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Saving Shockoe Bottom's Superior Warehouse is crucial to maintaining one of the city's most important historic districts.

To Protect and Preserve


In one corner, a handful of folks wear "Support Central Market" badges. They are with Forest City Residential Inc., a Cleveland-based developer that is converting Tobacco Row into hundreds of handsome, upscale apartments. Nearby sit their high-powered lawyers and representatives from Richfood, the company under contract to establish a grocery store somewhere in the vicinity of 25th and East Main streets.

In the other corner are more than a hundred vexed citizens from throughout the city. They wear badges that read "A Superior Solution." They oppose the idea that a tattered, 19th-century, five-floor brick warehouse be sacrificed for an upscale market with plenty of parking aimed at attracting "yuppies" and "residents of Varina to make it work" (as proponents had explained). Many of the "Solution" crowd come from as far across town as the Museum District, west of the Boulevard: Attack one historic neighborhood, and you take us all on, they signal.

Let's get ready to rumble.

At its March 27 meeting, City Council seemed to get the preservationists' message. It offered a reprieve for the Superior Building by not overturning an earlier unanimous decision of the Commission of Architectural Review that had denied Forest City's request to demolish the building.

The city's all-volunteer architectural review board, with watchdog rights over the city's historic districts, had voted thumbs down to the idea of removing the looming commercial building that, while located at the foot of steep and mostly residential historic Church Hill, falls within the official historic district.

"Why does it always have to be 'Showdown at OK Corral' [every time an old building is threatened]?" asked Mayor Tim Kaine at one point during the proceedings.

It doesn't. In fact, in this instance the system had worked beautifully.

The historic district concept was established decades ago precisely to avert such passionate confrontations. By placing historic and architecturally significant buildings in carefully considered designated areas, the message is clear: Proceed with sensitive caution. After considerable research, and citizen and professional input, these districts have been deemed to be sacred historical ground.

Why? Not because of the merits of one particular building or because George Washington slept here, but because a particular collection of buildings and spaces contribute to the uniqueness of the community. And most importantly, these districts are more vital to the future than nostalgic nods to the past. Not only do financially attractive historic tax credits come with the territory, but homeowners and developers can improve their properties with the relative assurance that nothing jarring or incompatible is going to spoil their often significant investments.

But, bottom line, Richmond's old, reinvigorated neighborhoods contribute mightily to the tax base. What would Richmond be without its signature old neighborhoods: the Fan, Shockoe Slip, Monument Avenue, Ginter Park, Woodland Heights, Windsor Farms or Forest Hill?

And consider: Since Church Hill began its physical revival, house by lonely house, in 1957 — initially under the leadership of the Historic Richmond Foundation and later by individuals — tens of millions of dollars have been invested in dwellings that, in many cases, were roofless. The place was a disaster area.

Today, it is miraculously upscale and fashionable; some call it "The Swish Alps."

Don't ever let them tell you that a building is too far gone.

But this was the claim made against the Superior Building: It was falling apart.

And don't let them tell you that a suburban-style supermarket is critical to making a historic district work. Whoever moved to Georgetown, Beacon Hill, South Beach or Telegraph Hill for a grocery store, for heaven's sake?

And incredulously, at the City Council showdown on March 27, you'd have thought at times that the Commission of Architectural Review was on trial. In saying no to demolition, it was only doing its job. Since when was its job economic development? It was formed to protect a handful of designated, singularly special areas, not provide entrepreneurial guidance.

As debate March 27 wore on, an especially eloquent Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin cut to the chase: "In the Baptist Church we say, 'Something ought to be said.' This is funky. We're letting them have their way with our treasures." Tobacco Row had already removed numerous old buildings (just outside the official historic district) for such amenities as parking lots, tennis courts and swimming pools. Now it intended to move within the historic district to create a supermarket that might have put dollars in its pockets, but would have further decimated the fabric of the neighborhood. A low-rise grocery store, set far back from East Main behind a sea of vehicles, would do unquestionable damage to an already fragile, but by no means lost urban fabric.

It makes no sense to cherry-pick which old buildings one either saves or does away with in a historic district. They are all needed to make the neighborhood work physically, aesthetically and economically. Each reinforces the others. Tightening, not loosening of each block is needed in these areas. This is especially true in the vicinity of the Superior Warehouse. Combined with the Pohlig Box Building, it constitutes one of the last, complete pre-Civil War industrial block fronts in the city.

Remarks supporting preservation of the Superior Warehouse by some members of City Council were as eloquent as any ever spoken in the chamber. It was as if Councilmen Joseph Brooks, John Conrad and El-Amin and Councilwoman Delores McQuinn had been touched by an angel. If not by Della Reese, then certainly by the spirits of the late, legendary and indefatigable preservationists Mary Wingfield Scott, Elisabeth Scott Bocock and Mary Ross Reed. In years past, these ladies relentlessly chided civic leaders and the business community to open its eyes to the economic benefits of preservation. Certain city councilors have picked up the torch.

"We welcome [developers] within the context of our public policy [of respecting historic districts]," said Conrad, "Or otherwise we'll look like Charlotte."

"We need to think outside the box, whatever the box is," said Brooks, "How can we be creative?"

The upshot? Reportedly, Forest City is seeking to sell or trade the Superior Warehouse. Perhaps another developer can figure out a way to make the place work in imaginative and profitable ways.

But the message is clear. Our city's historic building fabric, as frayed and derelict as it may be today, still offers the best opportunity for Richmond's continued economic development. Maybe the Superior Building will join a Richmond galaxy that includes old City Hall, the Science Museum of Virginia and Main Street Station. Once, they too were each considered beyond hope — and ripe for