The Richmond City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to spend $438,000 to protect the turn-of-the-century Winehaven cottages in Point Molate ahead of the rainy season and predicted increased rainfall associated with El Niño.
The cottages, built to house winery workers at what was once the world’s largest winery, are located in a National Register historic district. Built between 1907 and 1919, they later housed military families when the Navy acquired Point Molate for a fuel depot during World War II. The base closed in 1995 under the U.S. Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure Act. Ownership was transferred to the city in 2003.
In April, Winehaven Trust, a historic preservation group headed by Tom Butt and Rosemary Corbin, both former Richmond mayors, filed a lawsuit claiming the city was not living up to its obligation to maintain the buildings in good repair.
Butt said the city is responsible for maintaining the buildings in the Winehaven Historic District. He said he filed the lawsuit to force Richmond to honor a provision in the federal court settlement agreement about Point Molate.
“Ever since, the city attorney and other people have been trying to find some way to avoid liability under my lawsuit. This is their latest effort. They are looking for a minor amount of money and permission from the city council to make some minor repairs,” he said.
Richmond hired Wiss, Janney, and Elstner Associates to provide architectural and structural consulting services for the evaluation and stabilization of the buildings at Point Molate and the Cafeteria building from WWII Richmond Shipyard No. 3.
WJE concluded there would be that significant cost involved, said Richmond City Attorney Dave Aleshire at the meeting. WJE estimated that repairing the cottage roofs would cost over $1.8 million. At the time, the city did not have the funding to complete the restoration project.
“We worked with WJE to see if there is another plan to deal with the preservation of the cottages over the course of the rainy season,” Aleshire said.
WJE found that the structures at Winehaven are generally in a state of disrepair and have sustained damage in many places, allowing water and animals to enter and further deteriorate the historic buildings.
Aleshire recommended a plan to repair cottage roofs with moderate damage to reduce or eliminate the need to tarp, while other more damaged roofs would be tarped to prevent damage during the winter months.
Aleshire said money should be spent on preservation, not litigation, and said should the council decide not to move forward, the Winehaven Trust would likely proceed with the litigation.
“I have made it clear to them that we are moving as fast as we can to get this work done. That it is our preference to spend money on actually correcting the structures instead of spending money on the courts,” he said. “I believe if we continue on the path we’ve been on and take action tonight, we can get something in place that the litigation will be on hold.”
Daniel Butt, who represents the Winehaven Trust, said if the city can properly mitigate and prevent further damages from the El Nino rains this winter, Winehaven Trust will agree to hold off filing for an injunction and will start discussing longer-term plans.
"We have been in regular contact with the city attorney’s office and have granted the city several extensions to file a response, each based on performance metrics moving this forward – which is to say the city has performed, but just barely," Butt said. "We were about to put this in front of the judge this week if the city did not act last night. The next step is whether they will actually do the work that has now been funded."
The city has not invested a large amount of money in the Point Molate property in the past because it anticipated that development would take place in the area and would restore the property. This would have meant that the city would not have to invest in the property itself.
“Although there was a development agreement that was approved, the city ultimately determined that the Winehaven entity did not meet the requirements of the agreement in terms of the conditions that were necessary to purchase the property. The purchase did not go through,” Aleshire said.
Councilmember Cesar Zepeda said it was unfortunate the city is being sued and is being told what to do instead of being able to prioritize the needs of the community. Zepeda also questioned why the council was not preserving the privately owned International Hotel, which was destroyed in a massive fire this year.
“There has been a community leader of ours who has advocated for a hotel to be preserved. It just happens to be an African-American hotel. We are not talking about funding for that particular place that we should be preserving as well. It holds just as much history in our city, if not more than these particular buildings,” Zepeda said.
The council member suggested the council could use the money to pave roads, hire more staff, install new lighting and accessible sidewalks, or build new housing.
“From what I’m gathering, we have no other options. The city is being stronghold here. We are going to get sued if we don’t put this money toward this project,” Zepeda said.
Councilmember Doria Robinson said it is important for community members to understand why the council voted to protect Winehaven cottages.
“This is not necessarily the priority of the council, but we are in a particular position due to the lawsuit,” Robinson said.
Mayor Eduardo Martinez agreed with the council members who spoke about the significance of the International Hotel.
“I want to agree with the last three council members who have spoken especially about the Pullman Hotel, which has a lot more historical significance than Winehaven. It is in the center of the Pullman District. I think it is criminal to not put the Pullman Hotel before any other historically significant edifice in the City of Richmond,” Martinez said.
City staff believed work on the cottages could begin within the next month.
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