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Vision to return Gilpin Court to beacon of black enterprise

Jeremy Lazarus | 8/20/2015, 10:45 p.m. | Updated on 8/20/2015, 10:45 p.m.
The decrepit four-story building at 900 St. James St. has been vacant for decades. However, plans are afoot to transform ...

By Jeremy M. Lazarus

The decrepit four-story building at 900 St. James St. has been vacant for decades.

However, plans are afoot to transform this former beacon of black enterprise into a centerpiece of new development in Gilpin Court, an underserved, untapped section of the city that lies just north of Downtown, split off by the interstate highways that carve their way through the city.

The Stallings family, which owns a big chunk of the private land left in Gilpin Court, is leading the effort to overhaul the once proud building and the community long identified with poverty and crime.

The building is important to city history. It once served as headquarters of the now-defunct Independent Order of St. Luke, the fraternal mutual insurance group that Richmond great Maggie L. Walker led to prosperity.

A century ago, the building housed the bank Mrs. Walker founded as well as the St. Luke’s newspaper and other enterprises that she oversaw and which slowly disappeared following her death in 1934.

Now the area that had been a bustling hub of the black community is best known for the Gilpin Court public housing community that has dominated this section of the city since the 1940s. The area also is home to the headquarters of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority that manages city public housing.

Private development, except for a few convenience stores, has been largely nonexistent. Many of the private buildings, long decaying, have been torn down; even the neighborhood funeral home is now closed.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to Wanda D. Stallings, whose late father, James, and mother, Margaret Stallings, bought the St. Luke Building and about 50 other properties years ago.

Ms. Stallings wants to follow in the footsteps of Mrs. Walker and lead a development revival of this neglected area.

“Most people who come into this area see poverty and decay. I see possibilities,” she said.

In partnership with former City Councilman William R. Johnson Jr., Ms. Stallings envisions a revamped area of classy apartments and high-rise offices fronting the interstate, with duplexes and new homes filling other parts of the area and smaller shops and stores lining now empty spaces on 1st Street, a main traffic artery.

Mr. Johnson said Gilpin Court — which the city has dubbed North Jackson Ward — has at least 15 acres of undeveloped land and vacant buildings, one of the largest pieces of buildable land on North Side.

The property in question lies between St. Paul Street to the west, Interstates 95 and 64 to the south, Federal and Bates streets to the north and the city’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery to the east.

Ms. Stallings and her family are the largest land owners in this area. She said their holdings total about 3.3 acres. That includes most of the block with the St. Luke Building, as well as most of the block to the east, on which the optometry office of the late Dr. Benjamin J. Lambert III sits.