05/08-2009 – MAS, Neighborhood Congestion, and Gentrification
When I first came to this sleepy neighborhood as a student at UVA in the 1990's, you could still see neighbors riding their lawnmowers down the street, get an occasional visit from a runaway pig or horse from the hogwaller, and vehicular congestion was unknown. My greatest concerns came when, developing our restaurant, on the leading edge of residential revitalization, I became aware of the large population of long-term residents in the neighborhood who would most be impacted by any further upward real estate assessments for people of low or fixed incomes. Never in my wildest dreams did I foresee the restaurant explosion that followed MAS years later. As a member of the Belmont Neighborhood Association, I have followed these developments with some alarm as they seem to not follow the same path that we did, and later La Taza and Belmont BBQ followed. Namely the provision of off-street parking and a friendly rapport with the adjacent neighbors whose houses in some instances are only several feet away. When one views MAS, La Taza, Belmont BBQ, Spudnuts or Foxes, you are struck by the large, available parking lots in front, often full of working class heroes stopping by for a quick coffee or sandwich. Never in my worst dreams did I envision viable residential housing being converted to commercial use, thus adding to the morass of traffic and noise problems we currently enjoy. Simply put, the situation is out of hand and must be stopped from digressing further. The neighbors, while kindly forebearing these rapid changes, are bearing a burden that cannot be increased. The traffic pattern is way out of wack and quite dangerous at times.
It was certainly never my intention to see this neighborhood lose its charm and be converted into another dirty, congested restaurant district like the Corner. To that end I entered into agreements with adjacent businesses to loan our parking lot to them during the day and we would and continue to use their's and ours at night. To date this has worked beautifully and I am constantly grateful for their generosity. It was the residential charm, the scale of buildings, tree-lined streets, a plenitude of close friends and families, and of course, the existence of available commercial buildings that drew me here originally. Our detached, stand-alone building, was for years in disrepair and constantly changing hands. MAS was never a get-rich-quick scheme - we were always in this for the long haul. Joining the neighborhood association and sponsoring local initiatives like reading programs at the Clark School was essential to participating in the community here. Input from neighbors, existing businesses and oldtimers was crucial to understanding how to go forward with our unique blend of traditional and affordable food and fun for our customers without causing harm. Every day I arrive at MAS I am greeted by a Sweet Bay tree we planted in memorium for Jim Hatcher, our neighbor who passed several years ago. Jim, and his wife Janet, have worked tirelessly to preserve their corner of Belmont, their lovely home and the beautiful tree-lined proprty at Douglas and Hinton. It's vitality and presence reminds all who knew him of his boundless energy and love of grilled shrimp and Spanish Jamon!
In our case, originally a gas station, our building morphed from antiques, to laundry, a BBQ, stereo and sound rentals and finally a tapas bar with a yoga studio above it as a tenant. It was great fun to hear stories of this neighborhood history and how not even the banks would loan homeowners the small amount necessary to purchase some local homes. Yet the perseverence of neighbors like Janet Hatcher, Joan Schatzman (forgive Joannie if i mispelled your name), Ed and Lisa Housely, Jimmy Dettor, John and Amy Martin, Heather Rauch (to name a few), are a testament to the deep roots and connections people have had here for decades. Of course any successful idea will have 'authenticators' or subsequent enterprises that follow the pioneers, but in our case we had two distinctly different venues, a coffee shop and a BBQ, then a wineshop and gallery that offered different products from an existing commercial venue, and that the neighborhood clearly desired. To put it mildly, one could already see the limits of such use in such a contained area whenever a delivery truck arrived at the same time a handicapped bus pulled up, a firetruck arrived, physically challenged individuals in wheelchairs rolled up, or as blind workers from the VIB building down the street walked through our intersection. The Douglas Avenue-Hinton Avenue-Monticello Road triangle is virtually unpassable at times now. Imagine my shock recently on a Sunday when MAS is closed, to see 14 cars parked in our lot, virtually filling it, to the disadvantage of our tenant, Ashtanga Yoga. Who were these mysterious car-owners? Customers from another restaurant down the street who, through lack of available parking, were erroneously directed to park in our lot. What would they have done were we open or if all spaces were already taken? Answer: neighbors' yards, driveways and lots. It just doesn't figure that you can invite a couple hundred people to visit and not have a place for them to park their cars.
Simply put, adaptive re-use was one of the organizing principles used to revitalize our dormant commercial structures, not re-tasking from commercial to residential, or asking the impossible by creating the need for 50 parking spaces when none exists. Another major part of our story has always been a desire to integrate into the neighborhood in a beneficial not detrimental way. One cannot argue with the success of differentiating ourselves from the beaten path but every good idea has limits, especially when the impacts are as immediate and destructive as we have witnessed of late. When neighbors can't sleep at night because of noise, loitering customers who use yards for toilets and garbage bins, or revelers who double and triple park, or just scofflaws who abuse sidewalk regulations or limited on-street parking options and disadvantage residents by gobbling up all available parking spots. Originally in 2002 the City impressed on me the need to not disadvantage existing neighbors so we were directed to create a lot with proper drainage and markings for our customers and tenants. At times things get tight but we have strategically planned for excess capacity with our neighbors. Needless to say we have also had a darker side to all of this, mainly vandalism, and yes, assaults and arrests. It seems that all good intentions eventually devolve into a melee unless stopped at a certain, unsustainable point. We are at that tipping point now. There are those who would say you can't limit commerce or opportunity in this way, and that we, at MAS already enjoy the fruits of such commerce. Well yes, we were first but were so when no one else dared try what we did, and I would say that there are quite a few available commercial areas in town and on the mall that already have the existing infrastructure, parking and volume of customers that will not harm the neighborhood they are situated in. Look at the Frank IX building, or Water Street, or Downtown Mall, the Fuel Building, and yes, the Corner. Opportunities abound.
Regardless of promises, proffers and propositions, once a residence is gone it's gone. The commercial traffic necessary to support a viable restaurant dwarfs that of the intended design in a residential home. Few new homes could sustain the impacts much less those built over 50 years ago. Even our pile of brick, concrete and steel is under constant repair to stay ahead of the use it receives. The same goes for other commercial structures in the neighborhood which to their credit, also receive a generous amount of rehab and upgrades. Do we really want to see residents move out because of these harmful impacts? The fact remains the one thing we can't rehab is our spatial relationship to the existing residential structures and why should they, as current residents, some who were born in their homes, do so to accomodate a new business? Why should our neighbors pick up our trash, endure nicked fenders, empty bottles, late-night revelers or loud amplified music? The environment that they are integrated into was not one of constant delivery vehicles from National Industrial Foodservice Vendors blocking egress, Catering Vans loading and unloading, beeping garbage removal vehicles, or the 7-days-a-week bustle without respite even on Sundays. And what neighborhood would want that? Discretion alone dictates that before you infringe on others' rights you should first take their quality of life issues seriously, with restraint and common sense, not just as a zoning piccadillo to overcome with disingenuous Facebook campaigns or emails. When these issues were raised years ago on the downtown mall it was decided that venues had to respect the neighbors' rights and prerogatives first. Where is that wisdom today? Some calculate that they are making Belmont better but that is just more self-serving rubbish, disingenuos and hypocritical at best. Those seeking to capitalize on Belmont's popularity cannot disqualify these concerns in a flip, 'it's my turn' attitude or by quoting zoning law but not honoring the spirit of being a good neighbor. By that estimation, the whole neighborhood is fair game. Enough is enough, help us to save Belmont from unbridled, ill-founded enterprises that would trade prosperity for diminution of the lovely character and enduring qualities of this oldest of Charlottesville's neighborhoods. The charming mixed-use and varying classes of residents is our strength and should never be traded for the expediency of a buck