Thank God my daughter can’t read. That’s what I thought as I clutched her then-tiny hand on the downtown Richmond sidewalk past the young man wearing the T-shirt emblazoned with an obscene invitation, “@#$* my *%#!”
In the years since, I’ve retold this story to countless critical thinking classes at Virginia Commonwealth University, leading to rich discussions about free speech. Everyone agrees it should be legal to wear that shirt. And everyone agrees it’s uncool.
This distinction, and the notion of law as setting the minimum standard for behavior, is on my mind a lot this spring. I ponder it daily while driving Route 5, which winds past Rocketts Landing east of Richmond. Along the highway, known as New Market Road once you’re a ways into Henrico County, I pass a charming cottage that’s become ground zero for a community conflict that hinges on the coolness of players involved.
I say cool, because I hang out with college freshmen all day. We can also call it ethical choices or being a good neighbor or cultivating positive public relations. In the end it’s the same.
This cottage sits beside the Virginia Capital Trail on the scenic byway, one of America’s oldest roads. The house is what my grandmother would call “a sight for sore eyes” — two stories, brick and stone tucked under big trees. It seems exactly what tourism experts mean when they talk about “a sense of place.”
But this particular house is slated for destruction. Hence the drama. The same developer that built the adjacent subdivision owns this house and plans to tear it down and build … wait for it … a Family Dollar store.
Legally, the developer can. Through some oversight predating Varina’s current planning commissioner and supervisor, the parcel is zoned commercial. That’s not in dispute. It’s also not the point.
The question is not may they build, but should they. Should a business force itself on a community where no one wants it?
When I say no one, this is what I mean: Not the newly engaged young man who bought the house directly behind the cottage. Not the retired Richmond police officer who lives across the way. And not the homeowners association of North James Estates, to which they both belong. Not residents of Midview Farms, to the north. Not residents of Marion Hill, to the west. Nor residents of Osborne Turnpike, to the south. Not the Varina Beautification Committee.
And certainly not their elected supervisor, Tyrone Nelson, who stood in an elementary school auditorium in March and told the standing-room-only crowd: “If there was a way that I could stop it, I would. I don’t want it there.”
This Family Dollar threatens years of effort by the Route 5 Corridor Coalition to build the road’s unrivaled history and scenic charm into a highly profitable tourism destination. In the last year alone the coalition won two state-level grants to fund a Take 5 website and marketing campaign — the first ad of which runs in this month’s Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine.
It’s an ambition with deep roots. As a 1992 report by the General Assembly stated, “It is doubtful that a comparable area exists elsewhere in the Commonwealth, or indeed, in the nation. … The Route 5 corridor is an important economic asset of the Commonwealth deserving of effective conservation and promotion.”
Henrico County echoed this appreciation in its 2026 Comprehensive Plan, which identified Route 5 as a special character protection area, noting that “the rural character and the views to and from New Market Road should be preserved.”
That wasn’t by chance. Henrico County — elected leaders, appointed commissioners, paid staff and active residents — worked tirelessly on that plan.
None of that changes the legality of this parcel’s zoning. But shouldn’t it influence the landowners and Family Dollar? Why not seek another location? Make a different deal? Find a welcome market elsewhere, better suited for a dollar store? It can’t be good business to force yourself on a neighborhood simply because you can. Are we relying solely on the government to set limits on our activities? Is the idea of self-regulation a farce? Do any of us want to live in a world where cool and legal mean the same?
So far, in the face of the community’s united opposition, the local developer’s most significant response has been to distance itself from the bad press by changing its company name. Where is the respect in that? Either felt or shown?
I think sometimes about that kid in the obscene T-shirt. How awful it would feel to move through a world of constant rejection. Of course, he was young. Years have passed. He may look back on that choice with embarrassment and regret.
But a building can’t be changed like a shirt. This one mistake is not yet made. Let’s hope those involved awaken to what they’re doing. Surely they know better. Not going where you’re not wanted is one of the first lessons in being cool. S
Nicole Anderson Ellis teaches critical thinking, critical writing and argumentation at VCU. She’s also co-chairwoman of the Route 5 Corridor Coalition, a director on the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District Board and a resident of Henrico’s Varina District.
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