Ready for Takeoff 

After years of waiting, investors are finally placing bets on Manchester.

“This is just going to be a dynamic neighborhood,” Robinson tells them. “This is an area that is about to take off.”

The women are with a group called Artspace, and they’re looking at the old Fishman five-and-dime store for a possible studio. It needs lots of work — unlike another property they’re considering down the road — and they ask about things like the air-conditioning unit (there isn’t one), lighting and parking.

But on this muggy afternoon in early August, as the street traffic begins to pick up, the unasked questions weigh more heavily on the group. Two black teenagers slowly pass the group, and one of them mocks Robinson as he moves down the alley. Robinson ignores them, and the ladies strain to not notice.

After years of hopeful glances from developers, the Manchester area is finally spurring interest for those searching for the next Tobacco Row. In the past year, about $4.5 million in property has been sold or put under contract in the stretch of Hull that runs from Jefferson Davis Highway to the 14th Street bridge. New apartments, renting at $1,300-plus, have opened in the former Cheek & Neal Coffee cannery at Hull and Brander. The Southern States property across the street is now under contract for a possible apartment/condo development. The Westvaco building, in the 300 block of Hull, is becoming an artist enclave — Shockoe Bottom Arts Center spinoff Art Works recently bought 25,000 square feet in the building for about 70 studios, and Artspace is moving in next year.

Meanwhile, a slew of smaller properties has recently sold up and down Hull, including the former Lighthouse Restaurant, the former Chewning & Wilmer property and the old City Hardware store.

“You have the ingredients there,” says Tom Papa, a real-estate developer and co-owner of the Westvaco property. “You have a lot of buildings there that are empty and fairly inexpensive. Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom have matured, and there needs to be a spillover.”

Until recently, the downtown revival has largely been contained north of the river. But as the Bottom reaches full capacity for apartments — and more and more people itch to move downtown — development is moving south.

“There is significant demand for housing,” Papa says.

But, as with redevelopment of any old section of the city, typical inner-city challenges are popping up in Manchester.

On Aug. 14, Artspace decided to locate a little farther down the road into the former Westvaco property. The next day that same street corner at 14th and Hull became a crime scene when the owner of the seafood shop, Song Jin Hong, was fatally shot during a robbery. The store has remained closed since.

Robinson insists crime really isn’t that bad. “It happens everywhere. Suburban banks are robbed the same as the city,” he says. “The problem you have is the perception is far worse than the crime.”

And there is the issue of public housing. As the new investors move in, those already there worry the new money will push them out. First Baptist Church of Richmond, through its community development arm, Imani Intergenerational Development Corp., has purchased large chunks of Hull Street and is planning a mixed-use project that will include 68 affordable housing units and about 20,000 square feet of commercial space in the 1400 block. Construction is set to begin in early 2004 and should be completed in about a year, says Tonya Scott, Imani’s executive director. Part of the redevelopment is being paid for with grants from Hope VI, a public housing program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Our goal is to help the existing community,” Scott says — “the folks that have been there when no one else cared.” But the group also plans to tap into the new market that’s moving in — especially with its commercial development.

Scott expresses hope that her church and the new developers can work together to improve Manchester — but she recognizes the motives are different. “Maybe the other folks come in here and see some economic benefit,” she says. “Our goal is to help the Blackwell community.”

Robinson, who now has offices on Hull, says the public housing will only slow down development of the area. It’s classic free market versus government intervention, he says. “All the subsidized housing has brought the city to its knees,” he says. “We don’t need Hope VI up against the commercial development.”

The issues are coming to the forefront as new money pumps into Hull. Observers say mixed-income housing communities are difficult to pull off, but can work with careful planning.

“Well-designed, high-quality public housing doesn’t have to have a negative impact on property values,” says Gary T. Johnson, an urban studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I view Imani’s efforts as being very, very positive. There is definitely a need for affordable housing in that area.”

Four years ago, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority demolished 438 of the 440 public housing units in Blackwell, renowned for its crime and drugs. This displaced hundreds of families, and only a fraction of that housing has been replaced.

“My feeling is that the needs of existing residents in the area have to be addressed as well,” Johnson says. “More affordable housing over there is desperately needed.”

Imani’s planned apartments aren’t exactly public housing, anyhow, says Scott. Affordable housing is a cut above what most people consider public housing for low-income families. Imani’s housing will be available to moderate-income individuals and families, Scott says. “Affordable housing is for working folks,” she says.

Questions remain, but one thing seems certain: Manchester is heading in a new direction. And it’s likely to become yet another case study in urban redevelopment. After years of sitting on the sidelines, developers, armed with historic tax credits, are swooping in. But how they coexist with the existing community will be the real test. S


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