Residents have come to expect loud voices from bars, streets crammed with cars and alleyways smelling like urine, says Patricia Daniels, head of the Fan District Association's ABC committee. But, she says, "I think you're now getting people who've had enough."
More than half the homes along the stretch along Main Street from the Boulevard to Meadow Street are occupied by their owners, an extraordinarily high rate for a high-traffic, mixed-use area, says Roger York, senior planner for the city. Scattered among the 148 houses in the area are 14 office buildings, 23 businesses and 12 restaurants, according to city records.
Now residents and restaurant owners are questioning what Main Street will become: a stable, thriving neighborhood where homes and restaurants co-exist, or the new Shockoe Bottom a club-focused, noisy nightlife center.
Brad Bellows, agent of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, is the man officially responsible for smoothing relations between people who live on Main Street and people who make money there.
Bellows' job is to handle complaints from residents and make sure his ABC licensees violate no laws. But few residents turn to him when they have concerns, Bellows says. Most of the anonymous complaints he receives turn out to be from competing restaurateurs.
"It all boils down to competition," he says. "We have to check both sides of it and make sure fairness is being done. Don't want to hit a licensee for a supposed or alleged violation if it didn't truly happen."
Here's the way it's supposed to work, Bellows explains: Once a valid complaint is received, the agent will work with the establishment to find a solution. An ABC agent can't storm into a noisy bar and demand that the owner turn down the music, but he or she can act as a mediator.
For instance, Bellows says, after receiving noise complaints he may ask an owner to close an outside patio earlier, at 11 p.m. instead of midnight "something to show the public that the licensee understands and is willing to do something to help correct the issues."
This mediation works, he says. "Normally, nine times out of 10, it corrects the problem." If the owner of an establishment refuses to comply with an ABC agent's requests, or the number of complaints keeps mounting, "the public has the option of bringing up the charges against the licensee through me," he explains.
Bringing charges means the ABC will notify the licensee to appear for a hearing. Bellows describes it not as a legal proceeding but as a chance for the restaurant owner and the complainant "to discuss how they're operating their business."
"Just one individual could do it," Bellows says. But no one does. "I've had numerous complaints and I've had to go out and make the peace with the licensees," Bellows says, "but as far as anyone formally moving it to a hearing, that has not happened." He guesses people either don't know they have that power or are afraid to get involved.
But the problem goes deeper than that, the Fan District's Daniels says. "The ABC Board is really not resident-friendly," she says. For example, she asks, how is a resident who works full time supposed to request and attend a hearing that takes place during business hours?
It takes a great deal of effort to get the ABC to investigate an establishment, York attests. For one thing, ABC agents have large areas to cover. The bars on Main Street are only a few of the 115 licensees for which Bellows is responsible. The ABC won't do anything, York says, unless someone else takes the trouble to monitor a place continuously, write down every perceived violation and aggressively report it to the police.
Community leaders have realized that they need a better way for residents and restaurant owners to communicate. That's where Kevin Daley steps in. Six months ago, Daley was elected president of Your Neighbors Uptown, the community association that represents the neighborhood surrounding West Main Street. Daley has assigned himself the job of getting restaurant owners and residents to work out their concerns in meetings, instead of filing anonymous complaints or grumbling among themselves.
He wants to "try to get these guys and girls involved in the neighborhood association," he says, "cause I think that'll help alleviate some of this strife that's been going on."
Daley has a long way to go. Currently, only two restaurants are members of Your Neighbors Uptown: Davis & Main and Stella's, both quiet establishments that don't typically draw complaints. For a kickoff meeting two weeks ago, Daley sent out 300 postcards to all the addresses in the district, residential and commercial alike. Two restaurant owners showed up, Daley says.
"I think someday, you'll see Main Street be a neighborhoody kind of place," says Mark Brandon, owner of Davis & Main at 2501 W. Main St. Changes could come about in little ways, he says if bar owners sweep their own steps, if the ABC monitors bars more closely, or if Main Street becomes two-way again to slow traffic, as some hope. It'll take a while to get that sense of community, Brandon says. " 'Cause I don't think a lot of bar owners are civically minded these days."
Wayne Street, a partner in Easy Street at 2401 W. Main St., agrees that relationships need improvement. "We want to be good neighbors to everybody," he says of his establishment, which draws crowds of students and is known as one of the liveliest in the area. Easy Street is often blamed for a significant portion of noise and parking problems in the area but, says Street, "I think most of the complaints are frivolous. I know some that come from a competitor who's, I think, a little jealous of our business."
Davis & Main's Brandon and Easy Street's Street seem to be talking about each other. And Daley knows he has his work cut out for him if he wants to make neighbors out of rivals. But, he says, "I don't know what happened in the past. I don't really care what happened in the past." It's time, he believes, for everyone to say, "Let's help develop Main Street together." S
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