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Report Blasts Stony Point Plans; Hull Street Plans Could Hinge on Parking; "Donnie Darko" Director Returns to Richmond; No Exceptions, City Says: Don't Park in Park; Groups to Debate WRVA Building Use

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Report Blasts Stony Point Plans

A new environmental report could put a kink in the city's plans for the long-discussed, much-hyped 690,000-square-foot mall at Stony Point. The claims in the report, if proven, could delay or even halt construction.

City officials have long looked forward to the $120 million complex of upscale stores, which is projected to pull in $4 million annually for the city. They were confident the plans, by developer Taubman Centers Inc., would be approved with no hassle by the city's Planning Commission on Tuesday, Feb. 19.

But a recent report introduces some doubt. It claims the city's investigation of the site was too hasty, bypassing its own environmental-protection laws. Author Barrett L. Kays, an environmental scientist with the firm Landis Inc. of North Carolina, says city planners failed to identify three of four sensitive wetlands zones, called Resource Protection Areas, on the 140-acre site bordered by Chippenham and Stony Point parkways and the James River.

The mall would destroy fragile mosses and marshes in those areas, which are protected under the Bay Act, Kays says.

The report also says that the city of Richmond "has a significant conflict of interest" because of its proposed investments in the project, which total over $12 million.

On Feb. 7, the report was delivered to the city for review. It recommends turning the environmental investigation over to the Chesapeake Bay Local Assistance Department, a state agency charged with ensuring that local governments carry out the 1988 Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act.

Scott Crafton, acting executive director of the agency, explains that the city code specifically states that nothing can be constructed in an undeveloped Resource Protection Area except for essential public utilities, such as roads or pipelines, or water-dependent facilities, such as marinas. Not malls.

Last week, the agency's environmental scientist joined city planners in inspecting the site to investigate Kay's claims. As of last week, Crafton couldn't comment on what they found — "they're finishing up that investigation," he says. However, Crafton says in previous projects the city's efforts to investigate environmental impacts on the bay have been thorough. "There's a pretty good track record here."

John Woodward, director of the city's Department of Economic Development, says the plans were carefully conceived. "Should further analysis take place," he says, "I am confident the original position of the city will bear out."

One question remains: Who paid Landis Inc. to produce the report? Woodward says it was Forest City Enterprises Inc., a developer that plans to construct a rival mall in Short Pump.

Forest City could not be reached last week.

The Stony Point mall groundbreaking is planned for the spring, and Woodward says he's anxious to lose no time. "In the retail race, the first up to bat is the winner." — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Hull Street Plans Could Hinge on Parking

After decades of blight and dormancy, Hull Street finally could be poised for the renaissance the city promised, the one its neighbors pray for. What's more, the historic yet oft-neglected Old Manchester corridor could become a retail and residential hub again if developers and real-estate agents get their wish.

But the plan could hinge on whether the city will modify its parking requirements for an area zoned as mixed retail and residential use. Current zoning laws require that sufficient parking be provided in areas where business and residency coexist.

Tom Robinson, whose M Realty real-estate agency lists many of Hull Street's vacant buildings, says the parking restrictions are arcane.

"It's one reason the area has gone downhill. You didn't have to have parking for every person 100 years ago," he points out. Robinson argues that the city should provide the spaces if it wants the area to thrive. "It's what cities do," he says.

Robinson says the city recently hired a consultant to study the parking situation and make recommendations. A representative with the city's office of commercial development could not be reached for comment.

For months, Robinson has been cautiously optimistic about Hull Street's revival, worried that the wrong attention could thwart or further stall his plans to sell off storefront properties. But selling a chunk of them at once, he says, has helped crystallize his plan.

Recently local developer Mark Phaup purchased the vacant properties along two blocks of the northernmost end of Hull Street. Phaup's stretch of holdings includes two fin de siecle bank buildings on opposing corners at 11th and Hull streets.

Phaup plans to convert much of the newly acquired property into a range of uses including apartments, shops and gallery space, Robinson says, adding, "He's dedicated several million dollars to it." Phaup could not be reached for comment.

Now, Robinson plans to pitch the area to the one group he thinks could resurrect it: artists.

Just look to the Fan or Church Hill as examples, he notes. Robinson says he'll attend art openings around town to promote Hull Street as an affordable investment for artists. "My goal is to get the arts community over there," Robinson says. After all, he says, "Everywhere the artists go neighborhoods follow." — Brandon Walters

"Donnie Darko" Director Returns to Richmond

Must be cool to be Richard Kelly — an acclaimed writer and director who's hot stuff in Hollywood at age 26. What on earth do you say when you meet him?

Well, Kelly admits, most fans are more curious than star-struck. They want to know what kind of guy envisioned the enigmatic sci-fi/dark comedy/high-school drama "Donnie Darko," which was released nationally in October. "A lot of people come up to me and ask me, 'Are you all right?'" Kelly says, chuckling.

He's better than all right, thank you. Kelly's career is already moving at bullet-train speed. This week he's making the rounds at the Ubari Film Festival in Japan, where "Donnie Darko" is premiering amid much advance praise. After that, he's returning to Richmond for the movie's premiere party — it finally arrives here on Feb. 28 — followed by screenings for the public March 1 through March 7.

A 1993 graduate of Midlothian High School, Kelly says it's refreshing to come back home and see old friends. Sometimes, he says, they expect him to have metamorphosed into the archetypal arrogant director — "a jackass," he says succinctly. Sometimes, strangers who have seen the film imagine that Kelly and his protagonist, whom he describes as a brilliant but frustrated teen-ager, are identical. "You know, that's fine," he says. "[But] I'm not Donnie Darko."

Kelly's current project is writing the script for the thriller "House at the End of the Street," the next film from director Jonathan Mostow after "Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines." Kelly isn't worried about fulfilling Mostow's vision of a "truly scary film." The key element to creating terror isn't gimmicks and gore, he says, but keeping the story simple.

Meanwhile, Kelly's still fielding questions about his first film. Is Donnie a visionary or a schizophrenic? Is Frank, the giant evil rabbit, real? But Kelly says he doesn't mind trying to explain. "I've pretty much accepted the fact," he says, "that I'll be talking about this film for the rest of my life." — M.S.S.

No Exceptions, City Says: Don't Park in Park

Ashes, sackcloth — and parking tickets? For many worshipers at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Ash Wednesday included one kind of penance that wasn't in the book.

Around 800 people attended the noon service Jan. 13 at the downtown cathedral, at Floyd Avenue and Laurel Street. It's one of the year's most-attended services, says Paul Keller, the cathedral's director of stewardship, social justice and community development.

But when worshipers left, many found tickets on their cars. At least 20 people said they had been fined $40 to $60.

Finding a parking spot is often difficult in the network of narrow streets, as churchgoers contend with residents and Virginia Commonwealth University students. Last Wednesday, many left their cars in and around Monroe Park. Though there are signs forbidding that, it's common because the city's enforcers don't work on Sundays, says Robin Simon, administrative assistant for Sacred Heart.

Patrick Roberts, projects manager for the city, confirms that 20 to 25 tickets were issued. While the fine for parking in Monroe Park is $20, many received higher tickets because they illegally parked in tow zones and handicap spots — someone even parked in a bus stop.

Roberts says he understands the shortage of parking, but adds that there's really no excuse. Warnings are placed at all corners and entrances of Monroe Park, he says, even at edges where people might sneak up over the curb. "They're almost intimidating," he says of the array of signs.

Parking is a perennial headache for the cathedral, Keller says. Officials have been trying to remind members to obey the signs, he adds. "We're talking to the appropriate city departments, and we're trying to clarify what our options are."

There's an easy solution, Roberts says: Use the VCU garage a short distance away. It costs $2.75, he says, but that beats paying a hefty fine. Also, he says, when he attends Sacred Heart with his wife they usually find a spot a few blocks down Floyd Avenue.

And if none of those options appeals, just give up driving for Lent. — M.S.S.

Groups to Debate WRVA Building Use

For nearly three years the former WRVA building has napped on Church Hill like a walrus in the sun — ample and idle. The strange thing is, nobody seems to know what to do about it. After all, the building can't just lie there — slouching precipitously over Richmond — forever.

It's why this Wednesday, Feb. 20, the Historic Richmond Foundation and the James River Chapter of the American Institute of Architects plan to hold a debate on the site's future. It is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the auditorium of Bellevue School.

Designed by famed architect Phillip Johnson, the 33-year-old building is oddly contemporary — its few but enormous windows are in the shape of televisions. The building boasts 15,000 square feet of office space on three-quarters of an acre. It has a 90-foot tower on it. You can buy it for $1.4 million.

The aim of the debate, organizers say, is to give people a chance to discuss the future of a building that is relatively modern and significant, but not necessarily indispensable to an old and historic district. Planners expect the debate will elevate the issue of preservation.

Panelists include: Bob Mills, Commission of Architectural Review; Eugenia Anderson-Ellis, president of the Church Hill Association; Edwin Slipek Jr., Style's architecture critic; Bob Englander, the Cathford Group; Mark Wagner, the Department of Historic Resources; and Randall Bloomquist of Clear Channel Communications.

According to Anderson-Ellis, the association does not have an official position on what it thinks should become of the building.

But some Church Hill residents wish the building could be a community center, though that's highly unlikely, notes Anderson-Ellis. Others imagine it developed into upscale condos; or an extension of Richmond Hill. There are as many ideas as there are residents, Anderson-Ellis says.

More ideas could come from the debate, she adds, from "a museum honoring Phillip Johnson to tearing the place down in favor of architecture compatible with the neighborhood — and everything in between." — B.W.

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