From the Corridor Real Estate Journal, Washington, D.C.
RICHMOND – Richmond’s City Council took the first official step to beginning the $322 million Grace Park Center downtown revitalization project by approving a Broad Street redevelopment district that would allow for eminent domain.
Jack Berry, executive director of Richmond Renaissance, the downtown development agency which put together the plan, said that the plan is a continuation of already official downtown master plans. “It respects retail in downtown,” said Berry, speaking in defense of the district at the end of a raucous City Council meeting Monday, July 26 that pitted preservation and arts groups against each other.
(The midnight discussion of the redevelopment followed another contentious decision by council to reinstall a controversial mural of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee near Richmond’s new Canal Walk, a move which offended some African-Americans.) “We’re here to work with you,” said Berry to the assembled landowners and preservation officials gathered to speak against the plan.
Berry said that with condemnation issues out of the way, Richmond Renaissance could proceed with finding a developer to supervise the entire project, which would demolish the empty Miller & Rhoads building for a block-large park, and to tear down the also-vacant Thalhimers building for a new theater and arts complex and class A office space. Council’s passage of the redevelopment district, while unanimous, was a compromise for city leaders and Richmond Renaissance, as it now includes official input from representatives from neighborhood groups.
Included in the revised redevelopment ordinance was the inclusion of an ad-hoc community committee to work with Richmond Renaissance on the plan and a commitment by the city to historic preservation in the district, including Art Deco storefronts in the 400 block of East Grace Street. Exactly how the buildings would be preserved was not determined, and preservationists also used the meeting to blast the subsidies that the hotel would need, the cost of the project, and the many unrealized plans for downtown Richmond, citing “years of strangers with beautiful drawings.”
“These are the plans of the country club set,” said architect Isaac Moses Regelson, the first to speak in opposition to the district. “Do not subjugate us to the whims of corporate welfare.”
Regelson, the mayor’s most recent appointment to the city’s Urban Design Committee, said that while downtown was all but dying two years ago, an economic boom in downtown was already here, and did not need to be pushed along by the city.
Lenard Shields of Shields Shoes, a 36-year-old business in the redevelopment area, spoke against the redevelopment ordinance, but worked on the compromise legislation with Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin and Mayor Timothy Kaine before the meeting. “I have this horrible feeling it’s going to come back to haunt us,” said Shields, who thought the compromise was better than nothing, but nevertheless an attempt to “appease the opposition.” In original plans by the Massachusetts architectural firm TerraScape, a four-star convention hotel was slated to be build on Shields’ block, the 400 block of East Grace Street.
But in the compromise legislation, amended during the meeting, the storefronts would be saved and about 20 feet lopped off the back, from the alley. Instead, the hotel could front on Broad Street, across from the expanded Richmond Centre. Shields said that he would lose heating and air conditioning units, but would be able to keep most of his retail footage. Shields said that the legislation also includes a March 1, 2000 date where the buildings could be taken if it proves necessary, depending “on the developer’s needs.”
The hoped for completion date for the hotel is near July 2002, when the Richmond Centre, the 1980s-vintage convention center, will be tripled in size to 600,000 square feet.
Alan Shaia, whose family owns the old Thalhimers department store, spoke against the plan, and asked that a time limit be placed on the district, so that private individuals could resume control of the district if the project does not take off. “After nine years of plans, we should put a time limit on it,” Shaia said, referring to frequently issued consultant plans on downtown. “After two years, let the property owners have it back.”
Others wondered whether a subsidized hotel in the plan would preclude development of other empty buildings downtown, including the empty Hotel John Marshall one block away, and the Art Deco-style Central National Bank building, where city officials also hope to develop a four-star hotel at Second & Grace streets.
Chandler Battaile, interim executive director of the preservation group the Historic Richmond Foundation, said that the plan should not be written in stone, especially if a developer could be found for the 1920s Miller & Rhoads building, which could be eligible for federal tax credits. Boosters of the plan and redevelopment included some of the major arts groups in the city, including the Virginia Opera, the Richmond Symphony, the Arts Council of Richmond, TheatreVirginia and the Richmond Ballet.
Stephanie Micas, executive director of the Arts Council, said that Richmond was one of the few cities of its size without a performing arts complex. Amy Bridge, Richmond director of the Virginia Opera, said that the Carpenter Center, which would be expanded in the Grace Park Center plan, was inadequate for the opera, and sets were difficult to get in and out. Those comments were echoed by Marcia Thalhimer, representing the Richmond Symphony, which also performs at the Carpenter Center.
The Carpenter Center hopes to launch an $8 million capital campaign for expansion as a part of the Grace Park Center plan. Bill Baxter, representing the Richmond Retail Merchants Association, also spoke in favor of the plan, saying it would “preserve the architectural fabric almost at all costs.” The four-block project would include two office towers, a four-star hotel, a residential tower, parking for 2,000 cars, movie theaters and two new performing arts facilities.
The plan still has many barriers. The city will need to subsidize the hotel, and funds have not approved for site acquisition or construction, which could prove costly, as the street is still the main shopping district for inner city residents, including a G.C. Murphy department store and bustling Korean-owned shops.