Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that NewMarket is a Fortune 500 company. It is in the Fortune 1000.
A local publicly traded company is proceeding with a project that is filling in its portion of a centuries-old canal, using dirt from an adjacent site on its riverfront headquarters that the firm has earmarked for eventual development.
Mounds of fill dirt and fencing placed last week beside the Kanawha Canal behind the Historic Tredegar site signaled the start of the project by NewMarket Corp. to cover and partially fill the portion of the inactive canal that runs through its hillside campus overlooking the James River.
The project involves covering the section of the canal with a geotechnical fabric and adding fill dirt on top of it, ultimately creating a partially sunken greenway that Bruce Hazelgrove, NewMarket’s chief administrative officer, said is intended to preserve and beautify the site, which plays host to the Richmond Folk Festival and is prone to collecting trash and standing water.
Hazelgrove said the project is needed to stabilize the canal’s nearly 200-year-old stone walls, which he said pose a safety risk to festivalgoers and the public. By lining the canal underneath the fill, he said the walls would be stabilized and could be unearthed if desired later, while in the meantime allowing for safer use and interpretive signage explaining the history of the canal, conceived and developed by George Washington.
Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. is doing the work for NewMarket, using dirt from an adjacent site along South Fifth Street that previously had been used to support Tredegar’s redevelopment as the home of the American Civil War Museum, which leases its property from NewMarket.
Hazelgrove said the Fifth Street site has attracted development interest for years, but he said none of the proposals so far have been the right fit. He said he foresees the site being developed at some point, though not for another several years.
NewMarket’s land ownership extends across Fifth Street beside the WestRock/CoStar building, which NewMarket developed and owned before selling the building in 2013. Hazelgrove said the vacant land on that side of the street has received interest from hotel developers.
Hazelgrove also acknowledged long-term plans to potentially develop parts of NewMarket’s hillside campus, though he said such activity remains decades away. The acreage is across Second Street from the Virginia War Memorial, where construction on a $26 million expansion has been underway.
Hazelgrove said development interest is not what prompted the canal project, but rather existing concerns over safety and the canal’s structural soundness. Hazelgrove would not say how much the company is investing in the project, which he said has involved digital surveying that revealed wall degradation.
Opposition to project
The project has drawn opposition from some observers, including Jack Pearsall, a local attorney who’s advocated a plan dating to 1988 to return water to the canal, and restore and reconnect it so that boats could run continuously from Haxall Point in Shockoe Slip to as far west as Maymont and potentially beyond.
Pearsall said NewMarket’s project received a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers without a consultation process requested by him and Historic Richmond. He said they expressed interest in participating in such a process in a letter last fall to Andy Condlin, a Roth Jackson attorney who represented NewMarket on the project.
The letter, dated Oct. 5, 2018, refers to Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires federal agencies such as USACE to consider projects’ effects on historic properties. Pearsall provided a copy of the letter, which was signed by Cyane Crump, executive director, Historic Richmond.
Reached last week, Crump said the letter still reflects Historic Richmond’s position on the project.
In an email, Crump said: “Our primary concern is to minimize the impacts to the existing fabric of historic canal structures, landscape and topography with a goal that any changes to the Canal Project Area be both practically and technically reversible to accommodate a potential future re-watering of the canal and accompanying boat traffic. If a Section 106 process relating to the project is to occur, we welcome the opportunity to participate as a consulting party.”
Pearsall said the canal should be left alone and remain as visible as it is today so people can view it as a historic remnant. He said the only parts of the walls that are unstable are brickwork at the top that would remain visible after the project. Hazelgrove said those sections will be repaired.
“I think it’s a travesty,” Pearsall said. “The idea that they’re improving the canal by burying it just doesn’t make sense. We’ve got a ditch that was dug 150 years ago and it’s in perfect condition, and they want to fill it up.”
Pearsall has been reaching out to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which initially agreed with USACE’s finding that the project would have no adverse effects. Alerted by Pearsall that a Section 106 process didn’t play out as he had requested, Roger Kirchen, DHR’s review and compliance division director, said he’s advising that USACE reopen the consultation process, though he noted that it’s USACE’s decision whether to do so.
Hazelgrove said NewMarket has gone above and beyond what’s required for the project in an effort to be transparent, pointing to the meeting a year ago with Condlin, Pearsall and Historic Richmond as an attempt to be proactive and up front about the plan. He maintained that the project is aimed at protecting the canal, reiterating that it could be unearthed and used if such an effort moves forward.
“We think we’ve been good stewards of the site,” Hazelgrove said.