Ethyl's Oregon Hill Land to Become Apartments?; Tours Plummet at Capitol; Church, Court Vie for Alley; Man Questions AIDS Project at VCU; Morton's Opening Is Delayed Six Months 

Street Talk

Ethyl's Oregon Hill Land to Become Apartments?

It appears the financially strapped Ethyl Corp. is about to sell a tract of land it owns in Oregon Hill to a real-estate development company.

Sources familiar with the deal say the property is on the 700 block of Laurel and Pine streets and the 800 block of Oregon Hill Parkway — part of the little remaining green space in Oregon Hill.

The land in question was cleared by Ethyl nearly five years ago after a vigorous fight with the Oregon Hill Home Improvement Council, which wanted to save 13 empty houses there. But OHHIC failed to come up with the $2.5 million the company wanted for them and the 4 acres they sat on, and Ethyl demolished the properties. Since then, Oregon Hill residents have been allowed to treat the site as a sort of quasi-public park.

"The land under contract is the southernmost part of Oregon Hill," says Daniel Aston, the real-estate developer involved with the deal. Aston is an associate with Whitmore Co., a real-estate development firm that opened an office on West Main Street in October.

An Ethyl representative did not return Style's calls for comment.

Some Oregon Hill residents who have heard about the upcoming purchase say that 250 affordable apartments are going to be constructed there, with a view of the river.

Aston declines to talk specifics, saying he'll first meet with residents of the neighborhood and consider their views. "We're in the process of planning something," Aston says. "Our first commitment is to the neighborhood."

Aston says he hopes to have some drawings ready for area residents to review in a week or two.

Still, those who live in the neighborhood say the timing isn't exactly great.

In recent months, Oregon Hill residents, known for their solidarity, have had to deal with what happens when corporate development exacts change on a neighborhood that fears it.

"Right now there's a certain amount of uneasiness," says Gayla Mills, an Oregon Hill resident and member of the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association. "The next blow is losing this field here. It's like the neighborhood is under assault." — Brandon Walters

Tours Plummet at Capitol

Virginia's stately Capitol, usually filled with chattering tourists, has been a lot quieter lately.

The building has been closed to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays for three months — and it'll be a while before it reopens on weekends, officials say. And even when it has been open, Capitol workers say, the number of tourists has dropped sharply.

Usually, October brings 15,000 to 20,000 visitors, says Charlotte Troxell, supervisor of the Capitol Hostess program. But this October, only 6,696 showed up, and November brought 4,406.

Decreased numbers of visitors doesn't mean it's easier to guard the site, however. Since Sept. 11, the 86 officers in the Capitol Police have extended their work hours to keep a vigilant watch over the Capitol and other government buildings.

"Officers are putting in a lot of overtime," says Capt. Larry Dollings of the Capitol Police. Dollings didn't know the average number of hours worked per week, but says overtime pay totals about $70,000 per month. Unlocking the Capitol on weekends is currently out of the question.

"We would like to open it as soon as possible," Dollings says — but that means finding more personnel. "We are still shorthanded, although the legislature has given us permission to hire 18 more officers," he says. "It takes quite a while to advertise, hire these people, get them in here, get them trained."

Tour guides miss their weekend visitors but say they understand the need for security. "They had reason to believe this building was in danger," Troxell says. "We have a precious commodity here" — meaning not only the people working in the Capitol, but also Jean Antoine Houdon's priceless marble statue of George Washington.

All kinds of people still wander through the building on weekdays, Troxell says, but overall "our visitation is down dramatically."

Even the ever-present school groups have thinned out. "People don't want their children to come in government buildings anymore," she says.

No incidents have been reported at the Capitol since Sept. 11, Dollings says, and his officers are gradually adjusting to the hypervigilance that's become routine.

"We're trying to get to some semblance of normalcy," he says, "but it's tough." — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Church, Court Vie for Alley

It's Monday, the Virginia Supreme Court is in session. The alley between Eighth and Ninth streets dividing the court from St. Paul's Episcopal Church is clear and quiet.

Usually the alley, which separates the side entrance of the court from the back of the church, is full of activity. Cars constantly leave the church's public parking deck, turn left into the one-way alley and then left at the Capitol onto Ninth Street.

But today — because court is in session — the court has closed the alley to traffic. It's been this way ever since Sept. 11.

The church says it has put up with the closing long enough. And it has hired a lawyer in hopes of working out a compromise, says Mary Kay Huss, parish administrator at St. Paul's.

It's not easy to get people to talk about the situation. An employee in the Virginia Supreme Court clerk's office says she knows nothing of the alley dispute.

Huss says the court has turned the matter over to the attorney general's office. But a spokesman for the attorney general's office declines to comment, citing "matters of security."

Capitol Police provide security for the court. They, too, decline to comment on the alley's use.

Understandably, security has been heightened at the Virginia Supreme Court building in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Parishioners and workers at St. Paul's expected that. But they didn't expect it to utterly inconvenience them.

It has.

Currently, the alley's use is restricted whenever the court is in session — three to four times a week. People familiar with the situation say the use restriction is needed because new security measures call for the alley to be reserved for judges who may need to use it in an emergency.

That presents a problem for the church because it means that any car using the church's parking deck can't leave through the alley. Instead, cars must maneuver to exit the parking lot the same way they enter: through Eighth Street. And this, the church maintains, creates a safety hazard.

Besides, the parking deck is an important revenue source for St. Paul's. The church charges $2 an hour, or $10 a day, to park in any of the 128 coveted spaces that are located right across the street from the Capitol. And when the alley's closed, people may be less likely to park in the deck.

Huss says she is confident an amicable decision about the alley's use will be reached soon. — B.W.

Man Questions AIDS Project at VCU

A solemn delegation of black-clad students patrolled Virginia Commonwealth University on Nov. 30, the day before World AIDS Day. Their faces painted white, their eyes and their cheeks smudged dark, they represented the young victims of HIV — a group that adds one more to its ranks every 30 minutes.

Throughout the day, the costumed students visited classes on the VCU campus and pointed to one person in each. "You represent someone who's just been infected with HIV," they announced. The chosen student (who had elected to be included in the program) would then be led away and have makeup applied, while the professor read a scripted statement.

The ever-growing group of costumed participants — about 16 by the end of the day — was meant to bring AIDS into students' consciousness, explains the project's organizer, sociology professor Daphne Rankin.

But where most people saw the metaphorical shadow of death on students' faces, one man saw death's physical symptoms. Steve Stratton, a librarian at VCU and a longtime volunteer with AIDS-service organizations, says he was shocked to see the dark patches on students' faces. Immediately, he thought they represented Kaposi's sarcoma lesions, a symptom of a common AIDS-related cancer.

"I've seen enough KS lesions to know what they look like," Stratton says, as most of his friends in the 1980s died of the virus.

The AIDS awareness project itself is admirable, he says, but Stratton told VCU administrators the disturbing visual effects were unnecessary. Would students imitate mastectomies to make breast cancer more real for students? he asked.

Rankin doesn't see it that way. The makeup was meant to mimic sorrow, not symptoms, she says: "We certainly would not have used lesions on our students." Stratton was the only one she heard complain about the program, she adds.

Stratton contends that's only because no one else had the experience to recognize the makeup's resemblance to the KS lesions.

VCU senior Sarah Hoff, a costumed participant, sympathized with Stratton, but thinks the project effectively targeted a generation that never witnessed the explosion of AIDS. "When this was really going nuts," Hoff says, "I was seven years old."

Over the course of the week, Rankin estimates, information about AIDS was distributed to more than 2,000 students. "In a conservative town like Richmond," she says, "it was a feat to get a week of AIDS programs accepted on this campus."

And despite Stratton's disagreement, she says, "It was a phenomenal success." — M.S.S.

Morton's Opening Is Delayed Six Months

The rumor that Morton's, the famous Chicago steakhouse, has nixed plans to move to the Turning Basin near the Canal Walk is just that — a rumor.

"I've heard nothing of the sort," says Tammy Hawk, vice president of marketing and sales with Morton's Restaurant Group in Chicago. "We've signed the lease," she confirms.

But because of construction delays, Hawk says, the opening date for the restaurant has been pushed back six months. Originally, plans were for the restaurant to open in January while the General Assembly is in session.

"It's still going to open, it's just going to be June," Hawk says.

The delay might explain how the rumor started. Even construction workers at the site had heard the tale.

"Yeah, we thought it was going to be a restaurant but we heard today that the Ukrop's bought it," one worker said last week, declining to give his name.

Nonetheless, there's lots of activity around that area. This week, employees of First Market Bank move to their spanking new headquarters on Virginia Street at the Turning Basin.

The great brick building is connected to a smaller brick building that faces Canal Street and looks like an old-time train station. It's this building that is slated to become the Morton's steakhouse. The upscale restaurant has more than 60 locations from Honolulu to Hong Kong. — B.W.


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