In 2006, residents successfully achieved Old and Historic Neighborhood (OHN) status for Springhill. Accordingly, new construction plans must be approved by the Commission of Architectural Review (CAR) to ensure their compliance with the OHN design guidelines and their general fit with the historic character of the neighborhood. This means residents don’t always get to use their property precisely as they see fit, with CAR approval required for matters as simple as replacing a window.
However, significant loopholes in this system appear to exist for moneyed developers. Dobrin Properties is building a house at 617 W 21st Street in our neighborhood. From the beginning, this developer has not been honest about his intentions in the neighborhood. Time and again the city has failed to enforce the city code regulations for OHN on his project, no matter how loudly we protest. The strategy of simply ignoring the city and the neighbors has worked well so far, and the city must address this situation fairly and seriously in order to prevent further damage to the neighborhood.
There are two chief problems:
- Dobrin did not dig a deep enough foundation, raising the house’s total height several feet above what the plans say, and
- Dobrin did not build the porch to match the height of neighboring porches as required.
Because of these problems, we asked the Planning and Development Review (PDR) department to get involved. These discrepancies somehow were not caught in building inspections that PDR claims to have conducted (we have an outstanding FOIA request for the foundation inspection records). While issuing a stop work order, they have twice performed “internal reviews”. These reviews always result in a statement that Dobrin is in “substantial compliance”, even while any layman can see the issues clearly.
On March 25, 2019, PDR sent the neighborhood an email outlining the final resolution. Dobrin could simply pile dirt up on the foundation in order to artificially raise the ground level, thereby making the height of the building compliant. The house is located on a property already featuring significant slope and elevation (we are, after all, on Springhill). The dirt-piling option will obviously result in erosion and runoff, setting aside the absurdity of the approach on its face.
When we took our case to City Council that day, we got significant support from Councilmembers Hilbert, Agelasto, and Gray to increase the scrutiny on this project and get some sort of more workable resolution from PDR. However, in defiance of the stop work order, the developer quickly and illegally erected a second floor on the property. All day long we furiously emailed PDR to send an inspector, but nobody showed up. The day after that, neighbors discovered prefabricated rafters ready to be put up.
Residents and developers should have to abide by the same guidelines and regulations. When residents are out of compliance, we must reverse any noncompliant work. There is no appeal, no ability to get the city to call our work “substantially compliant”. That loophole seems reserved for developers who know the system’s weaknesses. This inconsistent enforcement of the guidelines makes it difficult to ensure that the character of our neighborhood is preserved.
If Dobrin wishes to build a different house than they represented to CAR, those plans should go before the Commission again. That would allow residents to weigh in on the actual building they are constructing, instead of the plans for a house they never intended to build. What is the point of having CAR if the guidelines only apply to the residents who do the least amount of changes to the neighborhood?
All we ask is that the city enforce its own rules and protect us from a developer seeking to exploit our historic neighborhood. If you’d like to help, please write to Kim Chen at PDR as well as CAR and city council. Also, please spread the word about this on social media. Thanks for your support.
- Kimberly Chen, head planner at PDR: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mayor Levar Stoney: RVAMayor@richmondgov.com
- The Commission of Architectural Review: DCDHistoricPreservation@RichmondGov.com
- City Council members: http://www.richmondgov.com/CityCouncil/contacts.aspx
written by Jeremy Weiland