Hopewell defers decision on Colonial Corner until August, but puts owner on notice to board it up and work with city on a solution before next meeting

HOPEWELL — City Council has given the owner of a long-blighted shopping center a temporary reprieve on demolishing the structure, but the conditions put on that reprieve do not necessarily save it permanently from the wrecking ball.

Following a lengthy discussion Tuesday night that included several inquiries on how and what they were voting on, councilors decided 5-1 to grant Bharat Shah, owner of the former Colonial Corner Shopping Center on Oaklawn Boulevard, 30 days to meet with the city’s code enforcement office and determine if the property is salvageable. In the meantime, council told Shah to board up all doors and windows on the structure to keep people out of and away from it.

Shah, who according to land records owns hotels and other properties in the area, told council he had some prospects for the property, but nothing had been finalized yet. He also told council that the cost to take down the shopping center is about $250,000.

“In order to demolish, it would cost a lot of money, which at this time is not in my budget,” Shah said.

Colonial Corner was one of eight structures listed on a spot-blight report on which council held a public hearing. Six of the eight are residential properties, while the other business structure is located in the 800 block of Winston Churchill Drive.

Colonial Corner, a 1980s-era strip shopping center that once housed a grocery store, has been vacant for several years. Vegetation has grown in the parking lot along the sidewalks, and signs on the building are blank or have either the names of businesses that no longer are in operation or contact information for leasing.

Windows are sporadically boarded, but many of them, as well as doors, remain unshielded. A door on what used to be a restaurant appears to have been burglarized and sets about halfway open. On the roof of what was the center’s anchor store, strings of decorative lights remain.

Even though the shopping center is vacant, signage along Oaklawn Boulevard and Woodlawn Street still directs motorists to it.

Two restaurants and the Hopewell Visitor Center operate on outlying parcels between the structure and Oaklawn Boulevard, and a bowling alley is next-door. Three hotels also neighbor the property, one on Oaklawn Boulevard and two with Courthouse Road addresses. City records indicate that Shah owns the Oaklawn Boulevard hotel, which is franchised as an Econo Lodge.

According to city real-estate records, the 8-acre property on which Colonial Corner rests was last assessed at almost $2.8 million.

A couple of years ago, it was reported that Walmart had expressed interest in the property for a its third Tri-City area location. However, those plans were never finalized.

Shah told council Tuesday night that he had tried to work with the city previously to reconcile issues with the building, but he has not been successful. Should it be torn down, he said,“it would be a waste of money” because any future purchaser would have to incur the cost of demolition on top of the sale price for the property.

Reaction on council was mixed.

Councilor Brenda S. Pelham was empathetic to Shah’s remarks and asked that action on the property be deferred until the next council meeting Aug. 20 to give Shah and the city more time to come up with a plan. Mayor Jasmine E. Gore said she had some questions about the property that needed answering before she could vote, but she would “go along with the will of the council” if the decision to demolish was approved.

Gore would not divulge what those questions were.

Councilors Deborah B. Randolph, Janice Denton and John S. Partin Jr., however, supported demolishing the structure, citing its proximity to Interstate 295.

“It’s an eyesore,” Denton said. “That’s an entrance to our city. It’s the first thing they see [off I-295], and I’m not proud of it.”

Gore said early in her council tenure, she pushed for Oaklawn Boulevard, which carries state Route 36 through the city, as the primary gateway corridor for Hopewell, “but I was outvoted” in favor of state Route 10. Since then, she said, she has advocated beautification efforts for that stretch, and many of them have been accomplished.

“I understand the importance of that corridor,” Gore said. “But it was established that Route 10 would be the gateway of the city.”

In her remarks, Gore alluded to the possible Walmart location.

“I do recall when that deal went bust,” she told Shah, adding that he was very supportive of getting the deal done.

Partin, who said he and his family own rental property throughout the city, called himself “the most hardline” on the decision to demolish not just Colonial Corner but the other seven properties on the spot-blight list.

“It’s a shame we have landlords and homeowners who would let their property decay,” Partin said.

Partin originally made a motion to tear down the shopping center, but Pelham then tried to make a substitute motion to delay action. Pelham’s motion failed on a 3-3 tie, which also served as an indicator that Partin’s original motion would encounter the same fate.

Randolph, who had supported Partin’s motion, then suggested a new proposal with several caveats. Council would delay a vote until the next meeting; however, it directed Shah to completely board up the structure and work with the city on a plan of action before that next meeting.

“I’m willing to give them a chance,” Randolph said. “But we need to set a deadline so there is not an open-ended time frame. If nothing else, then take it down.”

Partin cast the lone dissent on that motion.

Approached after the vote, Shah repeatedly declined to comment on the decision.

Since 2017, Hopewell’s spot-blight program has identified 53 blighted structures. Fourteen of them were rehabbed and 15 demolished. Of the 24 remaining on the list, eight were brought to council’s attention for a decision.

The city relies on six criteria in declaring spot-blight: public safety, structure integrity, fire hazard, locations in or near neighborhoods, general appearance and nuisance attraction.

In separate votes after the hearing, council ordered demolition of residential properties on South 13th Avenue, Sussex Drive, North 3rd Avenue and Lee Street. It delayed action on the fates of a residential property on Atlantic Street and a former business on Winston Churchill Drive after the property owners told councilors they either had started rehabbing the property or were willing to meet with the city to decide what to do.

By Bill AtkinsonAssistant Editor
The Progress-Index
Bill Atkinson can be reached at 804-722-5167 or batkinson@progress-index.com. On Twitter: @BAtkinsonpi