Sitting on the Sidelines 

The Historic Richmond Foundation declines to weigh in on the Shockoe Bottom debate.

click to enlarge While a Richmond preservation group stays silent on the ballpark development plan, state and national groups weigh in.

While a Richmond preservation group stays silent on the ballpark development plan, state and national groups weigh in.

A group of national and state preservationists gathered in Shockoe Bottom last week to announce the neighborhood's inclusion on a list of the country's most endangered historic places.

The designation, made by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, earned regional and national attention to the controversy from such outlets as The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Missing from the calls to protect the site from the construction of a proposed minor league baseball stadium is the city's most well established preservation group, the Historic Richmond Foundation.

The group's absence didn't go unnoticed. Indeed, their silence is part of the reason that state and national groups decided to get involved, says Anne Geddy Cross, the president of Preservation Virginia, a statewide group that nominated the site for inclusion on the national list.

Although the Virginia group saw people speaking up, members observed scant organized opposition from the preservation community. "We try to work through local organizations, but this was so big," Cross says. "We have a conscience."

The executive director of the Historic Richmond Foundation, Mary Jane Hogue, didn't respond to multiple messages left by Style Weekly during a two-week period.

Stephen R. Williams, the president of the foundation's board, issued a curt statement when asked about the group's stance on the Shockoe Bottom ballpark development: "We have nothing new to report on that issue: Historic Richmond has not taken a position on that issue."

Williams declined to respond to follow-up questions.

Mayor Dwight Jones says his stadium plan, which includes the construction of a heritage center, will preserve and memorialize the site. But critics have responded that the procedure he's outlined to uncover archeological finds is inadequate, and the construction of a stadium is fundamentally incompatible with plans to mark the slave trade that flourished in the neighborhood.

Local preservationists speculate that the Historic Richmond Foundation's silence on what may be the biggest preservation issue facing the city could be explained by the makeup of its board of directors, which is light on citizen advocates and heavy on high-level employees from the corporate community.

A majority of board members from the Historic Richmond Foundation work at local companies that also are represented on the executive boards of Venture Richmond and the Greater Richmond Chamber, two business groups that have spearheaded a marketing campaign to support Mayor Jones' stadium proposal.

Historic Richmond Foundation's Williams, for example, is a partner at the law firm McGuireWoods. His fellow partner Bryce Jewett serves on the chamber's board, and their colleague Jacquelyn E. Stone is a board member at Venture Richmond. A retired partner, John W. Bates III, serves as Venture Richmond's general counsel.

By contrast, Preservation Virginia's board also overlaps with companies represented by Venture Richmond and the chamber, but its share of seats is lower — about 20 percent.

This isn't the first time in recent history that the foundation has been at odds with local preservationists. Earlier this year, the Historic Richmond Foundation angered neighborhood advocates in Church Hill when it issued an opinion that the construction of a high-rise condo building below Libby Hill Park wouldn't affect the historic view there.

"I'm particularly disappointed in their apparent position of support because of their wonderful history defending our fabulous old buildings," says Eugenia Anderson-Ellis, a Church Hill resident who sat on the foundation's board from 1996 to 2005.

Ellis notes that the foundation's recently adopted tag line — Building on History — carries an ironic double meaning in the context of the current debates.

While the Historic Richmond Foundation has elected to remain silent in the Shockoe Bottom debate, representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation say that Shockoe Bottom quickly rose to the top when they assembled their list of most threatened places.

"It should be obvious," says Rob Nieweg, a field director with the trust. "But this history has been intentionally erased, and what survives under the ground is the last tangible, physical connection that we have as a nation to this place."

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