The dogwoods were in full bloom April 16, when Delegate Dwight C. Jones announced his candidacy for mayor. On the stone steps of the Fan's Binford Middle School, miles from his home base in Manchester, he performed the political ritual of delivering a speech that included a litany of his achievements.
“In fact,” he told the crowd, “I am the only candidate that is running that has contributed to the economic development in the city by developing apartments and commercial space in the Hull Street corridor.”
As the race has unfolded, Jones has often trumpeted his commitment to bringing back Hull Street. But a quick tour south of the Manchester Bridge — in the corridor that Jones claims to have helped revitalize — could make it difficult to reach a simple verdict on the state of renewal.
His most recent project — a five-year, $5 million development — has produced and rented out 68 low-income apartments, even as high-rent renovation projects crop up blocks away. The ground floor, intended for commercial use, remains empty.
The first-floor vacancy there and at a handful of other properties owned by First Baptist Church of South Richmond, where Jones is pastor, has long frustrated developers and city officials who say the boarded-up buildings make it more difficult to lure investment into the neighborhood.
During the last 10 years, Jones has fended off liens and lawsuits while becoming embroiled in internal bickering with his church over money and property. Despite rough patches, Jones' efforts have seen some success during Manchester's continual struggle toward a full-scale economic revival.
First Baptist Church, one block off Hull on Decatur Street, hired Jones as pastor in 1975 when he was 25 years old. The church's neighborhood was in serious decline, having suffered from a retail push toward the suburbs.
In its heyday, “Hull Street was like the second downtown,” Jones says, sitting in the spacious second-floor conference room of the church offices. “When I got here there was still a florist, there was still Standard Drug Store.” A handful of restaurants and small businesses clung on, but the neighborhood spiraled downward.
You can still see the bones of beautiful storefronts and stately homes, but boarded-up windows and broken glass stand guard.
Just past the library on 14th Street, there's a block of smoothly paved sidewalk. A glass doorway in a building with new red bricks opens into a leasing office with an exercise room. The back doors open onto a serene courtyard. Lush green plantings line a bed of river rocks curving under light filtering through overhead catwalks. Fuchsia blossoms spill off someone's balcony. It's an oasis, but a hidden one.
There are 68 apartments upstairs. Rent stays below market rate and only people whose income is low enough qualify as tenants. Downstairs, in space intended for a business, safety glass from an interior window crumbles onto a floor littered with soda cans and building debris.
A plaque embedded in the wall outside thanks the Rev. Dwight C. Jones and the Imani Intergenerational Community Development Corp. for their efforts.
Jones launched Imani, which means faith in Swahili, in 1996 as the development arm of the church, which made it eligible for public money. By then Hull Street was dead, he says — “really dead.” By purchase, donation and through the city, Imani acquired the commercial buildings that today house a preschool, an adult day-care center and a doctor's office.
Jones was combating a decline that started after 1970, when the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority built a 440-unit, public-housing project in Blackwell, near Hull Street. Whether it was the crime and drugs or the perception of it, families and businesses fled. Those who stayed behind saw their property values tank.
In 1997, the city's housing authority received $27 million as part of the HOPE VI housing program. It was an element of a sweeping housing policy shift in the early 1990s that intended to get the poorest out of stacked housing projects and into more stable, economically diverse neighborhoods.
Initially, Jones supported HOPE VI, but the housing authority's Blackwell rebuilding project got off track after a false start with a builder and a cutback in federal funds. Blackwell was torn down, but of the 440 public housing units that were leveled, only a fraction — to date only 75 public housing units — have been built in their place.
This is where Jones' vision for the future of Hull Street conflicts with the housing renaissance that's taken place in other parts of the city, fueled by historic tax credits and upper-end buyers who have repopulated places such as the Fan, Church Hill and Jackson Ward.
Jones wants Manchester's revival to include those who are typically displaced when a neighborhood gentrifies: lower-income families and those receiving subsidized housing — folks who often don't have the buying power to attract private investment and retail development.
Such a vision comes with hurdles. For example, Jones planned to help replace a half-dozen of Blackwell's government-subsidized housing units by including them in the 68-unit Imani Mews. The original financial plans for the development included $500,000 in HOPE VI money, but the lender involved in the deal balked at the government restrictions. The lender found other money and the HOPE VI funding was never included in the deal.
The perceived connection between Jones and Blackwell lingers, aided in part by the housing authority's Web site that lists Imani Mews as part of its Blackwell replacement plan. Local developers and critics have long wondered if it was Jones' influence that could have pulled so much federal money to an untried housing developer such as Imani.
To be sure, Hull Street has fallen from its former glory. But the geographic causes for its initial success remain. It's an artery to the river and offers a classic view of downtown's skyline. It runs over the Manchester Bridge straight to Shockoe Slip's cobblestone streets.
“I knew that when Hull Street came back the gentrification was going to be upper-end,” Jones says. He was right.
Three years ago, historic renovation guru Robin Miller and developer Dan Gecker, also a Chesterfield County supervisor, used state and federal credits to buy 153 Manchester properties and renovated them into high-dollar homes and lofts. One of their apartment buildings, three blocks from Imani, fetches up to $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom unit. Miller says they've already brought close to 300 new residents into the rehabbed properties.
Anticipating this, Jones says he wanted to make sure that “when the tide rose, there would be some inclusion, some work force housing, some $400 rents in the community.”
Doing it as a nonprofit developer can be an uphill battle. Such companies have to weave together complex public, private and charitable funding, says Bob Adams, who heads the consultant company Housing and Development Advisors.
“I think people used to think what was required was for [community development corporations] to have a commitment,” he says, “and now it's commitment and a high level of competence.”
The local community-development scene offers a wide array of success stories and failures, says David Sacks, Richmond's acting deputy director of community development from 2001 to 2006.
During the past few years, he says, three similar groups have folded under mismanagement, or taking on too much, while larger outfits such as the Better Housing Coalition have become the gold standard for successful developments. Its most renowned mixed-use housing project includes an economically diverse mix of renters and some social services.
Imani is shooting for a similar template with the preschool, doctor's office and adult day care center nearby. But Imani has less administrative experience, and it shows.
“When I was [with the city] we basically cut them off,” Sacks says of
Imani. “If Imani or anybody else is not able to produce the product that is requested of the city then they should not receive the funding.”
Federal money distributed by the city paid executive director Tonya Scott-Hickman's salary for two years, but that dried up in 2005. Around that time, Imani brought in a consulting firm to help with the Imani Mews project.
The first major victory for Imani came in 2003 when, through a competitive bidding process, it won $5.3 million in low-income housing tax credits, which translated to $4.3 million in equity to fund Imani Mews. But as construction drew to a close, the builder, Charlottesville-based Pinnacle Construction, claimed it was underpaid and sued Imani and several subcontractors, putting a lien on the property for $335,000.
“Pinnacle didn't have our best interests at heart,” Jones says. “What they did was not illegal, but unethical.”
Once Pinnacle got its money, Imani faced a shortfall with SunTrust, which had funded $3.25 million of the construction. Imani was running short on cash to pay off loans. In putting together such a complex financial package, some grants and loans were secured but wouldn't show up for months. Imani spent 2006 scrambling to pay off the lien and the bank and getting lenders to increase or redirect already committed loans.
Part of the money raised to pay off SunTrust came through loans backed by property owned by the church. Jones says the church cannot spend any money without his board signing off, but there's a history of friction between Jones and some of his flock over church properties and finances. In 1997, three of his deacons sued Jones, demanding he open the books.
Eventually, the suit went into mediation. In the final agreement, Jones pledged to show monthly financial statements for the church and the deacons agreed not to talk publicly about the ordeal.
One of the men involved in the lawsuit, Ernest Jones (no relation to the pastor) says he wasn't happy with the lack of transparency and left the church after being demoted as deacon.
Bumps in the road on building projects are not uncommon, says Jeff Miller, a Portsmouth attorney who represents that city's housing authority. The Imani Mews building project was untidy, but not off the charts, he says. After reviewing financial documents obtained by Style he says he found nothing to suggest abuse.
“These are complicated deals,” Miller says, “and it would look a lot worse if they had more projects going on and were in a lot of trouble on them.”
In the meantime, a cloud of uncertainty has gathered over Imani.
In 2003, Style reported that First Baptist was a year and a half behind on a $100,000 loan from the city, though it was later revealed that the church wasn't in arrears, and had been a victim of disorganized bookkeeping by the city. Still, the old connection to Blackwell and HOPE VI money adds to the suspicion and speculation.
The dueling honorifics — Reverend? Delegate? — have also cast a shadow of uneasiness. Several sources interviewed for this story declined to comment on the record because of the powerful positions Jones holds — now, and perhaps in the future.
The residential units at Imani Mews are now full, but the commercial space on the ground floor is empty. Jones says he expects a tenant within the next 30 days.
Then it will be on to the other commercial properties owned by Imani and the church. But along with the first floor of Imani Mews, another storefront is still for rent, three other properties remain boarded up, and one single family home sits vacant with a notice from the city demanding that Imani hack the weeds. All the addresses fall within three blocks of the church.
Tom Robinson, a city developer, sees a huge opportunity in the neighborhood, especially with the $23 million renovation of the Manchester Courthouse, scheduled for completion in 2010. He predicts it will draw law offices that will in turn support a new wave of coffee shops and client lunch spots.
“I'm a member of the Hull Street Merchant's Association,” he says, “and we are desperately tying to attract more businesses.” He says the blighted property held indirectly by Jones through Imani or the church are “not doing anything but pulling the neighborhood down.”
Robinson tried to facilitate meetings with investors interested in restoring the historic Venus Theater, the building anchoring Imani Mews, “because we would have been more like Carytown much quicker.” But Imani balked at the idea.
“The Imani Mews project is where most of the crime is happening now because of all the low-income housing all in one place,” Robinson says.
Richmond Police Lt. Emmett Williams, who works in the neighborhood, tells a different story. “Crime trends tend to be more south in Blackwell … and not so much along Hull,” he writes in an e-mail. “The biggest problems along Hull still tend to center around after-hours clubs, and they have been addressed.” Evidently, the perception remains.
It may be years before a citywide race kicks off from the steps of the Manchester Courthouse, like Jones' event did at Binford Middle School in the Fan. In November, voters will make the ultimate real estate deal — handing over the city to a new mayor.
And then time will tell. S