Lost in the Valley 

Shockoe Bottom, the city's oldest and most storied commercial hub, is slowly turning residential. But is that what's best for Richmond?

click to enlarge On Friday and Saturday nights, Shockoe Bottom becomes a bustling entertainment district that some say conflicts with the area’s growing residential appeal. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • On Friday and Saturday nights, Shockoe Bottom becomes a bustling entertainment district that some say conflicts with the area’s growing residential appeal.

No more sleepless nights. No more attempts to drown out the sound by increasing the volume on her television. No more futile complaints to property managers. No more talk. Hanna Averitt had heard enough.

The 28-year-old hotel manager didn't know much about Shockoe Bottom before uprooting from Corpus Christi, Texas, in January 2010. After nearly a year and a half of living in the heart of the Bottom, she was still on the fence: Should she protest or simply accept the distractions as part of living in an urban neighborhood? But the thumping bass emanating from a nearby club was enough to knock her off.

A self-described country girl with shoulder-length blond hair and a slight twang in her voice, living in an urban environment wasn't something Averitt planned. She looked at the Fan in the city, the Brandermill development in Chesterfield County — even Chester, a 20-minute drive down Interstate 95 — but she fell in love with the loft in the Bottom, at 19th and Main streets. It was filled with professionals in their 20s. All her household bills are included in the $850 monthly rent. The view of the downtown skyline is "spectacular," she says. But for nearly a month starting in spring, music blaring from neighboring MoFauzy's Lounge barged into her 420-square-foot apartment, settling in like an unwanted houseguest.

"It was like someone singing karaoke as loud as they could inside my apartment," Averitt recalls. "It was during a week that the music was playing like that every night. Now, imagine trying to sleep through that knowing you maybe have to be at work at 6 a.m."

Averitt and a handful of frustrated tenants signed and delivered a petition to MoFauzy's, asking staff to turn down the volume — to no avail. Then, Averitt and a dozen residents, including the owners of the Canal Walk Lofts, Main Street Realty, filed a $350,000 civil lawsuit. Finally the club relented. The booming music stopped.

The influx of residents and economic investment in Shockoe Bottom, a bright spot in a depressed economy, also has reignited long-simmering tension between nightclub owners, their neighbors, and the youngish crowd that floods the neighborhood each weekend. There's a growing residential community emerging on Main Street, from the thousands of lofts along Tobacco Row and into the valley where Richmond was born. But as it becomes even more of the mixed-use residential district envisioned by developers, it raises a question: How and when was it decided what the Bottom is going to be?

click to enlarge Noise may be a part of living in Shockoe Bottom, but for Hanna Averitt (above) and some others, the sound blaring from the outdoor speakers at MoFauzy’s Lounge (below) was too much to endure. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Noise may be a part of living in Shockoe Bottom, but for Hanna Averitt (above) and some others, the sound blaring from the outdoor speakers at MoFauzy’s Lounge (below) was too much to endure.

TRANQUILITY LONG HAS been a scarce commodity in Shockoe Bottom, which runs from about 17th to 25th streets. The city's most historic neighborhood — Richmond's first eight-block street grid, established by William Byrd II in 1737 — might also be the loudest. It was the city's first commercial hub, home of the first farmers' market in the country at 17th Street. It was a center of domestic slave trading in the mid-1800s, and then a bustling tobacco manufacturing hub into the 20th century. But there's a reason people call it the Bottom. It's the lowest point in the city, and the James River sometimes couldn't help but wash the cobblestones.

After the tobacco warehouses shuttered in the 1960s, a series of devastating floods in 1969 and 1972 brought the Bottom to its knees. Businesses closed, and few people were willing to invest in the area. Slowly it turned into an entertainment district. Nightclubs didn't mind the grit, and they could turn a quick profit.

But the neighborhood's days as de facto nightclub and entertainment district may be drawing to a close. During the last 15 years, the area has been part of the fastest-growing residential district in the city. From 1990 to 2000, Shockoe Valley, up to the western edge of Church Hill, saw its population increase 28 percent — from 1,764 to 2,262 residents. In the next decade, from 2000 to 2010, the neighborhood grew 70 percent — to 3,851 residents.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

After the Richmond Flood Wall was built in 1994, the area began to attract new economic investment — mostly restaurants and a smattering of apartments. But it wasn't until developers began tapping into the state's expanded historic tax-credit program that the area truly began to grow into a residential area. In 1998, Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises purchased seven former tobacco warehouses along Tobacco Row and started converting them into upscale loft apartments. The company spent $150 million during the next few years, luring a new grocery store and retail shops along the way, and the area turned a sharp corner into a bustling residential community. Mostly the Bottom attracted young professionals, in their mid- to late 20s and early 30s, who preferred living in an urban environment over the cookie-cutter suburbs.

"I had never stepped foot in the city before," says Laura Donahue, who moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Shockoe Bottom in January. A lobbyist for the Humane Society, Donahue, 32, wanted to live close to downtown, within walking distance of the State Capitol. In 2007, three years after she married her husband, John, they moved into a 3,000-square-foot McMansion in a Columbus suburb. (Her husband stayed behind in Columbus to sell the house, she says, and eventually they'd like to buy a house here, possibly in Church Hill.)

"We had a big beautiful house in the suburbs," says Donahue, who has an eternally bubbly outlook on Richmond. "But I felt sort of isolated in the suburbs. The shininess of everything wore out very quickly." She's lived in Baltimore, Dallas, Montgomery County, Md., and Newark, Del. After apartment-shopping in Richmond for a day and a half, she settled on the Atrium Lofts in the former Richmond Cold Storage building on 18th Street, just north of East Broad.

Jefferson Park, across the street, is perfect for her dogs — Roscoe, a brown terrier mix and Sampson, a white, curly tailed bichon frisé — and everything she needs is a short bike ride or walk away — the grocery store and gym on Main Street, and the restaurants and bars in the Bottom.

"I'm sort of past the age of staying up all night, sowing my oats," she says. Most of her neighbors are medical students, who aren't generally the hard-partying type, which means she can work into the night without disruption. But she lives on 18th, the gateway into East End and the public housing projects, and the city jail.

"I know it has its rough edges," she says. "It's like New York City outside my windows sometimes. A lot of the ambulances use 18th Street ... and there are so many cop cars." But she still loves her 550-square-foot loft — and the Bottom.

"If you are going to live in a city," she says, "noise comes with that."

WHILE THE BOTTOM grew residentially, so did the nightlife. But often lost in the debate is who was here first. The neighborhood's identity as an entertainment district began in earnest in the mid-1980s, and despite persistent turnover, it remains. But that may have been by default more than design, says Mort Gulak, a recently retired professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"Nightclubs are economic indicators too," says Gulak, who's studied Richmond's urban centers, including Shockoe Bottom, since the 1980s. They represent the very first stage in the redevelopment process.

click to enlarge Since the mid-1990s, the lure of state and federal historic tax credits led to new condos and apartments in Shockoe Bottom. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Since the mid-1990s, the lure of state and federal historic tax credits led to new condos and apartments in Shockoe Bottom.

In the case of the Bottom, the buildup of nightlife-related businesses was due in part to acquiescence by the city. The other half of the equation was a lack of interest by developers in taking on projects located in a natural floodplain.

In the mid-1990s, the flood wall opened the area for reinvestment.

Developer Bill Chapman — former owner of Tonic, a bar and restaurant on 18th Street — was just another 20-something Virginia Commonwealth University student in 1995. There was little, if any, apartment space available in the Bottom then, he says. No lofts or luxury condominiums. Just bars, wide swaths of decaying buildings and scattered enclaves of restaurants.

"What you had were a lot of buildings," he recalls — "the old factory spaces, that were dilapidated and falling apart."

In 1996 Virginia established a historic tax-credit program. Administered by the Department of Historic Resources, it was designed to spur economic development by providing financial incentives to rehabilitate and preserve historic buildings, luring developers such as Forest City to invest in the area. Coupled with existing federal tax credits, developers could leverage both to obtain financing.

Others jumped in as well. Local developers H. Louis Salomonsky, David White and Bill Abeloff pounced at the opportunity. The number of restaurants and bars in Shockoe Bottom "exploded," Chapman says. "It was the place to be."

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

Randy Jones, spokesman for the state Department of Historic Resources, says that since 1997, 93 rehabilitation projects have been completed in Shockoe Slip, Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row. The total investment: $342.8 million.

"I'd like to say that the city played some part in it," Chapman says. "But as an observer who was working on other projects, it all seemed to happen without much input from the city." In other words, the growth of the area grew without much of a plan, and there was little community-wide debate about the future of the neighborhood.

While development money poured in, Gulak says city officials initially seemed content not to interfere. "It's important to remember that at the time, developers were basically building a whole new neighborhood," he says. "There was nothing there but empty buildings. So there was no real objection to the new developments moving in, partly because they weren't moving anybody out."

It would be unfair to say that city officials were unprepared for the flurry of activity. It was well known that the flood wall would become a catalyst for economic growth. But by 1999, when City Hall produced its first detailed strategy for how to guide the Bottom's growth, it was clear that officials already were behind the curve.

After completion of the flood wall, the city had a strategy, Gulak says, but it was limited to the preservation of historic buildings.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

EVERYTHING CHANGED IN August 2004, when Tropical Storm Gaston barreled over the city, overwhelming the Bottom's aging drainage system. When the skies cleared, parts of the Shockoe Valley sat in as much as 6 feet of water and sewage.

In a twist no one expected, the flood wall actually trapped the water in when the city's drainage system failed to funnel the rainwater out quickly enough.

Many businesses in the area lost everything. After the flood wall was built, many decided they no longer needed flood insurance.

Fast-forward to 2011, and city officials still seem to be playing catch-up. Turnover at City Hall has played a role, as have changing priorities. In addition, Shockoe Bottom has been beset by a flagging economy. Two separate plans to build a new baseball stadium in the Bottom, just north of the 17th Street Farmers' Market, struck a political lightning rod that split the community.

The city's vision of what the Bottom ultimately will become remains blurry. Big-ticket projects such as Main Street Station have been slow to jump-start new investment. And recent headlines about nightclub-related violence, including a pair of homicides last year, has fueled tensions between a black-owned nightclubs in the area and mostly white residential developers. The tensions reached a peak last spring after Jeremy Uzzle, 20, was shot to death in April 2010 in a parking lot outside of Have a Nice Day Café, one of the neighborhood's largest nightclubs.

Rodney Peterson, head of the group that manages Have a Nice Day Café, insists that he and his staff have worked with police to prevent similar incidents. "This issue isn't about us," he says. "We're doing what we need to do."

click to enlarge A year ago, two nightclub-related killings sparked a vigorous debate about the Bottom’s growing reputation as a dangerous entertainment district after dusk. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A year ago, two nightclub-related killings sparked a vigorous debate about the Bottom’s growing reputation as a dangerous entertainment district after dusk.

But club owners do have defenders. Phil Conein, president of creative and IT staffing company Techead, one of the Bottom's longest-tenured businesses, considers them part of the neighborhood's diverse economic fabric. "There's not one business here that does not feed off of the other," he says.

As for the sometimes unruly patrons — they're part of the fabric too, Conein says.

"It's like Mardi Gras down here on the weekends," he says. "That's not a problem. It's an opportunity. Making good on it is just a matter of how club owners — the responsible club owners — and the police and the city deal with some of these issues."

YET THE PERCEPTION lingers that the clubs are unsafe — and at odds with the Bottom's future as a residential neighborhood.

"You don't want to eliminate nightlife completely down there," Chapman says. "But it has to be in scale with the neighborhood. Who would want to go out and walk around in a part of town that requires that much police presence?"

Jacinta Phelix concurs. Since moving from Memphis into the Upper Lofts on Tobacco Row last year, the 29-year-old's favorite story to tell friends involves walking one winter evening to pick up an order of shrimp fried rice. After exiting the restaurant, she says a homeless person standing outside at 19th and Main streets yanked the container from her hands and ran off.

click to enlarge Bill Chapman, longtime Richmond residential developer, thinks Shockoe Bottom has grown beyond simply being an entertainment district. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Bill Chapman, longtime Richmond residential developer, thinks Shockoe Bottom has grown beyond simply being an entertainment district.

Enthusiasm for her "beautiful" loft with its view of the James has given way to discomfort. "I won't walk alone on Main Street after dark," she says. And now she's considering moving so she'll no longer deal with "kids coming out of the clubs drunk and rude and wasted."

"I have mixed emotions about it," she says. "I love this neighborhood. But it feels like it's stuck between what it was and what it's going to become."

Is the Bottom destined to become a nightclubless playground for the 30-plus set? For some it's a moot question. "That train left the station years ago," Chapman says. "It is a residential district and will continue to be one for the foreseeable future."

But would the city have been better served if the Bottom remained a home for bars and other nightspots?

"Generally, focusing on just [nightlife] limits potential," says Rachel Flynn, former director of planning for the city. Neighborhoods that are designated strictly for entertainment are ghost-towns during the day, she says. "If you make the Bottom an entertainment district, what happens during all those other hours of the day when the nightclubs are closed and the neighborhood isn't being utilized?"

There are examples of that strategy working. But neighborhoods zoned strictly as entertainment districts tend to be in larger cities such as Chicago and New York, she says. And for better or worse, Shockoe Bottom is no Times Square.

click to enlarge Laura Donahue, with Sampson in her loft apartment on 18th Street, says she can live with the neighborhood’s rough edges. “If you are going to live in a city, noise comes with that,” she says. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Laura Donahue, with Sampson in her loft apartment on 18th Street, says she can live with the neighborhood’s rough edges. “If you are going to live in a city, noise comes with that,” she says.

Twenty years on, it's clear that officials view the neighborhood as one of the keys to the city's economic revival. But City Hall has yet to answer the question.

It's been more than two years since the city initiated a $150,000 study to come up with a Shockoe Bottom Revitalization Strategy, but the results have been delayed repeatedly. Back in November, the city invited residents to Main Street Station to provide their input in a series of discussions about the neighborhood's future, which was part of the research.

Tammy Hawley, spokeswoman for Mayor Dwight Jones, says the final draft of the consultant's report has been delivered to the Department of Economic and Community Development for review. It hopes to release the report sometime in July.

City Council's vice president, Ellen Robertson, whose district includes Shockoe Bottom, failed to respond to requests for comment by deadline.

In the meantime, the debate isn't going away. Tensions most likely will flare. Legal battles between residents and clubs may continue.

Flynn predicts that the city will find a solution that's palatable for everyone with a stake in the neighborhood's future, including club owners. There's no reason that "mixed-use" can't mean exactly that, she says, citing Robinson Street in the Fan as an example of bars finding success in what is predominately a residential area. "The key is that you have to have responsible owners."

Brian White, president of Main Street Realty, simply hopes the Bottom's evolution is allowed to play out organically.

"The city shouldn't be in the business of choosing winners and losers," he says. "If some of the businesses thrive there, than so be it. The Bottom will be a big flame at some point. Right now it's still smoldering." S

Scott Bass contributed to this story.


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