The blue enamel sign under the roofline of the abandoned brick industrial building along Williamsburg Road reads: Fulton Gas Works. Above it is the city’s Latin motto: Sic Itur Ad Astra — “This is the way to the stars.”
This phrase of civic exuberance drastically contradicts its bleak surroundings. The 11-acre gas works ceased its grimy business a half-century ago. A neighborhood across the railroad tracks — dating perhaps to the 17th century — was wiped away during a late-1960s fit of urban renewal.
However, through new state legislation and a unique arrangement among a regional developer, a specialty-use bank, a high-risk insurance firm and the city, another version of Fulton soon may rise, as Richmonders continue to recognize the importance of the James River as a community asset and catalyst for “linear development.”
This development stretches from downtown at the Cordish Company’s mixed-use project on Brown’s Island to Forest City’s expanded Tobacco Row in Shockoe to the planned Rockett’s Wharf headed by Tobacco Company restaurant founder Jerry Cable to William Abeloff’s 60-acre, work-in-progress Rockett’s Landing, across the line in Henrico County.
“This is a phenomenon across the country,” Abeloff says. “If you go to any city with a riverfront, they have been or are in a process of recognizing that value. For the longest time, there’s been no public access to public water. It is a major effort that is under way in our country to reconnect people to water.”
East West Partners of Midlothian, which designed the Chesterfield County planned communities of Brandermill, Woodlake and Hampton Park , is studying the creation of a commercial and residential center on roughly 35 riverfront acres stretching from the gas works properties to empty fields that are south-east, across Gillies Creek.
It is a proposed “brownfields” (dead industrial site revival) project, as opposed to breaking open a former farmer’s north 40 — the so-called “greenfield” development. The task in Fulton is fraught with considerable risk, though it’s been made possible through recent legislation.
In 2002, Virginia adopted the progressive Brownfield Restoration and Land Renewal Act that provides incentives for both buyers and sellers of former industrial sites.
Edwin Gaskin, deputy director of the city’s Department of Economic Development, is bullish about the hybrid method of financing that the renewal act provides and that was approved by City Council in February. He explains, “This is prime real estate with potential environmental problems — not a potential environmental problem site we’re trying to make into prime real estate.”
Making “brownfields” habitable is important for older cities like Richmond. Former industrial sites that may have pollution issues propel sprawl. Reviving places like the Fulton Gas Works is stymied by the enormous cost of getting rid of whatever substances may or may not be hidden. Gaskin gives an example of selling a building in which a family-owned laundry business operated.
“Say now that you want to develop the building as multi-unit residential,” he explains. “You can’t get a loan from a bank because of liability and safety issues. If anything turns up, it comes to rest at the lender’s doorstep because of chain-of-title. Whoever gets involved with the property is considered responsible. Sites lay fallow because the owner can’t turn it around on his own.”
The city instead opted to go with the mechanism engineered by Brownfields Capital of Colorado. Richmond is selling the city-owned land for a nominal amount. East West will also purchase nearby lots owned by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA). The transaction is wreathed in insurance policies to minimize the risk to all parties. Another part of the deal is a performance bond bought by the investors.
If East West can’t complete the remediation, then the performance bond and other insurance policies kick in to complete the job. Even if the site isn’t ultimately judged by East West to be worth further effort, the city will have a cleaned-up site prepared for the next dreaming developer.
“When the property is remediated, then parcels can be sold off, and the city will get one-third of those earnings,” Gaskin says. “Those funds can then be used to put in roads and sewers.”
Want Not, Waste Not
Cities throughout the United States during the 19th and early-20th centuries converted coal into gas to provide heat and light. The gas plant at Fulton operated from 1856 to 1950.
The tar byproduct from that conversion was used for sealing 19th-century ships at the busy Rockett’s Docks on Water Street. Those dock workers didn’t know then that coming into direct contact with tar could give them cancer.
Coal tar can sink into the ground and flow across bedrock some distance from the source. Bob Williamson, an analyst for Apex Environmental Consulting who has worked on a similar project in Hartford, Conn., explains that coal tar can vary in consistency. “It can be as viscous as hot asphalt and as flowable as vegetable oil,” he says. “A lot of the material on other similar sites was spilled, lost, lagooned, stored underground in tanks and piping networks, so it would not be unexpected to find residual material on site.”
Although coal tar is toxic [if handled], it can be exposed and removed. “When you take [the waste] out, you can treat it and put it in a controlled landfill,” says Keith H. Cannon, vice president of the Marsh Environmental Practice within Marsh-McLennan, the world’s largest risk management and insurance brokerage firm. He is a risk-management consultant for East West. “It doesn’t move, it’s fairly solidified. It’s not so much what you find, but what you do with it.”
Very preliminary boring tests around the nearby Intermediate Terminal, near where the Annabel Lee formerly docked, have not found high ranges of toxins. The result offers some encouragement. If Fulton’s byproduct waste drifted underground, it apparently wasn’t westward.
A 90-day window, beginning with completion of the property transfers, is given for the environmental analysis that is part of the feasibility study period. A further 90 days are given for the remediation and business-plan development, totaling to 180 days.
Clem Carlisle, a senior partner with East West Partners, understands that there are numerous obstacles with the Fulton project. He frames them in a business equation.
“The challenge is to understand the nature of the brownfield, the cost to
remeditate the brownfield, and to determine if the [price of] remediation is equal to or greater than the cost to make best use of the land,” says Carlisle. “Then it is a matter of market
research: Can we make something that suits the buyer’s desires?”
Once Before, a Home
Before today’s open fields, there was a village.
Artist Don Crow, who grew up in and around the neighborhood, recalls that if Fulton remained, in whatever altered form, it would today be of architectural importance. “It was a perfect blending of Oregon Hill and Church Hill,” he says, “with brick and wood. You could walk down a street in Fulton, turn a corner and see a building and say, ‘Wow, what is that doing here?’ ”
In the late 1960s, Fulton had 3,000 residents in some 836 buildings spread across 330 acres. The neighborhood counted seven churches, one of which, Rising Mount Zion Baptist, was more than a century old. Fulton was restaurants, stores and schools, and at least one small movie theater, The Lennox, at 514 Louisiana St.
In 1930, Fulton boasted a 30 percent home-ownership rate that was, according to urban-studies writer Chris Silver, substantially higher than those of other working-class communities.
During the 1940s, home ownership actually increased because families of limited means could afford to own. A number of those houses didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity.
The character of Fulton shifted due to layoffs at the C & O railroad when it switched from coal to diesel and unemployment from the closure of the nearby Richmond Cedar Works in 1957. White families left. Rental properties proliferated, but they weren’t properly maintained. City inspectors seldom visited Fulton, and housing codes weren’t enforced. Poor blacks displaced from neighborhood obliterations in Navy Hill and along North 17th Street arrived in Fulton because they had few places to go. Break-ins and robbery, nearly unknown in Fulton, proliferated after 1961, and heroin arrived in the community’s streets in about 1964.
St. Augustine’s Catholic Church was in such dire shape in the mid-1960s that Crow remembers his foot smashing through a floorboard during Mass one Sunday. Fulton itself slipped through the cracks of planning and oversight. Still, neighborhood leaders, as Silver writes, “rejected the slum stereotype and sought through political mobilization to resist” massive demolitions.
Scott O. Davis, in his book The World of Patience Gromes: The Making and Unmaking of a Black Community, a memoir of his time as a social worker there, records nip joints and bootleggers with alcoholism and the domestic squabbles they produced, the gamblers, pool sharks, hoodlums and a rising tide of despair. Richmond’s officials couldn’t figure how to solve Fulton’s problems except, ultimately, to get rid of Fulton altogether.
The Beginning of the End
Fulton in the mid-1960s was variously described in the press as “shabby and lonely,” “sick, shaggy,” and “a pocket of almost complete poverty.”
Former mayor Eleanor P. Sheppard remarked that Fulton was “the city’s biggest disgrace.” She further observed, “It’s the only way to get from downtown to the James River plantations at Garden Tour time, yet it’s undoubtedly the worst section of the city.”
Yet despite its forlorn appearance, Fulton possessed “a robust community spirit,” wrote Times-Dispatch staff writer Ed Grimsley in 1969.
The formal beginning of the end of Fulton began on Nov. 11, 1966, when City Council voted 8-1, the dissenting vote coming from Council contrarian Howard Carwile, to study the conditions in Fulton and two other neighborhoods. Joseph Highsmith of the Fulton Improvement Association agreed with the need for the study but insisted that Fulton dwellers be included in the process.
City Council rebuffed developer Alex Alexander’s farsighted October 1967 concept of creating a “semi-luxury,” 160-unit apartment community between Gillies Creek and Lewis Street that would have included tennis courts, a pool and a nursery for working mothers.
The Beginning of the End
Carwile urged Fulton leader William O. Henderson to form another residents’ group in February 1968 to oppose the RRHA in converting Fulton from primarily residential into industrial. At a mass meeting on March 10, Henderson solemnly vowed, “As long as I have breath to breathe, those bulldozers will not come into Fulton.”
The revolt temporarily derailed plans for industrialization and institutionalized weekly community-information meetings. Henderson and other Fulton leaders apparently seemed to erroneously understand that RRHA’s plans called for case-by-case demolitions and rehabilitation.
In 1969, Fulton was struck by floodwaters caused by Hurricane Camille, and Hurricane Agnes hit in June 1970. The Agnes flood displaced 50 families. Now even nature seemed to be gunning for Fulton.
Many residents, particularly the elderly, chose to take advantage of recently available federal HUD resettlement money through the 1970 Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Properties Acquistions Act and go. The federal program allocated $15,000 for housing payments and down payment-assistance grants of $2,000 to $4,000.
Due to civil-rights litigation, City Council elections were suspended from 1970 to 1977. City Council members weren’t relying on Fulton’s votes. Poor and majority-black Fulton exerted little influence.
Davis observes,“[RRHA] slowly began to purchase land and houses while the detailed plans according to which the neighborhood would be destroyed or reborn were drafted, fought over, drafted again.”
The Nixon administration announced an upcoming moratorium on federal urban-renewal funds in 1973. This caused Fulton residents to hasten their departure.
The bulldozers began rolling in earnest, accompanied by little protest, in 1973 and 1974. By 1980, only a few odd remnants of Fulton survived, including Grubbs’ Store and a ruinous group of row houses, 700-702-704 Denny St.
Spencer and Marian Armstead, a son and mother living in 702, defended them until the last. Sa’ad El-Amin pressed their case in federal district court.
On Oct. 24, 1980, U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner granted the Armsteads a stay, and admonished RRHA from the bench. “There was a community,” Warriner told RRHA’s planning director Robert S. Everton. “There isn’t one anymore. [Fulton residents] were afraid you were going to destroy [Fulton], and they were right.”
Everton replied that Fultonians themselves requested the renewal project. Warriner countered, “I would suggest that anyone not ask you to do favors for them. They might end up — pfffft — gone.”
The Armsteads’ home came down in the late 1980s, and the last Fulton structure was torn down in 1990. It was Grubbs’ store. The grocery had survived so long because of a citywide delivery service.
RRHA has built about 545 houses in the Fulton area since 1976, including single-family, multifamily and public-housing units. In 2002, on RRHA property, Manchester Industries, a paper-products company, built an 80,000-square-foot warehouse on Orleans Street.
There is an annual reunion of Fulton families that draws more than 1,000 people to Powhatan Park, which overlooks where the community stood. On June 19, they’ll have a huge potluck dinner and see old friends. The rooms of columned Robert S. Fulton School, rescued by Fulton Hill resident Gus Garber, serve as artists’ studios and offices. The popular disc-golf course, created by Fulton Hill resident Carl Otto, indicates that life continues here. Fulton waits. And developers ponder what’s in the ground
Which Historic Hill?
Enduring tradition and a 1937 city-placed plaque insists that captains Christopher Newport and John Smith parlayed with Chief Powhatan’s son, Parahunt, on what is called Powhatan Hill, part of Fulton, in April 1607. However, late-20th-century archaeology and scholarship have started to cast a shadow of doubt on the Powhatan Hill legend.
A 1992 Virginia Commonwealth University archaeology dig at historic Tree Hill plantation, a mile away from Fulton, yielded enough settlement-era artifacts that the archaeologists concluded that this steep-sided location was “the main occupation area of the village of Powhatan.”
Gillies Creek, which runs through the middle of the projected East West properties, has been manipulated since earliest settlement days. Historian Jeff Ruggles explains, “I suspect that landfill and land transformation began in that area with William Byrd II, because the mouth of the creek was right at the port of Rocketts.”
Ruggles makes a case for the English-Powhatan meeting at Tree Hill in essays published by the Virginia Historical Society in 2003. The eminence above the river is the site of an 18th- and 19th-century mansion and today yields one of the most stunning views of Richmond as almost an Emerald City next to farmland. Natives in 1607 would’ve had a spectacular line of sight along the river and creek valleys for watching approaching enemy tribes, like the Monacans, from the west.
Ruggles recently wrote, “However, the real point is that we don’t know much about what went on in [the gas-works site], and archaeology can tell us more.”
If a dog’s bones are found, they may be the remains of Mascot Jim. A Feb. 10, 1932, Times-Dispatch article featured a large picture of 70 grim-faced workers watching two men lower a small coffin into the gas-works yard. Mascot Jim was their pet for eight years when he was found as a stray. “So it was that Mascot Jim came to love, and be loved,” the piece concludes.
Samuel Gravely’s persistence began with a paper route
Young Samuel L. Gravely Jr. of 819 Nicholson St. in Fulton wanted to start a paper route around 1930. He went to the Times-Dispatch to request one but was told there were no routes available. He recalls many years later that he “finally worried them enough” to cause the newspaper to relent. If he could sign up nine new subscribers, Gravely would get his route, which he did, eventually building it to 500 subscribers.
The Fulton of Gravely’s time was a solid community of churches, laundries, shoe stores and drug stores. Black and white children played together in memorable sandlot baseball games. They could not attend school together, though. The columned Fulton Elementary School on the hill above was for white children. Blacks went to B. Webster Davis in the lower Fulton. Denny and Nicholson streets were racially split.
Gravely attended Virginia Union University for two years, then, rather than be drafted, enlisted in the Navy Reserves on Sept. 15, 1942.
During the following 38 years, Gravely accumulated a series of firsts for the U.S. Navy: He was the first African-American to command a warship both in peace and combat, the first African-American admiral and vice admiral, and the first African-American to command a U.S. fleet. Gravely was far away from Fulton when he heard about the neighborhood’s demise. His childhood was demolished. “I frankly couldn’t believe it,” Gravely says.
His name was given to the new boulevard going through the old Fulton neighborhood. At a farewell event for Gravely, held when he departed command of the Third Fleet based in Hawaii, he was presented with an Admiral Gravely Boulevard street sign.
Now 81, Gravely serves as chairman emeritus of the Tredegar National Civil War Museum Foundation’s board of directors. He lives in Northern Virginia and still has the sign. He chuckles, “It’s hanging in my living room.”