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Requiem for a Dream

The last days of 6th Street Marketplace



Shortly after Mayor L. Douglas Wilder took office, George Missak says he took Wilder on a tour of his restaurant, the Blues Café and Bistro. Missak was in the middle of remodeling and there was so much rubble on the floor they had to thread into the main room through the kitchen. There, they admired the newly upholstered booths and the sleek light fixtures that preside over a glossy, 30-foot, dark-wood bar.

Wilder put his arm around the restaurant owner's shoulders. "You have a gold mine," Missak recalls Wilder telling him.

But Missak won't be cashing in.

The Blues Café sits in the 6th Street Marketplace food court, the last remnants of the former city-owned "festival marketplace" at Sixth and Marshall streets.

The marketplace once promised to revitalize downtown and lure back suburban shoppers while bridging the racial divide that was, and to some extent still is, East Broad Street. When it opened in 1985, the marketplace had three wings and more than 50 tenants with the Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers department stores as its anchors.

All that's left is the food court. City officials have given those vendors until summer's end to pack their things and move out.

Since the Blues Café opened in 1999, city, state and federally funded projects have sprouted up around it, including the expansion of the Greater Richmond Convention Center, a growing Virginia BioTechnology Research Park and a nearly completed federal courthouse across the street, all of which have been accompanied by heavy equipment and orange road cones to gum up traffic.

Most of the original 6th Street Marketplace — including the iconic glass-enclosed Broad Street overpass — was torn down in 2003 as part of the Broad Street Community Development Authority's streetscape and utility improvements.

In some ways, it's a marvel that Missak, who also owns Mediterranean Grille in the food court, and other 6th Street tenants have remained open at all. Since the late 1990s, the immediate blocks surrounding 6th Street have been under perpetual construction. There have been times when the sidewalks were so torn up that the food court's patrons had a hard time entering the building on foot, let alone find a parking spot.

Missak, however, hung on. He put steak and shrimp on the menu and bought top-shelf liquor for the bar. He took out a second, then a third, mortgage on his house to pay for improvements.

"It's not for the lack of business sense that we stayed open," Missak says. "It's because of a promise. We were told that this place is going to bloom. We were going to need shovels to carry the money out."

Recently, the big turnaround — that proverbial bloom — finally seemed within reach. Thousands of people packed the Richmond Coliseum this month for Cirque du Soleil and a televised wrestling event. Later this year, hundreds of employees are poised to move in to the Philip Morris research facility behind the Coliseum, not to mention the workers who will fill the federal courthouse just across Broad Street.

Yet the menu's down to burgers and fries and an insert in the front cover reads, "Due to our 90 days notice to vacate the premises of the 6th Street food court we are only able to provide a limited menu."

The oldest of Missak's four children, Jonathan, just had his second tour of duty in Iraq extended. Last time he was home, he killed a bottle of Jack Daniel's at his dad's glossy bar and recounted the horrors of what he'd seen overseas. His dad had hoped Jonathan would tend bar for him when he got back — "someone I can trust," Missak reflects.

There are two businesses in the food court that aren't behind on rent. One of them is the Subway sandwich shop.

"A lot of these guys have not paid, but there's a reason for that," says Joseph Kakish, owner of the Subway.  "There's huge potential here.  We've survived the street closing, construction, customers complaining to us about not having simple access to the building."  When he bought the franchise seven years ago, Friday Cheers was still held in Festival Park between 6th Street Marketplace and the Coliseum. The free summer concert series had been a tremendous boost to business.

"And now when all those things are turning around for us — BioTech Park, Philip Morris — when all those things are looking nice and bright, they drop the ball on us," Kakish says. "We have no choice [but to move]. They won't disclose anything."

He says the bathrooms are so filthy he refuses to use them. The skylight in the atrium leaks and paint is peeling off the ceiling — both building code violations, according to the International Property Maintenance Code. The floor hasn't been redone since the brown-and-tan tiles were laid in the mid-'80s. The heating and air conditioning blasts only Sahara hot or Arctic cold, Kakish says.

Kakish was born in Jordan and moved to the states when he was 18. He used to cook in a fine dining restaurant in upstate New York and holds an associate's degree in math and science. Now he lives across from Short Pump Town Center with his wife and two young sons. He's been trying to renew his lease for the past four years, but the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority, which manages the food court for the city, has kept him on a month-to-month lease.

While Subway routinely requires franchisees to upgrade their facilities, Kakish has been unable to do so because of lease troubles. The company wrote the city on his behalf, estimating it would cost him $145,000 to start over with a new franchise. He wants to stay.

"Fix up the flooring and the bathrooms, let each tenant upgrade their stores and make it look up to standards, and then bring in different tenants," Kakish pleads of the city. "Bring in decent management. We're so thirsty for it."

For its part, the city says 6th Street's got to go, and it can't go soon enough.

"The bottom line is that the city has been subsidizing this operation and it's become a drain on the general fund," says Harry Black, the city's chief financial officer and acting chief administrative officer.

During the last five years, Black says, the city has sunk $5 million into the 6th Street food court.

"The administration made the wise decision to close it because of the excessive operating costs," says Cary Brown, the city's interim director for economic development since February.

The historic building has been showing its age. Electric bills are through the roof. Much of the mechanical equipment — including that bipolar heating and cooling system — is the original system put in place 22 years ago, and requires special orders from the manufacturer for routine maintenance. One upstairs tenant reports that a window recently fell right out of its frame and onto the street.

To make matter worse, those fees are hardly offset by rent from the tenants. There are three office buildings upstairs and two are occupied by city agencies — the adult drug court and the fire department — which don't pay rent or contribute to utilities. Only three of the 10 paying clients are up to date on their rent. The housing authority says it's owed $161,594 in back rent. One RRHA official estimates that each month the authority collects $10,000 in rent and spends $64,000 in management and maintenance.

So why didn't it close sooner?

"We just got here," Black says, referring to the Wilder administration.

Sixth Street supporters argue that subsidizing the market isn't a problem. The city spent $366,000 subsidizing the Coliseum in 2006 — a banner year — and more than $2 million to make up the operating deficit at the convention center. In fact, 6th Street wasn't built to be a moneymaker for the city, at least not directly.

State Sen. Henry Marsh III is helping the tenants negotiate with the city, but he's no stranger to the issue. He served as mayor of Richmond from 1977, the year the plan for the 6th Street Marketplace was first approved, through 1982, and remained in city government as a council member afterward to see the shopping center open.

"The concept was to have a magnet to attract tourists and business," Marsh says. "We didn't expect to make money off the marketplace, but it was a way of encouraging conferences and conventions and basketball leagues to come here."

When the marketplace was built in 1985, it was an obvious accompaniment to the now-defunct Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads department stores. In the days leading up to the grand opening, large signs counting down the days left before the launch were hung throughout the space. A special 26-man unit of the Richmond Police was assigned to patrol the marketplace (included in their training: lessons on Richmond history to assist tourists, crowd-control techniques and a crash course in First Amendment rights).

Championed by revered city philanthropist the late Mary Tyler Freeman Cheek McClenahan, the marketplace was supposed to revitalize downtown, save historic buildings and bridge the racial divide. Marsh had been the city's first black mayor; the city manager at the time was Manuel Deese, Richmond's first black administrator. A half-white, half-black, 60-member board of civic and business leaders called Richmond Renaissance oversaw the project.

They brought in developer James Rouse, who'd built similar inner-city projects in Norfolk, Boston, Philadelphia and Sydney, Australia. In 1981 Rouse appeared on the cover of Time magazine beneath the headline "Cities Are Fun!"

In the midst of the planning and negotiating leading up to the project in 1985, Rouse, perhaps prophetically, addressed an urban planning conference at Virginia Commonwealth University. He warned the city not to neglect other issues such as high crime and inadequate housing.

"One possible unfortunate fallout," he said, "is that it may divert attention from the need for a comprehensive plan for the development of Richmond."

On opening day there was a parade from Brown's Island up to Broad Street with a menagerie of school mascots and the Budweiser Clydesdales.

But the party was short-lived. A year after it opened, the festival marketplace was already hitting rough patches. Tenants were furious over the heating and air-conditioning unit, complaining that it froze out clients in the winter of that first crucial year. There were legal concerns over inadequate smoke detectors after smoke triggered a false alarm in January 1986.

Then came the lawsuits. By 1987, nine stores were suing the city for breach of contract, claiming the city had misrepresented how much marketing and promotion it would provide, not to mention their complaints about the maintenance problems.

Eventually the department stores caved under the pressure of suburban retail flight. Miller & Rhoads went bankrupt in the late 1980s, and by the early 1990s Thalhimers had become Hecht's, which eventually closed the downtown store.

By 1999 the city announced it would tear down 6th Street, but didn't get around to it until four years later. Blues Café owner Missak says the long public debate over whether or not to tear down the mall seriously hurt business. Sometimes people stumble across the place and are surprised to learn it still exists, Missak says.

Under the leadership of City Manager Calvin Jamison, the city administration finally tore down most of the failed mall in November 2003 through the Broad Street CDA. Oddly, the city threw a demolition party when it tore down the overpass, celebrating it as a new day for downtown revitalization.

Still, the 6th Street tenants hung on.

Now, says Black, "We're going to try to outsmart the situation."

The tenants will be out by Aug. 9, and the city is shopping around for a bid from a private real estate services company. That company will help the city put together another four proposals to shop to private development firms across the nation, Black says, soliciting plans to redevelop 6th Street, Main Street Station, Theater Row and the parcels the city owns on the Boulevard by The Diamond. Depending on how the concept works, this is a tool that the city might use for redeveloping other assets.

"The direct network of developers through these services allows for deeper and broader exposures and more options," Economic Development Director Brown says.

"It's unfortunate that we're going to lose the services," Brown says of the evicted tenants, "but I feel that it's temporary. As a broader issue, yes, we need a moderate and lower price point for the daytime workforce as well as the convention center, the Coliseum, all the employees downtown, City Hall included."

After all the 6th Street turmoil, the mix of vendors in the food court represents a survival of the fittest or most tenacious. Brown says successful food courts strategically contract and lease to avoid overlap and competition that would eat into the collective draw of the place.

"We're letting things be market-driven," Black says, although he cautions that private contracting is not a cure-all.

The private bids could call for condos, movie theaters, another shopping center or any number of things, Black says. The city is open to hearing all the options, he says, as long as the plans generate money for the city and can pay for themselves without taxpayer dollars — and ultimately benefit the city through taxes, fees and employment. Brown is expecting the new proposals to be locked in by the end of the year.

When asked about the fate of the tenants, Black says, "This administration did not mislead anyone. We inherited another poor-performing situation."

To be sure, administrations prior to Wilder's have had a major impact on the market, but Missak and other tenants cite things they think the city has done that have been less than up-front.

When times were hard and construction nearly paralyzed business, Missak says, the city encouraged him to hang on. He invested in new equipment. It was during the demolition of the rest of the mall that Missak says he was unable to make rent.

He is now about $83,000 behind on rent for both businesses, but the private management company that the city hired to operate the market, GVA Advantis, was instructed to work with the tenants as best it could. There have been very few evictions. At the same time, Advantis was not allowed to take on new leases to fill empty spots. In 2003, despite promises to the contrary, tenants were not allowed to renew their leases and were put on month-to-month arrangements instead.

"They set it up to where we will be delinquent no matter what, and when it comes time to kick us out, we have no recourse," Missak says. "They did this so we would be easy to get rid of."

Two weeks ago, City Council members Ellen Robertson and Reva Trammell met with the tenants, who gave them a petition signed by 1,300 people calling for the food court businesses to remain open. The night of the meeting was stormy, and Robertson later recalled that because of the leaky atrium, it was "raining inside as much as outside."Tenants joke that maintenance vans from Colonial Mechanical work at the building more than they do.

"The mall is crappy at best," says Missak, who paid out of pocket for an exterminator eight years ago. With the major downtown construction finished and Philip Morris about to move in, Missak was hoping his business would turn the corner. Now he's just hoping to get compensated some to recoup his investment.

"If you want to evict this eyesore," he says, "do it humanely." S

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