Linda and Clifford Waterman opened the Caribbean Chef in 2001.Steve Hedberg photo
Whether they are motivated by community, historic preservation or profit, Manchester's stakeholders share a desire to see the district become not only a good part of town again but a neighborhood that embodies Richmond's convergence of old and new. They tell what brought them there and, in some cases, what they're doing to take ownership of its future.
Linda and Clifford Waterman
Still waiting for the payoff
"Ech!" Linda Waterman says, then laughs. "That's about what this building was like nine years ago. You had to have a vision. Otherwise, you'd have taken one look and run away."
A Downtown Undivided
It was a drippy, leaky building full of pigeons and their byproducts. She shakes her head and says, "Not a good first impression."
But Linda and her husband, Clifford, saw promise in the wreck of a Manchester property that city economic-development officials showed them in 1998. The couple decided to buy the building near Commerce Road and Hull Street and to move from New York City to Richmond.
The dream: To open a restaurant using Clifford's culinary background.
Clifford, a postal worker, received a transfer to Richmond, and he and Linda moved into a North Side home.
Over three years, they worked toward opening the Caribbean Chef in 2001, but during that span, the couple saw some discouraging signs — the nearby Spaghetti Warehouse restaurant and the police precinct down the street closed.
Since then, Waterman says, there've been improvements near the restaurant, but she's not seen the uptick in business that she thought might occur. Part of it, she acknowledges, is the tough economy.
Still, she has no regrets. "The building is worth many times more than what we paid for it," she says. "And a lawyer is moving into the upstairs office. So, I don't have any complaints. Plus, we have really good food here."
Breaking through the turf mentality
In 2006, David Bass had lived in Richmond 10 years when he moved just across the river from Shockoe Bottom to live in Manchester, where he works as a research analyst for the Alliance Group, a consulting firm.
He also sits at the head of the Manchester Alliance, a group of residents, business owners and developers advocating measured growth of the district, primarily above Commerce Road.
Changing the public mindset about Manchester goes to the heart of its future, Bass says.
"The James River isn't a moat," he says. "Manchester is part of downtown. It's in the master plan, finally, after years of people advocating that it be considered part of the rest of the city. It's just across the bridge, not another country."
The Manchester Alliance has joined the ongoing discussion about development, parking and perhaps the toughest political battle of all: having the district re-indexed from real estate Zones 50 and 60 — considered South Richmond — and grouped instead with Zone 10, which includes the Fan and Church Hill.
In mid-March, the Manchester Alliance also threw its support behind new zoning designations to allow coffee shops and corner stores to exist near residences. The rezoning recommendations were approved by the city's planning commission and were sent to City Council for final approval.
Preserving Manchester's historic cachet
Bill Thomas moved from Washington, D.C., to Richmond in 1984 as the state director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. He'd always wanted to live in an 18th- or 19th-century brick house. When he transferred here, he found it: an antique survivor, the 1797 Archibald Freeman House at 1015 Bainbridge St.
One morning, he woke up to the sounds of a place behind him getting demolished, so he purchased a handful of Manchester buildings to keep them from harm's way.
He formed the Manchester Civic Association and, for most of a decade, worked to place the commercial and residential district of Old Manchester on Virginia's historic register.
"Back then, there was just no interest from the city in preserving these houses," Thomas says. "Or acknowledging a sense of community here. Here was Hull Street, a real Main Street U.S.A., enshrining American entrepreneurship, and I was determined to get it protected."
The state granted the historic designation in 2002, and the National Register of Historic Places accepted Manchester in 2006.
Thomas isn't as keen on proposed zoning changes as those in the Manchester Alliance, which he views more of a group for developers. "We'd rather keep business on Hull Street," he says, rather than seeing little shops pop up between houses.
Dianna J. Herndon
Opening the doors for new residents
As a girl, Dianna Herndon would come by city bus from Highland Park in North Side to Hull Street. She laughs, "We could get just the right kind of bell-bottom jeans from Wise Clothing Store."
She recalls a collection of businesses that got wiped away as customers were lured to new shopping strips and malls like Southside Plaza, Cloverleaf and Regency Square. The clientele served by the Hull Street stores moved away in droves from Manchester and Blackwell, too.
When Herndon became the executive director of the nonprofit Southside Community Development & Housing Corporation home-ownership program in 1996, her clients were afraid of Hull Street — with reason. Drug dealers openly sold their wares by the SCDHC's offices. Renovation workers on Decatur Street dodged occasional gunfire. And refit houses were vandalized.
Since 1990, SCDHC has developed 160 new and rehabilitated homes in Blackwell and Manchester. The group has partnered with the Imani Intergenerational Community Development Corp. and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and has worked in concert with the city's Neighborhoods In Bloom program — launched in 1998 — to revitalize Blackwell. The combined efforts have brought teachers, firefighters, accountants and other professionals back to the area, Herndon says.
A sign of how much the community has changed, she observes, is seeing residents walk their dogs down Hull Street after dark. Monthly seminars for home ownership in the neighborhood are packed with diverse gatherings of people. Credit is tight these days, but people are eager to live in the community.
"As people move in, I'd like to see a grocery store, a coffee shop, more services here," Herndon says.
Seeking a frontier for opportunity
Robin Miller and business partner Dan Gecker recently calculated that 350 more people are living in the section of Manchester where their Monroe Properties are located than when they started in 2005.
"Most of whom have cars, pets and walk around the neighborhood," Miller adds. "Much cleaner and safer than it was five years ago."
Miller, a Tennessee native, came to Richmond in 1994 with development experience in Massachusetts and New Mexico. He's met with success in downtown's Monroe Ward, Oregon Hill and Shockoe Bottom.
He saw opportunity in Manchester's vacant land and dilapidated houses. "You make your money on the buy," he says. "There are some risks when you're the first. So far, though, we're doing OK."
Miller says construction has slowed down dramatically from its peak a few years ago, and this is a function of demand. Money is tighter for builders and buyers alike.
His target market has been people moving to Richmond from somewhere else: professionals and students who may not share the apprehensions some natives have about certain neighborhoods.
With an eye toward cohesiveness with remaining original structures, Miller's firms saved close to 30 historic houses. He adds, "Maybe five of them — in hindsight — we should've torn down, but I'm glad we didn't."
Rachel O'Dwyer Flynn
Guiding a city's vision
The city's director of planning and development review, Rachel Flynn, liked Manchester so much, that she moved there from the Fan in 2009. From her new home in the Cheek Neal Building, she has an excellent view of Mayo's Bridge — a prominent symbol in the future of Manchester.
The construction of the bridge, which replaced an earlier span, was one of the conditions of the 1910 annexation; another condition was that the courthouse on East 10th Street remain.
The courthouse was renovated and expanded this past year. The bridge is under study by the city and state for possible renovation.
Flynn acknowledges that as the city launched downtown-planning sessions with the public several years ago, Manchester residents were already contemplating the best way of incorporating the community into the frame of downtown.
After often-vehement public-planning sessions and tremendous amounts of discussion, Manchester isn't the underdog anymore. How best to guide its rebirth is the question.
New zoning districts could help to diversify business and residential development.
"Look at Hull Street," Flynn says. "It was totally designed for the pedestrian and trolley. What makes it attractive? Storefronts, doors and windows."
As a commercial corridor, Hull isn't yet germinating. Housing, however, is returning to both sides of Hull, creating an eventual critical mass of people who will need close-at-hand retail. Developers will typically go for older buildings first, not only because they are the most unique, but also because they come with tax credits.
"We need to see more occupancy in the historic buildings," Flynn says.
In her view, the reclamation of public housing has been a planning-and-design success story. She says, "Porches on the front, on-street parking, alleyway systems, and
I think there's real dignity in that. These are places people will want to take care of."
Hoping for wholesale change
Reggie Malone moved into Manchester, near where his wife, Jacqueline, was raised, in 2002. They've purchased a home on Dinwiddie Avenue through Southside Community Development and Housing Corp. Malone says he has seen dramatic improvement since he first began spending time in the neighborhood almost two decades ago, while assisting his ill father-in-law. Now younger couples with children are moving in, altering the community faster than anything else.
In the early 1990s, Malone confronted drug dealers near his father-in-law's home on Dinwiddie. "My father-in-law was scared," Malone says. "So I had to go out there and tell them to please respect where I live and stop planting drugs in the shrubbery in his yard. Stop sitting on the wall by his house. All they needed was someone to confront them. They said, ‘OK, man, that's cool.' They appreciated the way I handled it."
Prior to 2005, he says, hearing gunfire was common. Since then, however, increased public vigilance and police work have driven most of the drug activity away.
As the neighborhood improves and more children come, Malone, who served on the Richmond School Board from 1998 to 2007, says attention needs to be given to nearby schools.
New parents take their children elsewhere or enroll them in private school. Malone says, "And it's just not fair on hard-working folk, who feel as though they need to pay tuition, but they're also paying taxes to support schools they don't trust to send their kids to."
Observing Manchester's influence on Blackwell
When Larry Chavis grew up in Blackwell, which is adjacent to Manchester, it was a healthy working-class neighborhood. The residents worked at Dupont, E. R. Carpenter and Philip Morris. The Chavis family ran a trucking company. Blackwell Elementary School, though segregated for his youth, posted high test scores comparable to white-only schools.
Chavis recalls when public housing was built in Blackwell alongside single-family homes with "the intent bringing up the public housing. Instead, the single family homes went down, and instead of improving the neighborhood, it was ripped apart."
When younger people left, if they went to college, there wasn't any reason to return. This migration left behind older people. When Chavis moved into a house at 17th and Albany streets in the early 1990s, open-air drug dealing and deadly shootings were commonplace.
His family's trucking business at Hull Street and Jefferson Davis Highway was the target of break-ins and theft. The hauler's major contract was with Kinney Shoes and Foot Locker.
"They starting making all these fancy NBA jackets, and we had a break-in that almost drove us out of business," he says. Youngsters were walking along Hull Street in shoes and jackets stolen from his company.
Calls to city officials garnered little response, until some weeks later when a police detective came and apologized. "There was just one investigator who could take reports on the entire South Side," Chavis says. "This is how the city regarded us then."
Anger compelled him in 1992 to run for City Council. He won by five votes. His election was contested but validated by the Richmond Circuit Court.
When as vice mayor he led a 1993 tour of regional leaders into Blackwell, the community then contained 140 vacant properties. The crime statistics exceeded some of the city's more notorious public housing. Tidy, manicured houses sat next to boarded-up duplexes.
While serving as the council-appointed mayor from 1996 to 1998, Chavis tried to turn the city's attention south. By then, there was a movement, which Chavis quashed, to close the Manchester courthouse. He even contemplated moving City Hall to Semmes Avenue.
He initiated the process at the RRHA to procure federal HOPE VI funding to demolish the public housing and create single-family houses. HOPE is an acronym for "Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere." Some $26.9 million was allocated to that effort in Richmond. It was earmarked to build 161 multifamily units in Blackwell and 188 new single-family houses there, and 68 apartments on Blackwell's Hull Street developed by the Imani Intergenerational Community Development Corporation.
"Getting the money isn't the problem," Chavis reflects. "Making sure it goes where it's supposed to is another whole issue." He wanted at least one more term as mayor to oversee the HOPE VI project, but Tim Kaine won. Then the seasons changed in Washington, and the HOPE VI funds were delayed or rerouted.
"It didn't happen the way it should've," Chavis says. "That neighborhood should be thriving now."
That said, the Porter Street resident believes the rebirth of Blackwell is close at hand and that, soon, "Hull Street will be kicking."
He thinks a baseball park could have been built in the 17.5-acre former Alcoa property along with a festival and heritage park, and food and art market near the Maury Street exit. "With a Ferris wheel, and attractions. That'd be something for people to come to."