By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The empty patch of land at 645 Church Street, where the Willis Office Building once stood, will be redeveloped into a new apartment complex called Aspire.
On February 16, Norfolk city leaders and representatives of the prime developer, the Richman Group Development (RGD) Corporation, and its partner locally, ISSA of Virginia, Inc., participated in the recent groundbreaking ceremony.
RGD is based in Connecticut. Issa of Virginia, Inc., partnering with RGD, is an African-American-owned, non-profit, church-based Community Development Corporation created by Norfolk’s Historic First Baptist Church on Bute Street, which sits nearby the site.
The Aspire Development is part of the massive St. Paul’s Transformation Project. The first phase of the project is underway on acreage where the Tidewater Gardens Public Housing community once sat and land nearby facing St. Paul’s Blvd.
The new development, according to a press release from RGD, will have 85 apartment units. According to RGD, 21 of the new units will be reserved for former residents of Tidewater Gardens who were moved out of that site to make way for the site’s redevelopment.
When the St. Paul’s Redevelopment Project was being planned, concerns about the level of minority participation were expressed by Black civic and political leaders.
According to RGD’s press statement, “Aspire is being developed by the Richman Group Development Corporation, a company committed to diversity.”
“Fifty-four percent of its staff are minorities,” the statement said. “Forty-six percent are women.
The developer will use local minority partners in the building process, keeping with the city of Norfolk’s commitment to economic inclusion as part of the St. Paul’s Area Transformation Project.”
The church’s non-profit corporation was created in 2001, according to its website.
“ISSA,” the press release said, “is engaged in economic development, education community organizing and the real estate development for the lower income resident to enhance the quality of life.”
ISSA is a Swahili male name meaning “Salvation, God Saves.”
“The Richman Group is excited to partner with the City of Norfolk, and many other stakeholders on a meaningful development that will hopefully be an exciting addition to the St. Paul’s area of Norfolk,” says Andre Blakley, President, TRG Community Development, an affiliate of the Richman group of Companies. “The ideal would not be possible without our local partner, ISSA of Virginia, Inc., which also decided on the Aspire name for the project.”
In September of 2021, after the Willis building was condemned and emptied of occupants, the city launched plans to raze the five-story structure.
For years the building was in disrepair due to neglect and storm damage inflicted on it.
In an email, to the New Journal and Guide in 2018, a city spokesperson noted, “the structural issues in the building included flooding on the bottom floor (pipe burst), roof caving in, mold everywhere, mechanical and electrical issues, inoperable elevators.”
The owners of the Willis building began moving tenants out of the 57,000 square feet building in early 2018.
At that time, the Harvey Lindsey Real Estate Company was managing the building for an entity in California that bought it from the now defunct Willis Broadcasting Company, months earlier.
By mid-August 2018, only two tenants remained in the building.
According to one tenant, the leader of the International Black Women’s Congress, (IBWC) Dr. La Frances Rogers Rose, the owners said it would not renew their leases and gave them until November 31 to vacate, a fact the real estate company verified.
The 645 Building was originally built by J. Hugo Madison, a lawyer for the NAACP and a businessman, according to former Norfolk Councilman Paul Riddick. Madison owned the New Journal and Guide newspaper for a brief span in the early-1970s, having purchased it from Bishop Levi E. Willis, who founded Willis Broadcasting. Madison sold it to Dr. Milton A. Reid in 1974. Since 1991, the newspaper has been owned by Brenda H. Andrews.
At one time, as part of one of the city’s ongoing efforts to redevelop that section of downtown, the Bank of America reportedly had designs on using it as a branch.
But those plans changed and Madison, according to Riddick, sold it in 1987 to Willis Broadcasting.
Willis was a prominent leader in the national and local Church of God In Christ (COGIC), and a businessman whose enterprising broadcasting business spread through several states.
When Willis died in 2009, the ownership of the building was transferred to the family.
The building was sold in the summer of 2017 to investors in California, according to Ned Williams, Vice President of Investment Real Estate at Harvey Lindsay Commercial Real Estate.