May 27, 2009 News & Features » Cover Story


Show Stoppers 

From crack houses to bowling alleys: Is the city's heralded building code SWAT team slowly suffocating Richmond's cultural renaissance?

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It's just after high noon in Barton Heights. Under a bright Tuesday sun the Richmond police cruiser glides smoothly, silently to a curbside halt a half-block away from its unsuspecting target. Around the corner, another city car arrives equally silent. A big Chevrolet SUV belonging to a Richmond fire marshal already is here.

Across North Avenue, a dozen or so men and women lazing the day away on the porch of an old, rundown Victorian house look purposefully unconcerned about the show of force arriving across the street.

For Karen Watkins, a partner in W.S. Watkins and Son Funeral Home, there's no escaping the dragnet. Today is the day her illegal ballet studio goes down.

Twenty or so minutes later, Watkins stands outside, sharing smiles and polite but slightly nervous laughter with two police officers, a fire marshal and five other members of the city's 4th Precinct Community Assisted Public Safety program, known by its initials: CAPS.

The team found a variety of violations on the property, including the likelihood that Watkins' conversion of unused space on the second floor of the funeral home into a private ballet studio not only is a zoning violation — but also jeopardizes her conditional use permit to operate a funeral home there.

Watkins puts on a brave face, but it has not been a good day. She thought she was simply getting a return visit from the fire marshal, not the cavalry.

 “I think it's very overwhelming to see the mass of police officers, fire marshals,” she says — “I want to say intimidating, because you just don't know what people are going to find.” She acknowledges that her studio may not conform to city building and fire code requirements, but says she's searching hard to figure out how a dance studio used only by her could somehow be a community threat.

Richmond's CAPS program originated about eight years ago, an outgrowth of the community policing philosophy that the best way to fight crime is to attack its roots. The idea behind it is simple: that crime requires not just a victim and a criminal, but also a location. The program uses simple tools such as strict enforcement of existing building and fire codes and fines for unpaid taxes or fees to treat criminal infections that, left untreated, could sicken entire neighborhoods.

But over the years, this initial mission of attacking drug dens, boarded-up or abandoned houses, and other festering community eyesores has shifted ever so slightly.

The shift is still community-complaint driven, and still uses code violations to close down or clean up targeted properties. But those targets no longer necessarily harbor the same sort of drug or street crime that some people say was the original target of the program. Today, they might also be churches, art galleries or day-care centers.

It is 9 a.m. on a Tuesday and the 4th Precinct's CAPS team prepares to fight crime. Gathered around a long, cafeteria-style folding table in basement conference room G-12 of City Hall, it's briefing time for these seven men and women charged with not just fighting crime, but preventing it too.

The hum of an old refrigerator in the corner and the buzz of sterile fluorescent track lighting overhead compete with soft-spoken property maintenance inspector Michael Edwards as he addresses this unlikely band. They represent the best and brightest from the city's police department, finance department, community development, zoning administration, fire department and the state's office of environmental health.

Edwards reviews the day's targets: two illegal rooming houses in Barton Heights packed to the gills with tenants; a small restaurant in Bacon's Quarter that plays host to bands and unruly crowds; and a diner on Chamberlayne Avenue. Also on the list is the Watkins ballet bust. Edwards says that they've received an anonymous tip that the owner of a historic North Side funeral home is using the property to relieve job stress through her passion for classical ballet.

Make no mistake, what this group lacks in heavy armaments or toned physiques it more than makes up for in clipboarded checklists and a healthy grasp of the building code. But it's not firepower that team members take lightly, and they worry when they hear businesses might be getting the wrong sense about their mission.

“I think it's misunderstood what CAPS is all about,” Edwards says, while the meeting dissolves into an informal chat about why some businesses in the city have come to loathe a visit, and the often lengthy list of warnings or citations for all manner of tax, fire and code violations that often accompanies it. “We want to help you.”

But in the world of code enforcement, help is in the eyes of the beholder.

Even as the program has proven to be a uniquely effective tool in clearing out drug houses, prostitution and all kinds of unsavory activities in some of Richmond's struggling neighborhoods to the praise of residents and community leaders, some business owners wonder if the help being offered is in their best interest. Or in the interest of someone who doesn't approve of the city's current arts and music renaissance.

“CAPS is putting a cap on capitalism,” says Danny Ingram, owner of Community Chest, a concert booking agency. The program's activities of late seem targeted at small-time local music and arts promotion, he says, even as its enforcements against illegal boarding houses and neglected vacant property continue. Ingram's business has suffered a handful of canceled shows at venues hit by such enforcements — often on the day the show was to go on.

“They take action during business hours and in front of customers,” he says, pointing to numerous busts before or during performances that helped spell the end of the Artist Underground Cafe, a club once on Monument Avenue. “Christ! Send us a letter in the mail letting us know, or just one person to come speak with us! Then take action if we don't correct the issues. It's overkill to send in the cavalry and scare us into submission.”

Submission is literally the intent with the program. By sending in this cavalry, the goal is to interfere so much in the operation of an undesirable activity — like a drug house — as to make the perpetrators give up and move on.

Which is why the arts community sees more bullish enforcement by CAPS as a potential threat to the city's growing grass-roots arts movement.

“People are getting scared shitless,” Ingram says. “Business owners, we don't have an extra five or six grand sitting around to pay off these tickets that don't make any sense.”

The tickets for violations often are for blocked fire exits, inadequate occupancy permits or expired business licenses — often justified, he admits. But targeting a legitimate business and ticketing it for issues that could often be found in any building in the city is over the line, he says. Building and fire code issues are common to almost any building or business in the city, program officials acknowledge.

In the past few months, targets have included Rumors clothing boutique near Virginia Commonwealth University and the Plaza Bowl duckpin bowling alley at Southside Plaza. Both have featured live music shows mostly catering to twenty-something audiences. They're venues living double lives as concert spaces and a clothing store or bowling alley.

While CAPS officials don't see their enforcement efforts as untoward the way Ingram does, they acknowledge a recent special interest in what they say are businesses promoting activities for which they're not licensed.

“We'd like to thank Style magazine,” says Michael Gleason, chief of tax enforcement with the city's Department of Finance, also a member of the 4th Precinct team, referring to coverage of the local arts and culture community. He also credits the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a variety of alternative publications in the city for providing a convenient directory of potential violators among the arts and music scene.

Social networking sites, too, have made it easy to track people being overly creative with the use of their retail or commercial space, says Lt. William Andrews, an assistant fire marshal.

“When they start advertising one way or another, it makes it very easy,” Andrews says, calling bands playing in retail stores a red flag. “You hear about something and it sounds a little different — you check it out and see if there's any issues.”

Andrews says his initiation of an enforcement action against Plaza Bowl came after reading about bands playing there as part of Style Weekly's recent Music Issue, an annual feature that pays special attention to local bands, venues and musicians.

“If he'd applied for a permit for the stage … that's working in the right direction,” Andrews says of Plaza Bowl's business owner, Jim Szilagyi. “If he started using the stage [without a permit], that's a problem.”

In fact, that was exactly the problem at Plaza Bowl. When Szilagyi bought the struggling bowling alley, music became his financial salvation, inspiring him to tear up a few lanes in October and replace them with a raised stage area. He did it all without a permit, a situation he's trying to rectify.

“Arts and music is a big part of Richmond,” says tax man Gleason, a lifelong Richmonder with a love for the community's rich history and diversity of arts culture, pointing to the current success of the arts community in promoting itself to the betterment of downtown: “That's the best thing that's happened to Richmond is the blossoming. … we want to encourage it. We want to have more venues; we only want to make sure that they do it correctly.”

Szilagyi says he's trying, even as he works to save what likely is the 50-year-old Southside Plaza's only remaining original tenant.

“I think the city's been pretty reasonable with me,” he says, though he expressed reservations about talking because of concerns that his efforts to make amends might be stymied. “I didn't like it at first, but I understand why they're doing what they're doing.”

But what he didn't understand was the afternoon when city officials showed up on his door and didn't ask for bowling shoes and pitchers of Miller Lite.

“It seemed kind of crazy, the type of enforcement,” says Szilagyi, who likens his run-in with CAPS to a raid. He points out his door and across his parking lot to the rest of the long strip mall, filled with boarded-up stores and rent-to-own shops, wondering what authorities might find there. “I don't understand how they're not cracking down on these [storefront] churches. If they're really concerned about safety, they should be going after everybody.”

Plaza Bowl is in the 8th District, home to City Councilwoman Reva Trammell, one of the enforcement program's earliest proponents nearly a decade ago. In the midst of her first multiterm stint on council — and also in the midst of a crisis in her blighted South Side district — she worked to start an enforcement effort based on similar programs elsewhere.

“If you rode this district,” Trammell says, “I could show you things that would turn your stomach.” The blight problem persists, she says, though greatly improved because of the enforcement efforts. “You look in my district and we've tried so hard to clean things up.”

The main offenders in Trammell's eyes, both then and now, are the city's serial slum lords — the often out-of-state absentee owners who live beyond reach of state laws. It's these people, she says, that such enforcements were created to take down.

She hadn't heard about the enforcement at Plaza Bowl and wonders aloud why Szilagyi hasn't called her. She struggles to answer whether the program has departed from its earlier mission when it targets a bowling alley with bands.

“I think [Community Development's CAPS program manager] Cindy Moser would have to answer that,” she says. “I know the city is looking for all the money it can get right now. The city, we're in a struggle for our life right now.”

Moser was out of the office last week and unavailable to comment for this article. Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for Mayor Dwight Jones, says the program is doing important service and businesses must be aware of their legal responsibilities.

“The effort is not to stop these things, but to ensure that people are informed that they are within the proper parameters,” Hawley says. “The mayor has made his desire clear that he wants a vibrant nightlife community. Clearly the law is the law.”

But where — and how — that law is applied is central to some of what the mission entails.

“The mission hasn't changed — the tactics have changed a lot” says Sgt. Charles A. Bishop, a police representative for the 4th Precinct team.

Bishop, a Richmond police veteran with decades on the beat, is a mild-mannered, mustachioed cop with the eyes of someone who's seen too much street tragedy. He's passionate about the positive things he's accomplished since joining CAPS six months ago.

Rolling up to one of those allegedly illegal boarding houses in Barton Heights on Tuesday morning, he points to clear reasons why the program is necessary to Richmond's effort become a first-class city.

This house, a once-beautiful four square, is a shell of its former self. It's the sore thumb on a block otherwise on the edge of resurgence. Across the street, manicured lawns with flowers stand in contrast to the house's weeds and overgrown shrubs.

Standing on the sidewalk, Gleason, the tax-enforcement officer, explains how it's all interconnected — the blighted houses, the music-hosting businesses, the crack houses.

“It goes back to whether [the owner] meets the zoning requirements,” he says, noting unpaid admission taxes and an expired business license at Rumors, for example, that all could have been avoided had the owner been proactive. It doesn't have to be this way, he says, but the onus is on the property owners.

“If she would come in, Gleason says of the boarding house's owner, “I would be happy to walk her through.”

But, Bishop interjects: “What the city has not been willing to do is endanger people's lives.”

In the end, the Barton Heights boarding house remains open — for now. The property manager shows up, panicked by the half-dozen city officials swarming over the property, but eventually calms as he talks with the officials.

Back in the car, Bishop is on his way to the next boarding house.

“Can we be intimidating? Oh, yeah,” he acknowledges of the program's swarms. “We don't want people to fear us. We want people to work with us. Sometimes we just don't do our job in getting our story out.”

Bishop refers to a recent shooting at New York Fried Chicken on West Broad Street. A weekend melee drew police to the restaurant last February, and even as they tried to regain order inside, shots were fired. A patron was wounded and the gunman got away. Frustrated, police contacted CAPS, Bishop recalls, asking, “What can you do about it?”

In this instance, the fast-food restaurant had no business license and wasn't paying sales taxes, so officials closed it — what could have been the end of a troubled business. But behind the scenes the program continued to work with the owners, helping them revive their business. The owners paid their back taxes and licensing fees, Bishop says, and “they reopened two days later.”

CAPS didn't leave after that. A crime prevention team was sent in to work with the owners to improve safety on the property, which seems to be working. Since the February melee, the police haven't been back since.

“After all is said and done and you know the whole story,” Bishop asks, “is that really that scary [for business owners]?”

Yes, Karen Watkins says. She faces a roll of red tape while her family business reapplies for zoning — somehow jeopardized by her ballet studio — and jumps through various hoops to meet fire and building codes in other areas of the building where she had never suspected problems.

Because the studio is not used for business, she says, she's certain that it was her estranged soon-to-be ex-husband who called in the anonymous tip.

She disputes nothing about what CAPS found in inspecting her building, but says: “I think I should be able to do what I want to with my own personal space. For me, the feeling was a little bit ambushed.”

So what's the harm in a little unconventional use of building space that's not necessarily according to approvals granted by city officials?

That's easy, says Bishop, who uses the now almost mythical Great White worst-case-scenario. A 2003 Rhode Island tragedy occurred when club owners packed their building with more than 400 middle-aged rock fans nostalgic for their high-school days of acid-washed jeans and power ballads. The club was filled far beyond capacity, and the band — stuck in its glory days of arena-rocking pyrotechnics — set off a few pyrotechnics in the tiny club.

By the time the last power chord faded, 100 concertgoers were dead. The club owners spent ensuing months arguing over who was at fault. A court decided they were. But the tragedy — the club was engulfed by flames in less than six minutes and many patrons died in the rush toward inadequate exits — also led to renewed interest in fire and building codes.

Tragedies like these make the fine line between encouraging and regulating businesses less difficult to judge, Bishop says.

“I need the business to make money. … but I also have a moral problem getting paid blood money,” he says. “In other words, you have an event and not enough exits and there's a fire, someone gets killed. I don't care what kind of music you want to listen to or what kind of art you want to see, just do it safely.”

But drawing such a hard line doesn't mean that what's on either side is simple black and white.

Tom Robinson is an area developer with his hands deep in revitalization efforts in Manchester. He founded Vacant Spaces Artful Places, which is dedicated to doing away with the infamous “broken windows” effect in Richmond's downtown by beautifying windows of vacant buildings. He's also co-founder of Gallery5, an art space on Marshall Street in a building that once housed the city's fire engine company No. 5. The building has become a focal point for the city's First Friday events, but also a focus of recent code enforcers.

“It seems like there's an overall crackdown,” Robinson says, seeing a link between his situation, Rumors and the bowling alley. “It's going to shut some places down. In a time of economic hardship we need to not be creating more hardship, we need to be helping businesses stay open.”

Robinson, who comes from a family of policemen and who himself is a fire safety instructor, says he's sympathetic when the fire marshal shows up and starts pointing to code infractions at his place. He doesn't deny them.

“But fact is we have never had a [surprise] inspection at the museum in the 33 years,” says Robinson, who in recent weeks has hosted repeat visits by fire marshals and building inspectors. “There's nothing they pointed out that wasn't correct,” he says. “They couldn't have been any nicer. But I said what's going on here?”

What's going on is that Robinson has been told that his fire and police museum and art space may have its certificate of occupancy lowered to 50 people.

“They say you've only got one big door and your doors open inward,” Robinson says. “I say they've opened inward for 150 years,” and for 33 years, he's been host not only to musical and arts performances but also tours for Richmond schoolchildren that have been in excess of 250 kids at a time.

Gallery5's connection has made other First Friday vendors nervous.

“Everybody is exceeding their capacity on First Friday,” says Geraldine Duskin, co-owner of Ghostprint Gallery. “Of course, there are hundreds and hundreds of people in and out, and it's fantastic for downtown Richmond. I don't understand why anyone would want to interfere with this renaissance.”

If codes were enforced on First Friday, Duskin says, “everyone would have to shut down,” which would be a step back because “people tell me this area was quite run-down and quite horrible not long ago.”

While CAPS hasn't taken official notice of the arts community's now-signature event, they say no illegal or potentially dangerous activity that might violate building or fire code is beyond their notice.

“It seems to be a good benefit to the businesses that are down there,” Andrews, the assistant fire marshal, says, but “if I know that a place isn't allowed for that kind of use, then yeah, you have to cease and desist.”

That's scary talk for gallery owners.

Anne Hart Chay, who owns Visual Art Studio, is on the board of Curated Culture. Her business has a certificate of occupancy for 15 people. She has bands playing inside her art gallery on First Fridays. She says she enjoys — and her survival is dependent on — the throngs that come to First Friday.

“They're really affecting so many struggling organizations,” says Amanda Robinson, Tom Robinson's daughter who runs Gallery5, of the city's renewed rigidity on code enforcement. “And it's a shame because these are the organizations that are really expanding in Richmond, making tourists want to come to Richmond, making people want to come to Richmond. These little restaurants and shops and galleries, these are what makes this city.”

CAPS officials say they're only enforcing the code, that the code is itself considered “the minimum safety standard” and that “every one of these laws the state has passed has a story behind it.”

The law is the law, Tom Robinson acknowledges, but in an old city like Richmond, full of buildings that are a hundred years old, “there's a lot of inflexibility in the written codes and regulations in the city — that's something that needs to be addressed. …

“Richmond is a changing city. People are coming back in and people are putting in condos and nice restaurants and little shops. … Now is not the time for the city to crack down. … because [businesses] don't fit into the little mold the city has for them. They have got to be flexible,” he says.

But as some members of the arts community worry, most Richmonders affected by such enforcements are far from unhappy with their encounters. In fact, it's the opposite with residents often begging for more involvement from city code and law enforcement. 

Trammell witnessed it at her recent 8th District town hall meeting. More than 125 people packed the Satellite Grill on Jefferson Davis Highway to give their two cents to Richmond Police Chief Bryan Norwood, Mayor Dwight Jones, Sheriff C.T. Woody and Trammell. The rallying cry was blight.

“That's what they were all yelling about,” Trammell says. “We want our neighborhoods cleaned up — what can you do to help us?”

So what of CAPS stepping outside its original charter in shifting from drug dens to art galleries? “Should they be going after the businesses?” Trammell says. “If they're not paying the taxes, or if they get a complaint — yes.”

Between Tuesday enforcement rounds, Bishop detours through one of the city's most notorious areas. Whitcomb Court is nobody's idea of a neighborhood in bloom. But on this sunny day along the tree-lined avenue of Whitcomb Street, just across from the project's discouraging bunkerlike barracks, Margaret Lee tends the garden in front of the house she's lived in for more than 30 years.

A beautiful example of a turn-of-the-century row house, this is her house. It's also her island — the last house on the block that hasn't been abandoned, boarded up or fallen down. When Chief Norwood came through here a few months ago during a walking tour aimed at neighborhood outreach, he stopped by Lee's house.

“Do you know what she said she wanted fixed?” Bishop asks. “It wasn't this place here, it wasn't these projects,” he says, gesturing to Whitcomb Court. “It was those two abandoned houses.”

A broad smile spreads across Lee's face at the sight of Bishop. He's her best hope, she says, “I'm so glad you all got involved.” S



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