Just west of the Boulevard, the infamous area known as the Devil's Triangle hopes to shed its scary image for the cachet of a Park Avenue address.
Strange tales of the Bermuda Triangle may have begun more than 500 years ago when Columbus saw curious lights in the sky as his ship sailed the Atlantic. The next day, it's said, the explorer spied the Americas on the horizon. But the invisible triangle from Bermuda to Puerto Rico to Miami was made famous by myriad tales of danger and the unexplained disappearance of boats and planes which peaked in the 70s that traveled from shore to shore.
Richmond has its own Bermuda Triangle or Devil's Triangle: the corner of North Sheppard Street at Park Avenue, just west of the Boulevard. By many accounts, strange things have happened here for more than 50 years.
Now locals in the area say that's about to change. Anchored with a plan for revitalization, business owners and residents hope to dispel the devilish reputation that keeps the neighborhood adrift in its past. With 43 new street lights that line sidewalks with old-fashioned flair and a $300,000 price tag they're off to a good start. And if a crisp corner cafe and hip specialty shops perk up the triangle's appeal, it could be another touted destination spot like Carytown. But if history repeats itself, this gilded vision for a new Devil's Triangle quickly could turn into a mirage.
In the mid-'70s Michael Joseph would run to his father's restaurant, The Tiki, as soon as school let out. "We couldn't wait to get down here as teen-agers to hear about what happened the night before," Joseph says excitedly. The Tiki, The Ritz and The Rainbow Inn comprised the three-pointed triangle at the corner of Sheppard and Park.
A shy distance from Broad and the Boulevard, the triangle was famous then as a hangout for motorcycle gangs like the Confederate Angels. It was a rough corner, where the carousing and drug traffic outside were as regular as the daily specials indoors. Joseph remembers a 6-foot-6-inch man once threatened to go after his father, Junior Joseph, with a chain saw. One night, a man's leg was cut off when his car crashed into a telephone pole in front of the old Rainbow Inn.
"It's always been a blue-collar neighborhood of mostly bars," says Joseph. "People still don't know if some of the stories are myth or not."
Twenty years later, the pull of this Bermuda Triangle has Joseph following in his father's footsteps. If city-chic cuisine attracts a more upscale crowd, Joseph and his partner, Geoff Royster, hope their restaurant will add cachet to the corner as a little urban business district.
Today, Joseph is back in his father's old haunt the building most recently known as The Felix. Its history dates to the '40s when it was the Rolling Pin Bakery the impression of the name still can be seen in the window. Like his father, Joseph wants to clean up the neighborhood.
Bertie Selvey, a neighbor and member of the West of the Boulevard Civic Association, hopes Joseph and his restaurant will do just that. "The neighborhood's ready for a shot in the arm," says Selvey, who claims that even with the area's dubious reputation, the property value of her house has nearly tripled since she bought it in 1982. Selvey says, too, that problems like drunken behavior and crime associated with anchors like the 7-Eleven and Cafe 21 are exaggerated. "They attract a questionable clientele and an awful lot of litter, but it doesn't feel like a scary place."
Joseph is waiting for the boom. "People tell us every day we're crazy for coming here," he laughs. "But this is going to be the next hub. We're still half a restaurant as far as I'm concerned," he says, anxious for his ABC license and patio dining approval. "The food and atmosphere we're creating is like Mamma 'Zu."
Councilman John Conrad and WOBCA hope to give the neighborhood the shot in the arm Selvey says it needs: support and money. They have worked with Joseph and property owner Bedros Bandazian to attract retail stores such as a florist and a coffee shop and foot traffic to the troubled triangle. "Historically, perceptions die hard," says Conrad, "but we're in a transition of changing that." Notably, in June, the street lights were added to increase visibility and deter crime and statistics from the Third Precinct show crime has decreased by nearly 50 percent since 1998.
Next on the WOBCA's agenda is an effort to raise money through donations for benches and the planting of trees. So far, $1,500 of the $15,000 needed has been raised. Conrad plans to add to this fund discretionary money set aside by City Council for the 1st District. Eventually, the sidewalks will be fixed and telephone poles will be placed underground. It is likely, says Conrad, that the WOBCA will change its name to the Museum District or a more museum-linked hybrid name. "Our vision is to create a little urban village," says Conrad.
Still, the task requires more than aesthetics. For Bandazian, a developer and owner of many properties on Sheppard, including Park Avenue Grill, it has been a challenge more than 20 years in the making. "It has had all the ingredients for it to work," Bandazian says of the area's chances to become the next Strawberry Street or Carytown. "There's a quirk in this city. It has not recognized its urban assets yet that each neighborhood is a viable entity."
Bandazian and his associate, Richard Holden, claim the city keeps business owners bridled. "You have to jump through a lot of hoops for special use or variance permits," says Bandazian. And Bandazian says some permit requirements, like parking, are the same as those in the counties where space isn't a factor. Bandazian and Holden feel the city should change permit criteria to encourage rather than deter urban business owners.
Holden knows firsthand business here can be risky.
In 1982, as the Fan developed rapidly, he thought the time was right for the Devil's Triangle. "I thought sure it would spill across the Boulevard. I thought we'd be on the cutting edge with the classic neighborhood restaurant," says Holden. "But it was a hell-raising corner and we couldn't get police attention."
Today, a new vision seems to be in focus. And with the completion next year of Kensington Court, a 117-unit complex of upscale apartments in the old Kensington Gardens, increased foot traffic and more disposable income is apparent. "The momentum is there now with support of Conrad and WOBCA," says Bandazian. "We can attract the fledgling entrepreneur and charge half the rent of Carytown."
Currently, The Ritz, once a problem-ridden bar, is the only vacant spot in the triangle's scope. And Joseph says the business that moves in could make or break the neighborhood.
Still, he waits for Devil's Triangle to take another shape. There haven't been any strange stories reported lately. And like Columbus, Bandazian sees something promising on the horizon.
"The success of it is that the next generation continues and keeps the visionary focus," says Bandazian. "It's like a Monopoly game, and these properties are Baltic and Mediterranean avenues. You have to realize their