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Fanning Out

From streetcar suburb to the party patrol: One of the city's most famous neighborhoods struggles to keep its urbanity.


Here's the thing about the Fan: If you've ever lived there, it's your neighborhood.

Maybe you once shared a third-floor apartment on the Boulevard with four roommates and five cats. Maybe you rented a side-entrance studio of peculiar geometry that offered, for just $550 a month, the chance to claim a Monument Avenue address. Or maybe you sank six figures into the loving restoration of a columned beauty on West Grace Street.

Whatever your connection, it's still your neighborhood.

Geographically, the Fan is the 85 blocks bounded by Broad, Belvidere and Main streets and the Boulevard. The name comes from the fanning out of Park, Stuart, Hanover and Grove at Laurel Street.

Historically, the Fan is the largest intact Victorian neighborhood in the United States, an architectural rainbow of Italianate, Romanesque, Queen Anne, colonial revival, bungalow and other styles.

Traditionally, the Fan is pocket doors, airy ceilings, cast-iron radiators, unpleasant basements and vermilion dining rooms hung with framed Confederate generals.

And no less traditionally, the Fan is keg parties on precarious porches, sticker-covered Vespas chained to stop signs, hallways with a certain old-carpet smell, graffiti-tagged garage doors, grease traps and corner bars.

It's one of these corner spots that has reignited old tensions between homeowners, partiers and restaurant owners.

A year ago Sunny Zhao, an affable, ponytailed, Ferrari-driving filmmaker, opened the Fanhouse restaurant at Floyd Avenue and Robinson Street. The sleek dAccor turned heads. People loved the dumplings. But Zhao screwed up. He built an 11-seat wooden bar on the first floor of his restaurant — and tried to start building a patio — without getting a permit.

Zhao's Floyd Avenue neighbors, already unhappy about the late-night crowd at Fanhouse, pounced. The restaurant property, which legally has a second-floor bar, is governed by the strict conditions of a 1988 special-use permit, which needs to be modified if Zhao wants to keep his downstairs bar.

Zhao says he's running a nice restaurant, not a rowdy hangout. But he needs that downstairs bar to make Fanhouse a financial success, he says. 

On paper the matter is simple. City Council can decide to give Zhao a pass and amend the special-use permit to allow the bar. Or it can force him to take out the bar and return the first floor to dining only.

But the Fanhouse bar has become a bigger debate about nightlife, businesses versus houses, and the character of the entire neighborhood. It has divided the neighbors and raised this question: Who gets to say what the Fan ought to be?

ON A BALMY Thursday afternoon, Alice DeCamps takes stock of her street.

“That badly needs to be fixed,” she says. She points to the rotted cornice and the mailbox hanging askew on the duplex for sale on Floyd Avenue, a few numbers up from Fanhouse.

“And look at these,” she says, indicating the crumbling concrete steps of the next house. A Bud Light bottle stands on the steps of the house past that.

DeCamps waves at an empty vodka box and a pack of Marlboros in the alley behind Fanhouse. “All that should be picked up,” she says.

And the grease-blackened sidewalk further down Robinson Street, by Star-Lite? “See, this just looks dirty,” DeCamps says. The restaurant ought to sweep and power-wash the pavement, she says.

Wait a minute. How clean can you really expect an urban neighborhood to be?

But DeCamps practices what she preaches. The raspberry duplex she owns on Floyd is tidily maintained. She pays a gardener to mulch the tree wells in the sidewalk. She has even swept the parking lot at Star-Lite, which sparkles with glass from busted beer bottles.

DeCamps loves the Fan, where she's lived for 40 years. And she has faith in the neighborhood. Late in 2010 she yanked her money from the stock market and sank it into a fixer-upper duplex a block away on Main Street, which she deemed a better investment than Wall Street. But, she acknowledges, “It's a risk, because you really do not know how this is going to turn out.”

This is why Fanhouse worries her. DeCamps is one of several neighbors who voiced their concerns about late-night rowdiness and trash at a recent hearing on Zhao's permit request. The city's Planning Commission approved the request and sent it to City Council for a final vote in late March.

The problem isn't Zhao, DeCamps says. The problem isn't even Fanhouse, not really. The problem is the future. If the permit for the downstairs bar is granted, she says, the character of the place is changed forever. And what's to stop a burger-and-beer party bar from opening up in its place? “It could take the whole block down,” she says.

Already the four houses immediately adjacent to Fanhouse are shabbier than the rest on the block, she says: “That is not an accident, because that restaurant is right there.”

The perils of living near Fan restaurants are well documented. It's not just the cigarette butts and noise. Take the Incident of the Mail Slot. Four or five years ago, Baja Bean managing partner Jeff Allums got a call from the liquor police — the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. A neighbor had awakened to discover that someone had peed through his mail slot, and he blamed a Baja Bean patron.

No way, Allums says. The incident happened on a Tuesday night, when Bogart's, then on Lombardy Street, offered double rail drinks for a dollar and the average age of the patrons “was probably 21-point-1.”

Rowland Street resident Dee Briggs picks up beer bottles around his house most mornings: microbrews in the front and 40s in the alley. Most of the bottles aren't from people leaving restaurants, he theorizes, but from people driving into the Fan, beer in hand, on their way to a bar or a party.

Briggs, a broadcast producer for local ad agency Big River, gets tired of picking up the bottles, but he does it. Bargoers do wake him and his kids in the wee hours, Briggs says, even on weeknights. But he regards the drunks stumbling from nearby Sidewalk CafAc with a certain fondness — after all, Briggs says, “I used to be one of those guys.”

Some Fan residents, like Briggs, see the nightly carousing as just part of the rhythm of the Fan. But others, like DeCamps, fear that it's dragging the Fan back to what it once was.

THE FAN WAS invented by the rich, inherited by the middle class, parceled out to the broke and then reclaimed by the young.

In the early 1800s Monroe Park was the city fairgrounds, and everything west was the boondocks. An enterprising man named Harvie intended to make a new town called Sydney on a huge chunk of land south of Park Avenue. An economic slump stopped that plan before it started.

In 1888 Richmond saw the invention of the electric streetcar. The city's wealthy — we're talking railroad presidents, manufacturing magnates and tobacco barons — began building opulent houses on Franklin Street with elaborate stone carvings, stained glass, the works. The area to the west was divided up for development and quickly became quite fashionable. By the 1930s it was almost entirely built out.

In the years before World War II, the Fan District was filled with young families who rented tidy homes and duplexes. “My mother swept the sidewalk every day,” says Roy Burgess, who grew up on Floyd Avenue and lived in the Fan for 70 years.

Parking wasn't an issue, because few families owned more than one car (if they had one at all). Drugstores with soda fountains and small grocery stores occupied many of the Fan's corners. When Burgess was just 6 years old, he'd walk with friends to Carytown to see nickel movies at the old Carillon Theater. “You knew everybody,” he says.

In the 1950s the GI Bill made it easier for veterans to buy homes. Middle-class families swept their sidewalks one last time, then bought a Buick and packed up for the suburbs.

Aging residents began renting out parts of their huge old houses to make ends meet. When they died, their children converted those properties into apartments. “So you had absentee landlords for the first time,” Burgess explains. Students, recent immigrants and low-income Richmonders moved in. West Grace Street became known for group homes, prostitution and drunken drag-racing.

One solitary woman kept sweeping her sidewalk on West Grace, well into the 1970s. People thought she was odd.

But here's the thing: the Fan got rough around the edges, but did not descend into decay. The Fan was never a slum, Burgess says: “It was never undesirable.”

Many people say the reason for that is the Fan District Association (and its little sister, the West Grace Street Association). A group of neighbors founded the FDA in 1961 “to beautify the Fan District and to encourage individual property owners in its continued restoration and orderly development.”

Almost immediately, however, the association leaped into city politics. Its first major campaign was getting City Council to reverse its decision to make Grove and Floyd avenues one-way. The association won. In 1965 the association protested the city's plans to pave over Monument Avenue's distinctive block paving. It won again.

“The association came into effect because people banded together to attack the problems,” Burgess says. It was also a social organization, he says, the Facebook of its day.

Both neighborhood associations tackled zoning issues, kept alleys clean and stopped houses from being demolished. Volunteers spent a summer working on 1810 Grace St., a fire-damaged home that had been rescued by the Historic Monument Avenue and Fan District Foundation. (Nasty work, Burgess recalls: The refrigerators he helped carry out “all were crawling with vermin.”) And the neighborhood began to improve.

“There was not like an instantaneous change,” Burgess says. “More good things happened than bad things.”

The Fan was gentrified in waves: first in the 1970s, when long-haired college grads strapped on their tool belts and bought properties. Then again in the early 1980s, when interest rates were low, and in the 1990s. The last wave was in the 2000s during the real estate boom. “We remade the Fan,” says local developer Charlie Diradour, who moved onto Park Avenue in 2005.

The Fan District Association continues its work. Most recently, it has gotten the city to begin installing bright but old-timey streetlights throughout the neighborhood.

The Fan is coming back around to become the close-knit community Diradour remembers from his childhood, he says. He has heard people who grew up in the Fan 50 years ago saying, “This is the way it used to be.”

"THE WAY IT used to be!”

It's the rallying cry for longtime Fan residents. And it's what Floyd Avenue residents are saying about Fanhouse. “The restaurant needs to go back to the way it was,” says Jane Hotchkiss, a Fan District Association board member who's lived on Floyd since 1987 and remembers all four of Fanhouse's fine-dining ancestors.

But there's a reason Vendalia, Konsta's, Carlton's and Verbena are no longer around: Tradition doesn't always make for good business.

In the 1980s, Mamma 'Zu restaurant owner Ed Vasaio proposed to open a casual eatery in one of Diradour's properties at Park and Lombardy streets. The Fan District Association vehemently opposed it. Neighbors wanted a drugstore there. The way it used to be.

Local pharmacies declined to move in, so Diradour found a coffee shop for the space. It failed. Then Manny Mendez pitched a Cuban restaurant. Again, the neighborhood association resisted, Diradour says, but the neighbors agreed to give it a shot. The result: Kuba Kuba, one of the most universally beloved restaurants in the Fan.

In 1999, when Baja Bean came to Main and Lombardy, neighbors wanted the place to mimic its predecessor, a pricey place called the James River Wine Bistro. Jeff Allums wasn't about to do that. “There's also a reason we were able to come in and buy them out,” he observes: The bistro wasn't successful.

Allums says when he came to Richmond he was told that the Fan District Association “was this big powerhouse.” True to form, the association told him they'd “red-flag” his business with the ABC unless he closed at midnight during the week and at 1 a.m. on weekends.

Allums conceded.

But when restaurateur Johnny Giavos bought the Border CafAc across the street and stayed open until 2 a.m., Allums figured he'd reapply for an ABC permit with a 2 a.m. closing time. He got it. The Fan association folks didn't pay attention: They were embroiled in a fight about whether the Fan should officially become a historic district. (It didn't.) “We haven't deemed them a factor since,” Allums says.

Giavos, too, says he tries not to have any dealings with the association. For many years he sought permission from the city to have patio dining at his Sidewalk CafAc on Main Street, but the association blocked him at every turn.

They're not bad people, he says, but lately their focus seems to be entirely on the residential side of the Fan. “No one in the city seems to understand that a community thrives with the businesses and the residences around it,” Giavos says.

The association has long been antagonistic toward businesses, Diradour acknowledges, but in his opinion it's getting better. When he joined its board in 2009, he says he found that “the shut 'em-down attitude” had gone away.

Diradour straddles both worlds: He's a Fan resident who also owns several commercial buildings in the neighborhood, including Kuba Kuba, Buddy's Place and deLux. He says his new goal is to get business owners to join the association.

Allums is skeptical. In a room filled with Fan residents and restaurant owners, “What are we going to be able to agree on?” he asks. “Probably that we need oxygen to breathe.” If asked, however, he says he would join.

Membership in the FDA, which now numbers about 900 households, is open to anyone who runs a business, owns property or lives in the Fan. Trouble is, you can only vote if you're a resident or property owner.

THE FANS NEWEST residents are not die-hard preservationists. They're not old Richmond. And they're not Pat Benatar.

They're affluent children of the suburbs who have come back to the city to be part of a close-knit urban community. They are Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Virginia alumni. “People who are Richmonders,” Diradour says. “And not old-school Richmonders.”

The newer residents are drawn to the Fan because it's “adventurous,” Diradour says. By adventurous he means there are exciting places to eat dinner; not adventurous like you might become the ninth person to get robbed in the Fan this year.

Diradour says he thinks these new folks, those who have fled the suburbs to embrace the Fan's urban character, “represent a great opportunity for understanding.”

Fan real estate agent and Boulevard resident Christopher Small isn't so sure. “A lot of people that live in our urban environment have very suburban mentalities,” he says. “We live in an urban neighborhood. We need to let it be an urban neighborhood.”

In suburbia, residential and retail neighborhoods have long been separated. You go to work, stop by the retail shopping strip on the way home, and park the car in the garage. You call the police when the neighborhood kids get too loud.

Urban frictions notwithstanding, people are still buying in the Fan, Small says, despite the real estate doldrums of the last three years.

Many of the new Fan buyers that Small deals with aren't concerned with details like pressed-plaster wainscoting. Instead, they expect to have more than one bathroom, an updated kitchen and central air. “They do have awfully high standards,” he says.

The average asking price for Fan single-family homes on the Central Virginia Regional Multiple Listing System last week was $629,000. The highest-priced house was a six-bedroom Monument Avenue mansion with an asking price of $2.5 million. The very cheapest in the Fan proper, as of last week, was a 1,360-square-foot blue townhouse on Granby Street, offered at $225,000.

The average sale price for a single-family home in the city of Richmond in 2010 was $200,307, according to the multiple listing system.

Some think the Fan is destined to become Georgetown, the tony district in Washington, where the median one-bedroom apartment rent is north of $2,000.

Fan District Association President Barbara Hartung doesn't believe that's where things are headed. So many Fan properties are rentals, she says, and so many houses are still awaiting renovation. She does expect the numbers of students to decrease, however, when VCU completes its new dorms on Grace Street.

So here's the big question. The Fan's problems — parking, drinking, litter, noise — are decades old. Realistically, is there anything that can be done?

DeCamps wants to see the city police such things as litter and peeling paint, as well as do a better job of maintaining the alleys that stitch the neighborhood together. DeCamps says her Floyd Avenue neighbor, who uses a wheelchair, has to wear gloves when she goes out into the alley so she doesn't get glass and filth on her hands.

And, she says, perhaps the city could offer tax incentives or other incentives to businesses and landlords who maintain their property well. Diradour says the neighborhood association and residents of the lower Fan have drafted a letter the association can use to send to deadbeat landlords.

The FDA's also tried some drastic measures. Along with the city and VCU, the association pays off-duty police officers to mount a party patrol on weekends, targeting loud, late gatherings. “There is a misconception there that the party patrol is a bunch of FDA members looking around and spying on parties,” Hartung says.

It isn't fair to say the association is targeting all young people, Hartung says. But, she says, “I would guess that a lot of those loud parties are young people.”

In 2010 the association worked with its city councilman, Charles R. Samuels, to pass a noise ordinance prohibiting city residents from producing sounds in excess of 55 decibels (quieter than normal conversation) between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. The ordinance was tossed out as unconstitutional after a group of young musicians challenged it. The city still needs a noise ordinance, Diradour says, but the language should come from residents, not City Council.

The solution to the Fan's problems is just for people to talk to each other, he says. To pick up other people's trash. To be good neighbors.

THE FANHOUSE DEBATE goes before City Council on March 28. The chambers will be filled with Fan residents.

Alice DeCamps opposes granting Zhao the permit. She loves urban living, she says, but believes that dealing with trash and noise is not a price that must be paid.

Her next-door neighbor and friend, Jeff Hood, is on Zhao's side. Fine-dining restaurants obviously didn't succeed in that spot, he says, and he'd rather have Fanhouse there than a noisier nightspot like F. W. Sullivan's or Buddy's.

The Fan District Association, represented by Hartung and Diradour, opposes the permit. “I want Mr. Zhao to succeed,” Diradour said at the Planning Commission meeting; but, he said, he shouldn't need a downstairs bar to make the business work.

Dee Briggs, the Rowland resident, supports Fanhouse. He thinks it's a “ludicrous thing that this downstairs bar is going to lead to the destruction of the neighborhood.”

For the time being, Fanhouse remains open, and Zhao, true to his word, closes an hour earlier than most other Fan nightspots.

At 12:52 a.m., as a Saturday night of revelry crosses into Sunday, the upstairs lights flick on. Drinkers blink like owls.

“Get the fuck downstairs,” the Fanhouse bartender bawls good-naturedly.

Slowly but obediently, people file out the door. They mill around on the sidewalk for a few minutes, searching for their friends' faces.

“Adam!” one young woman hollers.

Zhao shushes her, explaining that there's a baby sleeping in a house nearby.

“Oh,” she says, just a notch lower. “Baby's sleeping!” she informs the rest of the crowd.

The pool of Fanhouse patrons disperses, becoming part of the stream of people flowing south on Robinson Street. Other watering holes await. Just up the street, a porch party's raging. It's only 1 a.m. S