown. Customers complained about it being hard to find parking. Doubled-parked cars blocked travel lanes.

Nonetheless, more than a dozen people and the North Barton Heights Civic Association wrote letters in support of the parklet project, which city officials estimated would take up two parking spaces. Muhammad and others said only a few people knew about those plans before the city’s Urban Design Committee in April voted to recommend their approval by city planners.

Publicly shared renderings of the parklet, however, did prompt some people to raise concerns.

Willie Hilliard, who is executive director of the Historic Brookland Park Collective and whom Lambert defeated in last year’s council election, wrote an email to city officials in April about the parklet, suggesting that the city remove one of the bump-outs and replace it with the parklet to avoid taking away more parking spaces.

Battle-Brown said city officials told her they were reluctant to demolish any of the bump-outs at the time, but she said she reached consensus with some business and property owners to shift the parklet across the street in front of an abandoned theater.

News then started to spread about it through the community. The project backers started to plan its installation in time for a community block party last month. That’s when Lambert got involved.

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At the start of the 3rd District meeting Sept. 30, Lambert said she had become concerned that the city and civic associations had failed to adequately engage many residents before those projects were approved.

Both she and Bobby Vincent, director of the city’s Public Works Department, also raised concerns about the parklet giving rise to vagrancy, drug abuse, prostitution and petty crime that they said is already commonplace in the area.

Several civic association leaders said they were not consulted about those last-minute changes to projects they had supported. Some questioned whether Lambert and Vincent were using widely held concerns about poverty and other social ills to inappropriately order last-minute changes. There also were questions about why the city spent nearly $20,000 to undo part of a project that cost the city $300,000 in taxpayer money.

A few people also have noted that the removal of some bump-outs did not restore parking spaces, as they had been situated near fire hydrants and other no-parking zones.

It’s unclear how many parking spaces were restored. “No real answer here,” Vincent said in an email. “It really depends on the size of vehicles, motorcycles, SUV’s, small hybrids. All play a role in the space counts.”

“What’s problematic to me is the lack of transparency and communication,” said Carra Rose, vice president of the Battery Park Association.

Hilliard and a few others said they’re also skeptical about Muhammad’s petition.

“The councilwoman is basing her actions on this petition that no one has seen,” Hilliard said.

(The Richmond Times-Dispatch was unable to independently verify the authenticity of the petition.)

Muhammad said he finds it offensive that Hilliard and civic groups would try to discount the opinion of longtime residents. He said that’s why he and others in the neighborhood recently formed a new group, the Northside Senate, to gather the signatures and improve representation of the community.

“They set up their own civic associations and groups ... based upon the newness, the gentrification. They don’t incorporate the old,” he said. “We’re not going to allow it to happen, as if we don’t exist.”

But Hilliard and Rose, who worked on his campaign, said they think Lambert’s decision to pause the project is rooted in personal bias.

Minutes after the contentious community meeting, Lambert said many of the people who were upset and speaking loudly at it had supported Hilliard’s campaign last year. “He lost. And it’s just sad,” she said as she ended the livestream of the meeting.

Allan-Charles Chipman, a progressive activist whom she was speaking to at that moment, said he found it alarming that she would seem dismissive of constituents, even if they had been supportive of her rival before.

“At some point, you got to turn off the politics button and turn on the governance and leadership,” said Chipman, who ran and lost against Councilwoman Ellen Robertson in the city’s 6th District last year. “You can’t just be loyal to the people who voted for you.”

Lambert did not respond to questions about whether she advocated for a pause on the project because of a bias against certain constituents.

Battle-Brown said she is planning to have a meeting with Lambert soon to discuss whether the parklet can still rise.

Muhammad said he and others intend to keep protesting.

“There’s just no place for it,” he said.

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