The expansion of a landmark eatery and redevelopment of a prominent eyesore top the list of major developments under way along one of Richmond's most established yet understated business corridors.
In the Forest Hill and Westover Hills area just south of the James River, neighbors typically know each others' names as well as those of their pets. News of even subtle changes at corner watering holes and service businesses attracts notice and prompts sidewalk chatter.
So it didn't take long for word about a major expansion at O'Toole's Restaurant and Pub — one of the city's most revered neighborhood restaurants near the intersection of Forest Hill Avenues and Westover Hills Boulevard — to leak at a Westover Hill Merchants Association meeting in early November 2007.Owner John O'Toole reluctantly confirmed that same day his plans to expand the 41-year-old mainstay by 4,900 square feet by taking over the space next door that housed Snelson's Florist for about 50 years. The well-broken-in bar in the existing space will be moved into a new pub-style room. A banquet room will be established in the rear of the building, where new bathrooms also are being built.
The majority of the old restaurant will be dedicated to traditional, family dining, O'Toole says, noting that "in the existing room, [customers] won't notice a whole lot of difference. If they come to sit at the bar, they'll notice it will be a little roomier" in the new area.
Also in the works: a 30-seat patio on the 48th Street side of the building. The renovations will cost about $200,000, according to O'Toole, and a March 1 completion date is being targeted.
It's the latest in a series of well-received changes undertaken at the hotspot in the past year. O'Toole in 2007 banned smoking, which prompted some customers to quip that the odor of cigarettes could not be removed from the wood-paneled walls. Somehow, O'Toole did it, and the regulars kept coming.
O'Toole's isn't the only neighborhood dining place that is thriving. Crossroads Coffee & Ice Cream at Forest Hill and Carson Street experiences brisk traffic nearly all day, while relative newcomers Maldini's, an Italian cookery on Forest Hill with a casual bar, and Cielito Lindo, a Mexican restaurant across the street, continue to attract lively evening crowds.
Construction also is under way to redevelop the former site of two drugstores and a dollar store just west of Westover Hills Boulevard on the south side of Forest Hill Avenue.
A new, mixed-use development that will consist of 20 residential units and 20 commercial spaces is being built on the site, which most recently was home to a McCrory Dollar store that closed more than two years ago. Its long-term vacancy had drawn the concern of city officials and neighborhood activists because of its high visibility and crumbling condition.
"We were told several months ago that the project would not be moving forward," says David Hathcock, liaison to 4th District City Councilwoman Kathy Graziano.
SGGS LLC, a group of four Italian restaurateurs spread out between Ashland and Lynchburg, bought the property, assessed last year at approximately $1 million, but did not proceed immediately on the project due to economic uncertainties, specifically the housing market, according to William "Lee" Wienckowski of WLW Architects, which designed the new development, and Mimo Amato, one of the property owners.
"Because of the economy we were waiting a little bit," says Amato, owner of Carini's Italian Restaurant and Pizza on Williamsburg Road near Richmond International Airport.
The mixed-use project is comprised of two buildings on a site bounded by a Blockbuster video store to the east and Westover Hills Elementary School's playground to the west. The larger of the two buildings will include 12 1,000-square-foot commercial spaces on the first floor and 12 2,000-square-foot two-story residential units above the commercial spaces. The other building will be similar, except it will include eight commercial and eight residential spaces.
"Each unit will have its own stairs and entranceway from outside on the rear playground side so as not to conflict with retail on front," Wienckowski says.
The developers have not yet determined if the residential units will be sold as condominiums or rented as apartments, according to Amato. The answer will depend on market conditions at the time construction is completed. Likewise, there are no firm plans for commercial tenants, though the developers are not interested in shops that will compete directly with existing neighborhood businesses, Amato says. The owners do not intend to open a restaurant at the location, he adds, primarily because of limited parking.
Total cost of the development, including property purchase, demolition of old structures, and new construction, will exceed $4.5 million, according to Wienckowski. Demolition of the old structure began in November 2007.
"The $64 question is when do we get moving on the rest of this?" Wienckowski asks. Amato could not provide detailed construction estimates.
Neighborhood and business advocates contend the area has had its ups and downs but has solidified in recent years, as new businesses have cropped up and seem to be succeeding. But room for improvement remains.
Phil Licking, president of the Forest Hill Neighborhood Association, says the area still lacks a good corner market and needs better traffic control, but otherwise residents and visitors have noticed a positive change.
"If you look at the last four years, there has been tremendous improvement," he says. "From a quality-of-life standpoint, there has been a tremendous boom."
Licking attributes much of the relaxed, hip atmosphere that is attracting residents and merchants alike to the sense of community that has developed around popular events such as the annual Sunday in the Park and 43rd Street Festival of the Arts, as well as a free Sunday concert series that had its second year run last summer.
The arts festival in particular, Licking says, "has grown tremendously. That's been a tremendous thing for the neighborhood."
MacArthur Communications Inc., a full-service video production company, moved into a former post office behind the Walgreen's drugstore on Westover Hills Boulevard from the West Cary Street area near ever-expanding Virginia Commonwealth University.
"We were in their path of progress," says Suzanne Keightly, MacArthur's production coordinator. In moving across the river to Westover Hills, the company liked the idea of being part of acommunity rather than just another business down the block. "A lot of folks consider this area a destination because of the shops and restaurants. It's up and coming."
Neighborhood leaders cite the city of Richmond's planting of new crepe myrtle trees on Forest Hill Avenue from east of Westover Hills Boulevard to Jahnke Road in 2007 as one of the more significant infrastructure improvements in recent years. They replaced long-standing Bradford pear trees, which tend to splinter and drop fruit on the sidewalks.
"We strive to keep the area looking good," says optometrist Dr. Greg Toler, who has steered the Westover Hills Merchants Association for about 15 years. About half of the neighborhood's 50 businesses belong to the group, which is planning an outreach effort this year.
The association was a catalyst in convincing the city to make the improvement, according to Haithcock. The Department of Public Works did not respond to questions about cost and other aspects of the project.
Now that the tree upgrade is complete, the next item on the association's wish list is sidewalk sweepers similar to those deployed in the trendier Carytown commercial district, Toler says. He maintains offices in both Westover Hills and Carytown, and sees the difference the service makes in that area.
"I pay the same taxes over there that I pay over here," he says.