Three major residential developments are taking root along Semmes Avenue near Cowardin Avenue in South Richmond.
The projects — two apartment complexes and a town-home community — are transforming this part of the city into what developers say will make the neighborhood more vibrant and help push more development in that area.
“It just seems to be happening now. When you drive up and down Semmes, it’s actually amazing to see all of what is taking place,” said developer Howard Kellman of The Edison Co. in Richmond, who has teamed up with business partners Christopher Johnson and Tom Dickey of The Monument Cos. to redevelop the former Muse Buick dealership property on Semmes Avenue into apartments.
“This area is exploding right now, like all of Richmond is,” Kellman said. “That whole street looks like it’s happening now. It looks like an active vibrant urban area.”
The partnership group is putting the finishing touches on turning the former dealership property into The Riviera on Semmes mixed-use project. The development, about a block east of Cowardin Avenue, will have a total of 190 apartments and a restaurant.
The former dealership buildings were renovated and have been converted into 41 apartment units. Two additional multistory buildings are now under construction, and residents will be able to move into those apartments starting this summer.
Across Semmes Avenue from The Riviera is the Jamestown Apartment Flats, where an Alabama-based developer took one of the largest vacant tracts in Manchester and is turning the property into 269 units spread across several buildings. The first residents are slated to move in this month.
About a block to the west of Cowardin Avenue is the Belle Heights town-home community that is being built where mostly metal-clad warehouse buildings had stood for decades. Plans for a first phase of Belle Heights call for 111 town homes. Several residents have already moved in.
“We saw this as an opportunity to do something and it’s now wound out to be a pretty good residential site, which I think complements some of the surrounding uses,” said Will Allen, portfolio manager for Harper Associates, the Richmond-based developer behind Belle Heights.
The metal-clad buildings, which were built in the 1960s, 1970s and possibly the ’80s, were torn down to make way for the town homes.
“It felt like the area was transitioning from a lot of light industrial,” Allen said. “The location where those warehouses were clearly was not functional for that use anymore.”
The Riviera on Semmes
The development group bought the 2.77-acre property in the 1400 block of Semmes Avenue for The Riviera project in early 2019.
The partnership — formally called Monument Development Nine LLC — paid $3.1 million for the property, according to the city’s online property records.
The property was attractive for a couple of reasons, the group said. It took up basically a whole city block. It was one of the larger tracts of land in Manchester, where hundreds of new apartments have sprung up in the past couple of years. It could have a mix of historic rehab and new construction. And the location was good because of its proximity to downtown and the Fan District.
“We liked the fact that there was a historic component. We like the fact that it was being designated historic district. And then the [federal] opportunity zone was more of a bonus on top of that,” Kellman said. “It also was an opportunity for us to consider new construction and build this one-block development.”
The Muse Buick dealership operated there for 32 years until it closed in late 1986. The dealership was sold and became Brown Buick and relocated to Chesterfield County.
The developers decided to call their $26.9 million project The Riviera in a nod to the dealership and the popular Buick Riviera, which General Motors stopped making in the late 1990s.
“The name really ties to Buick, but also to the James River,” Kellman said.
The former dealership buildings — a showroom, offices and service bays — were converted in late 2019 into 41 apartment units, mostly one- and two-bedroom units. Those units are already leased.
Construction started in February and April 2020 on two multistory buildings to the rear of the property, along McDonough Street between 14th and 15th streets.
An L-shaped building at 15th and McDonough streets should be ready for tenants beginning in July.
That 66-unit building is technically five floors, but the fourth floor is two stories tall to allow for a more loft-style apartments.
The units on the fourth floor of that building “are very cool and big, beautiful. And you get to really see the city because you’re literally at the highest point,” Kellman said. “They really make use of space and light. And they do a great job.”
Dickey from The Monument Cos. said the floor plans on the top floor were basically doubled “to open it up with two-story spaces inside the apartments, so they’re a lot bigger.”
A swimming pool is being added next to that building for use by all The Riviera tenants.
The other building at 14th and McDonough streets has 83 units. It should be ready for its first tenants in August.
The development has a total of 153 one-bedroom, eight two-bedroom, 26 three-bedroom and two four-bedroom apartments.
The apartments rent for $999 to $1,409 a month for a one-bedroom; $1,399 to $1,699 for a two-bedroom; $1,699 to $1,999 for a three-bedroom; and $2,449 to $2,799 for a four-bedroom.
Parking, utilities, cable and internet are included with the rent.
At the corner of Semmes Avenue and 14th Street is where a husband-and-wife operator of a Jamaican food truck is going to take space in another one of the former dealership’s buildings on the property.
The M&F Jamaican Restaurant and Bar “brings some vibrancy to the community,” said Johnson with The Monument Cos.
Marie and Fitzroy Aiken, both of whom are from Jamaica, hope to open the 1,300-square-foot restaurant sometime this summer.
They have operated a food truck in front of the building since last July in anticipation of opening the restaurant in 2021. Business has been strong in that location, Marie Aiken said. For about three years before that, their food truck was on East Main Street in Shockoe Bottom or was at festivals.
“We decided to build our name and get our name out there with the food truck and then go into a building,” she said. “It was always something we wanted to do.”
When the space came available at The Riviera project, “We saw the opportunity and we grabbed it.”
Besides, she believes all of the apartments coming from The Riviera and Jamestown Apartment Flats “definitely will help business.”
Johnson said the development group could have added more residential on the site of where the restaurant will be going.
“But we felt it was important to bring more activity into the area, and we felt strongly it would be nice to have a local restaurant there,” he said.
The Monument Cos., a real estate development, construction and property management firm in Shockoe Bottom, and The Edison Co. have worked together on other Richmond projects.
For instance, the partnership bought GRTC Transit System’s former bus barn and depot buildings at West Cary Street near South Robinson Street and redeveloped it into the $45 million Cary Street Station development with 285 apartments and commercial and retail space.
The Jamestown Apartment Flats
The first tenants of the Jamestown Apartment Flats are slated to begin moving in this month, with the entire project expected to be completed by this fall.
The 6.6-acre site, which is across Semmes Avenue from The Riviera, stretches along Semmes and then along Cowardin Avenue at the south end of the Robert E. Lee bridge.
It was one of the last big pieces of undeveloped riverfront property available near downtown before Alabama-based LIV Development began work on the project last year.
The development calls for a total of 269 units in three four-story buildings that offer the more traditional one-floor plans. It also has 14 three-story town home-styled apartments with attached garages.
There will be studios and one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments ranging in size from 630 square feet to 1,356 square feet. The apartments will rent for between $1,255 and $2,400.
The site historically had been used as a railyard but remained vacant for decades after the rail infrastructure was removed, said Lindsay Koch, senior business manager for Fogelman Properties, which is managing the apartment complex.
The land was bought in May 2019 for $7.6 million, according to the city’s online property records. The large vacant tract gave the developers “the opportunity to develop a unique project that can’t be replicated,” Koch said.
The land was sold by Urban Development Associates, the entity controlled by Richmond developers Robin Miller and Dan Gecker.
Miller and Gecker had acquired the property in 2006 as part of a large land deal with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which had gotten it as part of a donation from Harwood Cochrane. Cochrane was the founder of Overnite Transportation (formerly UPS Freight and now TFI International Inc.), which opened its corporate headquarters on Semmes Avenue in 1975.
At 269 units, Jamestown Apartment Flats is one of the largest multifamily projects in the Manchester area.
For instance, it would be bigger than the nearly completed 14-story South Falls I residential tower project just west of the Mayo Bridge that is slated to have 255 apartments. The Current, a five-story apartment building off Hull Street, would include 215 apartments when it opens. And River’s Edge at Manchester, which opened in 2018, has 213 apartments.
The larger size also means Jamestown Apartment Flats has added a variety of amenities, Koch said. They include three separate sky lounges featuring various views of Manchester and of downtown; a 24/7 fitness center featuring a rock climbing wall; a spin room with Echelon bikes; a saltwater pool; and gated parking for tenants.
The developer behind the Belle Heights project had envisioned a grocery store-anchored retail development for the 12.8-acre parcel where warehouse buildings had sat empty for decades.
When Manchester Town Center LLC, a limited liability company managed by Harper Associates, bought the land in 2015, there was a lot of upheaval in the local grocery market. Harper Associates tried to attract a supermarket for the project.
“There just wasn’t sufficient interest to really move in that direction, so Will [Allen] and his team pivoted and started looking at other uses, recognizing how unusual this infill site was and found that there was a significant market for for-sale housing,” said T. Preston Lloyd Jr., an attorney with the Williams Mullen law firm who represents Harper Associates.
The City Council approved a special-use permit in February 2019 to allow the construction of up to 111 attached town homes.
Construction started last summer. So far, 44 town homes are under contract to be sold while 18 of them have closed. Nine more are under construction. Ryan Homes is the builder.
The town homes range in size from 1,741 square feet to 1,916 square feet, either with a two-car garage in the rear or a front one-car garage with a backyard. The units along Semmes Avenue, for instance, all have garages in the back.
Prices start from the upper $300,000, according to the website.
“They’ve been selling at a pretty good clip,” Allen said. “The price point on it makes it a quality affordable town home within a close proximity to downtown.”
Between the town homes and a vacant 22,000-square-foot warehouse building is open space that is being reserved for a future commercial development. That could be for an office building, a grocery store or some kind of retail, said Lloyd, the attorney.
“There’s been no determination at this point,” he said.
That warehouse building was part of the Alleghany Warehouse Co. complex that Harper Associates acquired, but it was kept for an adaptive reuse project.
Vytal Studios, a producer of high-end education and training video content based in Austin, Texas, plans to renovate the building and relocate its corporate offices there. It also will house two virtual production studios, space for post-production functions and a coworking space.
The $6.8 million building renovation project should start in late summer and be ready in early 2022, Allen said.
Just to the west of the Belle Heights property, Harper Associates is looking to expand its project on about 2.5 acres near McDonough and West 22nd streets. It has filed a special-use permit with the city.
“We’re exploring two scenarios with the city — maybe having apartment units in one scenario or going in the other direction and increasing the number of town homes,” Lloyd said. Or there could be a combination of apartments and town homes.
As a proposed second phase of Belle Heights, Harper Associates is considering adding up to 35 single-family attached dwellings or putting up two structures for up to 120 apartment units and up to 15 town homes, according to the proposal filed with the city.
To the east of the vacant warehouse building, Harper Associates has under contract a 1.66-acre parcel at the corner of Semmes and Cowardin avenues, where a former gas station has been torn down.
“That’s a more recent development and we’re currently going through a couple different options and have some meetings set with the city to figure out where they may be enthusiastic about some of those options,” Lloyd said. “We’re trying to figure that out, and conversations are still very preliminary on what that corner parcel could look like.”
At 406 Cowardin Ave., which is just south of that corner property, Harper Associates is planning to demolish the existing building and construct a medical office building in its place.