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.
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.