For decades, H. Beckstoffer's Sons Inc. in Church Hill produced custom architectural woodwork for some of the nicest properties in central Virginia.

The architectural woodwork firm, which opened as a lumber mill on the site in 1900, worked on renovations at the Executive Mansion, the state Capitol and the University of Virginia, among other locations.

"I did the bathroom remodel in the governor's mansion myself when Chuck Robb was governor," said Richard Henry Beckstoffer, a grandson of the company's founder.

The building that housed the company is simple, though. The one-story structure is an 8,000-square-foot open space punctuated with rough-hewn wooden columns supporting a vaulted ceiling. The building's brick walls are exposed and unadorned.

Now, the building is slated to start a new life as a collection of loft-style apartments. It is part of a development plan that will affect most of the block of North 28th Street between R and S streets.

Initial plans for the development include 18 to 21 loft-style apartments, 16 town homes, three rehabilitated residential dwellings and a 32-unit senior facility. Some of the properties will be for sale; others will be available to rent. It also might include a small commercial space.

The Better Housing Coalition, which bought the property from Beckstoffer and is developing it, has a long history in Church Hill. The nonprofit organization, which strives to provide affordable housing in the Richmond area, has invested about $18 million in the historic district, not including the Beckstoffer project.

"We're active in other areas as well, but Church Hill has been a focus for us," said Bob Newman, vice president and chief of operations for the coalition.

The coalition has built or rehabilitated 100 houses in Church Hill, with the majority of them going to first-time homebuyers. The coalition's average house is 1,600 square feet, and the prices range from $140,000 to $195,000.

"The Better Housing Coalition has been a significant player in the revitalization of Church Hill," said David Herring, executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods. "They do renovation as well, but they do a great job filling in where houses have been lost."

The coalition has built or rehabilitated about 1,000 apartments in the greater Richmond area. Its largest development, Winchester Greens in Chesterfield County, has more than 400 units and will have more than 500 units when construction is complete. It will be a mix of single-family homes, apartments and town homes.

On Tuesday, ACORN gave the coalition a Golden Hammer award for 20 years of neighborhood revitalization.

In addition to building and rehabilitating housing, the coalition works with homebuyers to secure low-interest, fixed-rate mortgages. It also arranges for financial assistance for some renters who cannot afford to pay full price for the rental properties the coalition manages.

The coalition will invest $15 million in the Beckstoffer development.

While the coalition has received input from Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh, it has not chosen an architect for the development.

"We will have one before the end of the year," said Lee Alford, one of the coalition's senior project managers.

Alford will oversee the development.

The coalition plans to begin construction next spring. Newman says the first phase of development should be completed by spring 2010.

"We've done things on this scale before, but it's a unique opportunity to work on an entire block in Church Hill," he says.

. . .

When the development is finished, the block will look strikingly different. Currently, fences hide much of the property.

"We want to make this an inviting space," Alford said. "We'll bring the fences down and open the spaces up a bit."

Trees will be planted along the streets, and sidewalks will be installed.

The loft-style apartments will take their design cues from the main building, which is listed on the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places. They will feature open-floor plans with exposed brick walls. The wooden columns that support the roof will be left in place for the industrial look prized by loft enthusiasts.

"We'll keep the vaulted ceiling and add insulation on the roof," Newman said.

The three residential units next to the main building will be rehabilitated and kept intact as single-family dwellings.

The main building and the three residential units will be completed in the first phase of the development.

The coalition's preliminary plans for the second phase include building six town homes next to the main building, running at a right angle to 28th Street. Like all of the coalition's new construction, they will meet EarthCraft standards for energy conservation.

Plans call for small buildings on the west side of 28th Street to be torn down to make way for a relatively small 32-unit senior facility.

"It will be appropriate for the neighborhood and the site," Newman said. "We don't want to overwhelm the neighborhood by building out of scale."

The coalition also plans to build 10 town homes on 29th Street, as well as exploring commercial options for the development.

"We're trying to find a compatible operation for the business," Newman said. "It's 500 square feet, so it would be something on the scale of a coffee shop or a sandwich shop."

ACORN's Herring says the project's mix of housing options will be a key to its success. "It will be highly successful because it's a microcosm of Church Hill: rental, single-family houses and senior living."

The area's historic quality will help attract renters and buyers, too.

"People seek out older neighborhoods because they give them a sense of place," Herring says. "They're connected to history."

. . .

The stagnant housing market and the credit crisis worry Newman a little, he said. "But we have a lot of financial partners we work with, and we're confident we should be able to get this first building under way over the next year."

Initially, the coalition may rent out the three rehabilitated residential units, depending on market conditions and available financing.

"The ultimate plan is to sell them," Newman said.

The housing market in Church Hill is in a downward spiral just as it is around the U.S., City Councilwoman Delores L. McQuinn said. But she's optimistic that the project on 28th Street will succeed because the coalition has the vision to transform communities.

"The development is in an area that has been historically industrial," McQuinn said. "But the coalition is going to turn it into a neighborhood. When this is completed, the face of Church Hill will have a complete turnaround."

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