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Condos Move Forward Against Mayor's Wishes

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A lengthy tug-of-war between the mayor, City Council and a nonprofit housing group over the fate of a large vacant lot in Highland Park is over, says the housing group. But the mayor says his opposition to the project remains unchanged.

After an impasse that stalled the project for months, developers are set to begin building condominiums on the land in question: the 1300 block of Matthews Street in a run-down section of southern Highland Park. They say they've gotten encouragement from Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's right-hand man, Chief Administrative Officer William E. Harrell.

Wilder remains opposed to the plan. "From the city administration's stance, nothing has changed on that subject," says city spokeman Linwood Norman.

Wilder and City Council have been at odds over the project since November, when Council sold the property for $1 to The Highland Park Community Development Corp., an organization that buys and renovates dilapidated properties. Wilder lambasted council for giving the property away instead of putting the project up for bid and fetching its market value.

In 2003 the city tore down the blighted apartment complex that stood on the tax-delinquent property. If the land were sold to the highest bidder, the Highland Park corporation asserted, more low-rent apartments would arise.

So the CDC offered a solution: If Council sold the land to the community organization for $1, it would ensure a better development: about 40 Victorian-style condominiums, each of which would sell for about $220,000.

It seemed like a done deal; then the mayor stepped in. Shortly after Council extended its agreement and handed the property over to the CDC in November, Wilder told Harrell to hold on to the property.

Wilder later criticized the CDC for not using enough minority contractors on the project. The problems brought the project to a halt until March 28, when Wallica Gaines, the CDC's executive director, wrote a letter to Harrell. "We are ready to move forward with this development," she wrote. "We expect to break ground in 45 days."

Harrell now seems to be onboard, says Al Bowers, a prominent builder who's a consultant to the CDC, explaining that more minority contractors will be hired for the job. The project is a notable one for Richmond's black community, Bowers says, because it's a large-scale reinvestment in a majority-black neighborhood.

"Mr. Harrell has assured me that the city and the administration will do anything that is necessary to make this a successful project," Bowers says.

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