Folks haven’t always had high expectations of Dogtown — what old Manchester was called back in the day, and not necessarily fondly.
For starters, much of the area south across the Manchester Bridge was methodically decimated of old houses, factories and warehouses decades ago. Visualize Detroit, but defined by Hull Street, Cowardin Avenue, Commerce Road and the James River.
Aside from a few churches, such destinations as parks and historic landmarks are scarce. And when it comes to eating out, forget it. Unlike areas north of the river, you’ll find no vaunted restaurants like Rowland, Rappahannock or the Roosevelt.
That’s not to say it lacks character.
“The neighborhood has interesting spaces and low rents,” says Charles Merritt, a partner in 80amps, a company that launches startups and develops new ideas for companies. His office, with its exposed brick walls and huge casement windows, is a block from Commerce Road.
“But Manchester lacks infrastructure that one expects in a more thriving part of town. We’re low on restaurants and third spaces,” Merritt says, referring to areas where residents gather when they aren’t at home or work.
Therefore every tender grace generates buzz. Hopes are raised at the prospect of a few even modest eateries — Subway, Ironclad Pizza Grill, Brewer’s Café — occupying storefronts in new buildings. And that stamp of local hipness, Urban Farmhouse, is coming soon.
Do these arrivals signal at long last that the future is now for a long-dormant neighborhood, which for two generations has been illustrated mostly by multicolored markings on urban planning maps?
During the past decade a cadre of local developers has methodically restored most of Manchester’s deteriorating historic building stock. That mission has been accomplished and preservation tax credits have been consumed.
Their energies more recently have turned to building an impressive number of residential structures from the ground up. From a few single-family houses to a significant number of medium- and high-rise apartment buildings, apparently there are now enough “rooftops” —developer-speak for housing units — that both entrepreneurs and the world’s largest fast-food chain, Subway, are making forays into the neighborhood.
“We get inquiry calls all the time, now it’s coming to us, especially from small grocers and drugstores,” says Rick Gregory, chairman of Fountainhead Properties. His company has developed some 500 apartments, all shimmied into retrofitted warehouses and factories in industrial Manchester, the district that stretches from Commerce to the flood wall, and includes the building in which Style maintains its office.
With the Plant Zero arts complex as its psychic centerpiece, this hard-edged industrial landscape, like more verdant old Manchester nearby, is fast being transformed into a mixed-use neighborhood. A longtime destination there, Legend Brewing Co., whose popular outdoor deck faces the river, offers dramatic views of the downtown skyline. But if its beer-swigging clientele swivel their chairs to face west and old Manchester, they’ll see another skyline in the making, residential buildings popping up like mushrooms after a summer rain.
The bulk of old Manchester’s development is being carried by Urban Develpoment Associates, a Richmond-based company with an impressive track record of major projects both here and in Petersburg and Staunton. It has built 537 units in the neighborhood. Its president, Robin Miller, who earned his engineering degree from the U.S. Military Academy and his planning degree from Harvard University, was developing historic and new properties in his native Kingsport, Tennessee, when he moved to Richmond in 1994.
“I tagged along because Nan had a great job,” he says of his former wife, who accepted a job as executive director of the Children’s Museum of Richmond. “I’d never been here but I drove around and I fell in love with the architecture. I drove through Monroe Ward and asked, ‘Why aren’t the local people saving these buildings?’”
Miller saw an opportunity, he says: “I got here at the right time, at the right place with the right skill set.”
His first local projects were in Monroe Ward, when his company remodeled townhouses into the First and Grace Apartments and converted the former Sydnor and Hundley furniture building and the Medical Arts Building, now Linden Tower, into housing. Other significant reuse and infill projects included the Lee School Lofts in the Museum District, One Monument Avenue, the former Stuart Circle Hospital, in the Fan, and new buildings in Jackson Ward.
“You have to be a pioneer,” Miller says. “You’ve got to be the first guy in and you’ve got to make your money on the buy. If you acquire property at a good price you can overcome the other challenges.”
In seeking a real estate lawyer, Miller met his business partner, Daniel Gecker, a tax-credit specialist. Gecker, a member of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, is now running as a Democrat for the State Senate seat being vacated by the retirement of John Watkins.
Miller and Gecker hit it off. “I convinced him to see the light and become a developer,” Miller says. “I’m best at the tactical level; he’s great at the strategic level.”
Twelve years ago, with dozens of projects under their belts, Miller says he asked, “What do we do next?” Manchester was the answer. “This is the next area,” he says. “This is where it’s going to happen. I could see it.”
“Working on the South Side was the biggest leap for us,” he says. “Everybody said that we were absolutely crazy.” But Miller had the advantage of an outsider’s perspective: “I wasn’t here during the 1980s, I didn’t know the drug deals and murders.”
An important factor that allowed the growth to happen, Fountainhead’s Gregory says, was the closing of Section Eight housing in Blackwell — the neighborhood across Hull Street and immediately south of old Manchester — and “bulldozing that pocket of poverty to develop Hope Six,” a federally funded housing development.
And throughout Manchester, Gregory says: “We had nobody to complain about gentrification. There had long been benign neglect.”
“I hated that so many of Manchester’s buildings had been torn down,” Miller says, “but it gave us an advantage.” He refers to the many empty and contiguous tracts of land that already had been cleared, on which his company is developing a mostly residential community.
In July 2005, Urban Development, a Miller and Gecker partnership, purchased 153 parcels in Manchester from the Virginia Museum Real Estate Foundation, an arm of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ foundation. At that time, the foundation also sold another 25 parcels to Manchester Partners, headed by local developers Charles Macfarlane and Sam McDonald. The museum had received the property some years earlier as a gift from J. Harwood and Louise Cochrane, longtime museum benefactors.
“The fundamentals of Manchester are solid,” Miller says. “There are good bones here and there are trees.”
The neighborhood’s gently rolling terrain rises to 120 feet above sea level. It also has a number of wide thoroughfares, most of which are lined by century-old granite curbs. Importantly, two modern bridges, the Manchester and Lee, connect the neighborhood with downtown. And the Mayo Bridge carries Hull Street traffic roaring through industrial Manchester into Shockoe Slip. In the near future, construction should get underway on city plans to build a new bridge, named for the late Richmond city planner Tyler Potterfield, for pedestrians and cyclists that will link Manchester and Brown’s Island.
But this summer, Miller’s and Gecker’s architecturally eye-catching, 148-unit apartment complex, the Terraces at Manchester, at 800 Semmes Avenue, was completed. It’s quickly established itself as a South Side landmark, with its prefabricated, 25-foot-wide, brick-faced exterior walls of panelized light steel construction — a system developed by Richmond-based Purcell Construction — and its dramatic, signature canvas “sails” at the roofline.
“It is the first architectural feature over there,” Tom Papa, president of Fountainhead Properties, says of 800 Semmes. “It’s the sign of a new beginning. Everything else was hand-me-down clothes.”
Not exactly. Urban Development also completed this month a new 12-apartment complex at 1001 Bainbridge St., directly across from the greenhouses and colorful vegetable plots of Tricycle Gardens, and an earlier 123-unit apartment house at 1200 Semmes where a Subway and an Urban Farmhouse will open soon.
If the Blackwell neighborhood was bulldozed with specific plans for Hope Six redevelopment and resettlement, old Manchester was bulldozed at the behest of a single Richmond businessman, J. Harwood Cochrane, now 102.
In 1970, the trucking company he founded in 1935, Overnite Transportation, built a nine-story corporate headquarters at 1000 Semmes Ave., which is now owned by UPS. It quickly became apparent that Cochrane had no fondness for the decaying residential neighborhood encircling his mostly walled corporate campus.
Manchester had witnessed white flight to the suburbs after World War II, and commercial Hull Street, once abuzz with hardware stores, cinemas and even a Thalhimers department store, was in economic freefall. Those moving to the neighborhood in the late 1960s included folks from Oregon Hill and Randolph, who’d been displaced by construction of the Downtown Expressway, or Fulton Bottom, when urban removal decimated that East End neighborhood.
Similarly, Cochrane proceeded to tear down almost everything within sight of his ninth-floor corporate office — and beyond. He bought up some 180 parcels in a 40-block area.
“I am just paying for land values; I don’t care anything about houses,” he told a local newspaper in 1982. “We’ve still got… bootleggers and dope peddlers, as long as you have that kind of environment, who’s going to come in and pay $85,000 for a condominium?”
The demolitions, understandably, “created uneasiness throughout the neighborhood,” The Richmond Times-Dispatch had reported in February 1977. “It is an uneasiness that is heightened by the roar of a bulldozer grinding old houses into oblivion.”
Meanwhile and ironically, neighborhoods north of the river — the Fan District, Jackson Ward and Church Hill — were undergoing resurgence. Richmond’s history intelligentsia didn’t care: “Don’t make me go to South Side,” a prominent preservationist begged off when asked to join the effort save a 200 year-old brick house on West 12th Street. “I don’t know anything about Manchester.”
In 1992, Cochrane discussed with the administration of then-city manager Robert Bobb the possibility of Richmond purchasing his Manchester holdings outright. But not liking its proposal, Cochrane soon nixed the idea. And in a dramatic turn of events, he and his wife donated 220 parcels of varying sizes to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Foundation, a funding arm of the institution, to endow the purchase of American art.
The foundation worked with the city in developing the property and followed the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s master plan for the 135 acres included in the Southern Gateway Redevelopment and Conservation Area. Old Manchester would be renamed Riverview Landing. Some of the Cochrane bequest was used to develop the Crestar, now SunTrust, operations and mortgage buildings directly across Semmes Avenue from the Overnite building.
In July 2005 the foundation sold its remaining 178 pieces of property for $5.2 million to Miller and Gecker, as well as to the Manchester Partner organization.
Miller says that his strategy was simple: “The market will determine the building type and we will build as fast or as slow as the market demands.”
“Well,” he adds, “the demand has been pretty darn fast.”
Miller says a major factor in developing Manchester was the introduction of two new zoning categories, R-63 and B-6. “These allow for building all the way to the property line,” he says, “thus utilizing more space and placing parking behind the building.”
“They call it the ‘new urbanism,’ but it was revisiting old urbanism,” he says, “Mayor [Doug] Wilder was in office at the time and I give great credit to Rachel Flynn [the city’s former director of community development] for pushing it through.”
“It’s worked best in Manchester and in Jackson Ward where there are bigger parcels to develop,” he says. “It allows us to build density in those areas. You want more people living in that area, more pedestrian activity and less carbon footprint.”
Alex Gillette, 30, is one of those people, although the aspiring music producer did drive his car to a Far West End guitar store where he worked until recently. He considered his Manchester neighborhood on a sweltering afternoon from the wide front porch of the new house he shares with three housemates on Porter Street.
“In 2003 when I left Richmond for Tennessee this was a bad, bad, neighborhood,” he says. “So when I came back in 2011 I was a little skeptical about living here. But there are now a lot of young professionals and kids trying to figure out what to do next. You get a lot of sirens — police and fire trucks — but the neighbors are nice.”
Gillette says the area could use more attention from the city. When snowplows were slow to clear his block after a big snowstorm and he couldn’t get his car out, he says he missed two days of work.
Developer Miller says the city hasn’t kept pace with Manchester’s resurgence. “I’ve never seen them sweep the streets, the sidewalks need attention and whoever is supposed to look after the trees isn’t doing so,” he says. “We’ve been involved for more than 10 years with little help from the city. It has done a poor job in maintenance.”
Traffic is a problem too, Miller says: “We’ve got to slow down the traffic on Hull Street and put in more street landscaping.”
That’s a main concern for Fountainhead’s Gregory as well: “Slowing down the traffic is the first thing.” But the city could create some kind of gateway as an entry,” he says, referring to the south end of the Mayo Bridge, “to make Manchester something people understand: that there’s a city there under the weeds.”
And the future?
“My vision is that of a sustainable, connected development for the next 100 years taking full advantage of both the river and the history of the area,” says Merritt of 80amps. “Hull Street could be developed with the people who live here now to deliver an economic shot in the arm.”
“We have enough property in Manchester alone to keep us busy for the next 10 years,” Miller says. But more immediately, just one block west of Hull, he’s planning one of his outfit’s most ambitious developments yet, Manchester Commons, on an empty block bounded by Bainbridge, Porter, 12th and 13th streets.
“I want to see mixed-income housing there,” Miller says. “No one has done it before. I’ve never seen it done in any city where the whole block can reflect the new urbanism. We will have a neighborhood association for just that block.”
When asked if such social engineering will appeal to everyone, Miller is uncharacteristically blunt. “If they don’t like it,” he says, “they can go to Chesterfield or Henrico.” S