Shockoe Bottom-ing out?

vacantbottomIn 2004 Richmond’s historic Shockoe Bottom was devastated by Hurricane Gaston.

Drainage systems malfunctioned and overflowed, and floodwater ran freely through the streets causing extensive damage to businesses.

Four years later, the area is showing a few signs of recovery, but the vacancy rate hovers above 20%. Turnover in restaurants and bars is high.

Continuing with our “Better Know a District Series,” which last covered Broad Street, we took time this week to look at Shockoe Bottom. We counted 43 total buildings, circling from 17th St. to Franklin St. to 18th St. and back across Main St. Of those 43 buildings, 29 were occupied. Four could be seen undergoing some stage of renovation. Ten were vacant.

The Farmer’s Market was looking empty on the day of our count with only two merchants selling goods. We counted three on another day this week.

That gives the Bottom a vacancy rate of around 23%. The vacancy rate for retail space in the entire Richmond area is just over 6%, according to Thalhimer’s first quarter reports. The vacancy for downtown retail space is 3.4%. So the Bottom has a vacancy rate nearly four times that of all of Richmond, and nearly seven times that of downtown.

But is this high vacancy rate a problem, perhaps a growing pain en route to a more vibrant neighborhood?

Rachel Flynn, director of community development for the City of Richmond, said that most of the buildings that appear vacant are currently under some stage of renovation, even though they might appear to be lifeless.

“It’s a work in progress. Confidence in that area is rebuilding, and now they’re taking it one building at a time,” Flynn said.

Cynthia Carmichael, manager at Havana 59 said, “There’s always room for improvement, but we’re on the way up.” She said that the vacant buildings are not anything out of the ordinary, and she thinks that they won’t be empty for very long.

“I think this could be the next big area of growth in Richmond,” Carmichael said.

David Napier, president of the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association and owner of The Old City Bar, has said that the Bottom is finally getting back to normal after the disastrous flooding four years ago. He could not be reached, but he told Government Technology Magazine that, “It takes a long time for people to actually come back. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s ready.’ But they are coming back.”

Carmichael said that she has noticed significant improvement in the area since the flood. She also said that businesses have been coming together in order to improve Shockoe Bottom in the wake of disaster.

“We’re like a community. All the restaurants and bars work together down here.”

The first step after the flood was to clean up the streets. Venture Richmond is a downtown economic development and marketing nonprofit organization founded in 2006. Erika Gay, program manager for Venture Richmond, credits the city’s quick debris removal in helping the Bottom recover.

“The city did a fabulous job of cleaning it up very quickly,” said Gay in the same Government Technology Magazine article.

The River District Alliance, now a part of Venture Richmond, moved in after cleanup efforts in order to raise funds and awareness for the area. A “Back the Bottom” fund drive raised nearly $200,000 according to Gay, and that money was distributed among the businesses that most needed it.

“We threw all our time and money into marketing Shockoe, telling people that ‘the Bottom is dry,’ that businesses were open again,” said Gay.

Thanks to the aid of federal, state, and local organizations, Shockoe Bottom is again showing signs of life. Investors are coming back, Napier said, and that will help increase exposure and, hopefully, customer traffic.

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