As VCU partners with the Carver community to build a better neighborhood, area businesses hope they won't be left out of the picture.
When Curtis Baskfield opened his auto repair shop on Marshall Street 14 years ago he thought he had found the perfect spot to settle in. "I built this building from the ground up," Baskfield says of his shop at 817 W. Marshall St. Baskfield had fixed cars in the Carver neighborhood for 15 years before he opened his own garage. His neighbors were customers, too, he says, and those who didn't live nearby came from downtown. They still do. Business is good, he says. His shop specializes in Corvettes, but it's packed with cars of all kinds that commuters have left at the garage on their way home from work. But now some zoning changes are worrying Baskfield and others who own property nearby. Virginia Commonwealth University and a neighborhood group, the Carver Area Civic Improvement League, are recommending that the city of Richmond change the zoning for the neighborhood - roughly the Marshall Street corridor from Bowe Street to Belvidere in hopes of limiting what they term undesirable businesses. Currently the Marshall Street corridor is zoned for manufacturing and industrial use, which allows a wide range of 184 possible uses - everything from poultry-slaughtering plants to horseback-riding academies to electric transformer stations. Now, though, two new zoning categories have been proposed: Urban Commercial and Residential Office. Some area property owners fear that their investments may be jeopardized by the new zoning distinctions. They claim the proposed restrictions are unfair and could force businesses like Baskfield's to move or shut down. For VCU, the situation is complex. When VCU's monolithic Siegel Center was constructed with its front on Broad Street and its body extending into the Carver neighborhood, the university went to great lengths to make friends. Many observers point out that VCU didn't want a repeat of the conflict stirred when residents in Oregon Hill vehemently protested VCU's expansion into their neighborhood. In 1997, a partnership with the Carver community was forged to promote growth and opportunity for residents and VCU alike. By all accounts it has been a success. Carver is cleaner now, and safer, too, say business owners, and Carver could prosper from a continuing relationship that includes residents, property owners, VCU and the city. But the business owners also stress the relationship must be one built on trust and equal representation. So far, the situation hasn't grown confrontational. But it could, the business owners warn. Carver's business owners say they have no problem with the way the proposed zoning removes such archaic uses as circus sites, wildlife preserves, or landfills - all legal under the current zoning. But they say the suggested changes go too far. On the list to be restricted are auto-service centers like Baskfield's, wholesalers' warehouses, and many manufacturing- and distribution-oriented businesses. "It's not really realistic," says Frank Wood, a Carver property owner and member of the newly organized Marshall Street Business Owners Association. "We'd be giving up 95 percent of what we can do with our property." Wood says the zoning change could eventually devalue property he's owned for 10 years, and he could have a hard time finding viable tenants. Everybody involved agrees that changing the zoning to allow new residences is a good idea. But business owners say the new designations would unfairly reduce to 15 the number of building uses allowed. Businesses that don't comply with restrictions would be forced to apply for a special-use permit with the city. VCU's point man on the project, Mort Gulak, an associate professor with VCU's urban studies and planning program, declined a request for an interview for this story. Roger York, the city's community development officer who's worked on the proposal, could not be reached for comment. The owners say they aren't rejecting VCU's zoning plan out of hand. "What we see on the plate for the most part is good," says John Edwards, owner of the empty 100,000-square-foot Biggs building that recently served as studio space for VCU sculptors and artists. Besides, he adds, "I don't know if we have the experience to say what the highest and best use is for the neighborhood." Edwards says more meetings with VCU urban planners, city officials, and members of the business and civic associations are needed before a decision is made, and he suggests that some Carver business owners fear the idea of change more than the reality of it. Still, he says, it boils down to "a little bit of a wording dilemma." For instance: Under the proposed changes his 100,000-square-foot site would not be permitted to use more than 10,000 square feet for storage. "What about the Goliaths that don't fit the mold?" Edwards asks. Some of the buildings on Marshall are empty, but many, like Baskfield's auto repair shop, have been doing business in the neighborhood for years. Business owners argue they shouldn't be forced to accept zoning changes that could limit the use of their properties. The groups are scheduled to review the proposal again next week. Until then, it's business as usual for Curtis Baskfield. "This is my life, my retirement and all my investment," says Baskfield. "I don't know what the problem is. Auto repair is like going to the doctor or the dentist: Everywhere you go, you got to get your auto
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