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The twisted tail of Richmond’s first downtown dog park

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RICHMOND, Va. -- Dog parks like Richmond's "Barker Field" in Byrd Park and "Bark Park" on the shoulder of Chimborazo Hill have become a pawsome part of the social fabric Richmond - where dogs and their humans can socialize and play.

But before they opened, there was mainly the renegade dog park on the very busy corner of Monument Avenue and the Boulevard.

Twenty years ago, this was a sweet spot for dog lovers.

The property's owner, Billy Gene Jefferson Jr., got some love for donating his big, fenced-in corner lot. Dogless himself, he and his cat enjoyed looking at the dogs and humans - from near and far - playing next door.

Back then, Billy Jefferson was becoming a major player in Richmond's real estate scene, buying and developing big hunks of property in the Fan and Manchester districts, among other neighborhoods.

He had become the Chief Financial Officer of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. He built a million-dollar-plus masonry mansion on the old dog lot corner. Some of his renovations had helped transform tough neighborhoods.

Home where park was located.

He had more than $50 million in properties.

He also had federal agents breathing down his neck for fraudulently obtaining nearly $13 million in historic tax credits, similar to the problems that brought down his developer pal, Justin French.

As the law dogged him, Billy Jefferson stole his brother's identity and hustled back and forth to Vegas, transforming millions into cash, hiding some of it in his home and in camouflaged PVC pipes buried in the old dog park property as he prepped to flee the country. He was collared and, three years ago, a federal judge gave him 20 years, which he has appealed.

Billy Jefferson

Jefferson spoke to me about the dog lot 19 years ago, while his world - and his dog lot - was still wagging its tail.

Here's the story I wrote then - in 1998 - for the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

As Yuki the cat will tell you, Monument Avenue at the  Boulevard has gone to the dogs.

Each day, dozens of hounds hustle to the fenced-in dog park there to run free and romp under Yuki's supervision, as their human companions chew the fat and laugh and give thanks for freedom.

"Each day, we hope we're still allowed to come here," said Andrea Turk, whose two Jack Russells - Joyner and Dempsey - love this half-acre of hound heaven.

She remembers the first time she saw the crowd of dogs there. "I didn't understand what was happening," Turk said. "I thought it was obedience training. I asked,`Can I come in?' and they said, `Sure!'"

For years, Richmond dog owners have been begging, whining and clawing for a fenced in dog park. Now, it appears, they'll have two within a mile of each other.

The Monument Avenue lot is owned by developer Bill Jefferson, who lives next door in a massive 1925 home with his cat - that's right, cat - named Yuki, a tuxedo-furred fellow who spends his afternoons in an upstairs window looking down on the dogs, as cats are wont to do.

"He loves watching," the dogless Jefferson said. "It's been a lot of fun."

But the new dog park doesn't exist to please Yuki, despite what he thinks. There's a foxy plan afoot here that would make a bloodhound chuckle.

Jefferson's firm, River City Renaissance, has bought several of the large buildings on the Boulevard and around the corner on Grace Street. One has been turned into a New York City-style building of large flats - 1,600 square feet or so - that appeal to renters with good jobs and a taste for sophisticated architectural style. Several other conversions are under way.

But that neighborhood, particularly on the Boulevard closer to Broad Street, has had a less than sophisticated reputation. Drinkers and drifters have sat on the retaining walls and steps, sharing their bottles and Beanee Weenees.

Several homeless people have been killed in nearby alleys in recent years during scrapes with their alleymates. A woman, one of the Golden Age homicide victims, was found slain on New Year's Day 1996 a block and a half from the new dog park.

"The way to change a neighborhood is to own enough of the buildings," Jefferson said.

But he had this overgrown lot sitting there in the shadow of the Stonewall Jackson statue. What to do?

"People started asking me if they could take their dogs there," Jefferson said. "They didn't have a place."

That was more than a year ago. It started with a few people and a few dogs, slowly growing until it soared in popularity in the summer. One evening last week, more than 40 dogs and 40 people gathered, talking and laughing and playing. It looked like a bustling town square, much different than a year ago.

"Like a party," Jefferson said. "It's turned out really nice for the neighborhood. The people look happy. They're friendly people, hanging out."

John Patterson, who lives nearby on Park Avenue with his border terrier, Maggie, was one of the first to come. "I stopped by and knocked on his door and asked if we could use the lot," Patterson recalled. "He said, `Sure.'"

Then came Terri Liddiard and her amazing half-pit bull, half-basset, Danni. The fenced-in lot changed everything, Liddiard said. "We don't have to watch our dogs so close. We can talk to each other."

Most of the park users live nearby, although some come from across town, like Tad and Denise Nelson, who bring Bear the chow-lab from their Westover Hills home.

They love the Monument spot but are eagerly awaiting the opening of R-Dog's new fenced in acre in Byrd Park behind the Carillon, which may come as soon as this week.

"That would be much closer for us," Tad Nelson said. "We'll be able to pop across the river and let them run around."

The fences for the Byrd Park site started going up late last week and are nearly completed. The yearlong struggle for an official dog park is nearly over, said Arlene Dickson, president of R-Dog, a grass-roots herd of dog owners who organized after the unofficial dog park behind the Virginia Museum closed a year and a half ago, creating a canine crisis that had dog lovers howling and scrambling for a solution.

The grand opening of the Byrd Park dog park is slated for Oct. 18, although it should be in use later this week, Dickson said.

Most cities of any sophistication around the world have dog parks because they're pleasant social scenes for dogs and humans alike.

Tuesday nights at the Monument Park, for example, regular human users go out for the "doggy dinner club" after dark so we can get to know each other by name - instead of by doggy name," said Mark McIntyre, who would be known as Chase were it not for those outings.

"Chase is the policeman of the park," McIntyre said as those standing near nodded in agreement.

Chase is a delightful mix of boxer and pointer, a "bointer," as McIntyre calls him.

"He's the alpha male," Patterson said. "He never gets into a fight."

That's one of the keys to the park. Users - dogs and humans - must be friendly, with decent social skills. Excessive noise is discouraged (except for the howl-along-with-the-siren competitions when fire trucks roll by). And the pooper-scooper must be used.

Human park users report their dogs are more relaxed and happy now that they can run wild and free for a few hours every week. They even sleep better.

Cheryl Denbar said her dog, Hanna, "loves it. She'll drag me down the street" to get to the park.

Erica Farrell stood on the sidewalk last week in her work clothes and leaned on the fence, watching her husband, Nick, and young son, Conor CMcq>, play with their aptly named border collie, Zippy.

"With a dog like this, you can't walk them. He needs to run," she said as Zippy made the earth fly with his scrabbling toenails digging into hairpin turns. His tongue lolled out in doggy laughter.

Farrell, like the others, is grateful that Jefferson has let his lot go to the dogs. "He's providing a great community service," she said.

"That guy is awesome," Andrea Turk said as her two Jack Russells darted to and fro under the watchful eyes of Yuki the cat, who sat high above in his window - his throne - pretending not to care.

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