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Group targets gigantic weed …

Street Talk

Weed Targets Fan, And Vice VersaFly Ash Blamed For More DamageViola Takes Turn at RoastStudy Isn't Ready But Arts Group IsHave a Kid, Get a Cone Weed Targets Fan, And Vice Versa Some city residents are in a quandary over a tree as tenacious, if not as topical, as hanging chads. It's Ailanthus altissima, better known as the Tree of Heaven, ghetto palm or just plain stinkweed. Once you spy its almond-shaped opposing leaves you'll see it everywhere, especially in alleys, yards and vacant lots. Michael Rohde is on a quest to stop the tree before it damages any more sidewalks and foundations. "The weed creates two major problems," says Rohde, a Fan District Association member whose mission has received the blessing of the FDA's environmental committee. The first problem, Rohde says, is that the plant targets homes. Wind tends to blow the plant's seeds against the foundations of homes and carriage houses. The tree then can grow against the structure and can damage the soft brick of older homes. And because the tree's wood is soft, a storm can knock it into windows or fences. The second problem is that Ailanthus kills surrounding plants to make more room for its own propagation. Rohde explains: "An Ailanthus on my property can kill the neighbors' trees and vice versa." Rohde is urging city property owners and the city's division of urban forestry to halt the growth of the tree. "It is a nuisance tree or giant weed," says Billie Raines, citizen's assistance coordinator for the city. "Its cultivation is not encouraged in the city as a street tree," Raines adds. The Urban Forestry division maintains trees between curbs and sidewalks and, so far, it's been cutting down the ghetto palms when they reach heights of 12 inches or more. But Rohde says that's not enough. He suggests a more aggressive approach that aims to exterminate the tree. He'd also like the city's urban forestry office or its environmental maintenance office to send out letters warning homeowners of the tree's menacing potential. In addition to their yards, homeowners are responsible for the alley behind their property. In just 10 to 15 years, the tree grows to the size of oaks nearly 50 years old. "This is a good reason for property owners to kill this weed while it is small," Rohde says. "Or they will be faced with a major expense of removing a large tree." Brandon Walters Fly Ash Blamed For More Damage For more than two years, employees at Columbia Gas of Virginia Inc.'s Chester office have worked around buckling sidewalks and expanding wall joints. Next month, they're packing their bags for a new building. The utility firm's field operations office at 701 W. Hundred Road seems to be another victim of fly ash. It joins a list of projects in the Richmond-Petersburg area with problems that have been blamed on the fill material. "It's unfortunate - the whole circumstance," says Columbia Gas spokesman Bob Innes. "But the building was built and these problems occurred, and we just had to make decisions as time went along." The company's final decision: Abandon the current building and start over. In December, Columbia Gas will move about 45 employees who work in the current office to a new building less than a mile away, off Old Stage Road. "It's almost a replication of the existing facility, with some minor adjustments," Innes says. A number of local businesses have experienced similar problems with their new buildings during the past few years - most notably, a Home Depot store near Chesterfield Towne Center. In February 1999, Home Depot moved out and demolished its new site. The suspected culprit is the fine black ash produced when coal burns. In some cases contractors use it as backfill rather than dirt. But some fill mixtures using fly ash can expand after use, causing structural damage. About 30 construction projects in the Richmond region have used the suspect fly ash. Some have shown no signs of problems. J. H. Martin & Sons Contractors Inc., which finished construction on the Columbia Gas building in June 1997, bought its fly ash material from Woodstock, Ga.-based ReUse Technology Inc. The same firm has supplied fly ash for many local projects. An attorney for the contractor says he's trying to work out a settlement with ReUSE. In the meantime, before the statute of limitations runs out, he has filed - but not served - a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court against ReUse. The complaint calls the project a "total loss," and seeks $8 million to tear down the old Columbia Gas building and build a new one. William White, an attorney for ReUse, says he "can't comment on matters involving this ash litigation." Innes would not confirm whether Columbia Gas would pursue litigation in connection with the current building, but says the firm has been "prudent" about avoiding problems with the new one. — Jason Roop Viola Takes Turn at Roast Turnabout is fair play, especially when the victim's being grilled. Del. Viola O. Baskerville, who quipped that Mayor Timothy M. Kaine was "the other white meat" at last year's Richmond celebrity roast, takes her turn in the hot seat this week while Kaine gets revenge as master of ceremonies. The back-at-ya factor isn't lost on either politician. That's why Baskerville slyly asked Kaine to serve as host instead of as a roaster at the fund-raiser for Emergency Shelter Inc., to be held Nov. 29 at The Jefferson Hotel. "Usually the emcee's role is a little bit more abbreviated and different," she says. Little does she know that Kaine claims he has been "plotting and planning" for weeks. "I am surprised she asked me," Kaine says, because "I've got a great memory." But Kaine refused to hint at what he says are "ample opportunities" for throwing barbs at Baskerville, a delegate to the General Assembly who served on Richmond City Council from 1994 to 1998. "I want her to be taken by surprise," Kaine says. So do the other roasters. All Pamela F. Boston will say is that "people will find it intriguing." Boston, an associate general counsel for Virginia Commonwealth University, has known Baskerville for more than 12 years. She promises stories from Baskerville's personal life. The other roasters are State Sen. John C. Watkins, Verizon executive Irving Taylor and political consultant Claire Guthrie Gasta¬§aga. Baskerville suspects her friends and colleagues will poke fun at "the side of me that is very intense on issues … [while] still having the ability to kind of laugh at myself when I do make a mistake." Kaine has some advice for Baskerville. "She has the benefit of getting the last word," he says, "so she needs to ponder … comebacks of everyone else on the dais." The roast to benefit Emergency Shelter Inc., a Richmond homeless-services provider, will be held Wednesday, Nov. 29, at 6 p.m. Tickets are $60 per person. For more information, phone (804) 358-7747. — J.R. Study Isn't Ready But Arts Group Is A study to determine whether or not people will support a new arts complex downtown won't be released until at least March 2001. In June, the newly formed Alliance for the Performing Arts decided to fund a study by AMS Theater Consultants to explore the marketability of a downtown arts complex and to assess technical, artistic and audience needs. The group had hoped the study would be ready this fall. "We're working really hard to wrap this up," says Philip Davidson, chairman of the Alliance for the Performing Arts. Davidson acknowledges the feasibility study has taken longer than expected but — like the convention center expansion — he insists it's still moving forward. The alliance now hopes to have conclusive findings by March. The alliance, made up of local performing groups including Richmond Ballet, the Richmond Symphony, Virginia Opera, Elegba Folklore Society, Theatre IV and the Jazz Actors Theater Co., among others, maintains that prospects for the facility are good. "We're trying to put a facility in place that will remain an important venue for 50 to 75 years," Davidson says. The consulting group visited and studied new or renovated arts facilities in cities including Charlotte, N.C.; Hartford, Conn.; Louisville, Ky.; Columbus, Ohio; and Portland, Ore. Davidson says the consultants still are providing the alliance with technical data about how to fund, build, manage and market the arts complex, which could include an expanded Carpenter Center, a relocated Theatre Virginia and the possible addition of another large arts facility nearby. Since it formed last spring, the alliance has formed the Foundation for the Performing Arts, which will be charged with raising funds for the project that could cost up to $100 million. "We're determined that Richmond can support a downtown arts complex," Davidson says. "But it is premature to specify what that is." B.W. Have a Kid, Get a Cone "It's more competitive these days," says MCV marketing director Mandy Setliff of the hospital's new Women's Health & Birthing Center ad campaign. "You can get ice chips everywhere, but, gosh - how exciting." Excitement being relative, we'll take her word for it that cherry snow cones are just what the doctor ordered for women in labor. Actually, they're what the maternity nurses ordered - they came up with the cone concept as part of MCV's push to make stays more comfortable. That effort now has been touted in a series of GRTC bus boards, the most memorable of which features an imminent mom reaching for a cone like it's the Holy Grail. (Other iterations promote other aspects of MCV's hospitality.) The campaign has also included ads in local newspapers and magazines. Citing competitive reasons, Setliff declined to disclose results of the six-week campaign but says inquiries into its maternity services are up. The hospital "has always been known as the high-tech center," she says. "Now we're seeking to make women aware of our high-touch services." In that case, MCV might want to deal with the name next: Setliff says the official moniker for the hospital is Medical College of Virginia Hospitals and Physicians of the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System. Talk about a mouthful. Rob Morano

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