A prominent property along Brookland Park Boulevard that some observers say is holding back the corridor’s potential remains on track for redevelopment, according to its owner.
Developer LaMar Dixon said his plans to redevelop the former American National Bank Building at 201 W. Brookland Park Blvd. are progressing, despite complaints from neighboring property owners who aired their grievances with the building’s apparent stagnancy at a recent voter district meeting held by Chris Hilbert, the area’s representative on Richmond City Council.
Dixon, whose Dixon/Lee Development Group is planning to convert the former bank branch into a small business development center with involvement from Virginia Union University, said he expects to complete the project by year-end, with fencing signaling the start of site work slated to go up later this month.
Dixon said the project remains largely as he described at a meeting of the Brookland Park Area Association last June. At that meeting, Dixon said he was aiming to break ground in the third quarter of that year, with buildout expected to last seven months.
Since then, Dixon said coordination with VUU and other facets of the project have required additional time, but he said he remains in compliance with terms of a $200,000 grant from the city and related performance agreement, which have come under increased scrutiny in recent months from area business owners and residents who recently signed a petition demanding action from the city.
Dixon said he and his group are working on the project and remain committed to seeing it through.
“I signed on to do a project, and I’ve got to stay in integrity with what I took city dollars for,” Dixon said. “Forget the money that came in; I gave my word that I was going to do something different in that community, and I’m delivering that.”
‘It would be a catalyst’
Cory Weiner, a local developer who in recent years has amassed enough properties to become the largest commercial property owner in the corridor, recently submitted the petition containing 18 signatures to Hilbert, with demands for heightened security and police presence along the boulevard in light of multiple shootings there in recent years, including one resulting in a fatality.
Weiner argues that such activity is facilitated in part by properties such as the bank building remaining vacant and unused. The petition to Hilbert also complained about inactivity with the former Brookland Theatre at 115 W. Brookland Park Blvd., which is owned by another developer, Richmond-based Hampton Nash LLC.
“They’re the two main, largest buildings on the block, sitting there vacant, abandoned,” Weiner said in a recent interview. “It would be a catalyst if those buildings were brought back to life. It would completely change the neighborhood.”
Dixon takes exception to Weiner’s complaints, chalking them up to a desire to take ownership of the building.
“That’s what this is about,” Dixon said. “He’s concerned with getting his hands on the property. Cory Weiner has no interest in the bank building other than owning it.”
Weiner, whose holdings include the recently opened Boho Fit Studio space next door to the bank building, maintained he just wants someone to do something with that building and the theater, whether that’s Dixon and Hampton Nash, himself, or someone else.
“If no one else is going to do it, then yeah, I would do something with those buildings,” Weiner said. “But I’m perfectly content with someone else bringing businesses to the neighborhood.”
‘We’re not doing anything nefarious’
Four years in the making since Dixon purchased the property for $20,000 from the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, plans for the bank building call for a business accelerator called Urban Capital Collaborative that would involve VUU students working with small business owners to encourage economic development in the area.
Dixon said investment in the project has totaled about $1.2 million, including the $200,000 in grant funds and $929,000 in projected construction costs.
Dixon said it isn’t appropriate to compare the project with other commercial developments, arguing that his is more involved than more-straightforward redevelopments and requires coordination with the city and VUU.
“These are different kinds of projects. They’re not going to be the same as a brewery or this or that,” he said. “We’re a social impact investment project, so naturally it takes a little bit more to put it together because it’s not a straight commercial deal. We’re not doing anything nefarious.”
The project has remained under city scrutiny, as Dixon in October provided a summary of his efforts to date in response to an inquiry from the city’s economic and community development department, which facilitated the grant funds.
In that letter, dated Oct. 1, Dixon projected that fencing would be erected by then and that construction would be completed by this spring.
Calls to the department to confirm the project’s standing with the city were not returned by Thursday afternoon. Hilbert did not respond to a call and email seeking comment.
No movement on theater building
For his part, Hampton Nash’s Kyle Johnston said he’s purposely taking his time with the Brookland Theatre property, given the building’s prominence along the corridor. He said options for redevelopment and potential uses continue to be weighed.
“There are a lot of moving pieces,” Johnston said in an email. “We want to see this property succeed as well as the entire neighborhood, which means incorporating the right people, securing the proper tenant and restoring the building.
“We have been speaking with potential candidates and have plans to move full steam ahead in 2019,” he said.
The commercial corridor along Brookland Park Boulevard between Chamberlayne Avenue and Richmond-Henrico Turnpike has had a wave of new investment and developer interest in recent years.
Most recently, Safety Team Brewing received approval last fall to open a brewery in a property Weiner plans to develop at 310 W. Brookland Park Blvd.
Dixon said the business accelerator planned for the bank building will be an asset to the community well worth the wait. He said the program would target woman- and minority-owned small businesses to help put them in line to start the qualification process for federal Small Business Administration loans.
“What that does is it creates tenants down the line, because Brookland Park has been struggling for 40 years to get tenants,” Dixon said.
Dixon said his development group previously worked with Cornerstone Architects on designs. He said he is now in talks with two other firms. Dixon is serving as the contractor on the project.
Renderings of the project (see below) show a two-story space with a mezzanine and a variety of work spaces to accommodate as many as 100 people at a time. The space would include Wi-Fi and room for community meetings.
‘It’s going to take us longer’
Dixon acknowledged the city’s performance agreement requires that the accelerator put at least 30 students to work on an annual basis for a five-year period. Weiner cited the nonexistence of those jobs as one reason the city should find Dixon in default of the agreement, but Dixon said the five-year period applies to the start of the project, not the date of the grant award.
BizSense was unable to obtain a copy of Dixon’s agreement with the city.
Dixon did provide BizSense with a memorandum of understanding from 2017 between his group and VUU’s Small Business Development Center, detailing the framework for a potential binding contract. The memorandum’s terms are valid through July 31, 2020, according to the document, which was signed by Dixon and VUU President Hakim Lucas.
Attempts to reach VUU officials for comment for this story were unsuccessful by deadline.
Echoing comments Hilbert made to CBS 6 after his voter district meeting last month, Dixon maintained that Weiner just wants to be able to develop the bank building himself. Weiner said he wants what’s best for the neighborhood.
“If you could see some progress, that would be one thing,” Weiner said, “but the fact that you can’t see anything – people hang out at that corner all the time.”
“We have the most iconic building on the block. It’s going to take us longer,” Dixon said.
“We’re at $1.2 million in investment. That’s the difference,” he said. “It’s a million-dollar property in a neighborhood where it wasn’t worth $30,000 when I got it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Virginia Community Capital is providing financing for the bank building project. VCC had been in talks with Dixon about financing but is not actively involved with the project.