I first met Sam McDonald in 2004. I was planning to leave my safe corporate job at Capital One, and found a new financial services related startup that my wife Laura and I had dreamt up. It was a crazy idea, and our timing couldn’t have been worse given the looming financial crisis. Oblivious to the dangers that were ahead, I set up shop in my house with a tiny desk for myself, and a small kitchen table for my first employee and partner. My wife was less than enthralled with the setup. It was admittedly not ideal given the reams of paperwork strewn about the house. We needed a small, hip office, preferably downtown, so I could walk to work. So I went looking nearby, and that was when I met Sam McDonald.
Sam had developed a historic warehouse in Shockoe Bottom that had recently become available for lease. It had all the quirky character we were looking for as a home for our new startup. Sam was just beginning his migration across the river to Manchester at that time, but has been carrying the torch for the neighborhood ever since.
After setting up The Dogtown Dish, I have become reacquainted with Sam and his dreams for Manchester. And while there are several developers working in Manchester these days, there is one thing I can say without hesitation-there is no one more passionate about Manchester than Mr. Sam McDonald.
I asked Sam if he would answer some questions. He was nice enough to oblige me. His answers are insightful. Manchester presents both opportunity and challenges the neighborhood must address. Here are his thoughts.
M: When did you start developing, and more specifically begin focusing on Manchester?
S: My first project was completed in 2000 in Shockoe Bottom. Historic tax credits were still pretty new but allowed saving old buildings and encouraged bringing life to dormant and declining areas. The prices for shell buildings in Shockoe Bottom were getting too high for me, so I started looking for a new area with low prices. Mark Raper at CRT/Tanaka had just convinced the State to add the Manchester Industrial area as a historic revitalization zone, and by coincidence we came over and looked around. We found Warehouse 201, which was the tallest building, closest to the City, but it wasn’t for sale. After 9 months of negotiation and trying to find a bank that believed someone would actually live here, we closed in 2003 and brought the first 14 apartments across the bridge in 2004.
People liked the grittiness of those early days, the eclectic mix of active industrial business, trucks and trains, but mostly being a part of an emerging neighborhood with reasonable rents and great potential. It’s now more refined gritty and we are excited about things that are shaping the future.
M: What are you most proud of in terms of accomplishments for you/Manchester?
S: One exciting thing as others have come to develop, we’ve done other projects, and Manchester has gone from 14 to around 3,000 apartments today, is seeing the neighborhood come alive: new businesses, people walking dogs and riding bikes across the bridge, and knowing that we had some part in it.
The excitement now is seeing a lot of the stakeholders come together and work towards making a better neighborhood. This includes street parking on Hull to slow down traffic, getting trees and tree wells, bike racks, and working with our Councilwoman and City administration on improved infrastructure. We need more people in the neighborhood to get involved: come to neighborhood meetings, register to vote in local elections so our representatives know that tenants care, pick one of our improvement projects or make up your own, and work on it until something good happens.
M: Have you been pleased with your recent PortRVA development?
Absolutely. There are very few undeveloped historic buildings left in the neighborhood, but a lot of open land. So infill is next. As we get more people living here, business and retail follow. Port RVA is designed as smaller units (micro for Richmond) with tons of light, private balcony space, and fills a need for people that don’t need to spend higher rents for more space. It filled up quickly and beat the bank’s expectation.
M: What has been your biggest challenge for developing Manchester?
Because of development over the past 10 years, assessed values in Industrial Manchester have risen from $56mm to $174mm. Over 90% of that increase came from development projects, while only 10% came from the other 80% of yet-to-be developed parcels. The increased tax dollars are there and the potential for more is amazing. That is huge incentive for the City to get involved with infrastructure. We need sidewalks/repairs, traffic calming, green space. Stakeholders are doing their part by buying, developing, living and working here. Let’s get the City to support those efforts with its own investment based on what has and will be privately invested.
What’s next for you?
I joke that my part time job is prying and pushing for City neighborhood resources, but it doesn’t pay very well. In the meantime we manage our own properties and wait until we envision the next, right development project.