Why aren't Monument Avenue's sprinklers working? … One swimmer takes her butterfly to Beijing … Police Next Door program is reinstated after scandal … Exile owner's string of rotten luck. 

Street Talk

What's Killing Monument Avenue's Trees?

ome Monument Avenue residents are wondering why the grass and even some of the maple trees along Monument Avenue's median have dried up and died.

Nearly six years ago, members of the Monument Avenue Preservation Society and nearby residents lobbied the city to install a sprinkler system — like ones used elsewhere in city parks — to irrigate the median on Monument Avenue from Stuart Circle to the Boulevard during the hot, dry summer months. Their efforts seemingly paid off; sprinklers were installed.

By all accounts, the system worked — for a few years. But in the last two years, the expensive sprinklers have put forth barely any water at all, say some neighbors.

So far, at least seven maple saplings on Monument Avenue appear to have dried into crisp kindling. Estimates to replant those trees range from $800 to $1,200.

Some neighbors say the avenue's foliage is dying because the city hasn't bothered to — or can't afford to — maintain the watering system for its most visible thoroughfare.

"There has been no maintenance to the system; therefore, it's not functioning, and it is beyond the city to repair it," says Wyatt Beazley, a Monument Avenue resident and former president of MAPS. "I have a small sprinkler system and even I know that needs regular maintenance."

A worker for the city's Department of Parks and Recreation says the city is hiring a contractor to assess the damage and repair the sprinklers.

The worker, who requested anonymity, says the city is aware of the situation — a few valves seem to be sticking — but because of funding cuts there simply is no money or manpower to speed up the repair. But he maintains there's no permanent damage to the avenue's expensive sprinkling system.

A call to the city's Department of Parks and Recreation turned up little about the city's initial cost to install the sprinklers.

"We do maintain that strip," says Angela Jackson-Archer, spokesperson for the department. But Jackson-Archer says cost information can be very difficult to retrieve.

Alice Massie, president of the preservation society, says the group asked that the sprinklers be turned on in May. The city declined, Massie says. City officials told her that city public pools that needed to be filled got first dibs on city water, and she agreed. But certainly, Massie says, by August most pools are filled.

"This is a highly visible area," says Beazley. He argues that the city shouldn't have spent money on something it couldn't keep up. "My concern as a city resident is that … it's poor management of city funds." — Brandon Walters

Police Home Program Reopens After Scandal

A home-discount program aimed at police officers and teachers is up and running again after a three-month suspension to investigate fraud and abuse.

The Officer Next Door/Teacher Next Door program, run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, allows police officers and teachers to buy half-price-homes in troubled neighborhoods.

In exchange for the deal, the home buyers agree to live in the home for three years. They weren't always doing that, government investigators found. Some were subletting or selling and moving out early. So the program was suspended in March. It will be reactivated this week.

Richmond Police Sgt. John Hall purchased a home through the program in the spring of 1999. He found an East End home selling for a little more than $100,000. The house qualified for the program, and he bought it for about half price. "It was our first home," says Hall, who lives there with his wife and two children.

Federal investigators, during the recent audit of the program, found that 24 percent of home buyers in Manassas, Va. — one of the cities sampled during the investigation — abused the program in some way. A recently released report of the audit recommends changes in oversight.

It is not clear whether any Richmond-area police officers or teachers have abused the program. Virginia's HUD office declined Style's request to release a list of those who purchased homes through the program in the Richmond area, saying the list was excluded from the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Police officers in other parts of the country have been convicted of defrauding HUD, which says no taxpayer money is involved in the program. — Jason Roop

Swimmer Takes Butterfly to China

That Beijing won the bid to host the summer Olympic games in 2008 is good news for 18-year-old Rebecca Harper. She plans to be there, and she will get a chance to check out China long before it hosts the Olympics.

By then she hopes to have earned a spot on the U.S. women's swim team, just like Misty Hyman, whom she's met.

Harper swims for Nova of Virginia Aquatics, a year-round swim club on Gayton Road in Henrico County. Her speed in the 200-meter butterfly ranks her fifth in the United States and 25th in the world.

Next month, Harper will join the 22-member U.S. women's collegiate team to compete in the World University Games in Beijing.

The Mills E. Godwin High School graduate recently returned from a trip to Indianapolis, home of the Olympic Training Center, where she met other members of the team.

"I'm definitely excited," she says of what will be her first trip out of the country.

Even when she's not in "hard-core" training she swims every morning, from 5:30 to 8, and every afternoon, from 2:30 to 4:30 After that, she teaches swimming lessons to kids at her pool, where she holds records that haven't been broken in nearly 10 years. Harper insists she likes the schedule. "This is sort of like sprinting," she says. "It's fun."

Harper is quick to credit her coach of 11 years, Geoff Brown, and her family for their support. Her older brother, Scott, was a competitive swimmer, too. "He was totally my inspiration for swimming my whole life," she says. "We're the best of friends."

Thinking of the Beijing competition gives her butterflies. "When the girl in the lane next to me is an Olympian, what are you going to do but be nervous?" she asks with a smile. "But I think of them as swim-mates," she adds, "not idols."

Last year Harper placed 10th in the 200-meter butterfly in the Olympic trials. Today, she says, she's stronger and better. And she plans to make it to the 2004 Olympics. This fall Harper will attend the University of Florida on a full swimming scholarship.

But for now, she's focusing on the meet in Beijing. "I've sacrificed a lot," she says. "But getting to go to China is worth it. I wouldn't trade it for the world." — Brandon Walters

Owner's Luck Runs from Bad to Worse

Mimi Regelson is down on her luck.

So much so that she has posted pitiful signs on the doors to her store — pleas to her customers and friends to dispense with small talk and show some compassion.

Two weeks ago Regelson had not one but two shake-you-to-the-core blows in one day.

Regelson, 44, is owner of Exile, an eclectic boutique of sorts at 122 W. Grace St. near VCU. She's been at the Grace Street location for nearly 15 years.

For all those years her dog, Bosco, a shepherd-husky mix, was a fixture in the store. On July 22 Bosco, 17, died.

If that weren't enough, later that night Exile was broken into and robbed. The culprits— it is believed two acted together — pried open the windows, damaged the doors and stole $12,000 worth of merchandise. A Richmond Police detective has been assigned to the case but so far few clues have surfaced.

Meanwhile, Regelson is trying to make sense of it all. "With a store like this I am part of the community," she says. "I'm friends with the waitresses and band members. I'm not this disembodied capitalist entity."

To top it off, the timing could not be worse for Regelson. She's in the middle of an intensive nine-week course to learn Tibetan at the University of Virginia. In the next few months Regelson hopes to marry her fiancé, who works in Nepal as an interpreter and teacher. Getting INS paperwork for him to come to the United States to be married has been complicated, so Regelson may have to go to India for the wedding.

Next month Regelson will kick off Exile's 15-year celebration. She hopes the thieves will be caught by then or her merchandise returned. But she's not counting on it.

"It's like, I'm one of you, why are you doing this to me?" she asks. "It's an extra violation." — Brandon Walters

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