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

A safer way across


A project years in the making is beginning to make life easier for wheelchair-bound residents in Northern Henrico.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is completing a $2-million set of enhancements to the Brook Road corridor in front of St. Joseph's Villa and the Hollybrook Apartments, a community that is home to dozens of disabled residents. > Read more.

New conservation easement creates wooded buffer for Bryan Park

Five years ago, members of the Friends of Bryan Park were facing the apparently inevitable development of the Shirley subdivision in Henrico, adjacent to the forested section of the park near the Nature Center and Environmental Education Area.

As part of the Shirley subdivision, the land had been divided into 14 lots in 1924, but had remained mostly undisturbed through the decades. In 2012, however, developers proposed building 40 modular houses on roughly 6.5 acres, clear-cutting the forest there and creating a highly dense neighborhood tucked into a dead end. > Read more.

Meet the men running for governor


Virginia will elect a new governor this year.

The governor’s position is one of great power and influence, as the current officeholder, Terry McAuliffe, has demonstrated by breaking the record for most vetoes in Virginia history.

However, during the last gubernatorial race in 2014, the voter turnout was less than 42 percent, compared with 72 percent during last year’s presidential election. > Read more.

RISC to address reading, childhood trauma, job training at assembly

On May 1, more than 1,700 community members representing Richmonders Involved to Strengthen our Communities will gather at St. Paul’s Baptist Church (4247 Creighton Road) at 7 p.m. to address elementary reading, childhood trauma and job training in the greater Richmond region. Community members will speak about each issue and proposed solution.

For three years, the organization has sought implementation of a specific literacy program in Henrico County that it believes would help children who struggle with reading. > Read more.

Henrico to begin update of zoning, subdivision ordinances April 26


Henrico County is beginning a comprehensive update of its zoning and subdivision ordinances — the first such effort in six decades — and will introduce the project as part of the April 26 meeting of the Henrico County Planning Commission.

The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. in the Board Room of the Henrico Government Center, 4301 E. Parham Road. The ordinance update project will be featured as the final item on the agenda. Project consultant Clarion Associates will give a presentation, and meeting participants will be able to ask questions and provide comments. > 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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April’s Innsbrook Wellness Forum, “3 Secrets to Healthier Lunches,” will take place from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. in Carpenter Room B at 4501 Highwoods Pkwy. The guest speaker will be Mary Wallace of Mary Wallace Wellness. A certified holistic health coach, she promotes life-changing foods and lifestyle strategies to manage weight, regain energy, clarify food confusion, reduce cravings, and more. The forum continues every second Thursday of the month. A free, light lunch will be provided to those who register. For details, call 217-8804 or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Full text

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