Above Water 

Without the screaming and shouting, Richmond finally takes on Shockoe Bottom.

click to enlarge news36_shocoe_bottom_300.jpg

There was the baseball stadium, the medical park, the enclosed farmers' market and the football stadium-cum-soccer-field-and-perhaps-in-winter-an-ice-skating-rink. Now there's the bus transfer station, the high-speed rail hub and the slavery museum.

The plans to save Shockoe Bottom have come in many shapes and sizes. They go back years and span a cacophony of master plans, maps and market analyses. But six years after Tropical Storm Gaston ripped through the Bottom — destroying businesses and restaurants with floodwaters as deep as 10 feet in some places — none of the sweeping development plans has taken hold.

Development takes time, but a kick start is in the works. A city-sponsored economic feasibility study during the next few months will plot geographical and market analyses of the area and hold public-planning sessions, a panel discussion featuring developers and ultimately, another plan.

“This area of town's been studied and studied and studied,” says Tammy Hawley, Mayor Dwight C. Jones' press secretary. “We really want to get to the point where we're implementing a development strategy.”

No fewer than 10 attachments accompanied the request for bid applications to craft the study. Each document in the bevy of addenda could have represented a year in the discussions among city officials, boosters and real estate experts on how to tap into the Bottom's retail and commercial potential. Long situated at a seemingly fertile intersection of the city, wedged between downtown and the city's fastest-growing residential communities in Church Hill and Tobacco Row, the Bottom would seem an easy sell for retailers and developers. It seems something — be it natural disaster, recession, or a nightclub-related shooting — almost always gets in the way.

“It appears to have peaked in the 1990s and seems to have been somewhat on an economic decline since,” development consultant John Gerner, managing director of Richmond-based Leisure Business Advisors, says.

Gerner has studied a slew of plans crafted for the area through the years. The 90s' heyday was characterized by a grass-roots effort of small, entrepreneurial businesses taking risks one by one — a new restaurant here, a new bar there, block by block, until Shockoe had become a restaurant and nightlife destination in the late 1990s.

That success “was sort of homegrown,” Gerner says. But certain perceptions of the neighborhood — such as parking challenges, occasional shootings and lingering questions about the ability of the city's flood wall to manage storm water — tripped up growth and contributed to concerns about investing in the area.

While some restaurants and niche retailers have bounced back following the devastation of Gaston, the revolving door of businesses continues and many buildings remain vacant — most visibly the historic Seaboard Air Line Railroad office building and the Main Street Station train shed. Various ideas have been floated for those structures, including shops and a slavery museum and visitors' center, and among the requirements for the upcoming market study is the consideration of already-laid plans for a Main Street Station-area slavery museum and high-speed rail stop.

The problem, some say, is that without the independent market and feasibility studies, the city has been in a defensive position, reacting to scattershot development proposals with no guideposts. The work of Bay Area Economics, the San Francisco-based real estate consulting company recently hired by the city to conduct the feasibility study, will be critical to guiding the Bottom's future, Gerner says.

“There's a need for some sort of external force to help the Bottom,” he says. “But then at that point you start falling off with consensus.”

To wit: the recent neighborhood divide over Highwoods Properties' proposed $363 million development and baseball stadium, which split the community. Many businesses and developers in the Bottom supported the ballpark proposal, but residents in Church Hill and preservationists pushed back, saying the ballpark would damage the Bottom's historic texture. The Bottom is where the city was born and included the city's first street grid, and was ground zero in the 19th-century domestic slave trade.

The issue, naturally, has always been about money. Mayor Dwight Jones ultimately tabled the ballpark proposal following a city-sponsored study of the development, which found, contrary to Highwoods Properties' promise, that the project would require significant financial support from the city.

The 2008 analysis by Davenport and Co., Chmura Economics and Analytics and Economics Research Associates concluded that the area harbored potential for 65,000 square feet of retail and $26.5 million in gross sales. That stood in contrast to Highwoods Properties' plan for 192,000 square feet of retail and $90 million in sales.

The latest study is under way, with the city awarding a $149,750 contract to Bay Area Economics, a real estate consulting company. That amount is almost $25,000 more than what City Council budgeted for it last year, $125,000. City spokeswoman Hawley says extra funding will draw from economic-development funds.

Consultant Gerner was part of a competing bid for the revitalization strategy, but he praises what he's seen of Bay Area Economics' work. “They're used to dealing with challenges,” he says. Hawley says the study should be complete in less than a year.

Others say the current movement is a long time coming. With so many competing visions through the years, the feasibility study finally should help city planners carve out a strategy for the Bottom's future.

“I'm hoping that they will seek the input of the people that have been down here … who have been through the waves of plans,” says David Napier, owner of White House Catering and president of the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association. “I think what we want to see is action.”


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