Hanging On 

The city has tried everything to spark an economic revival on East Broad Street - except help the very businesses that call it home.

Abdullah and his wife, Eunis, are guardedly optimistic about the future. All the new condo development around them should eventually drive new business their way, they figure. There's also a high-end restaurant opening a block over. But it's been two years since the city relocated the Madyuns from 6th Street Marketplace to make way for its demolition — and planned redevelopment. And Bridges, aptly named for the marketplace's signature glass-enclosed crosswalk, hasn't been the same since.

"The city has done some terrible things to us," Abdullah says. "But we have to keep pressing on. We don't give up, we just keep struggling."

They were the last to leave the marketplace, along with the operators of about 12 other businesses who stuck it out until the bitter end. The city pitched in with a modest relocation package, but the move created higher rent and lower foot traffic. A hot condominium market, mostly west of the Madyuns' shop, is spiking real estate values in the area. The Madyuns are now paying an additional $1,300 a month to stay on Broad.

While most downtown observers viewed 6th Street Marketplace as a failure, Bridges attracted a steady stream of customers, according to its owners. Now there are days that go by with nary a ring of the cash register.

"We don't have the money to stay or leave," says Eunis, who holds out hope that her more than a decade old business will pick up as plans for Broad progress — the performing arts center, the Miller & Rhoads hotel and all the new condos. Unlike the other retail and residential developments the city covets, however, Bridges is getting little attention from Richmond officials, the Madyuns say.

They're not advocating handouts, they say, and they knew the risks when they ventured out on their own. But they can't understand why the city doesn't invest a little more in operations such as theirs. Maybe put more police on the street to make patrons feel safer, clean the sidewalks and trim the weeds along the median. They "are not giving us any incentive to expand," Eunis complains. "They have just dropped us."

Most of the retailers along East Broad Street tell a similar story. For more than 20 years, city leaders and civic boosters have shepherded one big project after another with dreams of reviving downtown, whether it's the performing arts complex, an expanded convention center, the Miller & Rhoads hotel or the failed marketplace. None of the big projects, however, placed any emphasis on the existing retailers along Broad who cater, in large part, to a low-income African-American demographic.

In the case of 6th Street Marketplace, which opened in 1985, there were some initial good intentions. City leaders demanded that the marketplace reserve at least 15 percent of its store and floor spaces for minority-owned businesses. Led by then-Councilman Henry Marsh, the effort was the result of a growing fear that white suburban chains would unfairly dominate the shopping center.

In hindsight, the measure reveals how grossly out of touch city leaders were. One truism in real estate has it that retail follows rooftops — that is, it's the residents who spark business growth, not the other way around. In a city with a majority black population and a large low- to moderate-income demographic, the marketplace might have more aptly set aside 15 percent of the store spaces for the suburban chains it assumed would inundate the marketplace.

Instead of letting new businesses cater to existing residents, however, the city hoped to use 6th Street to keep Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads department stores downtown and recapture the suburban shoppers who had fled the area.

While 6th Street started out with a variety of small, independent entrepreneurs, many of whom eventually moved to Carytown, it didn't produce the immediate jolt of economic vitality the city and its developer, the late James W. Rouse, predicted.

Instead of letting new businesses cater to existing residents, the city hoped to use 6th Street as a destination retail center, with more upscale stores such as Ralph Lauren, to attract shoppers from beyond downtown.

That wasn't working when Robert Bobb became Richmond's city manager in 1986. The city was at odds with the small, independent retailers that had become the city's lifeblood. Merchants were dropping off, and some filed lawsuits against the city and Rouse's development firm. They cited poor heating and air conditioning, but more significantly they complained that Rouse's foot-traffic projections were remarkably off-base, and that mall management wasn't doing enough to promote and market 6th Street. In return, many didn't make enough to pay rent.

In 1987, the city moved to take greater control of the marketplace. Under Bobb's direction, the city pushed even harder to attract upscale retailers, such as Ralph Lauren, in an effort to create a true "destination" retail center that would bring back suburban shoppers.

ou can't bring anyone back," says Barksdale "Barky" Haggins, who has been doing business on Broad Street for 50 years. Haggins knows something about destination retail. His gospel music shop, Barky's Spirituals, attracts pastors and preachers from all over metro Richmond and across the state.

On a recent December afternoon, a preacher from West Virginia is in the store trying on choir robes, a specialty of Barky's, which offers custom-made robes — "not off the rack" robes like other stores, says Apostle Raymond Woodbury of the Mt. Olive Congregation Church of God on Second Street.

"He used to just sell gospel records and it grew from there," says Woodbury, who introduced Haggins to the preacher from West Virginia. "He has a very unique business."

Through the years, Haggins learned to diversify. He started selling a variety of music, but when he focused on gospel, business blossomed. He now sells all sorts of religious merchandise, mostly targeted to African-American churches, from choir robes to hymn books to sheet music and church office supplies.

At 73, Haggins bounces around the shop like a man 20 years younger. He breaks into a wide smile when a reporter reminds him that most civic leaders have written off Broad as center for retail.

"You've got to put the business where the neighborhoods are," Haggins says. "This is ideal for this area."

He balks at the notion that Broad Street needs a savior. "There's nothing to be saved," Haggins says. "It's just in transition."

At Third and Broad streets, Rainbow Shops Inc. sells women and children's clothing — and business couldn't be better, says the store's manager, Bridget (she declined to give her last name). Sales are up about 25 percent over 2004, she says, and out of nearly a thousand Rainbow stores in the United States and Puerto Rico, she says, the Broad Street location ranked sixth in sales for the month of November.

"Business is booming," says Bridget, but she speculates that it could be even greater if the city police would patrol the streets better and respond to shoplifting calls in a reasonable amount of time. Usually, Bridget says, it takes more than two hours for police to respond, although the Grace Street headquarters is five blocks away.

"If I were to catch a shoplifter in here now, it would be 4 o'clock" before they arrived, Bridget says on a busy December afternoon, at about 1:30. "The police officers, they don't come down here."

Mostly women work at the store, and Bridget says it's simply too dangerous to try to hold a shoplifter that long. Typically, she'll ask for the merchandise back and ban the shoplifter from the store.

Next door, at the International Exchange, which sells urban-chic apparel for men, store manager Shaan Raj echoes the sentiment. It's not uncommon to find drug dealers selling on the sidewalk, Raj says. That, along with Broad's ragtag exterior, scares away potential customers. "The police presence is basically nothing here," Raj says, shaking his head in disbelief: How can there not be more police around here? Especially considering the millions spent on new development on the next block.

Still, he says his business is often brisk, though it could be better. And he thinks other businesses could do the same under the right conditions — with more attention from police and more spaces for retailers like his.

"There should be a retail atmosphere here," he says. "I think they forgot about this area. I hear a lot about what they are trying to do, but I don't see nothing."

The current projects aimed at reviving Broad probably wouldn't help his business anyhow. He doubts patrons of the performing arts complex will exit a show and stop in for a pair of baggy jeans or a throwback basketball jersey (International Exchange closes at 8 p.m. during the week and 6 p.m. Sundays). After pondering a moment, he admits that "the convention center didn't really help" his business, either.

am a survivor. I really appreciate the convention center," says a bubbly Sunny Kim, owner of Sunny Men's Wear, the last retail store on Broad abutting the convention center.

But it's difficult to see why. With the exception of Kim and his wife, the store is empty on a recent afternoon. "Frankly, business in all areas is down," Kim says, flipping his thumb downward. Business is dreadfully slow, he says, much slower than during his former days at 6th Street Marketplace or when he was across the street.

The convention center takes up the entire block next to his, serving as a buffer — a "dead space," in urban-planning jargon. Along the street, the convention center's doors are locked during the weekday.

John Accordino, an urban studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the convention center's Broad Street fa‡ade appears to be a "design flaw." It should have included spaces for small retailers, he says, which would complement the businesses on Broad and give conventioneers a place to shop.

"What faces Broad Street is pretty much a block of dead space where during the normal business day nothing is happening," Accordino says. "It is not a design that invites activity; it's a design that pushes it away."

That's not by accident. Once plans to expand the Greater Richmond Convention Center were in place in the late 1990s, city leaders immediately got to work with a plan to "clean up" Broad Street, especially the blocks adjacent to the convention center — hence, the $66.7 million bond issue and the creation of the Broad Street Community Development Authority. Earlier this year the authority completed its streetscape work along Broad, which included tearing down 6th Street Marketplace and putting in new medians, sidewalks and better lighting.

It also pushed out the existing retailers. Accordino says that was a mistake.

"You're not supposed to wipe out what you have and start over," he says. "There is a reason why people are coming down there now. You always start with what you have, because there is some market logic working. You start with the little stuff and then you build on it."

Indeed, the little stuff appears to be about all that's working.

The performing arts complex planned for the former Thalhimers block has been shelved. After a protracted fight this summer, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and the Virginia Performing Arts Foundation are focusing on reopening the Carpenter Center. Meanwhile, the hole where Thalhimers once stood will become a temporary park. The $170 million convention center hasn't come close to meeting original projections in terms of drawing out-of-town conventioneers who spend money downtown and sleep in area hotels. And developers who plan to turn the old Miller & Rhoads at Fifth and Broad into an upscale hotel have had difficulty financing that project, which is now expected to open in 2008.

Yet Broad's low-rent retail district is still alive. This is true even after the city tore down 6th Street and moved the bus transfer station off of Broad in 2002 after some civic leaders complained that too many people were standing around waiting for buses just east of 6th Street, intimidating shoppers and downtown workers.

That the small retail businesses are staying afloat is a bit of a surprise to Robert Gibbs, an urban planning guru who specializes in downtown retail.

"It's almost impossible for small independents to work without a strong anchor," Gibbs says, especially in retail districts where shops close early in the evening, as they do on East Broad, missing out on 75 percent to 80 percent of the market. Most people shop after work, in the evening and on weekends.

Without a major anchor, such as a grocery store or department store, he says, downtown retail districts are almost certainly destined to fail.

Gibbs hasn't studied the Richmond market specifically. But, he says, if those retailers have managed to stay in business without an anchor, it seems to suggest something in the market is working. "They are serving a market that needs to shop somewhere," he says.

It may seem like a no-brainer, but it isn't.

Sook "Sue" and Woo Yi of King's Fish-N-Chicken Restaurant have been in business for 24 years. During the Ukrop's Christmas Parade, as on most weekdays, the place is packed with mostly black customers, many of them regulars. Business has almost always been good, says Sue Yi, who recalls no problems with crime or nonpaying customers. "Every day I see them just like a family," Yi says. "This restaurant just like home — they respect me, and they are very nice to me." Her only complaint is the lack of parking out front.

A few blocks down at 118 E. Broad St., John W. Goodman, president of Friedman's Loan Office, tells a different story. Business has been steadily dropping off, he says, as foot traffic has waned along Broad. Unlike 10 years ago, or even five years ago, the dwindling number of businesses has pushed his pawnshop to the brink.

"It's kind of getting dry and tough," says Goodman, a giant of a man who sits behind a mesh-wire screen counting money. "When you look at this block, and the two stores next to me are closed … when you have that many vacant buildings, there is just not that much foot traffic."

Across the street from the Madyuns' Bridges, the last block of East Broad is the closest to gentrification. The apartment and condo market along West Broad down to Belvidere has been steadily taking off. Businessman James Ukrop and local developer Robert Englander started buying property in the area several years ago and began slowly converting the buildings into apartments.

Now, as the condo market in Richmond and throughout much of the country takes off, developers are inching eastward. Just last week at Second and Broad, Washington, D.C., developer Douglas Jemal purchased the former United Way building across from the grand old Central National Bank, which he purchased in April. He plans to use both as part of a large-scale condo project.

In terms of economic development, the city can only gain from the condos on Broad. But it has the unintended effect of raising rents for the old guard, businesses such as Bridges, which will likely get pushed out by swankier developers and businesses. Where the city has failed, the condo market seems to be succeeding.

"Richmond just has a wonderful housing stock," says William Lucy, professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia. In Richmond, as in other cities with an abundance of historic architecture, traditional housing hasn't increased much over the last few decades, creating pent-up demand that's fueling the current condo boom.

"The number of housing units has not increased as much" as the number of jobs that have increased in the city, Lucy says. "That means there has not been a huge increase in the supply of housing sites in the city than in the past. Therefore, there is a big market for condominiums."

Lucy and his colleague David Phillips, also of U.Va., have been studying the condo market in Richmond for their book "Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs," which will be published in January. The market in Richmond, especially downtown, hasn't come close to reaching capacity, Lucy says.

Just as there is a need to balance the disparity in the housing market — where there is increasing demand for both high- and low-income housing — Accordino says the city needs to find a way to keep those low-income retail establishments in business.

One model that seems to work is specialized urban zoning that makes allowances for independent retailers. In Carytown, for instance, the city eased parking restrictions to encourage smaller retailers to move in.

There is a problem, however. First, city leaders must recognize the value in the smaller retailers who serve a low- to moderate-income demographic, Accordino says. Without them, it leaves a market void and takes out a vital economic bridge.

"Getting retail development without retail displacement … it's a tough problem to solve," Accordino says. "We're going to need better policies that allow lower-, moderate-income stores to survive. It's very difficult to do."

Especially when the demand for housing downtown is exploding. After all, who could blame Louis Adams, owner of Jefferson Loan Office at 10 E. Broad St., if he sold his building to a condo developer? He's been doing business on Broad for more than 30 years. He owns the building and has already been approached to sell.

"We have two buildings on this block that are luxury apartments. I don't know where the people are coming from," he says. "Things are happening in a positive way."

When the price is right, he plans to sell. He's in no rush, however. For reasons he can't explain, business has increased this year. "I'm not going to complain," he says. "I try to be patient." S



Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

  • Re: Switch Voter: A Richmond Businessman Leads a Made-For-TV Brigade of Trumpocrats

    • Rickers must have been undermining Democrats since he was 18...how many of those Dems got…

    • on October 24, 2016
  • Re: Library of Virginia Layoffs Will Hinder Open Government, Preservation of Historical Record

    • This is what happens when you elect a doofus who's is a politician first, and…

    • on October 23, 2016
  • Re: Switch Voter: A Richmond Businessman Leads a Made-For-TV Brigade of Trumpocrats

    • Donald Trump is a very bad candidate. But all the others are so much worse.

    • on October 23, 2016
  • More »
  • Latest in Cover Story

    More by Scott Bass

    Copyright © 2016 Style Weekly
    Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
    All rights reserved
    Powered by Foundation