Following years of negotiations, a local development company has struck a deal with the City of Richmond to go forward with its plans for a pair of 16-story towers on the Manchester riverfront.
Fountainhead Properties secured zoning and supplemental approvals this week from Richmond City Council for its planned mixed-use development at 111 Hull St., on a quasi-island just west of the Mayo Bridge and alongside the James River flood wall. The approvals clear the way for potentially two or more towers that would house hundreds of apartments with commercial space and parking on the lower levels.
The agreement with the city includes easements and access needed for the project, with Fountainhead agreeing to pay for connector roads and a replacement of a bridge over the Manchester Canal and the city conveying portions of city-owned property at 1 and 115 Hull St. and 2 Decatur St.
Tom Papa, who runs Fountainhead with fellow developer Rick Gregory, said the approvals mark an end to a years-long negotiation with city planners over those issues, while also marking the start of the next part of the process: designing the project.
“The rezoning was critical to the path of going forward and getting it designed,” Papa said, adding that the project would be “a beautiful structure visible from all parts of downtown” and “a beacon to the Manchester side of the river.”
Papa noted that Fountainhead had previously proposed a different project for the site several years ago but was unable to come to terms with the city over access. Where they presented a building concept at that time, Papa said they took a different approach this go-round by seeking zoning approval and a development agreement first.
Fountainhead purchased the approximately 2-acre property at 111 Hull St. in 2012 for $850,000. The land is now owned through South Canal LLC.
Papa described the development agreement with the city as “tough” but said it’s worth it for the property’s location.
“The city really negotiated a very tough deal with us,” he said. “I don’t begrudge it; I think everything they asked for was needed, and we certainly were in agreement the city would pay for some of it. But the city employees negotiated a very tough deal. We’ll spend a couple million dollars that some might argue could have been the city’s expense.”
Papa said next steps include designing the project – they have yet to select an architect – and submitting plans of development that he expects will be received well by the city.
“Almost everything has been resolved,” Papa said. “It took us five and a half years to get to where we are today. We’ve been talking to the City of Richmond about this for a very long time, and there’s nothing I can think of that’s left to be talked about.”
Papa said the development would start with one tower and potentially add a second or more, depending on demand. An existing dilapidated building, built in 1929, would be demolished to make room for the first tower, while the second tower would be built on vacant land upriver.
The first 16-story building would total 225 apartments. If the rest of the process goes smoothly, Papa said construction could start by mid-2017.
“When you build a building with 225 units in it, you wait and see what happens, if it absorbs quickly,” he said. “We have some very good neighbors that are also building big buildings in the neighborhood, and there’s an absorption issue.
“Everything we’ve seen has said that there is a great deal of demand to come into Manchester, so we would anticipate at some point in the future that we would build a second building, but there’s not a timeline on that,” he said. “We’re just trying to stay focused on building this first one, and building the nicest building we can build and create the demand for the second one.”
Some of those neighbors were among groups and individuals that expressed their support for the project to council. Letters of support submitted to council were received from Andrew Basham of Spy Rock Real Estate Group, Patton Gleason of Thrivident Retail Services, attorney Ann Reardon, Ken Johnson of marketing and communications firm Johnson Inc., Jordan Jez of mobile phone repair provider Glass Smith, Adam Birce of instrument repair shop Four Strings, and Kelley Johnston of Acuity Management Solutions.
Council received one letter of “no support” for the project from David Bass of the Manchester Alliance neighborhood association. Bass said the group could not support the rezoning without being able to review an actual proposed development plan for the property, among other reasons stated in the letter.
Papa said he appreciates the group’s interest and concerns and said the buildings would be designed with the neighborhood in mind. Papa said considerations such as the neighborhood’s views of the downtown skyline would be taken into account with the buildings’ design.
“Nobody’s views will be more obstructed than our own,” Papa said. “Fountainhead Properties owns a lot of real estate there, a lot of apartments, and we like to be good neighbors.
“We respect and appreciate the vigilance with which the Manchester Alliance looked at this project and other projects, and we think that they are a great asset for the community,” he said. “Even if people think that we were at odds with them, I don’t see it that way at all. I am very happy that they are guardians of the neighborhood.”
The rezoning to B-4 Central Business District allows for the buildings to be two stories higher than the previous RF-1 Riverfront District zoning allowed. Papa said the additional height allows for the apartment levels to clear the 38-foot-high flood wall, with the commercial space and parking comprising the lower floors.
Despite the years put into it and the development agreement requirements – he said the canal bridge replacement could cost as much as $800,000, for example – Papa said the project will be worth the added effort and investment.
“This is the best piece of property, perhaps, in the city of Richmond,” he said. “Where else do you have riverfront property that’s also canal-front, that is in the entryway to Manchester, which is the greatest growth opportunity location for the city of Richmond?”