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Rebuilding Manchester

Ever heard the saying that variety is the spice of life? Well it couldn’t be more true for housing.

Neighborhoods in bloom require a diverse mix of housing. Residents of varying ages, incomes, and lifestyle choices require different housing solutions. These options enable a neighborhood to flourish with a diverse set of residents. Some prefer apartments. Some prefer to own. And ownership can come in many forms. Whether its a condo, duplex, town home, or single family house-the right housing is ultimately based upon the preferences and budget of the buyer.

Up until recently, Manchester has primarily been known for its apartments. The neighborhood has seen more apartment construction recently than virtually any part of the city as highlighted in Richmond Magazine’s Boomtown article. Most, but not all of this development has been happening in the the Industrial section of Manchester and along the Semmes and Commerce corridors.

But have you driven through the residential section of Manchester lately? Between Commerce and Cowardin, and bounded by Hull St to the East and Semmes to the West, there is a steady stream of owner occupied construction-primarily duplexes to be more specific. While each of these projects are smaller in scale when compared to the 100+ unit apartment buildings going up further to the north, don’t confuse smaller scale with having less impact.

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A successful neighborhood needs owner occupied housing stock. Apartment renters who live in the area need home purchase options in close proximity when they are ready to make the leap from renting. Throw empty nesters into the mix who want an urban walkable neighborhood, and you can understand what is driving the construction in Manchester’s residential district.

We would be remiss to mention this residential construction without referencing Robin Miller and Dan Gecker. How these two business partners came to own 153 Manchester properties and vacant lots is an interesting story.

According to Richmond BizSense, “Harwood Cochrane, founder of Overnite Transportation and local philanthropist, had donated 30 acres of land throughout Manchester to the VMFA.” This apparently was after Mr. Cochrane bulldozed most of the Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 6.05.54 AMold historic houses that once sat on these lots. Apparently Cochrane considered the properties to be blighted and beyond repair. He also considered them an eyesore surrounding his Overnight Transportation corporate headquarters (what is now UPS).

I suspect that many folks would disagree with that assessment if presented with the same situation today. Historic preservation has gained more traction and popularity these days. But regardless of whether you agree with Mr. Cochrane’s decision to level huge swaths of Manchester, he created a clean slate that is driving the residential building boom we see now.

Not knowing what to do with its huge land and property donation, according to Richmond BizSense, VMFA put out a “request for proposals, seeking possible plans from developers for the donated land. Miller and Gecker competed against four other developers and ultimately bought several parcels for $4.77 million that included several single-family homes and some larger plots for development.”

Given this concentration of ownership, the speed, quality, and mix of residential development in Manchester rests largely in the hands of Miller and Gecker. It presents a great opportunity. However, I suspect it is also an enormous challenge given the sheer number of vacant parcels. If you walk the neighborhood, you see multiple instances of entire city blocks sitting vacant waiting for development activity to begin. Miller and Gecker’s master plan as posted on their website gives a rough idea of what they have in mind.

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And there are multiple examples of renovation of existing properties and new construction that they have completed so far. In fact just today, Carol Hazard from the Times-Dispatch did a lengthy piece on their most recent duplex which has a modern design and rooftop deck.

SHELBY LUM / TIMES-DISPATCH
SHELBY LUM / TIMES-DISPATCH

Here’s to hoping that the pace of construction is rapid so that infill weaves together this neighborhood before the next economic cycle causes the progress to slow, or even stop. But let’s also hope that the pace is not too quick causing the market to flood with more housing than the neighborhood can absorb. Given the once in a generation opportunity, it would be a shame if local architects, designers, and craftsmen aren’t given the creative license to take some chances and create truly unique housing that stands the test of time.

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Let’s hope Miller and Gecker continue building and that they get it right for the sake of Manchester. Or if they have more land than they can reasonably hope to develop in their lifetimes, let’s hope they sell off a few pieces here and there to those who can help move Manchester along.

However it turns out, it will be exciting to watch this massive building process unfold. It isn’t often that you are able to see an entire urban neighborhood being built…or rather rebuilt…right in front of your eyes.

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  1. I would like to see Miller and Gecker putting their money where their mouth is and integrating some section 8 housing in with all of their buildings. The stain that Cochrane left on Manchester lingers among the few old timers who remain and is just one of a large litany of examples in Richmond where money trumps morality and decency. While not their fault, these developers could do SOMETHING to keep Manchester and eventually Blackwell from turning into Church Hill, where rent prices and house prices drive anyone who doesn’t make 6 figures away.

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