The residents of Springhill have welcomed newcomers for as long as our historic neighborhood has existed. Whether they are purchasing a home, renting, or developing new long-term projects, our community thrives on the vibrancy that newcomers introduce. Like any neighborhood, we look to those newcomers to contribute positively to our little corner of southside. When we see anybody threatening it, whether that’s burglarizing homes, littering, or otherwise spoiling the nature of our neighborhood, we stand up and speak out.
Petty crime is something we’ve been struggling with for some time, but there are other kinds of attacks that can be at least as damaging without being illegal. Because of our central location in the city and our view of the river and skyline, developers have been encroaching on our neighborhood for decades. Sometimes a development contributes to our neighborhood, and we are able to work with the developer to ensure everybody’s interests are met. Other times we have had to fight developers who want to shoehorn their fast money projects into the neighborhood.
The pending development of the Richmond Overlook apartment complex on the 600 block of Cowardin Avenue unfortunately falls in the latter category. It is a classic case of tax credit farming to dump yet more dissonant construction on a small neighborhood that is already doing its part to support a diversity of Richmond citizens.
First of all, Springhill is an incredibly dense neighborhood — as dense as Hoboken, NJ between the two private apartments and one public housing complex abutting our boundaries. Perhaps this is why the lots at 600 Cowardin are zoned for commercial, not residential, development. Southside needs more businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, etc. to serve its residents, many of whom have to travel miles without a car to go shopping — yet what we’re getting instead is one of three large apartment complexes being built within a mile of us. While Richmond Overlook includes a bit of office space as a perfunctory justification for building residential units on commercial lots, it is clearly against the spirit of any reasonable reading of the zoning regulations.
We are not opposed to development in principle and have worked with respectful developers in the past to the benefit of our neighborhood. Had we been included in the planning and approval process by the developer, city, or the VHDA (the entity awarding Bridgeland the tax credits), we might have been to find a mutual accommodation. The developer, Gary Hammond of the Atlanta-based Bridgeland Development, was only gracious enough to host a meeting with us a few evenings ago — after his project had already been approved. We were formally presented with the project three days prior to when Bridgeland was to submit the plan of development to the city. At those times in the project where our input could have made a real difference, the city, VHDA and the developer excluded us.
Besides, given that this is Section 42 subsidized housing, it’s clear that the developer wouldn’t be doing this project were it not for the free money thrown at him by the government. We already have public housing in our neighborhood, so it’s not as if we’re averse to low-income folks. However, the rents that Bridgeland says tenants will be charged are comparable to those at the two existing complexes — and vacancies abound. Indeed, Richmond in number five in a CNBC list of emptiest cities in the country. Our city had a 19% rental vacancy rate for the first quarter of 2012. Richmond is fourth in the nation for empty rental properties. The idea that this development is serving some genuine need is laughable.
In addition to the issue of population density and rental vacancies, parking is also a concern. Many residents already have a tough time parking close to their house, between all the apartment residents and the intense traffic of James River Park System visitors. We have even considered getting the city to issue parking permits. Richmond Overlook has one parking space for each unit. What about two car households? What about guests? The location of the complex so close to Cowardin permits no on street parking anywhere adjacent to it — except in our neighborhood.
The parking issue dovetails with a general sense of sloppy planning overall. Richmond has had a comprehensive land use plan for a decade, and this development could not conflict with it more. Specifically, the plan mentions the following:
- “Vacant land within an existing residential area should be developed with uses reflective of the surrounding residential uses”
- “Other than the multi-family use identified on the Land Use Plan map in Old Manchester and Blackwell, no new multi-family is recommended for development in the Old South District”
- “Where neighborhood support exists, design controls should be encouraged to preserve existing historic neighborhoods from inappropriate development / design”
In addition to the incompatibility of this project with the Master Plan, Bridgeland’s record on past projects like this — especially in urban areas — is pretty abysmal. The city is no better: this lot is encountered immediately on crossing the Lee Bridge, which many drivers traverse at dangerous speeds. Countless accidents have occurred on this small section of one of Richmond’s major traffic arteries. A residential building so close to this corridor is a recipe for tragedy, and we are amazed both that a responsible builder would propose it and that the city would allow it.
We understand the way the wind is blowing here, and we’d like to have a positive relationship with Hammond and Bridgeland. But that means open and forthright dealings, not sneaking projects past us and then dropping them on our lap. If we cannot stop this development or improve it, then we hope our example will serve as a wakeup call to other Richmond neighborhoods to watch the bureaucrats at City Hall like hawks. Beware of moneyed intruders who only see your neighborhood as a background for their latest tax-subsidized boondoggle.