Well, this story appeared in Richmond BizSense yesterday, only a few days after the story of the Georges versus the Snows, which I am also calling "the Tempsford Road Kerfuffle." I was struck when I read this story and the comments, in comparison to the story covering the feud over the Snow's special use permit application to subdivide their lot. Ironies will be addressed later, most likely in another post.
The Victory Rug story outlines the dispute between the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association ("OHNA") and a developer, Guy Blundon of CMB Development, over the conversion of a commercial building into apartments.
Let me be clear on the front end. I don't know Mr. Blundon. This is not personal. I am sure he is a lovely human being. He may do nothing but "high-quality developments wherever he's been in the Richmond area," and he may indeed have a "social conscience," as one ** cough ** commercial real estate broker commenter noted. However, what is indisputable is he does not live in Oregon Hill.
Blundon wishes to turn the old Victory Rug building into 18 apartments, with an adjacent 18 space parking lot. The proposed unit mix is one studio apartment, 6 one bedrooms, and 11 two bedrooms.
The neighborhood proposes 6 apartments and 2 single family homes, which would be supported by the current R-7 zoning.
The issues: The neighbors say the project is too dense for the urban neighborhood, doesn't provide enough parking, and they don't want more VCU students. The developer says the 18 units proposed are the bare minimum necessary to make the project work financially, and he plans to rent to young professionals.
Let's unpack this.
First, some basic facts and principles to underpin the analysis:
Oregon Hill is a dense, urban residential neighborhood of early Victorian (1890s+) rowhouses tucked between VCU's Monroe Park campus and the river. The neighborhood was a blue-collar, working class neighborhood for families who worked in the tobacco warehouses, manufacturing facilities, and docks in Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom. Because of the nature of the neighborhood and the demographic of the residents for whom it was developed, there is not nearly as much masonry construction as there was in more affluent Victorian neighborhoods of the same period, such as the Fan and Jackson Ward. Much of the neighborhood housing stock is frame. Consequently, the property values have traditionally been lower than in other neighborhoods immediately proximate to VCU, most notably the Fan.
Oregon Hill has already suffered some serious urban planning damage from the creation of the Downtown Expressway, which cut a swath right through the middle of the neighborhood. The historically African American neighborhood of Jackson Ward suffered as well. I don't think it's at all unreasonable to say these neighborhoods bore the brunt of these massive development projects because they were poorer and minority, and did not have the clout of their more affluent neighbors, such as the Fan.
In the last _____ [10? 15?] years, Oregon Hill has transitioned from a predominantly owner-occupant residential neighborhood to become a residential neighborhood with an unusually heavy influx of VCU students and other renters. As in any college community, in the areas surrounding the university, there are tensions between the home owners and the student renters. Think noise, parties, drunkenness, petty vandalism, and trash, plus tons of extra cars. And VCU's rapid expansion (over 20,000+ students) and transformation from a commuter college to a true residential urban university means there are very real growing pains exacerbating the typical "Town vs. Gown" challenges.
I think one could fairly argue that Oregon Hill, and the property owners of Oregon Hill, have born a disproportionate share of the burden from the creation of the Downtown Expressway and the expansion of VCU.
[NOTE: I'll have to validate this later with some citations. This post is getting too long as it is. But especially in the Trani era, VCU did pretty much as it pleased in its insatiable march to expand its footprint. VCU expanded into the neighborhood, despite the OHNA objections, and despite previous representations from President Trani himself. Remember the controversy over tearing down historic stables? Or the construction of the VCU gym at old city Stadium? The Carver neighborhood is now suffering the same fate].
So, with that background and underpinning, let's unpack this Victory Rug proposal.
- The likely tenants will not be "young professionals," as Mr. Blundon claims. Let's be realistic. There is a strong likelihood they will be VCU students.
- 18 parking spaces is not enough space to accommodate all the project's residents. That's one space for each UNIT. However, you should be calculating car needs based on BEDROOMS. So, that would be a need for 28 parking spaces.
- Are there REALLY 18 legitimate parking spaces? If these parking spaces look anything like spaces I've seen in some other urban deals, and aren't even appropriate for a compact car, as indicated by one commenter, that is a legitimate concern raised by OHNA.
- Commenters claim that Mr. Blundon was told BEFORE he purchased the property that the neighborhood association would oppose a project they considered too dense. I presume there were discussions about what "too dense" meant. If that is indeed the case, then I agree with the commenter that says Mr. Blundon now can't fall back on some position that 18 units is the bare minimum that is financially feasible. He knew the risks.
People may not believe me, but I am actually pro-development, and especially urban infill development. I think recycling old buildings is the greenest thing we can do. Creating appropriate living spaces in urban areas means - theoretically, at least - eating up less greenfields with sprawling suburban development.
BUT, I also believe residents and particularly home owners have the right to oppose any development in THEIR neighborhood that requires a special use permit. If the OHNA says this development is too dense, and has legitimate, reasonable, and rational reasons why, the City Council should give the neighborhood association's official position great deference. I mean, really? How dare these commenters essentially suggest, if not outright say, that the people who live in this area and own their own homes should be grateful that this developer is going to come in and put up some shiny new apartments?
Here some examples:
"It seems like this property could potentially bring better residents to the neighborhood than those who currently reside in the unkept rowhomes."
"...[f]rom my perspective, a new small apartment would be better than what is there now…a run-down vacant commercial property. Richmond on a whole seems to run into this a lot. The people who live in the neighborhoods have a vision for what they want but not the financial ability to do it. Is it worth it as a community member to allow the improvement of your neighborhood even if it doesn’t necessarily match your vision?"
Condescension, much? I guarantee these commenters don't live in Oregon Hill. They are also probably the first people who would be jumping up and down if any such project were coming to THEIR neighborhood. Shades of Tempsford Lane. But my disdain for the attitude expressed by those commenters will need to be worked out another day. For now, what to do about the Victory Rug project?
Maybe there is a middle way. How about compromise? I understand that it has to work financially for the developer. And I know I haven't seen a pro forma. But the property owners in the neighborhood have to live with the results long after the developer is gone, and have deeper and detailed insights into what the true day-to-day issues are going to be. In the interest of trying to be creative, here are some ideas:
- If it's really supposed to be for single professionals, how about 18 one bedroom units? That makes it more likely that there is only one car per unit. Not a perfect solution, but worth a discussion.
- If the developer intended for it to be for young professionals, make it an age-restricted community. No one may occupy a unit unless they are 25 or older.
- I believe the area is zone for parking. So you can't legally park on the street for longer than an hour without a parking sticker. So, how about as a condition of special use, make the apartment tenants ineligible for a parking sticker?
- Can you give your apartment dwellers a discount or a credit if they certify that they are car-free? Maybe that's the wackiest idea yet, but if you are trying to reach a compromise, maybe we have to throw out some nutty ideas.
What do y'all think?