Rebkee, Shamin pitch Virginia Center Commons for arena-anchored mixed-use redevelopment

A rendering of the new arena. (Courtesy Henrico County)

One of the developers behind the mixed-use conversion of Regency Square is teaming up with the region’s largest hotel operator on a comparable redevelopment of another struggling mall – in a public-private project that would be anchored by a sought-after arena for Henrico County.

The Rebkee Co. and Shamin Hotels are proposing Virginia Center Commons as the site for the county’s desired indoor sports and convocation center, as part of a larger redevelopment that would include a hotel, retail and entertainment uses, and potentially a residential component with some income-based housing.

Henrico supervisors endorsed the proposal Tuesday evening, authorizing county staff to enter into negotiations with Rebkee after fielding a second round of arena proposals that included two from other firms.

The board also set in motion several steps to be taken to pull off the public side of the project, including scheduling a public hearing for its next meeting Nov. 26 on a budget amendment that would allow the county to contribute up to $50 million toward securing the land and building the arena.

Rebkee is under contract to purchase the main mall building and the former Macy’s building, and is said to be finalizing a contract for the separately owned Sears building, to provide the controllable site that the county required from respondents to its latest request for proposals for the arena.

An exterior rendering of what the arena’s entrance would look like. (Henrico County)

If the Sears building is secured, the total amount of property that would be under Rebkee’s control would stand at roughly 75 acres, about 25 of which would be filled by the arena. The project would not include the J.C. Penney or American Family Fitness buildings.

The county anticipates a project agreement to be drafted and presented to the board by the end of the first quarter of next year. The agreement would detail final building design, maximum price to the county, and operator agreement.

‘Controllable site’ required

Having a controllable site to build the arena while also spurring Virginia Center’s revitalization put Rebkee’s proposal above others considered, said Neil Luther, Henrico’s rec and parks director who’s serving as the county’s point person on the project.

“That’s 70-plus acres right in the middle of an otherwise healthy corridor that has a tremendous upside for future economic growth,” Luther told BizSense. “The economic potential for this project becoming a catalyst for a larger, cascading redevelopment is huge. It hits every box we asked for in terms of location and accessibility.”

The mall conversion would be comparable to Rebkee’s redevelopment with Thalhimer Realty Partners of Regency Square, another struggling mall in Henrico whose revitalization has likewise involved the purchase of former Sears and Macy’s buildings – as well as the addition of an indoor sports component, with NOVA Aquatics’ planned $18 million facility there.

Acknowledging the similarities, as well as differences, between the two projects, Rebkee principal Rob Hargett told the board Tuesday: “We’re the only guys who really want to take on two malls. There’s nobody else crazy enough to do that.

“We’re seeing what the impacts of NOVA are going to have over at Regency. This is kind of along that same line,” he said, describing Virginia Center as a more challenging mixed-use project.

“This is a big lift,” he said. “It’s a little different than Regency Square.”

Multiple transactions

Specific uses and designs have yet to be determined, including whether the mall structures would be re-used or razed for new construction. Shamin principal Neil Amin said his firm is evaluating options for the hotel, and Dan Hargett – Rob’s brother and fellow Rebkee principal – said a development team would be assembled as plans progress.

Amin said his firm is buying the properties jointly with Rebkee, and then would develop the hotel specifically. Dan Hargett said Rebkee had been eyeing VCC for some time. He wouldn’t say when the two parcels were put under contract or whether those contracts were prompted by the arena RFP.

The properties would be purchased through three separate contracts with different ownership groups, as the main mall building is owned by New York-based Kohan Retail Investment Group, while the other buildings are owned by their respective retailers.

Kohan purchased the 577,000-square-foot mall structure in 2017 for $9 million. In the years since, Henrico has taken legal action against Kohan, claiming that the mall is violating the county’s fire and building codes and zoning ordinances.

A message left Tuesday for firm principal Mike Kohan was not returned.

Impact Investments Group owns the 110,000-square-foot former Macy’s building, which it purchased in 2018 for $1.3 million. Sears owns its building, which totals 132,000 square feet.

Combined, the three buildings Rebkee is looking to purchase were valued in the county’s latest assessment in excess of $17 million.

An aerial shot of the mall property, facing north, with I-95 visible to the right. (Henrico County)

Location a deciding factor

The county had been in negotiations with Richmond Raceway to locate the arena there, but disagreement over land terms put an end to those talks earlier this year. County officials attributed the disagreement in part to the raceway’s parent company, International Speedway Corp., undergoing its recent merger with NASCAR Holdings Inc.

Other locations were pitched for the arena, including the county’s Belmont Golf Course, but none of the initial proposals considered included a controllable site, prompting the county to requested more-detailed proposals from three respondents: Rebkee, Eastern Sports Management LLC and MEB General Contractors.

Luther said Rebkee’s proposal outshone the rest in large part because of the mall’s location, in a developed area with available infrastructure and easy access to Interstate 295 and I-95, which runs alongside the property.

“There’s plenty of excess sewer capacity out that way, so that property is prime for redevelopment,” Luther said, adding that the site provides savings of as much as $8 million that would otherwise be needed for road improvements and utilities.

Arena would anchor project

The facility would be designed to host basketball and volleyball games. (Henrico County)

Henrico is planning for a roughly 215,000-square-foot arena that can accommodate basketball, volleyball and other indoor sports, to capitalize on the county’s steady sports tourism numbers.

Last year, sports tourism accounted for $54 million in local economic impact, according to the county, which hosted more than 170 tournaments at its parks and sports complexes. The county’s on track to hit 180-plus tournaments this year.

The facility also would host high school graduations, currently held at VCU’s Siegel Center. Without a comparable indoor venue, the county projects that it’s missing out on $33 million in estimated annual spending from sports events specifically.

Luther said the facility’s $50 million budget, as well as its size at roughly 215,000 square feet, stems from initial projections the county put together two years ago. Talks about a convocation center in the county have been recurring for two decades.

The arena would include expandable bleachers for high school convocations. (Henrico County)

“That number didn’t come out of a vacuum,” Luther said. “The county developed a prototype and we priced that out.”

The county is considering financing the project through lease revenue bonds that could go before supervisors early next year and would be issued through Henrico’s Economic Development Authority.

In his comments to the board, Rob Hargett said the arena would likely end up costing less than $50 million. Once that component is built, projected in late 2021, Hargett said it would help spur the rest of the project.

“It starts with an economic development bang right off the bat, right after we do the sports facility,” Hargett said.

“More importantly, we’re going to bring back a neighborhood,” he said. “We’re going to create a new neighborhood at Virginia Center that’s going to be vibrant again and something that everyone’s going to be proud of.”

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John Lindner
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John Lindner

Genius idea.

Mark Ziegelhofer
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Mark Ziegelhofer

I agree that the idea is solid but I would love to see some variety in the functionality…indoor soccer, swimming, track etc.

Matt Faris
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Matt Faris

Mark, I think the functionality is provided by the open space. There would be no reason an indoor soccer field or track couldn’t be erected for use, if warranted (although both an be done outside). Most indoor competition tracks (flat and/or banked) are temporary and installed only when needed.

A pool maybe out of the question given the multi-purpose needs for the venue

David Humphrey
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David Humphrey

The County is already constructing a pool over on Laburnum, but it does beg the question of what is next. Maybe a velodrome?

Fred Squire
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Wonder, given the weird behavior and active lawsuits against Kohan, if he is willing to sell?

David Humphrey
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David Humphrey

I believe the article says Rebkee has a contract so I guess so.

David Humphrey
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David Humphrey

While I do think this is a good idea I find it interesting that not a single person questions the numbers and the closed door process for reviewing those numbers like they do with the City. Albeit the money involved at the City level is significantly higher and the project more ambitious and transformative, $50 mil (or possibly more) is not exactly chump change even for Henrico. I can’t remember how much the often derided Redskins debacle was, but I would imagine this to be on a similar level. I guess it’s just not as much fun to beat up… Read more »

Tim Harper
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Tim Harper

Is that what you really believe, David Humphrey… that people like me and my neighbors who live in the city and question the way our real estate taxes are being used are “beating up on” the administration for “fun”?

David Humphrey
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David Humphrey

Oh I’m sure there are some who are sincere, but I’m also sure there are many more who simply relish in bashing the City.

Ed Christina
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Henrico has my trust to not waste money, generally speaking.

charles Frankenhoff
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charles Frankenhoff

yeah, Henrico has earned the benefit of the doubt. The city, sad to say, the opposite

Brett A Hunnicutt
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Brett A Hunnicutt

This is nothing like the Redskins debacle. This is a year round, multi purpose venue that holds many practical uses, and you don’t have to pay the main tenant millions of dollars to grace you with their presence.

Kevin Randesi
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Kevin Randesi

Theres not as much criticism for this project probably because Henrico County has high quality schools, low taxes, low utility rates, much better government services that can do things like issue a building permit in 24/48 hours instead of 1.5 months, etc. when compared to City Hall in Richmond.