HOLMBERG: Bringing Grace back to East Grace Street

Posted at 12:35 AM, Dec 18, 2012

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR)--For two decades, the once-prime shopping destination of East Grace Street has largely been like a ghost town of Christmases past.

No longer.

This past weekend, the 300, 400 and 500 blocks of E. Grace Street look more like they did two, three and four generations ago: completely alive.

Sparkling crowds for “The Nutcracker” at the Carpenter Center.

Throngs looking at the 50 Christmas trees decorated by area-non-profits in the old Miller & Rhoads storefront.

Big crowds in the three, new, upper-scale restaurants; the newly opened Rappahannock River Oysters in the 300 block, Pasture in the 400 block and the 525 in the old Berry Burke building in the 500 block.

“We love this Grace Street,” said Michelle Jones, co-owner of Pasture, which opened earlier this year. “It looks like old-town America. We think it’s time for it to come back.”

“It’s so close to everything that’s gone on development-wise in the city,” said Jason Alley, co-owner of pasture and also Comfort on Broad Street. “The federal courthouse, new hotels. All that stuff that’s come in has come to this area. So we’re hoping with the architectural beauty that’s already existing that this is just the next frontier.”

Thalhimers, Miller & Rhoads and  Berry Burk helped make Grace Street the destination for shopping since William Thalhimer opened what would become the first department store in 1842.

In its heyday, big sales could mean huge crowds on East Grace.

But the big department stores all closed in the early 90s when crack cocaine-fueled murder all-but killed the city.

One by one the smaller specialty shops followed;  even Freeman’s men’s store, even, finally, the Honey Shop.

It’s been a fascinating, top-down restoration. Many of the floors above the vacant department stores and other shops were turned into condos and apartments during the past 15 years, all filled with people.

Tom Hass is the co-owner and general manager of 525, which sits catty-corner to the Carpenter Center. He lives in one of the apartments above his restaurant.

“It’s everything from empty nesters coming in from the suburbs, to VCU students, MCV students, folks that work at the courthouse, bankers, it’s everything,” Haas said. “There’s one family in our building that has a small child. It’s neat to see a school bus come by every day and drop off this one kid.

“As many cities figured out, “ Haas added, “once the manufacturing left the city, you have to find a new personality, a new image for the city. And Richmond has really gone with the arts idea . . . The Grace Street corridor has nothing but potential at this point. It’s beautiful buildings. We just need to put something in them.”

As one who worked at the Times-Dispatch (300 block of E. Grace) during the heyday of East Grace Street and the near total collapse that followed, I can tell you this early blooms of rebirth there is such a wonderful  signal that the heart of the city is beating strongly again.

Besides the newspaper, Uniform City is the longest holdout. It’s been in the 400 block for a half-century.

One longtime worker there told me Monday night that it’s like waking up after a long, bad dream.

Yes, there is grace on Grace Street again.