City Council recap: zoning in Church Hill & Library funding

Last night’s City Council meeting was a scene of heavy debate over zoning in Church Hill and the future of public libraries citywide.

Last night’s City Council meeting was a scene of heavy debate over zoning in Church Hill and the future of public libraries citywide.

Fulton Hill Properties, a Richmond developer responsible for such properties as Fulton Hill Studios, Canal Crossing, and Lady Byrd Hat requested a special use permit to expand the 100-year-old now-abandoned structure at 310 North 33rd Street. Fulton Hill plans to turn the former school into a 50 unit multi-family dwelling. Locals came out in opposition and to show support.

Thomas Stratton, a member of the Marine Corps, redevelops properties near the site. He, much like the 10 other citizens who showed up to oppose the project, worried about the small-size of the units and the number of available parking spaces.

“We’re here to…express our concern over the excessive number of units under one building, and the negative impacts on parking and infrastructure of of the community.”

Stratton cited a city planning commission report that denied the projects special zoning request last week.

“The high concentration of population would be detrimental of the safety, health, and general welfare of the city…[and] will stifle future growth in the area. Homeowners and investors do not want to renovate an overly developed area where there are no parking spaces left.”

Jaclyn Gravlin renovates and rents properties around Richmond. The attorney and former Marine officer said she understood special permit codes after her own experiences with them, and she felt this project was not in compliance.

“There are six requirements that must be met before City Council may grant a special use permit. When the planning commission met last monday they found this project, which proposes more than double the number of units allowed under current zone laws, fails to meet a number of criteria for a special use permit.”

Much like the other folks who came to show angst toward the project, Gravlin said two larger concerns beyond zoning and unit numbers stood out.

“The issue essentially comes down to over crowding of land and parking. The neighborhood cannot simply absorbed 50 — or more — additional vehicles.”

It was not a one sided argument. Seven people, including Fulton Hill Properties CFO Christopher Gunn, came out to support the project. Gunn said the plans were consistent with the policies established by the last three Commissions of Buildings and that the rest of the country was shifting toward smaller and more affordable housing. Gunn said the target audience for the properties was VCU grad students and young people working downtown.

Gunn said larger units, while admittedly harder to rent, would also “exclude people with limited economic resources to live there.”

Santa Haze, who lives at 33rd street opposite the proposed project, came before Council with her baby in her arms. Haze moved to Church Hill 3 years ago, and said she remembered a rougher town.

“There was a lot of loitering and crime; we witnessed a shooting during day time.” said Haze. “But it is changing: people are buying properties and are moving in. By accepting this company to bring in more people into our neighborhood it will make it even safer, and it will encourage growth in our neighborhood.”

East End 7th District Councilwoman Cynthia Newbile told council she had a chance to walk through the proposed building and believed there was ample room for the proposed units, but she understood the concerns of the community.

“It is a delicate balance. You want responsible development in our community. We certainly don’t want to create hardship with on street parking…I think this project will take a building that’s been sitting for a wile and move it to the surface so that it does not attract the kind of challenges that empty buildings do…it is my recommendation that Council approves this project.”

Wile most of City Council agreed with Newbile to approve the project, West End 1st District Councilman Bruce Tyler felt otherwise, saying there was too much confusion over the issue.

“I’ve read the staff report, and I’ve heard things from neighbors about parking. I also heard the same issues about the square footage…I heard 388, I heard 200 additional square feet, and now with 588, so things are kind of moving around. I’m not, at this point, comfortable voting in favor of this…I would prefer the developer and the neighborhood sit together and try to work through the issues.”

Council approved the project, with only Tyler voting against.

A small debate erupted between Council members over a proposed $300,000 investment from the City’s budget to provide for the “planning and design of the East End Library project.” None of the council members opposed funding libraries, but as Tyler put it, it was a matter of fair funding across the city.

“I feel very strongly about the fact that we should be looking at these libraries in total, not one by one…and thats what’s going on here in my opinion.”

Tyler feared investment now, in times of economic crisis, would not leave money for the actual production and building of the library improvements.

“If you design a building in 2010, but don’t start building until 2013, you’re gonna have to go back and go through the process again because technology changes plus codes change. And so what we are gonna be doing is investing $300,000 with no hope we will come behind and fund it…we should hold off with this paper until we see what is happening with all the libraries so we understand we are not wasting taxpayer’s dollars.”

Southside 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammel felt similarly.

“How can it be fair to help a library in one district and not help the other. Libraries are important everywhere all over the city.”

But South Central 9th District Councilman Doug Conner saw the development of a plan as playing catch up with similar library projects in the West End.

“Its a matter of fairness, it’s to buy property, which, if they bought it would put them at the same position as the West End library. We don’t have the money to build either library at this time…but what I see right now, passing this paper will get Ms. Newbile’s District on target.”

President Graziano, sensing a genuine lack of consent from Council, called for the paper to be continued until the next meeting; Council unanimously agreed.

Check out Church Hill People’s News form more conversation on redevelopment of Chimborazo Elementary »

(All photos by John Garcia)

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Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is a freelance journalist living in the Bellevue neighborhood of Richmond’s Northside. He is a regular contributor to Pacifica’s Free Speech Radio News, and is a volunteer manager with WRIR 97.3 LP-FM. He specializes in reporting on local politics and the environment, but spends most of his time looking at food blogs with his tiny dog in his lap.

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