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Serious Condition of 401 N 27th Building

Editor’s Note: This is an opinion piece submitted by Eric H. This is not an official position by CHPN.

Eric Huffstutler writes:

Several people, including myself, have noted a serious accelerated deterioration of this building’s condition… to a point of an imminent wall (structure) failure. One person said they have noticed it going from “bad to worse”. This is the oldest commercial building in Richmond (built in 1815). It is an important part of Richmond history that has to be preserved. New voices need to be heard at the Building and Planning Commissions as well as City Hall, to save this building from ruin. Spot Blight Abatement is one option and attempted (unsuccessfully) before. The owners (and city) have had 14-years to do something but have dropped the ball many, many times as well as cast a blind eye. It is time that something is done.

The “Wills Grocery Store” spent the first 131-years as various grocery and meat-seafood markets. From 1947 until 2004, when it was condemned by the city and then gutted, it was a Laundromat. There were plans to turn it into a restaurant but needed exceptions for a building use change and zoning at the time required several “off-street” parking spaces, which were not available. This was shelved citing a resentment that people were “meddling” in their business, which involved avoidance of CAR required plans, following through with them, or doing work without required permits and inspections.

1978 – via VCU

By 2008, there was talk about demolition, which I intercepted. There was a load bearing wall breach where you could put your entire arm through into the building and only mortar slapped into it as well as foundation problems and anchor plates reaming through the bricks. City Council agenda for September 22, 2008, showed that former governor Doug Wilder (mayor Wilder then), was pushing for Spot Blight Abatement proceedings on the building, entering Ordinances #2008-201-283 and #2008-202-284 in accordance to Va. Code §36-49.1:1… and were approved in December. The owners did not comply even though the approval was final and sent to the Planning Commission with them saying that it would not be stopped no matter what the CAR decides. They never followed through.

In 2010, the building was quietly offered for sale at $500,000 which no one would touch and just another way to drag things out. The Abatement proceedings were still “being worked on” and a Fair Value Assessment was done as part of it which came back as $105,500. The HRF was interested and pursuing on purchasing the store but this was the last straw for them at that time and invested elsewhere.

Again in 2011, this came up on the table with the owner needing a Certificates of Appropriateness to be filed but ended up going to court due to failure to meet requirements. Even as violations were piling up to be corrected, either new plans or ownership changes were submitted at the very last minute as stall tactics and then, the city letting things fall through the cracks.

The Wills building is 203-years old and is made of brick. It is a gutted brick shell which needs special attention. It sat open to the elements for nearly a year with no second-floor windows. There was a rear wall rebuilt in 2006 but with inferior construction and supposed to be replaced but never was. Now, another wall is being breached and poised to collapse due to neglect and possibly, a desire by the owners to let it so they could sell the lot. One person doesn’t make an army and my voice is no longer heard and so now, new voices are needed. if restored properly, there is a great potential with all kinds of tax credits and incentives available. Under that ugly stucco are brick walls in the American Bond pattern with arched windows on both floors and both sides of the building, including the first floor on Marshall Street.

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SueWho
SueWho
1 year ago

I’d love to know if the cities of Charleston and Savannah would have allowed something like this drag on for more than a decade. Richmond seems to support demolition by neglect by giving a slap on the wrist to property owners and/or slum lords whose properties blight the city. A pathetic situation.

BAF
BAF
1 year ago

We are told in the story that this is an important part of Richmond history, but the only historic thing about the building apparently is its age as the oldest commercial building standing in the city. Age alone, even if something is the oldest, does not by itself make a building historically valuable. The building was an otherwise unremarkable grocery store and a laundromat. This isn’t St John’s Church. It’s not even the first Ukrop’s. It’s an old building and perhaps the oldest left of its mundane kind. That’s it. There are others similar that are not crumbling. They just… Read more »

SA Chaplin
SA Chaplin
1 year ago

My two cents: Even in its very poor condition, the building is probably worth $200,000 to $250,000. City records show September 2008 as the most recent “valid” sale of this property (in the amount of $119,000). If the owner could double her money in 10 years, that seems like a good return (except for capital gains taxes). I would think that if a motivated buyer wrote her and offered, say, $240,000 (subject to inspections) the owner could make decent money and unload what is probably a headache. So, will some investor step forward? That is probably the only realistic solution.… Read more »

Joshua
Joshua
1 year ago

I can totally understand why people walk away from plans to do anything with this building with all the meddling and intercepting. As usual a derelict building is preserved just because of age and stands in the way of progress.

The preservationists people need to put up there own capital and fix it or mind their own business and let others invest their money how they see fit.

What has all the meddling got the community except ten years of lost revitalization and increased tax revenue?

Kevin Clay
Kevin Clay
1 year ago

Mike Proffitt & Manuel A Ramos, this is the building we were talking about last night.

Lee
Lee
1 year ago

So, this is going to sound crazy, but I remember a few years ago there was a for rent sign on the side/rear of the building. I called the number and was told that the person I spoke with was looking for a tenant for the upstairs apartment. The person I spoke with told me that only the downstairs was condemned. While I think that it is technically possible to have a portion of a building or a specific unit condemned, but not the whole structure, I passed after looking at the ground floor more closely. I mention this story… Read more »

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

@1 SueWho I investigated this a few years back and posted on CHPN. They had their struggles as well but have a few major difference than Richmond. Places like Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Georgetown, etc… have activism, review committees, and cities interested in embracing its history which also leads to tourism and income from it. People in Richmond don’t want to “get involved” and even tries to sweep history under the rug (a different story). City council and staff seem to have little to no interest in preservation or promotion but rather let it rot, tear it down then do… Read more »

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

I have learned that the HRF (Historic Richmond Foundation) has asked to reinitiate the Spot Blight process. That the first try in 2008, by mayor Doug Wilder… and the Building Planning department, who was adamant that it would go through no matter what the CAR said, was dropped when the owners did “just enough” to get the building out of this status. But years of “just enough” has lead to the building ending up the way it is today. In fact, there is a current building permit for $1,000 worth of work to stabilize a column at the entrance but… Read more »

Manuel A Ramos
Manuel A Ramos
1 year ago
Reply to  Kevin Clay

Kevin Clay wow what a interesting read!!!!

Kevin Clay
Kevin Clay
1 year ago

I did some research on this building a few years ago. Let me know if how I might be able to support in some way. I’ll message you.

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago
Reply to  Kevin Clay

The building has been through a lot due to the owners (and city). It has been condemned, gutted, threatened demolition, foreclosures, neglect to a point of Spot Blight, poor repair work with some not permitted, and now this – and that isn’t everything I have seen in the past 14 years.

Bill Hartsock
Bill Hartsock
1 year ago

SA Chaplin – Yes , you are right about the valuation. The transfer to the current owner was done as a “gift”, so no money was actually changing hands. I fear that the previous owner of record did not do this out of the goodness of his heart, but rather as a way to dodge the City and the pressures that were being brought to bear on the property. The return on investment for a developer to acquire the property and restore it for practical use is prohibitive unless the sale price would be reasonable. The only viable alternative is… Read more »

K
K
1 year ago

Eh probably about time to tear this down and put a new coffee shop in.

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

@2 BAF, I think we have had this discussion before, several times in fact. With your philosophy about preservation, there would be no historic and preserved buildings left, let alone any historically designated neighborhoods. Tell me, what “significant” houses are there in the Chimborazo district or, Shockoe or other neighborhoods outside Church Hill? Not all structures need to be grandiose or George Washington slept there. Even the commoner structures have value to the history and heritage of neighborhoods. I think you may find this a good read for you about “Why Historic Preservation Districts Are Crucial To Cities” It also… Read more »

Ayana Obika
Ayana Obika
1 year ago

A friend lived in the apartment on the second floor. It was a great space.

Jessica Shook
Jessica Shook
1 year ago

Yeaaaah someone is definitely living there. Eek.

dan harrington
dan harrington
1 year ago

The “Wills” buildings, 401 N. 27 and 407 N. 27 (I restored 407 in the mid-1980s) are both architecturally and historically important. Wills owned the entire block, with numerous outbuildings (documented by insurance plats). Because N. 27th street was the road heading north out of the City, Wills’s Store was an important business. The City and H.R.F. have been duly negligent in allowing this to happen. I am not surprised.

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

@17 dan harrington, Jim Butcher and I are still living at 407 and it is me who has been on top of the history as well as the happenings. I have tried to contact you in the past to ask some questions?

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

Also, both 401 and 407 N 27th, were anchor structures instrumental in obtaining the “Church Hill North Historic District” designation in 1996. Dan Harrington, through further research and tax records, I was able to determine that our house was not built in 1812 but is older and built in 1809 and makes it the oldest standing house in Church Hill proper. I also discovered that Capt. Wills may have also built what is called the Samuel G. Adams house, built c.1813 at 316 North 27th Street. That is because the property was transferred to his son Josiah Wills after his… Read more »

Grayson Orsini
Grayson Orsini
1 year ago

Historic Richmond can anything be done?

Bill Hartsock
Bill Hartsock
1 year ago

Grayson – You are barking up a tree that has withered from neglect and lack of mission. Back in 1982 the organization bought many properties in Church Hill from Stanley Smith, including Eric’s house, to resell to dedicated preservationists to spark the renovation of the area. It worked well and jump started the neighborhood. Now, however, nothing is going on with that organization that reflects their mission or importance. Sad.

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

@21 Bill Hartsock Bill, a LOT of groups and incentives have fallen to the wayside over the years, like the Church Hill North Civic Association. Whatever happened to Neighborhoods In Bloom? In 2011, members of a grassroots group that I was a part of, dropped out like rats on a sinking ship. Why? Is it because fighting City Hall is futile when your objective doesn’t align with theirs, even though it should? We had movers and shakers from all walks of life in the group but many just dropped out for one reason, or no reason, or another. Some did… Read more »

Tim T
Tim T
1 year ago

@eric I’m sorry but what do millennials have to do with a 200 year old crumbling building? I get what your saying I see it all over town…like you think some post grad kids have the equity to spend on it to fix it? Sorry for all the questions just seems like your expecting 20 something’s to fix something that’s beyond repair.

Church Hill Veteran
Church Hill Veteran
1 year ago

Tim T – If we waited for the millennials to get involved with the community we would all die an unfulfilled death. The “me” generation cannot see past the last bar and restaurant night that they had, or what social event is on the horizon.

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

@23 Tim T, let’s face it, my generation (Baby Boomers) are dying off and the US Census Bureau projects that there will be more Millennials than Boomers next year. “Time” magazine last year said that Richmond was #2 of the top 25 cities in America where Millennials are moving to. I even know that there are companies in the city who only hires Millenials and so, my statement is a legitimate one. It is Millennials (age 20-35) the older ones, who are now buying houses and more so as they get older while Boomers die off.

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

@24 Church Hill Veteran… so true but, when you can’t seem to get the pioneers involved and can’t get newbies interested, what do you do?

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago
Reply to  Grayson Orsini

The city can seize the property from the owner if the building becomes so blighted that it is a safety hazard through a Spot Blight Abatement process. The HRF is attempting to get this going.

what the
what the
1 year ago

it’s, uh, pretty weird and not great to call yourself a ‘pioneer’ because you moved to a largely minority neighborhood before other white people did.

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

@28 what the… I wasn’t calling myself a pioneer but the people who have been here for generations. The preservation started in 1957. But, if you want to call people who took a bunch of blighted, abandoned, boarded-up houses and restored them in the 1980s and beyond then, they too are pioneers in preservation as well no matter their skin color.

BAF
BAF
1 year ago

Eric: I think we have had this discussion. I am all for saving older properties, just like I want to provide health care for older people. But sometimes, in both cases, you have to pull the plug. This appears to be the case where the patient is dead, but you refuse to pull the plug, leaving everyone on the hook for the costs. Let me be crystal clear. One of the most appealing things about the neighborhood are the vintage structures. I would prefer to preserve and rehabilitate all that are reasonable to do so. But that assumes you are… Read more »

BAF
BAF
1 year ago

@28

Don’t be surprised. Based on some conversations I have participated in with Eric on Nextdoor, he has some archaic views on these issues.

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

A new year, a new post about this historic building which continues to deteriorate. The wall separation (crack) is worse as is the bowing and twisting of it. There is a new notice taped to the window by the city dated December 18th but only addresses the “fascia and soffit” by the entrance support, which had been taken down months ago but not fixed and replaced. It says nothing about the more pressing issue with the compromised north (Marshall Street) wall. I am sure the person that signed off on the notice, who is from the Building Maintenance Inspections department,… Read more »

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
1 year ago

Right now, as it stands and all that I know about the current status, is that the CAR is waiting for the owners to be compliant. This will obviously not happen as their deadline is today (January 18th) and no work has been started to repair it even though they were given a month and have missed the deadline to complete repairs. I doubt that they have the funds or means to fix the building as it stands now in its condition. And I know for sure, they will not pay the $2,500 per day fine plus court costs. The… Read more »

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