Riverside Venture 

Manchester’s future just may lie in what happens on these 17 well-placed acres.

click to enlarge Is this Richmond’s next great neighborhood? A long-term plan is in the works for this 17-acre site south of the river, just below Legend Brewing Co.

Scott Elmquist

Is this Richmond’s next great neighborhood? A long-term plan is in the works for this 17-acre site south of the river, just below Legend Brewing Co.

The new owners of the 17-acre Reynolds South property are easing into a long-term development that could transform not only industrial Manchester but also Richmond's downtown and riverfront skylines.

They're starting with the conversion of three buildings into apartments.

"The ideal then would be to get a grocery store to serve the neighborhood," says Drew Wiltshire, vice president of Thalhimer Realty Partners. The Henrico-based company closed on the $9.25 million deal last week.

The property, which lies within Hull, Seventh and Bainbridge streets, is one of the few large, developable parcels that faces the James and offers downtown views. Think of the vista from Legend Brewing Co.'s patio. That view. The sweet spot of the 17 acres sits just below Legend, and Thalhimer expects to build high-rises on it one day.

The entire development, which could be 10 years in the making, also would include more apartments, office space and retail tailored to market demand and surface parking.

Lots of surface parking.

"The advantage of this side of the river over that side is we can overpark it," Wiltshire says. "And convenient parking attracts retail."

The plan makes financial sense, he says, but it's also more conservative than what city planners envisioned. In the city's view, lots of surface parking equals one thing: a missed opportunity.

City planners say the 17 acres could become the neighborhood center of industrial Manchester north of Commerce Road.

"Where's the center now?" asks Mark Olinger, the city's director of planning and development review.

Plant Zero Café?

"And that opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 4 p.m." he says.

City administrators are pushing for higher-rise living that takes advantage of high-density zoning and downtown views. Olinger would like to see different types of housing and street-level retail along a reestablished street grid — in short, he says, a walkable urban community vibrant enough to generate tax dollars to cover the cost of new streets, sidewalks, sewers, parks and a new connection to the riverfront.

"This is one of those areas that could be one of the next great neighborhoods in Richmond," Olinger says. "Right now, it's basically a blank slate as a neighborhood, which makes this property very important to the long-term vitality of industrial Manchester and the South Side."

When the property went on the market after the plant closed in 2009, city planners hoped against historic-tax-credit-hope that new owners would demolish the three existing buildings and start new.

That isn't going to happen, says Wiltshire, who's had many conversations with Olinger. (Both expect to have many more.)

Thalhimer plans to use federal and state historic tax credits to help pay for the conversion of the buildings into 263 apartments. Rent on a one-bedroom would start at $975 a month.

"We've got this land and want to build densely," Wiltshire says, "but the tax credits will allow us from a financing perspective to get the project started."

The company plans to pour roughly $23.5 million into the first phase of apartment construction, he says, and of that, it could recoup about $8.5 million in historic tax credits.

"Our competitive advantage now is the convenience of parking, livability and security," he says. "We're in a position to benefit from those who work downtown and want to live here."

Richmond is a land-locked city and more people are moving into downtown. City officials and developers are betting that such a combination signals the inevitability of Manchester's return.

"I think it really is the future," says Tom Papa, one of the first developers to enter the Manchester market. "I don't know when and where the tipping point will be, but I know there will be one."

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