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.”
Bail Bonds Chesterfield VA

Water system repairs to prompt lane closures Wednesday near Gayton, John Rolfe


Work to repair a leaking water main or valve will require lane closures beginning at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 22 near Gayton Road and John Rolfe Parkway.

Westbound Gayton’s left turning lane and left through lane will be closed. Westbound traffic will be shifted to the right through lane. Eastbound Gayton’s left through lane will be closed at John Rolfe. Eastbound traffic will be shifted to the right through lane. > Read more.

Henrico Doctors’ Hospitals named to nation’s top 100


HCA Virginia's Henrico Doctors' Hospitals recently was named one of the nation’s 100 top hospitals by Truven Health Analytics, a provider of information and solutions that support healthcare cost and quality improvement.

Henrico Doctors’ Hospitals consists of three community hospitals – Henrico (Forest), Parham, and Retreat Doctors’ Hospitals – and two freestanding emergency departments, West Creek Emergency Center and Hanover Emergency Center. Henrico Doctors’ Hospitals specializes in heart and stroke care, women’s health, oncology, orthopedics, urology, and behavioral health. > Read more.

Henrico residents invited to share design ideas for new Fairfield Area Library


Henrico County Public Library is planning community meetings March 28-29 and April 1 to receive input from county residents on the design of a new Fairfield Area Library. Meetings will be held at the Fairfield Area Library, 1001 N. Laburnum Ave., and at the Eastern Henrico Recreation Center, 1440 N. Laburnum Ave.

Architects from BCWH, Inc. will join library staff for the meetings, which will feature discussions and seek ideas on spaces and services for specific age groups as well as designs for the entire facility. > Read more.

Virginia529 enrollment period closes March 31


Time is running out to enroll in a program to prepay tuition at Virginia public colleges and universities. The current enrollment window for Virginia529's Prepaid529 ends March 31. Nearly 50,000 Virginia students have funded college costs through this program since it began 20 years ago.

Prepaid529 allows families to purchase semesters of tuition and mandatory fees for newborn children through ninth graders. Semester prices vary based on the age of the beneficiary. > Read more.

Henrico Police seek Northside robbery suspect


MAR. 21, 9:30 A.M. – Henrico Police are seeking the man who robbed a Wells Fargo Bank on Brook Road Monday evening.

At approximately 5 p.m. March 20, police responded to the bank, in the 8100 block of Brook Road, after reports that a white male had entered the business and presented a note demanding money. > Read more.
Community

Villa’s Flagler Housing wins national NAEH award


St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.

Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.

RIR’s Christmas tree lighting rescheduled for Dec. 12


Richmond International Raceway's 13th annual Community Christmas tree lighting has been rescheduled from Dec. 6 to Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., due to inclement weather expected on the original date.

Entertainment Dec. 12 will be provided by the Laburnum Elementary School choir and the Henrico High School Mighty Marching Warriors band. Tree decorations crafted by students from Laburnum Elementary School and L. Douglas Wilder Middle School will be on display. Hot chocolate and cookies will be supplied by the Henrico High School football boosters. > Read more.
Entertainment

Weekend Top 10


For our Top 10 calendar events this weekend, click here! > Read more.

 

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The American Legion Post 233, 8088 Recreation Rd. in Varina, will host a free Music Jam at 5 p.m. every fourth Thursday of the month. Featuring country gospel and bluegrass music. Anyone is welcome to play or sing. Food and drinks are available for purchase. For details, call Wayne Gilbert at 572-3124. Full text

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