The 2500 block of O Street in Church Hill is the site of a promising revitalization project now mired in a multi-million dollar lawsuit. (Photo by Mark Robinson)
An effort to rebuild a crumbling block of Church Hill may be, well, crumbling.
Deanna Lewis, president of Heirloom Restorations, filed a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court on Monday seeking $8.35 million in damages from investors John and Benedicte Whitworth. In 2013, Lewis purchased a string of derelict rowhouses on the 2500 block of O Street for just under $160,000, Richmond BizSense reported at the time.
The suit alleges the Whitworths, who were silent investors in the purchase and rehab of the properties, reneged on a financial agreement with Lewis last November in an attempt to box her out of the partnership. Lewis and the Whitworths formed a limited liability corporation called Deworth Restoration Associates to buy the O Street property.
The suit alleges that in November 2014, the Whitworths stopped paying Lewis an agreed-upon $5,000 a month in project management fees and draws on future earnings, "an act of economic coercion to bleed Lewis dry financially." Thus financially weakened, the suit argues, Lewis would not be in a position to fend off the Whitworth's takeover of Deworth after the project became shovel-ready.
In June of this year, the suit alleges, the Whitworth's lawyer sent a letter “explicitly threatening” to tarnish Lewis’ reputation if she did not sell them her stake in the venture.
“There’s huge profit margins in these properties,” says Hayden Fisher, a Richmond lawyer who is representing Lewis. “He’s trying to kick [Lewis] out because he wants them for himself.”
Lewis did not immediately return a request for comment. Whitworth could not be reached for comment as of press time.
Both Fisher and Whitworth have connections to another recent high-profile Church Hill spat: The Captain Buzzy’s Beanery lawsuit.
Fisher represented Bob Buffington, the owner of Captain Buzzy’s Beanery, in a very public feud the coffee shop owner had with the neighborhood association over a special use permit to sell alcohol. Whitworth was named in the original lawsuit and later in an amended version, in which Buffington alleged Whitworth had ulterior business motives for opposing Buzzy’s permit, Style Weekly reported.
(This story will be updated)