Occupants of the 400 block of East Grace Street anxiously await a City Council decision that could spell doom for their block. 

Grace Under Fire

Lenard Shields was planning a massive sale at Shields Shoes on 420 E. Grace St. in honor of his father's 80th birthday on June 30.

Shields was hoping to pack his store with customers to celebrate his father's milestone, only slightly more impressive than the fact that the elder Shields first started selling shoes on East Grace in 1943.

But now he's not so sure the sale is going to be celebratory.

Shields found out June 14 that one week before, the city administration asked the Planning Commission to extend the downtown conservation and redevelopment district to include the block bounded by 3rd, 4th, Grace and Broad streets, where Shields' Shoes stands. That extension would give the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority the ability to buy those buildings, or condemn the buildings and tear them down without the owners' consent, making way for a 1,000-room hotel to be built to support the Convention Center expansion.

It's that power that has Shields wondering if he and his father, who still works in the store three days a week, are going to feel like celebrating on the 30th.

"It's been real strange thinking about this over the last week," Shields says, referring to the now-uncertain fate of his building.

Despite just finding out about the possible plan for his block, Shields feels like this has been in the works for a while. His assessment was reduced by $35,000 two years ago. He says he believes it's an attempt to reduce the fair market value the RRHA would be required by law to pay him should they take over his property.

"If you turn this whole area over to the RRHA, [they] come in and condemn, and then they determine fair market value, you get screwed," Shields says.

Deputy City Manager George Kolb says that that alarm may be a bit premature. "Everyone thinks we're going in to tear things down and we're not," Kolb says.

He says that amending the district plan may not entail demolishing the south side of Grace between 3rd and 4th streets. Kolb says he would still like to see a 650- to 1,000-room hotel developed, but says that that hotel won't necessarily take up that entire block.

"I understand their concern, but I think that they should try and understand what the process is, and know that this is not the last time they'll see this," Kolb says.

In the meantime, Shields is trying to shore up support for the block. He met with Richmond Renaissance Executive Director Jack Berry last week to make a pitch for the block.

Berry, whose group is looking at the downtown plan with the city, thinks the architecturally significant business on Grace can coexist with a convention-size hotel.

"I think that the issue can be resolved, because a hotel and retail can coexist well on the same block," Berry says. "The art deco storefronts are very attractive ... I would think we want to support and protect [them]."

On June 14, City Council voted to carry the proposal over to their next meeting, July 12.

The City Council's Land Use committee will host an open forum to discuss the proposal in council chambers on June 23, at 6 p.m.

Shields will be there.

"The bottom line is after my family has stuck it out in downtown Richmond for 79 years, that's a hell of a thank-you note," Shields says. "Telling you they're going to kick you out and tear you

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