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Launching Rocketts’ Landing
Behind the secretive plans to turn Richmond’s old dock into a gold mine.
Inside Business
Monday January 22, 2001

Mention Rocketts’ Landing to anyone with financial ties to the Richmond riverfront and chances are you’ll receive a steely response.

To date, investors and developers have treated the Rocketts’ Landing development project more like the famous Manhattan Project than a few acres of run-down flood plain and a couple of old warehouses along the James River.

They may have good reason to be secretive.

A group of investors that includes James S. Ukrop and Bill Abeloff is behind a massive plan to develop Rocketts’ Landing, which stretches along the river east of Tobacco Row on Route 5 from the edge of the city into Henrico County. Those familiar with the plans say the project will include an upscale mix of residential housing, restaurants and retail shops, as well as a marina.

If all goes according to plan, Rocketts’ Landing will become the city’s premier upscale residential community. It will also become the first true waterfront residential development in the city’s history and may help bolster development along Shockoe Bottom’s Tobacco Row and the canal.

“I think it’s very exciting,” says Mayor Timothy Kaine of the project. “It’s the part of the city that has the best view of the city.”

For now, however, there are still more questions than answers.

Will Route 5 be closed and Main Street rerouted? Will there be a marina? A replica of the U.S.S. Merrimac? Is Crown Petroleum in or out? Will it be condos or apartments? And what will happen to the mammoth Richmond Cedar Works complex, which is bounded by the James River and Route 5 and sits right on the line between Henrico County and Richmond?

So far, most of those questions solicit “no comments” from those involved. It’s also something of a mystery to adjacent property owners, many of whom are taking a wait-and-see attitude regarding the area.

Historian Bill Trout has been watching the area for years and has written a history of the canal, which ends at Rocketts’ Landing. He has been a longtime advocate for responsible development along the river and around the canal.

“It’s pretty exciting but it’s strange it hasn’t happened before,” Trout says of the development. “We want to keep an eye on it and make sure it’s scenic.”

One thing’s for sure – there will be plenty of eyes watching Rocketts’ Landing. Since other development sites around the city have been renovated or picked over and Richmond’s downtown canal project is now complete, interest is finally shifting to the Rocketts’ Landing area.

Reached at his Tobacco Row office, potential developer Abeloff wouldn’t comment. Ditto with Stan Joynes, the LeClair Ryan attorney for an investment group led by Abeloff, one of the driving forces behind the redevelopment of Tobacco Row.

But sources say Abeloff is attempting to assemble parcels into a Rocketts’ Landing development west of the City Dock.

Mayor Kaine says the city has held discussions with several investors and property owners in the Rocketts’ Landing neighborhood. He says he is generally supportive of any improvements in the area, adding that city-owned property in the area has been terribly underutilized. Currently, Kaine says, the city only uses the mammoth Intermediate Terminal on Route 5 for storing its heavy, ancient voting machines.

“We can find another spot for the voting machines,” Kaine says.

So far, the only concrete improvements in the Rocketts’ Landing neighborhood have come from Riverview Farm Associates LLC, the development company of Jerry Cable, owner of the Tobacco Company Restaurant and the Byrd Theater.

Cable purchased the Dock Street Tarmac cement plant that sits next to Great Shiplock Park just over four months ago. In that time, Cable’s company has been busily clearing the thousands of pounds of concrete on the site for a complex that is expected to include condominiums and a restaurant.

On the waterfront

Rocketts’ Landing is key because of its waterfront access. Many Virginia cities have special developments planned for waterfront property to appeal to visitors who arrive by water. Even the most modest waterfront town usually has a marina, or at least a special seafood shack or a restaurant. At the very least there is a dock with old Gulf gas pumps where, theoretically, wayward mariners can stop for a fill-up.

Richmond currently has no such thing. The city does have a wharf at the site of the successful cruise boat the Annabel Lee, but that’s about it.

That’s not the way the area always was. It was once well known across the globe as Rocketts’ Landing or the Port of Rocketts. Like Dundalk in Baltimore, Rocketts’ Landing was Richmond’s riverfront center of commerce.

Named for entrepreneur Robert Rocketts, who ran a tavern and ferry in the area, Rocketts’ Landing sits aside Gillies Creek, which runs into the James. Just across the river from Rocketts’ Landing were the infamous slave docks and just around the bend was the James River and Kanawha Canal, which carried most of Virginia’s goods west.

Rocketts’ Landing was the birthplace of the industrial age Confederate Navy and the site of most of Richmond’s marine activity from the city’s founding in the 17th century to just after World War II, when Richmond’s port traffic moved downstream to the Deepwater Terminal. Even through the early part of the 20th century, Richmond saw regular steamship service to cities like Norfolk and Baltimore.

Cleveland-based maritime artist and historian Bill McGrath was in Richmond about five years ago to paint a historical rendition of Rocketts’ Landing. His print, which depicts the Rocketts’ Landing of the 1860s, has sold almost 1,000 copies around the United States. The romantic moonlit view he captured shows the James River, brick warehouses and the ironclad U.S.S. Merrimac in an animated dock scene that would have rivaled Charleston or Savannah.

McGrath says it’s about time that the area, which saw so much history, finally got some attention. Its history already draws tourists from around the country.

Landscape architect Carlton Abbott has been watching the area for years. Abbott and his father, also a landscape architect, completed the first modern planning study of the area for the Richmond Planning Commission in the mid-1960s in conjunction with a then-new effort to revive the Kanawha Canal.

Abbott, who works out of Williamsburg, is pleased there is renewed interest in the area, especially now that work on the James River and Kanawha Canal is mostly complete. Massive, federally funded civil-works projects such as the floodwall construction, combined sewer replacement and canal reconstruction have cleaned up much of the James River’s pollution, Abbott says, making Rocketts’ Landing more attractive.

“It was a foul mess,” Abbott remembers. “Early on, there wasn’t a sewer system.”

But in some ways, Abbott feels the area has gone backward. As late as the 1960s, there was a collection of powerboats along the riverfront and houseboats just inside the locks, near what’s now called the Great Shiplock Park.

Also along the waterfront were picturesque tall ships and a riverboat restaurant, which made the area colorful, if somewhat salty and decrepit.

Abbott, whose firm is currently working on waterfront design projects in Lexington and Yorktown, says developing Rocketts’ Landing should be successful provided the flood-plain issues are taken into consideration.

“If you’ve been down there during a big storm, [you can see] it still floods,” Abbott says. “[The James River basin] drains about 25 percent of the state.”

Nevertheless, Abbott says that sites near the Great Shiplock Park provide great views and tourist possibilities, as does the massive Cedar Works complex, which fronts Route 5 and the James.

“I would say that there are wonderful design opportunities,” Abbott says. “It’s Richmond getting its soul back. It’s about making human places.”

Table with a view

The main focus of riverfront interest today is near the Great Shiplock Park, just below the easternmost end of Tobacco Row. That site, which totals just under five acres, is currently owned by Cable’s Riverview Farm Associates.

Alan Kemp, a project manager with Riverview Farm, says the property is in the middle of grading and demolition work.

While Kemp says the project is early in the planning stages, the company is thinking about building a restaurant and developing some combination of condominiums that would capitalize on views of the James River and the site’s proximity to the locks of the old canal, which the property abuts.

Canal historian and preservationist Trout is supportive of development in the Shiplock area. Not having a restaurant and better dock facilities in the area has been a detriment, he says.

For the 1976 Bicentennial, the Great Shiplock Park opened, and part of the park’s renovation was opening the old locks so that small boats could pass through. But Trout recalls that the gate would sometimes stick and jam, and since then the park has been underutilized by mariners.

“The city had to have a diver on call” to loosen the locks when they were stuck, says Trout. He is confident the system will eventually work again.

Meanwhile, to the west of the city’s wharf area, plans are less developed but moving ahead.

In the late 1980s, New Kent real estate developer Tolar Nolley attempted to pull together a massive deal to revive the Rocketts’ Landing area. The project failed as it hit the real estate slowdown of the late 1980s and other obstacles.

Nevertheless, Nolley’s plan was ambitious. He spent thousands of dollars developing plans for the area, which included the now-defunct power plant on Old East Main Street and the Crown Petroleum tank farm.

For a time, Nolley helped to attract a mega-yacht to be berthed at the docks for corporate cruises and parties. He has heard the persistent talk of an Abeloff development, but hasn’t been contacted.

“It’s a great area and if it’s done right, it will be an anchor for Shockoe Bottom and Tobacco Row,” Nolley says.

Reluctant neighbors

Some of the property owners in the area, however, have yet to sign on.

One key player is Bill Hill of the William R. Hill Co. Hill’s merchandise brokerage, founded in 1910, sits along Route 5 overlooking the river and the Annabel Lee docks.

He says that while he is interested in seeing improvements to the area, he only recently moved there from Shockoe Slip. He says he has been approached to sell his property but plans to stay. He likes the area – and the view.

“We’re a working, modern facility,” Hill says. “I have no reason to move.”

Hill says he would be against plans to divert Route 5 it if it were officially proposed. Not only is the street a busy route from Henrico, he says, it would landlock his warehouse.

E.B. Honeycutt of Virginia Rigging, which owns property just past the Cedar Works, also has been contacted to be a part of the development. He isn’t selling, either.

One of the largest players is Crown Central Petroleum Marketing Co. of Baltimore, which owns a building near the river, has a petroleum-tank farm across Route 5 from the Rocketts’ Landing development and depends on a pipeline that runs under the James and through the middle of the area.

Doug Fritz, Crown’s vice president of real estate, says that Crown is not yet a part of any project in the area. “We’ve had conversations and will consider anything that is reasonable,” Fritz says.

Kaine says he’s had “discussions” about possible developments with some of the investors and developers. The mayor has been generally supportive of the Abeloff plan and holds out the possibility that the city could include its properties and wharves as part of the master plan for developing the area.

Whether the city property, which is actually a number of parcels, is to be leased or sold has yet to be determined, Kaine says.

Kaine confirms that there has been talk of rerouting Route 5, which separates some of the property in the area. But he says that no decisions have been made.

“We’re very anxious to include the city parcels in the development,” says Kaine.

He also says that the site, at the border of Richmond and Henrico County, could foster some positive regional cooperation.

Some say the key to making the development work is the marina, something the city hasn’t had downtown since closing Ancarrow’s marina. When the city opened its sewage treatment plant about 40 years ago, Ancarrow’s, located just across the James from the Annabel Lee, closed for good.

“A marina is a key function of this development,” Kaine says.

For the city, the other missing link to the area will be opening the padlocked Great Shiplock Park again for marine traffic, so that sailboats and powerboats can anchor overnight in a safe harbor. Development in the area, Kaine says, will increase the demand for the lock and provide a reason to keep it fixed.

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