Developers plan to put apartments in Wainwright

NORFOLK

The historic Wainwright Building, the focus of a nasty court battle for much of the past year, would get a $40 million makeover if developers receive city approval.

Newport News developers John Biagas and Jeff Wassmer said they plan to team with Norfolk's Buddy Gadams to turn the 9-story, 83-year-old medical office tower into an apartment complex. The project will feature a rooftop with a dog-walking area, putting green and pool.

Developers delivered their plans to city officials Monday. They will need approval from the Design Review Board and the Planning Commission on minor alterations to the exterior and a nod from council to lease parking from the city.

Mayor Paul Fraim and Councilman Barclay C. Winn recently endorsed the project, saying it will bring nearly 300 new residents downtown and preserve a historic building.

The developers also have won support from the Freemason Street Area Association Civic League, whose executive board voted unanimously last week in favor of the project, said civic league head Jack Kavanaugh.

"The planners say that to have a very vibrant, successful downtown, you need 5,000 residents downtown, and this gets us closer to that number," Kavanaugh said.

Biagas said the project, located within steps of the Freemason light rail stop, will receive no city subsidy.

According to their plans, the developers will convert the office space into 119 apartments at a cost of about $20 million. A second phase would include building 80 apartments around a parking deck in an adjacent parking lot.

A federal judge stripped ownership of the Wainwright building from George Hranowskyj and Eric Menden in April after both men were charged with federal tax fraud. The charges emanated from a federal investigation into the Bank of the Commonwealth.

An investment group led by Gadams, Wassmer and Biagas bought a $6.8 million bank note on the building last year, but it was prohibited from foreclosing on the building after Menden and Hranowskyk filed for bankruptcy.

The investment group recently foreclosed on the building and have asked tenants to relocate. Biagas said they hope to begin refurbishing the building by the end of the year and to rent apartments next summer. He said he hopes work will begin on the second phase early next year.

Biagas said rents will vary between $1,000 and $2,000, with most apartments priced at about $1,200.

Kavanaugh said his neighborhood's only concern was parking. However, he said Gadams said his group would lease parking spaces for tenants from the city's nearby York Street parking garage.

"They're being smart about this," Kavanaugh said. "They're building the apartments in a way that they can be converted into condos. His prices are going to be reasonable. This is good for our neighborhood."

Biagas said the apartment complex will also have a club room, cyber cafe and fitness center. In addition to the facilities on the roof, there will be a designated area for tenants to entertain.

"It has magnificent views of downtown," Biagas said.

The building's interior, including the plumbing and electrical systems, has deteriorated in recent years, but Biagas said engineers determined that the building is structurally sound.

"It's a solid, very strong building," he said.

Biagas and Gadams are attempting to build another apartment complex near the East Beach neighborhood in East Ocean View, but they have encountered neighborhood opposition. The development of the 136-unit East Beach Marina Apartments has been put on hold while the city appeals a decision from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to give developers a wetlands permit.

Harry Minium, 757-446-2371, harry.minium@pilotonline.com


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