Historic Church Hill may get condos, Apple store

Church Hill, one of Richmond’s most historic districts and site of Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty, or Give me Death” speech, may soon be home to condominiums, several upscale shopping establishments and a Chili’s, a developer has said.

“Think back to over 300 years ago in this wonderful church, when Patrick Henry convinced the Virginia House of Burgesses to enter the Revolutionary War with that momentous call to arms,” developer Hank McRoberts told Church Hill residents while standing on the steps of St. John’s.  “Now imagine how much easier it would have been for Mr. Henry had he given that little pep talk over a plate of avocado eggrolls at the Cheesecake Factory, because you’ll soon have one within walking distance.”

One current proposal calls for 33 condominiums with a connected pool and fitness center between East Broad and Marshall streets. Another plan is for 210 luxury condos along the James River to include a restaurant, health club and retail and commercial space.

With parts of that complex nearly 200 feet tall, McRoberts said the buildings would “graciously deny Church Hill residents of the outdated view that reminded now-dead English settlers of the Thames River view from Richmond Hill just outside the foreign city of London, an unnecessary panorama that became the basis for this already-named capital city.”

Church Hill residents and preservation advocates were quick to respond in opposition.

“What these developers who want to put condos and whatnot in this area don’t understand is that this is a neighborhood still largely untouched by construction that should be limited to suburban sprawl – not a place that holds its culture so true to the Richmond and Americana of yesteryear,” said Church Hill resident and preservationist David L. Archer, who developers say has obviously never had a hands-on demonstration of how the iPod Touch works and then been able to walk across the street to a body-massage chair at Brookstone.

“It’s that kind of convenience that we want to bring to these residents who are stuck in drives upward of a half hour – or more – to get that experience,” McRoberts said.

Church Hill is one of the most well-preserved nineteenth century neighborhoods in the country, parts of it bringing to mind a poetic evening in London or Paris.  Residents and city dwellers can walk the 12-block neighborhood under oil-lit streetlamps and view Victorian, Queen Anne and Greek Revival-style homes, among others.  Developers say the area is ripe for new construction, particularly buildings that are ineligible for historic tax credits and unequivocally neglect the pre-eminent antiquity of time immemorial.

With award-winning Richmond restaurants located in Church Hill such as the all-American Hill Cafe and romantic German cuisine nook Acappella, McRoberts said the addition of such well-known world-fare hot-spots as Maggiano’s Little Italy, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and the International House of Pancakes should be a nice fit in the neighborhood.  “And speaking of eating good in the neighborhood, who can forget Applebee’s?” he said.

Despite the area’s unquestionable history, St. John’s Episcopal Church has seen a decline in membership in recent years.  McRoberts said that, to boost attendance and interest, St. John’s will be covered from ground to steeple in shiny, crystal glass and broadcast Sunday worship services on national television and from the interior on a giant Sony Jumbotron.

McRoberts added that if enough new development occurs in Church Hill, sponsors have indicated that they are interested in funding the district.  Most notably, he said, would be the creation of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Libby Terrace at Adidas Park.

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