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St. Luke Building permits still elusive

Jeremy Lazarus | 10/27/2017, 4:55 a.m.
Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s administration is blocking the first major development in decades in poverty-stricken Gilpin Court, the Free Press ...

Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s administration is blocking the first major development in decades in poverty-stricken Gilpin Court, the Free Press has learned.

The project: Redevelopment of the historic St. Luke Building into 12 upscale apartments, with first-floor commercial space, at 900 St. James St.

The administration has refused to issue permits or allow the $3.5 million development to proceed since April, documents obtained by the Free Press show, while ushering through significant projects in Downtown and other areas of the city that are more prosperous.

The development is considered a potential game-changer for Gilpin Court, which lies north of Interstate 95 off 1st Street and is best known for the public housing community that has largely filled the area since the 1940s and is regularly identified on the news for shootings.

The St. Luke Building, vacant for nearly 40 years, is the former headquarters of the Independent Order of St. Luke, a benevolent fraternal and insurance society that famed Richmonder Maggie L. Walker transformed into an engine of community improvement in the early 1900s.

The four-story building was the initial home of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank that Mrs. Walker chartered on behalf of the organization and that was later known as Consolidated Bank & Trust Co.

This is the first of several developments headed for the area. The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority is working with a nonprofit developer on plans to create apartments in a vacant school building and a separate apartment complex just south of Gilpin Court at Duval and 1st streets.

Instead of embracing the St. Luke development, the city has thrown up zoning and planning barriers, documents show, to prevent work and raise costs for the developers, the building’s owners, Margaret and Wanda Stallings, and their partner, attorney Charles E. Ayres Jr., owner of River City Ventures LLC.

The developers have declined comment.

Selena Cuffee-Glenn, the city’s chief administrative officer, and others involved, including Planning Director Mark Olinger, also have not responded to requests for comment.

Third District Councilman Chris A. Hilbert, who represents the area and is City Council president, also did not respond to a request for comment.

The only city response has come from Lee Downey, the deputy chief administrative officer for economic development and planning.

In a phone call to the Free Press, he said the city “supports this development,” but incorrectly suggested that the first permits for the project were submitted in July, despite city records showing otherwise.

He also offered no assurances that the city would allow the St. Luke development to proceed.