The Richmond City Council later this month will consider allowing more high-rise buildings along West Broad Street around VCU and the Science Museum of Virginia.
Richmond planning officials withdrew similar plans last year in response to widespread community opposition. But they revived the series of zoning ordinances with several tweaks to mollify area residents who feared that the changes would allow 20-story buildings to tower over their smaller, two- and three-level homes on parallel streets near the West Broad Street corridor.
The Planning Commission earlier this month endorsed the plan, which is bounded generally by Arthur Ashe Boulevard on the west; I-95 to the North; Belvidere Street to the east; and the alley between West Grace Street and West Broad Street to the south.
The rezoning proposals concentrated in parcels north of Broad Street from North Harrison Street to DMV Drive would allow up to 12-story buildings.
Zoning plans along the southern half of Broad Street would generally allow for a mix of buildings of up to four and five stories.
Other parcels in the Carver neighborhood and along Leigh Street would be rezoned to allow more mid-size buildings, some of which could rise up to six stories closer to Hermitage Road and Belvidere Street.
The dispute over the zoning case centers the city’s desire for more growth near its rapid bus line, and homeowners worried that high-rise apartments would transform the look and feel of their neighborhood.
“It’s well known that this was a very highly debated paper when it came out last year,” Kevin Vonck, the city’s acting planning director, said of the proposed zoning changes. “One of the things we did was go out to the civic associations before we put pen to paper writing a new proposal. I think the proposal that’s on the table now ... addresses a lot of the concerns that were brought up during the process in 2020.”
Kerthy Hearn, a member of the Historic West Grace Street Association, said she and others are generally fine with the proposed zoning in her neighborhood, but they are still concerned about building setback standards that could make the alleys between properties on West Broad Street and Grace Street even more narrow.
While there have been some improvements to the plan, according to her and others in her civic association, she and some of her neighbors said they’re still bothered by the process so far. They said they also worry that allowing too much growth could alienate homeowners and lead to an influx of renters and negligent property owners.
“People in apartments are usually transients. That’s another concern I have. If we just build big buildings, they’re going to be filled with transients who enjoy the city while they’re single and then move to one of the counties when they have a family,” she said. “That bothers me. It doesn’t build stability.”
Hearn and Rex Scudder, who owns several properties on West Grace Street and lives there, noted that the street’s reputation has changed since they moved into the community over 30 years ago, describing the criminal activity, decrepit buildings and prostitution that used to be commonplace there.
“What makes the neighborhood really turn are a certain number of homes that are owner-occupied. ... That’s what makes the neighborhood work for everybody,” Scudder said. “It isn’t going to kill us if they don’t bend on the setback, but it’s just another chip. There’s so many reasons to not live downtown.”
The rezoning proposals are based on the Pulse Corridor Plan and the Richmond 300 comprehensive master plan, which the City Council adopted in 2018 and 2020. Despite the City Council previously agreeing to the rezoning in principle, the legislative body repeatedly punted the ordinance before the planning department withdrew it in December.
The goal of the rezoning is to create a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly environment around each GRTC Pulse bus station by allowing more high-density development and creating design standards that, among other things, encourage retail development and building entrances at the street level and appropriate setbacks for residential buildings to allow for landscaping in an urban setting.
The city has already adopted some of the Pulse zoning plan’s recommendations, starting with changes in the Scott’s Addition area, followed by changes in Monroe Ward and the Arts District last summer.
The zoning would also align with some new developments the city has approved through special-use permits, such as a 12-story apartment complex at the intersection of West Broad and Lombardy streets that’s under construction.
“I think it is best to make sure that that zoning is in line with where ... we want the development to occur,” Vonck said. “One of the goals here is to reduce the number of special-use permits to build pretty much what is already there in the built environment.”
While the city delayed the process to revise the zoning ordinances, some Planning Commission members and city officials said they are eager to finish the project after years of deliberation.
“I’m not trying to be dismissive, but we’ve got to get the zoning to catch up with these plans,” said Commissioner Elizabeth Greenfield. “Staff has done a lot to try to meet some common ground. At some point, I think we need to move forward.”
Among those supporting the changes is the Richmond Association of Realtors.
In a letter to the Planning Commission last month, Joh Gehlbach, the association’s director of government affairs, said the zoning plan could help address the city’s affordable housing crisis.
“The inability of supply to meet demand is driving housing costs out of reach for many Richmonders and potential Richmonders,” Gehlbach said in the letter. “Like many localities across the nation, Richmond desperately needs more housing. This rezoning is essential to addressing our housing shortage. ... The rezoning is appropriately placed and well designed.”
There is, however, some debate about whether the proposed zoning would actually create more affordable housing.
The Partnership for Smarter Growth, a Richmond-based advocacy group interested in development through the region, is generally supportive of the higher density development in the area.
Yet, the organization thinks the zoning ordinance falls short by not requiring developers to commit to housing affordability targets or cash payments in lieu of them, said PSG policy coordinator Sebastian Shetty.
“By rezoning the entire corridor at once and not incorporating an incentive mechanism for including affordable housing and other community amenities like public squares and parks, the city gives up its ability to negotiate on behalf of the public good in exchange for the value created through upzoning,” Shetty said. “We are strongly supportive of well-designed infill development, but we are also committed to equity and accessibility for all.”
Residents in the Carver neighborhood north of Broad Street also have concerns about the proposed plans. In a public hearing last week, Jerome Legions, president of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League, asked that the Planning Commission delay its vote on the zoning ordinance.
Legions said city planners had not given enough of a clear explanation of the proposed changes for residents in Carver, which he described as a community mostly of single-family homes.
He said the special-use permit review process for larger developments in his neighborhood, such as the Siegel Center and a few larger buildings on Marshall Street, allowed the community to get involved in discussions for individual projects. The new zoning would allow such projects by-right, which could allow developers to circumvent public engagement.
“What we’re asking for is an opportunity to really sit down with the planning department,” Legions said. “No one has really talked about the rationale. ... [Past meetings] have been more of a presentation than a dialogue.”
The majority of the people who recently contacted the Planning Commission, in about 10 of the 15 or so emails it received, asked for amendments or a delay in its vote.
One resident in the area, Erica Sims, wrote in support of the rezoning plan.
“I think it is a great and thoughtful plan that will move our community to the next level in a well-designed way,” Sims wrote. “There are many people with concerns around traffic, parking, scale of buildings, density, etc. I don’t see that their concerns have much validity and I think they lack the imagination necessary to conceive of a well-designed, growing city.”
The City Council will consider the zoning ordinance at its next regular meeting on July 26.
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