The First Freedom Center is a step closer to erecting two Marriott hotels on the Shockoe Slip site where religious freedom was first made law.
In a meeting Jan. 25 that stretched late into the evening, the city's Commission of Architectural Review approved the hotel proposal on land the center owns, with a few conditions.
The First Freedom Center, a nonprofit with the mission of advancing religious freedom, is partnering with real estate developer Apple REIT Cos. to construct a six-story, U-shaped building at 14th and Cary streets. That's where, in 1786, the General Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that was written by Thomas Jefferson. The site now serves as a pay parking lot owned by the center.
Two Marriott hotels, a Courtyard and a Residence Inn, would occupy the proposed building, along with meeting and exhibit space reserved for the First Freedom Center.
“It is essential to our institution to have this facility,” center President Randolph Bell told the review commission. The hotel plans will allow the center “to sustain ourselves as a business,” Bell said. The center and Apple have entered into a contract, he says, but the details of their financial arrangement haven't been hammered out.
Glade Knight, one of the center's board members, is the founder and chief executive of Apple REIT. The center's lawyers “have told us they see no conflict of interest there,” Bell says.
There are 10 other hotels within a 1-mile radius of the proposal. Those hotels have seen an estimated 60 percent occupancy rate, averaged over the last five years, according to data from Smith Travel Research.
Richmond planning staff recommended approval for the plan, as long as the historic bronze marker on the corner — a popular perch for panhandlers — gets a suitable home. There, at 14th and Cary, the center proposes to erect a new monument, sketched out as a tall spire, a glass wall and a reflecting pool.
A few review commission members expressed concerns about the appropriateness of the project on the historic site. Attorney John W. Pearsall III asked Bell if he thought the First Freedom Center would appear “to the public as a wing of the Marriott Inn.”
The commission voted to approve the hotel and monument plan, while requiring the developer to change some exterior details and also submit a new plan for the central courtyard. This space would be open to the public and contain exhibits related to religious freedom, the center says. It would be built atop the cobblestone northern end of historic Virginia Street.
Apple must clear one more administrative hurdle before building the hotels: obtaining a special use permit from the city.