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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Show Stoppers | Wrenn Magnum

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

On the Cover: Duckpin bowling and ducktail haircuts were all the rage in 1956 and in 2009 at Southside Plaza — until CAPS crashed the party. The struggling lanes found music as an economic salvation but failed to secure proper permits to install a stage. Photo of Wrenn Mangum by Ash Daniel

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.”

To read the rest of this article click the below link.

Show Stoppers | Articles/Archives | Style Weekly Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion

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1 comment:

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