An artist’s rendering presented to the Richmond Architectural Review Board at their meeting Thursday. Ed Worley and Mike Eaves, two Richmond business partners, plan to renovate North First Street. (Reggie Beehner)

By Ben Kleppinger

Business partners Ed Worley and Mike Eaves have received approval to tear down five historic buildings in downtown Richmond.At a special called meeting Thursday, the Richmond Architectural Review Board approved 5-0 demolition of all the buildings along North First Street between the courthouse annex and local bar T-Bombadil’s.

Melinda Murphy, a member of the Architectural Review Board and a law partner with Mike Eaves, cast one of the supporting votes.

Worley and Eaves, operating through two companie s-Downtown Holdings, LLC, and Great Hopes, LLC-plan to build a two-story building where the old buildings currently stand. Worley said the new building should attract businesses to downtown Richmond that would have previously went elsewhere.

Worley said he and Eaves had originally wanted to purchase the entire block of buildings along First Street across from the courthouse, but after several years of negotiations, they were unable to convince two owners to sell.

Worley said they decided to move ahead with the buildings they did have, because they could no longer afford to pay interest without turning a profit.

Worley’s company Downtown Holdings recently mortgaged the properties at 115, 119 and 121 North Street for a total of $645,000. The company originally purchased the properties in January of 2007.

After the meeting concluded review board member Rita Smart asked if there was anything the city could do to force the holdouts to sell their buildings. City manager David Evans said the city would talk to holdout owners and see what could be accomplished toward getting them to sell.

Worley said downtown would “never make any progress” if owners continued to protect old and dangerous buildings.

T-Bombadil’s is one of the buildings Worley and Eaves were unable to acquire.

“The T-Bombs building is not healthy for what we’re trying to do, but it is a business, and it’s been around a long time,” Worley said. “We wish them the best.”

T-Bombs co-owner Rachel Billings said she and two other co-owners wanted to sell the bar. But the fourth owner, who owns half the bar, did not want to sell. Billings said the fourth owner refused to sell out of “greed.”

Billings said T-Bombs will remain open during the demolition next door, and expects no change in patronage. “Everybody knows where we’re at,” she said. “It’s not really gonna hurt business.”

When demolition begins it is expected to take two weeks, Worley said. It will take approximately 90 days to get the architectural plans approved, and construction of the new building will take one year, he added. Demolition will be tricky because when one building comes down it could bring the others around it down as well, Worley said.

Billings said the T-Bombs building is very weak. “If they try to tear down the roof of the building next to us, they may hurt our building,” she said.

The effects of nearby demolition on the T-Bombs building were not discussed at the review board meeting. Billings said T-Bombs is working with Worley and Eaves to make sure the bar isn’t harmed. But she said she is unsure of what the future holds for T-Bombs. “I don’t really give a shit what happens to it,” she said.

While demolition has been approved, Worley and Eaves will have to get another nod from the review board to start construction. Because the buildings lie in Richmond’s historic district, they cannot be torn down, modified or rebuilt without the review board’s approval.

Review board chair Brandon Powell said in order for Worley and Eaves to receive construction approval from the review board, the new building’s planned exterior must replicate as closely as possible the look of the original buildings.

Review board member Michele McBrayer questioned an artist’s rendering Worley presented at the meeting of what the exterior of the new building will look like, because the first story featured large glass windows the old buildings don’t currently have.

Worley said the first story has already been changed so many times that it wouldn’t be historically accurate to replicate the current look. He suggested going back to historical photos to see what the first story originally looked like.

McBrayer also asked why complete demolition was necessary or preferable over renovation.

Worley said simply renovating the interiors of the buildings and leaving the exteriors alone is not financially possible, because entirely new buildings are needed to attract tenants.

Powell proposed the building facades could be propped up while the insides were “gutted.”

Worley said the buildings were in such bad structural condition that keeping the original exteriors was not an option. Fire damage, along with the deterioration of the original structures have made the buildings highly unsafe, he said.

“It is what it is,” Worley said. “It’s a tired old block. And you could struggle with this thing forever and it’s still going to be an antiquated structure.”

The review board requested a statement from a structural engineer verifying Worley’s claim. Worley said he could get the review board a statement from an engineer saying whatever they wanted it to say.

“But we ain’t doing the project like that,” he said. “Point blank, the only way this project can work is if it comes down.”

McBrayer said the statement from a structural engineer would serve as due diligence if community members become upset about the demolition.

Worley said he plans to follow the review board’s recommendations when he seeks approval to start building.

“We like to save old buildings,” Worley said. “And we’ve probably done more of it than anyone downtown.