Christmas came early to Petersburg on Tuesday as officials announced plans to redevelop one of the city’s most visible vacant buildings.
Maryland-based developer C.A. Harrison Cos. has been selected to turn the site of the former Ramada Inn, a nine-story building that looms over Interstate 95, into a hotel-anchored mixed-use development, complete with apartments, retail and office space, and potentially the second location of Richmond soul food restaurant Mama J’s.
With a projected budget of $20 million to $25 million, the project would transform the dormant city-owned site between East Washington and Wythe streets, just west of I-95 at the end of the Exit 52 off-ramp. City Manager William Johnson said the site and vacant building have made a bad impression for Petersburg for too long.
“Exit 52 is the front door to Petersburg, to the Tri-Cities region, and to the commonwealth of Virginia,” Johnson said. “It is the first impression for our residents, our visitors, when they come to town.
“We’ve been plagued with closed hotels, vacant buildings and poor representation of this great city,” he said. “Today’s announcement is something very special and long overdue for the entire city of Petersburg.”
Bethesda-based C.A. Harrison’s other local work has included 2001 East, a mixed-use project with apartments and commercial space at 2001 E. Broad St. in Richmond.
The firm was one of about four or five that bid on the Petersburg project, said Principal Chris Harrison, who was alerted to the project after working with the city on another hotel rehab that did not materialize.
Harrison said this project was presented to him as a similar rehab, but he said the site’s significance as an entrance to downtown Petersburg and its traffic-heavy location, near 95’s convergence with I-85, prompted him and his team to envision bigger plans.
“When I took a look at the site, its proximity to Exit 52, the land that was around it, it was obvious to me and my development team that we needed to come up with not just a hotel project but a project that became a gateway for the city of Petersburg,” he said.
To that end, plans drawn up by Commonwealth Architects, a local firm that has worked with Harrison on an apartment project in North Carolina, call for a 125-room hotel, 100 apartments and upwards of 20,000 square feet of retail in five additional or renovated buildings lining Washington and Wythe.
A press release states the project would involve the same team that worked on the North Carolina project, including Alabama-based Capstone Building Corp. and Philadelphia-based program manager Innova Services.
Harrison said the hotel would be a well-known Class-A brand, the identity of which could be announced in about a week.
The building would be resized, with the top two floors removed and additional footage added onto each side to make the building consistent with industry standards. Lee Shadbolt, a principal with Commonwealth Architects, said a study found the building’s size was too big for the market.
Built in 1973, the existing 125,000-square-foot structure housed a Ramada Inn until 2009. It was most recently used to house soldiers at Fort Lee – a practice that became common in Petersburg in recent years.
The city purchased the building in a tax sale last year for $176,745 – the amount of back taxes owed on the property, which city spokeswoman Jay Ell Alexander said had been declared a nuisance. Alexander did not know the previous owner, who was not listed in online property records. She said the building was previously managed by Fort Lee Regency.
The latest city assessment values the building and 2.3-acre site at $1.18 million. Johnson said the property would be sold to the developer through the course of the project.
“We need to put this property back on the tax roll,” he said.
Johnson said Harrison needs to acquire two privately owned parcels on the site’s Wythe Street side. Harrison said all parcels needed for the project are under contract.
Johnson said the city has been eyeing the site’s redevelopment through a process that started a year and a half ago. A group of city administrators reviewed its potential and sought out developers whose plans for the property meshed with the city’s.
He said the city is also working with the Cameron Foundation, a Tri-Cities foundation that awards grants in the area, on a $1.5 million project to enhance and improve the Washington Street overpass. He said the city is also requesting another $1.5 million from the state legislature for enhancements and lighting for Exit 52.
Johnson said the hotel site would also be illuminated at night to draw motorists from the interstate, which Harrison said sees traffic counts of 125,000 vehicles per day.
“That’s a tremendous amount of traffic, a tremendous amount of visibility,” he said. “When we finish building this thing, they will see it.”
Harrison is aiming to break ground on the hotel in about six months. He said that phase of the project, valued at $12 million, would last 12 months and create 121 jobs. Construction on the apartments and retail would follow, with the overall project completed in mid-2017.
Harrison said he has a soft commitment from Jackson Ward eatery Mama J’s to open a second location in the development. Mama J’s co-founder Lester Johnson said the project and location were appealing for an expansion.
“We’ve kind of reached capacity in our location in Jackson Ward, so we’ve been looking at expansion opportunities over the past year and a half,” he said. “It fits our brand. I’m very interested in being a part of it.”