Reclaiming Our Sacred Ground

TIME TO HIT THE BRAKES ON THE SEABROOK DEAL?

Originally published in the Summer 2020 edition of the Virginia Defender, printed August 14. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in this issue or download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Ana Edwards

In September 2019, Richmond city council rejected a controversial resolution submitted by Mayor Levar Stoney on behalf of Weimans Bakery LLC. The resolution was for a 40- year lease between Weimans and the city for the Seabrook Tobacco Warehouse site on E. Grace Street between 17th and 18th streets in Shockoe Bottom. It was rejected because there was an outstanding 2014 ordinance calling for archaeological research of the historically significant site, and it was controversial because it involved a historic slavery-related site, and the mayor’s own Shockoe Alliance had not yet completed the Shockoe Bottom small-area master plan.

The warehouse, operating from 1810-1910, had used enslaved labor for the 50 years before the Civil War. The bakery property across the street was purchased by local developer H. Louis Salomonsky (a major force behind the failed attempt to put a baseball stadium in the Bottom), who then formed Weimans Bakery LLC to build a multi-story boutique hotel. Plans were approved by city council in 2018, and the parking lease was a required step in securing financing for the project.

It stretches the imagination to believe that the mayor of Richmond, with a stated focus on the importance of Shockoe Bottom’s history, was not aware of this ordinance, but when Mayor Stoney attended the October 2019 meeting of the Shockoe Alliance, he said, “This is an instance of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing,” and apologized.

The Shockoe Alliance requested that the archaeological research be done before it could make any recommendations. That work took place that fall. In January 2020, the City’s contractor, Dutton+Associates, presented their findings: Two trenches had shown only fill soil with no historical material to a depth of 10 feet. Because all improvements to the lot, beyond light and utility poles, would be above ground, the developer’s representative agreed to submit to the Alliance a revised lease stipulating no underground disturbances and their reasonable participation in onsite historic preservation or interpretation so that the site’s history would remain a visible part of the area’s public history fabric.

On March 9, a memo was circulated by the city’s Department of Public Works to the mayor’s office and members of city council stating that the Alliance had agreed that, as long as these stipulations were built into the lease, the project could go forward. Two days later, a copy of the memo and an incomplete draft of the new lease were emailed to the Alliance.

A week later, City government offices were closed due to the COVID19 pandemic precautions. As of this writing, no final draft lease has been submitted to the Alliance for review.

At this point, the Alliance should consider that it may have been premature to agree to any decision about one of Shockoe Bottom’s historic or cultural resources before the small-area plan, and the guidelines yet to be established, are in place.

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