Residents and business owners say they're ready to wage war on the city and the company that plans to build a gas station on West Main Street in the Fan. 

Pumped Up

Main Street businessmen Mark Brandon and Ed Eck are fired up and it isn't over the hike in gasoline prices.

Instead, they're fired up over a gas station they say has no business moving in where it's not wanted, even if the company paid nearly $372,000 to do so.

Brandon and Eck are mustering support for a lawsuit against the city and a boycott of all Rennie's stores — the petroleum company that claims more than 16 gas stations and convenience shops in the Richmond area.

The trouble started when word got out that the lot, being informally used for parking at Shields Avenue and Main Street in the Fan, was being developed into a Rennie's gas station complete with car wash, beer and wine sales, lottery tickets, prepared food and bright neon lighting — all elements believed by neighbors to contribute to excessive noise, traffic, trash and disorderly conduct.

Your Neighbors Uptown, the coalition of residents and business owners that includes Brandon and Eck, is fighting back. And its strategy is twofold: smack the city with a lawsuit and protest a business it claims cares nothing for its neighbors.

The association charges that Rennie's owner, Don Rennie, knew of the neighbors' adamant opposition to the service station and the city's plan to rezone the area, but went ahead speedily with plans to construct a gas station and convenience store even when other profitable uses for the property were suggested.

Neither Don Rennie nor Garland Watkins, executives at Rennie's Petroleum, returned calls for comment. As of presstime, Rennie's had not yet applied with the city for its building permit.

Even though the neighborhood group opposes the station and plans to boycott all Rennie's and its associated products, it ultimately holds the city responsible for what it sees as unnecessary neglect.

Your Neighbors Uptown claims the city ignored the recommendation of the "West Main Street Corridor Plan" that City Council passed more than a year ago. The plan calls for West Main Street to be rezoned from a B3 business district like Midlothian Turnpike to a more pedestrian- friendly Urban Business (UB) designation like Carytown and Strawberry Street. As a UB-zoned area, drive-through businesses like gas stations and fast-food restaurants are prohibited.

The association contends that because the city languished too long to make the zoning changes it promised, a new Rennie's can be built in accordance with B3 zoning laws. Now Your Neighbors Uptown plans to sue the city and protest the business it claims will devastate a neighborhood that took years to build up.

Mark Strickler, director of the city's department of Community Development, says it's a complaint he hears too often. Still, speeding up the rezoning process, despite a city plan passed by City Council, is no easy task, particularly in an office already overloaded and understaffed.

"It's on our to-do list," says Strickler about rezoning West Main Street, but concedes that until City Council makes it a priority, it will continue to fall behind other projects in which application fees have been paid and construction is ready to go. Right now, Strickler says, the property is zoned for a service station and it's completely lawful for Rennie's to move ahead with its plans. "There isn't anything we can do," Strickler says.

But Your Neighbors Uptown's Eck does plan to do something.

"We are going to court to win," says Ed Eck, president of Eck Supply and Eck Enterprises and a member of the neighborhood watchdog group. Eck owns nearly 50 properties in the area (including the building which houses Style Weekly's offices) and contends his investments might easily lose value because of the proposed gas station.

"Somebody dropped the ball and it's a huge liability," he says of the city's tarrying to rezone West Main Street. Now, he says, the only way to stop Rennie's from building its station is to sue for a court injunction that forbids granting the petroleum company a building permit. "Public sentiment is one thing, but it doesn't mean things get stopped through an outpouring of public will. That's why we're going to court for a remedy," says Eck.

Mayor Tim Kaine hopes a remedy is found short of a lawsuit. Kaine openly confesses the city should have moved more quickly to adopt the recommendations of the "West Main Street Corridor Plan" and rezone the area before the problem spun out of control; but he admonishes Rennie's for not responding to the concerns of its neighbors. "It didn't get acted on quickly enough and that's our fault," says Kaine. "But there's something about being a good neighbor. This could present the company with a P.R. nightmare."

It's a nightmare already envisioned by Kristie Swenson every time she thinks of the gas station that likely will move across the street from her Shields Avenue home.

"We've all seen by virtue of living in the city what happens when a gas station goes in the neighborhood," says Swenson, 34, who purchased her home across from the lot under the assumption that the area already had been rezoned to UB status. "And now, I'm thinking this is pretty risky for kids," says Swenson about the traffic, late hours, alcohol sales and litter the business could bring. "It's just a fragile neighborhood," says Swenson. "Given a little nudging it could go back to being bad."

Still, it's a fight Brandon and Eck say they'll pursue to the bitter end. Thursday, June 15th Brandon will lead a protest against the gas station at its proposed Main Street site beginning at 5:30 p.m. "Right now we're kind of nowhere," says Brandon of a meeting last week with Kaine, Rennie, Brandon and Pam Daniels of the Fan District Association to reach a compromise.

"There's no common ground," says Brandon. "This is the most important issue that faces the Fan," says Brandon. "And we're prepared to give them as bad P.R. as we can."

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