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A gas station on Main Street threatens to destroy a virtual museum of late 19th-century architecture. 

An Accident Waiting to Happen

There's an accident about to happen in the Fan at the intersection of North Shields and West Main. It's not a collision between vehicles, but the possibility that something else will careen into the neighborhood: Something that can't be swept clean with a tow truck or push broom.

A bulldozer on-site in the 2200 block of West Main foreshadows construction of a new Rennie's pumping station, carwash and convenience mart. This brilliantly colorful, but garish and inappropriate piece of highway culture will crash into a highly urban stretch that contains some of the Fan's oldest and most charming buildings and most popular restaurants. There is a mixture of houses and small retail businesses that give this block — like others along Main, a distinctive small-town feel. With most of the properties in the Fan north spiraling upward in value, Main has seen increasing rehabilitation in recent years. A glaring gas station and convenience store would set things back a decade.

How could this happen in the Fan, a neighborhood that is so essential to our city's texture and quality? This huge historic district has long been a financial and physical anchor of stability. In addition to imaginatively restored townhouses and a wealth of restaurants, it's a place where residents have pulled together to make William Fox Elementary and Binford Middle schools into points of pride and not academies of despair.

So what's wrong with a gas station? We all need petrol, cigarettes, snacks and soft drinks. But not in this spot. Not when the 2200 block of Main is this close to a complete turnaround.

Besides, there's another service station/convenience store just two blocks away at Meadow and Cary. And there are others along Broad. If Fan habitués need to make an ice and beer run, they're covered.

The sad truth is, residents thought the vacant lot at the northwest corner of Main and Shields was safe from this kind of development.

Over the past few years, Fan residents held meetings more than 50 times and worked with urban-minded thinkers from Virginia Commonwealth University's department of urban planning and design to develop a neighborhood plan. Their highest priority was changing the zoning from a business to a special "urban business" designation such as Carytown and Strawberry Street. This prohibits over-the-sidewalk curb cuts and certain retailers — filling stations, fast foods and drive-through banks.

The Fan District Association approved this plan in December 1998. Three months later it was approved by Richmond City Council and included in the city master plan. The plan made rezoning the area a top priority.

This was in February 1999. Now, 18 months later, it's clear the city never rezoned the area. Rennie's crept in under the wire and the neighbors are ballistic, as well they should be.

Architecturally and from an urban design standpoint, there is little argument that this is the wrong thing. Sales volume would be the name of the game with traffic coming and going, bright lights, noise and delivery trucks at all hours.

What already exists on the 2200 block is the opposite. It is a virtual museum of late 19th-century architecture, an almost whimsical block, compared to the unrelenting blocks of mostly brick buildings that line other Fan streets. The Carpenter-style Italianate villa at 2226 W. Main St., built in 1857, is straight from the pages of a Downing pattern book. The block's small businesses and popular eateries filled with relaxed patrons enhance the character of the street. The oink-oink sounds of gasoline trucks at midnight, the bright, bright lights, the trash, who needs it?

This parcel might be designated for new urban construction — perhaps retail on the first level and residential or office use on the upper floor with parking in the rear.

It is disheartening that the thousands of citizen hours of input have come to this. The Fan District is not about highway culture — that's why people have invested here. That's why people live here. And that's why a drive-through carwash/convenience store/gas station/ beer stop has no place here.

Can we avoid an accident at Main and Shields? The Fan deserves
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