“We’re different from Carytown,” said Leigh Dobbins-Johnson. “We’re different from Short pump. We’re eclectic here.”
Dobbins-Johnson is co-owner of Shops at 5807, in the Patterson and Libbie Business District, nestled between Richmond’s West End and Fan District. The area, just like its neighbor, Libbie and Grove, is steeped in history and tradition, with many independently-owned shops and restaurants. But now, the two are coming together and looking to change.
“Right now, Libbie and Grove and Patterson and Libbie function as two separate associations,” said Sally Ashby, marketing director for Carreras Jewelers and president of the Libbie and Grove Business Association. “But our future vision is to connect the two because the corridor down Libbie is expanding into more business and retail. The houses are being sold and it’s being developed into a more commercial space down Libbie toward Patterson so we believe that in a couple of years, there will be a direct path to the shops and businesses on Patterson. So working together connects all of this area and gives us more strength as a whole.”
A part of this new connection is a large project that would revamp the image of both areas, make them more pedestrian friendly, and make them more conducive to growing businesses.
It started with Elliot Harrigan, a local developer who is a member of the Patterson and Libbie Business District. Harrigan wanted to see the area become more cohesive, so he contacted Project For Public Spaces, a non-profit organization that has been doing these sorts of projects for around 35 years.
“Elliot has done some work with PPS before and he brought them to Richmond and they gave us a brief overview about a year ago,” Dobbins-Johnson said. “So we’ve kept in contact with them. Meanwhile, we’ve been working with the city trying to get them interested in helping fund some of the projects we’re trying to do. Then we realized it had become a bigger project than just boulevard banners and trying to create a little identity for us.”
Leigh Dobbins-Johnson is a co-owner of Shops at 5807, and is active in the Pat ter son and Lib bie Busi ness District.
Dobbins-Johnson said that the city was happy to have PPS involved, since they could provide the business owners with some realistic, short-term guidelines to start with. But before anything can really change, there will have to be some changes to the city’s master plan.
“The way we implement projects here at the city is to have them included in our master plan, which is our legal guide to land use projects and redevelopment in the city,” said John Taylor, a Richmond city planner. “And once something is adopted by the city, then funding can flow.”
Taylor and Councilman Bruce Tyler, have been strong supporters of the idea.
“Libbie Avenue is changing,” Taylor said. “Developers and property owners are having to jump through many hoops to get special permits. For example, it’s changing from residential to office, but it takes about 6 to 9 months for those permits to be acquired.”
But for now, Taylor and Dobbins-Johnson agree that the business districts should focus on small, easy changes that could be implemented without much delay.
“Beautification,” Taylor said. “The Libbie Patterson merchants association received some funding and approval to do some signage to say that you’re entering the Libbie/Grove, Libbie/Patterson residential area. So those are going to be quick. Additional trash cans and benches at the bus stops. That’s easy. Some landscaping is going to be done. Starting to create a sense of place”
After that, Dobbins-Johnson said they are looking to make some changes to the traffic patterns in the area.
“It’s got a lot of problems that are inherent in the way the road is set up” said Dobbins-Johnson. “You come down the hill if you’re going east on Patterson and traffic tends to speed up, even though the speed limit is only 25 miles an hour. We know that we have some kind of traffic calming just to get people to slow down and take a look at our surroundings. We would like to have better street signs, different lighting, some crosswalks. If you’ve ever tried to cross the street here, you know that you’re taking you life in your hands.”
These are exactly the kinds of undertakings that PPS specializes in.
“We are there, working with communities to upgrade the quality of their lives,” said Norman Mintz, a senior director at PPS. “Particularly with an emphasis on how people use and enjoy public space to the fullest.”
Mintz was called onto the scene by Phillip Myrick, who is the lead on the project. Mintz said that his specialty is getting the retail merchants involved.
“Something that PPS prides itself in doing is to primarily look at what the community is looking to do and what they’re looking for and getting them involved in whatever we do,” Mintz said. “It’s always been that way and it’s probably more and more our philosophy to include the community. It’s Richmond, they know it best, and they’re going to be the ones left looking at the recommendations. Perhaps we can guide them in a second phase or maybe even a third phase, who knows? But right now, this is basically a fact finding, understanding, and introductory visit and then we’ll go from there.”
But some business-owners say that the biggest problem isn’t with the traffic patterns or lack of identity. Patrick Heaney, owner of Mango Salon and member of the Libbie and Grove Business Association, said that he is most concerned with parking. With 75 employees, around 4,000 customers a month, and very little parking, he has reason to be more concerned with that issue than with beautification.
“Those are cosmetic, quick fixes,” Heaney said. “It’s like ‘you have cancer, go take an aspirin.’ That’s how I look at it. If we don’t solve the parking, that cancer will grow and grow and grow and it will be harder for all these merchants to survive.”
But Mintz, Myrick, and Heaney himself all acknowledged that there really isn’t much of a literal lack of parking. The problem is that the ones that do exist are all reserved, and carry with them the threat of being towed. So, it seems that parking is another issue on which merchants will have to work together.
And Mintz was also quick to point out that these things take time, and told business-owners to stay positive.
“This is a process,” Mintz said. “We like to think that it has begun, and it should continue forever. This is something that is not only for you but for your kids.”