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Riverfront project expected to serve as national model for reversing sprawl
Ask a social scientist about the roots of sprawl, and he’s likely to point to the 1950s economic boom, the rise of interstate highways and our American love affair with the automobile.

Ask William Abeloff, and he’ll point to 1606 and the London founding of the Virginia Company.

In a narration rich with historical detail and quotes from 17th century documents, the recent speaker at a meeting of the Western Henrico Rotary Club drew frequent parallels between modern suburban developers and London investors of centuries ago – from their identical urges to develop “far-off, underutilized real estate” to their intense focus on the bottom line.

“[The Virginia Company venture] wasn’t a venture into the unknown, or based on some romanticized ideal to develop the New World,” Abeloff told the group. “It was based on economics and the opportunity to create new sources of revenues.”

Reaching the falls of the James River a mere four days after the Jamestown landing, Captain Christopher Newport encountered a site that appeared made to order for his backers at the Virginia Company, who had instructed him to “find out a safe port in the entrance of some navigable river...and such a place you may perchance find a hundred miles from the river’s mouth, and the further up the better.”

The settlements that were soon to line the James in Richmond and Henrico, said Abeloff, can be viewed as examples of “the ultimate sprawl from downtown London.”

And just as Henrico played a key role in the growth of that four-centuries-old venture into a new nation, it appears that the county will soon join another trailblazing effort – one that could set a precedent for the rest of the nation in reversing the sprawl so devastating to modern cities.

Abeloff, who converted tobacco warehouses into loft apartments to form the largest historical rehabilitation project in the United States (Richmond’s Tobacco Row), has his eye now on a mile-long piece of riverfront straddling the city/county line at Rocketts Landing.

The run-down industrial district near the convergence of the Osborne Turnpike and Williamsburg Road, named for a ferry operated by Robert Rockett in 1730, was once the busiest port in the Western Hemisphere. But decades of neglect have left the once-bustling neighborhood languishing, said Abeloff, “like a piece of tarnished jewelry, practically right under our eyes.

“That industrial development has had the effect of cutting us off from that part of the river – with its large buildings and chain link fences blocking access,” he added. “That’s why if you haven’t cruised on the Annabel Lee riverboat or driven down Route 5, chances are you have never seen Rocketts and don’t even know where it is.”

What’s more, said Abeloff, “It’s about one mile of choice riverfront property within walking distance of Tobacco Row, Church Hill, Shockoe Bottom, Shockoe Slip and even downtown that today pays the grand total of $50,000 a year in property taxes to Richmond and Henrico.”

Abeloff’s plan calls for private investment of $250 million to develop almost 50 acres into commercial offices and residential units, a green waterfront park and promenade, retail space, restaurants, hotel and boat dock – “all with absolutely spectacular views of the James River and downtown Richmond’s skyline.”

Investors in the project include such prominent Richmonders as James E. Ukrop, E. Claiborne Robins, Jr., and Circuit City chairman Richard L. Sharp; among Henrico supporters of the plan, Abeloff numbers county manager Virgil Hazelett (a member of the Rotary group who voiced his enthusiasm for the project at the meeting) and members of the Board of Supervisors. In August, the Board voted unanimously to adopt a new mixed-use zoning classification that will pave the way for the Henrico portion of the project, which is slated for the first phase of development.

Another of Abeloff’s prominent allies is Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Tayloe Murphy, a long-time conservationist who has hailed the project as a “crucial component of the emerging economic vitality of the City of Richmond...[and] a unique opportunity to address environmental, historic preservation and land development issues all at once.”

As Abeloff noted, environmentalists find it easy to embrace the Rocketts project because it promises to enhance the environment as it boosts the tax base – unlike typical developments, which reap #their economic rewards at the expense of negative environmental effects. Foremost among the economic benefits of Rocketts Landing, said Abeloff, will be an estimated annual tax yield of $6 million for city and county treasuries.

By the end of October, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality is expected to approve a plan of remediation for the project that Abeloff expects will become a model for brownfield development across the country.

“By re-using land so close to our downtown,” he emphasized, “[Rocketts Landing] represents an anti-sprawl project reflecting the best aspects of smart growth. It represents brownfield redevelopment at its best – the antidote to sprawl.”

On May 24, 2007 – 10 days after the celebration of Jamestown’s quadricentennial – Richmond will mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Newport’s sail into the harbor. Abeloff hopes by then to have a riverfront village that will not only draw the locals to “live, work, shop and play,” but will pull Jamestown tourists up Route 5 and I-64 to see what Richmond has to offer.

A self-described “recovering lawyer,” Abeloff told the Rotary gathering at the Westwood Club that he grew up nearby in a red brick house at Club Lane and Libbie Avenue.

Perhaps the old golf course he had for a playground, or the horseback rides he took to Short Pump and back, Abeloff said, contributed to his interest in the environment and preservation. At any rate, he reflected, he and his fellow investors believe they have more at stake in the project than a simple return on investment.

“As I hope you can tell,” Abeloff concluded, “we at Rocketts Landing are out to create something for Richmond that goes beyond a simple real estate development. We’re trying to reclaim and re-use some of the most important, vibrant, historic property around.

“Most of us,” he said, “see this as an opportunity to do something great for the place we love – our hometown.”
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