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One year after adoption of city master plan, Richmond prepares for zoning code overhaul, new district plans and redevelopment

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After two decades of steady growth, Richmond officials are hoping that a series of planning and zoning initiatives will keep the city on an upward trajectory.

It has been almost a year since the adoption of the Richmond 300 master plan, which outlines development goals and strategies to pursue leading up to the city’s tricentennial in 2037.

The city has completed only three planning projects tied to the 256-page document since then, according to a presentation by city planners to the City Council earlier this month. But as 2021 comes to a close, new resolutions, ordinances and projects associated with the Richmond 300 plan are on the horizon.

City planners say one of their biggest objectives over the next few years is an overhaul of the city’s zoning code to foster growth while preserving historic properties and creating new neighborhoods.

In the meantime, the city is preparing to rezone and introduce land-use plans next year for large swaths of several neighborhoods and districts that officials are targeting for redevelopment in Jackson Ward and Shockoe Bottom, and along Arthur Ashe Boulevard, East Main Street and West Broad Street.

Some council members, however, have questioned how the administration is choosing its priorities and whether some neighborhoods also in need of an uplift, such as those in the Hull Street corridor in South Richmond, are being neglected.

“At the end of the day, I think all these projects do in some way tie back to the master plan. But some of them might help us advance the big moves more than others,” said Kevin Vonck, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development Review.

Recently completed

Vonck and Maritza Pechin, a deputy planning director who helped guide the creation of the Richmond 300 plan as a consultant, outlined recently completed projects, work in progress and other planning initiatives that have yet to be scheduled.

The master plan is based on the ideas of city planners and more than 7,000 residents who attended meetings and submitted feedback.

It details land-use strategies to meet 17 goals, including protecting historic properties and natural resources, improving public transportation and pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, promoting tourism, and encouraging development to meet the demand for housing among residents of all income levels.

Vonck and Pechin said the council’s approval of sweeping zoning changes for properties along West Broad Street around the Science Museum of Virginia and Arthur Ashe Boulevard by The Diamond baseball stadium earlier this year marked the first milestones after adoption of the 300 plan.

The West Broad Street corridor rezoning was in process before the adoption of the master plan, going through fits and starts because of neighborhood opposition to proposed zoning changes that would have allowed buildings over 20 stories tall in some spots. Some residents were still displeased with other elements of the zoning despite a compromise that limited building heights to 12 stories or less.

The council recently passed a resolution asking the planning department to revisit the area and consider additional zoning changes, though some members raised concerns about it robbing time from other projects. Vonck and other administration officials said it could take some time to address given the department’s workload.

“If this is going on the list, it’s gonna be a lower priority than getting some of these big projects off the deck,” Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders said in an interview in September.

The Pulse Corridor

West of Interstate 195, the city is looking to rezone properties along West Broad Street toward Willow Lawn Drive and Staples Mill Road as envisioned in an older plan aimed at creating more high-density, pedestrian and transit-oriented development that can rise up to 12 stories along the GRTC Transit System’s Pulse bus rapid transit line.

The Pulse Corridor plan, originally adopted in 2017, also provides the framework for similar zoning plans the city is aiming to adopt around the Pulse station near Main Street Station.

Proposed legislation for both projects is targeted for a vote by the council this winter and summer, respectively.

Near the train station, the city is also fleshing out a small area plan and contemplating zoning changes to encourage new development on the large swath of surface parking lots in the area.

Shockoe Bottom

The city had been relatively quiet about its plans for Shockoe Bottom after former Mayor Dwight Jones’ plans for a major redevelopment project anchored by a baseball stadium there fell apart about seven years ago.

A new plan, this time centered on the creation of a museum and memorial campus dedicated to the district’s ignoble legacy as the core of the country’s second-largest slave market in the decades before the Civil War, is beginning to gain traction.

The museum, according to a draft small area plan for the district, would be located on top of the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail behind Main Street Station.

The council is expected to vote on the draft plan for the area within the next few months, but legislation to change the zoning may not come up until later in the year.

The Diamond District

The city this fall started marketing a new neighborhood after rezoning several parcels around The Diamond baseball stadium earlier this year.

Originally presented as part of the Scott’s Addition area, where breweries, offices, restaurants and housing have boomed over the last decade in what formerly was a mostly industrial section, the city is now pitching the creation of The Diamond District as its own neighborhood.

The district, as envisioned by city planners, would surround a new baseball stadium for the Richmond Flying Squirrels. The Double-A baseball team says it needs a new stadium by 2025 in order to comply with facility standards set by Major League Baseball, which has operational control of the minor leagues.

Initial plans call for a new ballpark on city-owned land to be shared by the Double-A Richmond Flying Squirrels and Virginia Commonwealth University. It also would be part of VCU’s plans for an Athletics Village that would be on the site of the Virginia ABC facility on Hermitage Road.

City officials are planning to begin soliciting development proposals for the area before the end of the calendar year.

Downtown Richmond

Mayor Levar Stoney and administration officials were disappointed last year when the council rejected the proposed $2.5 billion Navy Hill Coliseum redevelopment plan aimed at restoring the city’s downtown core.

The city has adopted a piecemeal approach to downtown redevelopment, starting with the $3.5 million sale of the city’s Public Safety Building at 500 N. 10th St. The sale is slated to foster a $325 million redevelopment project anchored by a new VCU Health tower.

Seeking to expand on that project, the city has developed a draft small area plan covering many other downtown parcels. Those plans envision the demolition of the Richmond Coliseum to make way for new development, including a central downtown park and a new City Hall.

No other redevelopment projects are on deck, but the draft small area plan is slated for a council vote within the next month or two.

Jackson Ward

A major neighborhood project imagined in the Richmond 300 plan is reconnecting the historic Jackson Ward neighborhood by building an expansive deck bridge over Interstate 95.

As the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority prepares for the redevelopment of the Gilpin Court community north of the highway, the city has started working on a small area plan and the deck bridge concept.

The development of the interstate highway more than 60 years ago divided the historically Black district, isolating the public housing community from the rest of the neighborhood, which was once known popularly as “the Harlem of the South.”

The deck bridge concept, city planners and project advocates say, would fuse the two communities back together so that they feel as one.

The presentation planning officials gave earlier this month says there is currently no target date set, but the Richmond 300 plan slates the 2022-2023 fiscal year as a time frame for the city to develop a feasibility study and seek federal and state funding for the project.

What about South Side?

Other Richmond 300 projects scheduled for next year include a new riverfront plan, as well as new regulations for accessory dwelling units and short-term rentals sold through platforms like Airbnb, plus archaeological work.

What’s missing, however, are plans for neighborhoods in South Richmond, several council members said in the meeting earlier this month while noting that they did not see much information about the Hull Street corridor.

The presentation mentions several other South Side neighborhoods and districts highlighted for redevelopment in the Richmond 300 plan, like Southside Plaza and Stony Point Fashion Park, though they have not been scheduled for work yet.

“I would love to sit down and discuss with your office the recommendations, because I am challenged by us going through processes that we never follow up on,” said 9th District Councilman Michael Jones. “I want to make sure we do that and implement some of those things.”

Vonck and Pechin said the priorities as presented are based on what officials think will help the city achieve overarching goals in the master plan, but other city departments are working with planning staff on other projects to implement its strategies and recommendations. Vonck also said moves by the private sector could change some of the timelines.

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