On April 15, 1910, around 3 p.m., a motorcade of more than 30 vehicles bearing officials and dignitaries of the city of Manchester crossed the James River into Richmond. The motorcade converged on City Hall, and a formally dressed assembly of the city's administrators, as well as business and civic leaders, met the delegation on the steps.
The auspicious occasion was the unifying of Manchester and Richmond into one city after an April 4 referendum. Of Manchester's 9,715 residents, 513 voted for annexation, 224 against. (In 1910, neither blacks nor women could cast a ballot).
A South Bank Saga
There'd been talk of consolidating the municipalities for more than 20 years — usually proposed by Manchester and rejected by Richmond. By 1908, however, the city sought to expand and compete with larger municipalities.
William T. "Booster Bill" Dabney, a member of the Richmond Board of Aldermen, went door-to-door advocating annexation in Manchester. The councils of both cities adopted ordinances for annexation in 1909; it would be known as Washington Ward.
Then, on that somewhat chilly April 1910 afternoon, Manchester's long-serving Mayor Henry A. Maurice presented Richmond's Mayor David Crockett Richardson with a large red, white and blue floral "key to the city" emblazoned with a "Greater Richmond" banner.
"The South Side will become an asset greater than ever you have calculated on," Maurice declared. "We have had great possibilities but did not have the capital to compete with our larger neighbor. But as a united municipality, we expect to see Washington Ward grow and multiply and her buildings reach up as skyscrapers."
The New/Old Manchester
Tom Papa, part owner of Fountainhead Development, lifts an arm as though parting a curtain to present one of his company's latest projects, New Manchester Flats.
Accompanied by the clamor of discordant jackhammers, Papa fast-walks a visitor through the work in progress at the New Manchester Flats, which once was a Southern Stove Works factory. Upon completion, which is expected this year, the project will hold 169 residences; as of mid-March, 98 of the units were already complete.
Papa says about 40 of the units will be designated as low-income housing for residents with disabilities as part of a tax-credit program.
And beginning in the 2010-2011 academic year, Fountainhead will work in conjunction with VCU Arts to lease 20 of the apartments, which feature studios, to students in the graduate arts school as part of an "incubator program," he says.
Papa, a former lawyer with artistic inclinations and an eye for the future, says, "I think this is going to say to people, ‘Welcome to Manchester.' "
Adjacent to the New Manchester Flats is Riverside PACE, a 19,000-square-foot medical and convalescent day-care center, owned and run by a Newport News company. Fountainhead created the bright, sun-swept PACE center.
Since last year, at least nine development projects in the district have been completed or are expected to be finished this year, representing an estimated total investment of $106 million, according to the regional booster group Venture Richmond. Manchester broadly includes the area between Cowardin Avenue, Hull Street, Commerce Road, the James River and Maury Street. Among these figures is the $10.1 million spent to renovate and expand the Richmond Manchester General District Court.
Beyond all this burgeoning busy-ness, though, are 17.5 acres formerly occupied by a Reynolds aluminum factory, a property covering almost half the land bordered by Hull Street (to the east), Seventh Street and the railroad tracks along the river.
"Here's an opportunity to re-establish the street grid there that's been gone for so long," says David Bass, president of the Manchester Alliance, a group of residents and stakeholders primarily concerned about the former industrial section on the district's eastern side. The site, owned by Reynolds Packaging Group, includes 506,000 square feet of existing structures. Last year, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that Reynolds was negotiating a possible sale of the property, but no deal has been announced since.
"And the potential is unlimited," Bass says. "We'd like to see something architecturally remarkable occur there that would gain national attention and make Manchester a destination."
But will Richmonders cross the conceptual divide?Shelli Jost Brady was vice chair of the city planning commission in the 1990s and now works in the Manchester offices of Alchemy, the consulting firm founded by Brady and her husband. One of the challenges confronted by planners was altering perception, she explains. "The James River is not a barrier, but an artery."
Brady describes Manchester as a stool of three legs: Hull Street's commercial section; the former industrial quarter north and east of Commerce and framed by the river; and the historic residential portion with its streets — Bainbridge, Porter, Perry — named for U.S. Navy officers who served during the War of 1812 era.
"It has something of a split personality," Brady says. "That's inherent, not programmed. Part of the dilemma in planning for that community is: How do you advocate for it so that it stays healthy, given its diverse characteristics? When we say ‘Manchester,' who is talking about what part of it?"
Indeed, for many Richmonders north of the river, Manchester these days is defined by the big arts center of Plant Zero and complements like the 1212 Gallery and Dogtown Dance Co., which has rehabilitated the former Bainbridge Junior High School gymnasium into a performing-arts location. Its grand opening, with a mini-festival of contemporary dance, is scheduled for May.
Manchester, not quite a century ago, possessed a burgeoning Hull Street, filled with South Side versions of Broad Street stores, including a Thalhimers. There were restaurants, movie theaters, shops and salons. Hull Street hosted a Christmas parade and Fourth of July spectacle.
In 1970, public housing was interspersed among the single-family houses of Manchester's old residential districts, called Oak Grove and Blackwell. Retail shifted to Southside Plaza and then the shining new Cloverleaf Mall. Many residents fled. Schools crumbled. Businesses, large and small, relocated or closed for good. Manchester's old and mysterious nickname, "Dogtown," eventually seemed appropriate.
In the void where both the city and private enterprise essentially disowned Manchester, churches created public-service entities, ushering in the era of community-development corporations.
The two largest of these were, and remain, the Imani Intergenerational Community Development Corp., a nonprofit revitalization arm of South Richmond's First Baptist Church, and the Southside Community Development and Housing Corp., another nonprofit that grew from the Richmond Christian Center.
These organizations — not professional contracting or construction firms — began reclaiming blighted housing and providing services that either weren't available or were not close enough for people without cars. There also were efforts by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and the Better Housing Coalition.
In 1996, the city targeted Blackwell, along with several other neighborhoods, for revitalization under the Neighborhoods In Bloom program; this provided a vehicle in 1998 for federal Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI) funding. The result: 440 public housing units were demolished from 1999 to late 2001, and other blighted structures were razed. Some residents criticized RRHA for overzealousness in knocking down several older houses.
HOPE VI helped fund the construction of 161 apartments (Townes at River South), 188 single-family homes in the vicinity of Stockton and Ninth streets, a school and a remade park. The program also provided family-support services.
Former mayor Larry Chavis, who grew up in Blackwell and lives on Porter Street today, oversaw the beginning of the HOPE VI effort. He's not quite sure now what took so long, or why in his view some of the housing, particularly around the renovated and expanded courthouse, doesn't appear as though it'll have a high resale value. "Blackwell should be thriving right now," he says. "But Hull Street will kick again. Things are happening over here. Maybe not as fast as I would've liked, but it will."
In the early 1990s, some early adopters began rediscovering Manchester. The Texas-based franchise Spaghetti Warehouse opened in 1992 at 701 Bainbridge St., a former industrial-machinery manufacturing plant. After the restaurant's 1998 demise, the Carter Ryley Thomas public-relations firm opened shop there. The homegrown Legend Brewing Co. in 1992 opened a small pub next to its brewery at 321 W. Seventh St.
During the late 1990s, city officials and private residents began devising a master plan for Manchester to plot a proper course out of decline.
Then several watershed events occurred.
In 2002, after a decade of civic effort, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources recognized the Manchester Residential-Commercial Historic District. This meant state historic tax credits for the rehabilitation of ailing structures; in 2006, the neighborhood entered the National Register of Historic Places.
After the opening of Fountainhead's Plant Zero arts complex in 2004, which helped kick-start rejuvenation in the district, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Real Estate Foundation sold for $5 million 178 parcels of land it had received years earlier from Overnite Transportation founder J. Harwood Cochrane. Robin Miller & Associates bought 153 parcels; Sam McDonald and Charles MacFarland of Manchester Partners purchased the remaining 25.
The rush was on.
In 2010, much as in 1910, Richmond again seeks to expand and improve. For the first time, it was included in the city's downtown master plan, a sweeping vision that seeks to guide responsible growth and conservation of historic resources. Following on the plan's adoption last year, Manchester's stakeholders have come together to plot concrete changes. Last month, the city's planning commission signed off on a recommendation to rezone more than 700 properties in the district, allowing greater flexibility in commercial and residential uses. On March 22, City Council approved the rezoning.
Some see this as Manchester's moment. Finally.
"We have been patient. We have endured," says resident and civic champion Bill Thomas. "We are coming around to the other side of a rather lonely period. We watch these new developments with great excitement and trust that what is the best of Manchester will be reinforced and encouraged."