Back to the future

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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West End apartment fire injures 1


SEPT. 25, 10:30 A.M. – A West End apartment fire injured one person Sunday afternoon.

The fire broke out in the third floor of the Chase Gayton apartment complex in the 10 block of Chase Gayton Drive, near the intersection of Gaskins Road and Quioccasin Road, at about 1:20 p.m. Sept. 24. > Read more.

Crime Stoppers’ Crime of the Week: Sept. 25, 2017


Crime stoppers needs your help to solve a double homicide that occurred in the City of Richmond in June of this year.

On Wednesday, June 7, at approximately 9:53 p.m., Richmond police officers responded to several calls for random gunfire in the 3600 block of Decatur Street. They arrived and found the victims, two males, Christian Singleton and Ketron Wells. The victims were outside on the ground lying near each other. Both victims had received fatal gunshot wounds. > Read more.

Richmond Astronomical Society to present night sky astronomy at Libbie Mill, Varina libraries


The Richmond Astronomical Society and Libbie Mill Library will host a presentation about the night sky and its astronomy Sept. 28, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Attendees will enjoy amazing views of the moon and other celestial objects with high-quality telescopes operated by members of the Richmond Astronomical Society. Guests will be able to see craters and seas on the surface of the moon with clarity and detail. > Read more.

Henrico home sales continue on strong pace


The number of homes sold in Henrico County in August rose 10 percent when compared to the same month last year, according to data compiled by Long & Foster. The average sale price of those homes – $239,975 – also rose, by about 4 percent when compared to the same average sale price in August 2016.

Henrico's jump in the number of homes sold was the largest in the Richmond region, though average sales prices in Chesterfield (8 percent increase) and Richmond (12 percent) jumped by higher amounts when compared to last August sales. > Read more.

Thoracic surgeon is first to perform 100 robot-assisted lobectomies in Central Virginia


Graham M. Bundy, a thoracic surgeon with HCA Virginia Physicians’ Cardiothoracic Surgical Associates, is the first such surgeon in Central Virginia to perform 100 minimally-invasive Da Vinci robot-assisted lobectomies (a surgical procedure to remove a lobe of the lung). The procedure is used to treat multiple types of conditions but is most often used to treat lung cancer. > Read more.

Henrico Business Bulletin Board

September 2017
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The Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond will screen National Theatre Live’s “Yerma” at 7 p.m. in Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music. A young woman is driven to the unthinkable by her desperate desire to have a child in Simon Stone’s radical production of Lorca’s achingly powerful masterpiece. NT Live brings the best of British theatre direct from the stages of London to cinemas around the world. Tickets are $14. For details, call 289-8980 or visit http://www.modlin.richmond.edu. Full text

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