TOD NODEN WALKED up dark red steps and moved into his new Norton Street home July 10. After three years of living downtown, the New Jersey native wanted to rent in a neighborhood like Carver — close enough to city amenities, but just removed enough to have free off-street parking.
A week in, he was gung-ho about his new 2008-built home, he says, with its proximity to restaurants, a Kroger, a bookstore and major highways. "It's a really nice area," says Noden, who operated an event supply company near Washington before moving to Carver, just northwest of downtown. "It's probably one of the best areas right now to invest in."
And that, many residents believe, serves as Carver's blessing and curse.
Once a mostly black, working-class neighborhood, Carver fell on hard times only to mount a comeback beginning in the 1980s. It's still predominantly black, with many working families and older residents, but an influx of college students and more affluent white and black residents have altered the makeup. Much of the growth is a direct result of Virginia Commonwealth University's decision to grow north of Broad Street in the early 1990s after Oregon Hill, a neighborhood south of the school's Monroe Park campus, aggressively protested the university's earlier expansion efforts.
These days, Carver is ground zero for Richmond's gentrification battles, its quest to attract middle-class families and its unending wonder about what, exactly, the city should do with all those college students.
The latest example of the neighborhood's attempts to define itself and its future center on a disagreement about the proposed Gilbane project, a private, student-oriented housing complex intended for West Marshall Street.
In many ways, Carver's quandary is "a product of its own success," says Barbara Abernathy, a longtime community activist and former president of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League. "Before, persons were scared to come across Broad Street."
Carver still has a grittier reputation than other in-town neighborhoods such as the Fan or even Jackson Ward, but it's no longer a place that students are categorically instructed to avoid. Houses often now sell for more than $200,000 (Margaret Rush, the current president of the civic-improvement league, notes that units behind her most recently sold for $240,000 each — double what she paid for her home seven years ago). And though restaurants and retail have been slow to follow, more businesses are starting to trickle in.
"I could see Carver turning into what Jackson Ward is," says Owen M. Lane, one such business owner. "I think Carver has all the potential there. It's just a matter of making it happen."
Lane and his fiancee, Tiffany Gellner, recently opened the Magpie, a restaurant at Leigh and Norton streets that features entrees such as cast iron seared antelope and grilled baby octopus (for more on Magpie, see Short Order, page 42). The pair didn't seek out Carver specifically, but the price was right and the site is less than two minutes from their home in Jackson Ward. Its move-in preparations, which began eight months after the closure of the Leigh Street Grill, the building's former occupant, have attracted curiosity from residents nearby. "They've been poking their head in," Lane says, "just excited about something coming in here."
Indeed, several residents say they're happy to see an addition to the area like a new restaurant. They want development, they say — what kind, however, is where agreement sometimes falls apart.
Carver's history has been one of growth and transition. Settled in the early half of the 1800s by European immigrants, the area once known as Sheep Hill grew as a home for free blacks and a few slaves. By 1879, blacks lived between West Leigh Street and Bacon Quarter Branch, while whites called West Marshall, West Clay and Catherine streets home. Black residents gradually supplanted whites, and by 1919 almost all Carver residents were African-American, according to a Virginia Commonwealth University history of the neighborhood.
In 1949 the construction of George Washington Carver School gave the community its name. Many run-down houses were demolished as part of urban renewal in the decade to follow, and the construction of Interstate 95 fenced off sections of the neighborhood's north end. Today, Carver is bounded by Belvidere Street to the east, Interstate 95 to the north, Lombardy Street to the west and Marshall Street to the south.
Hampered by redlining, Carver's housing stock continued to deteriorate. The neighborhood languished. "No one cared about Carver, what it looked like, how it was developing," says Abernathy, who grew up in Carver, moved away and returned in 1977.
The civic improvement league's reactivation in 1985 began to change that. Its members called often on City Council members and lobbied for attention. "At that time, we were just struggling to make ourselves known in the city," Abernathy says. "Our main thrust in that time was just the housing component, trying to take care of the blighted housing and put new housing in the community so that families would come here to live."
In 1986 the city approved a revitalization plan for renovation and redevelopment. New homeowners already were renovating houses on West Clay, West Marshall, Harrison and Kinney streets, according to the VCU history. A now-defunct organization, the Task Force for Historic Preservation in the Minority Community, also bought houses to renovate and resell.
Another success, three years later, was having 56 properties on West Marshall Street rezoned from industrial to residential — some residents were shocked to learn that their houses weren't classified as such already, and they feared leaving it zoned for industrial use could have troubling implications for the neighborhood.
Then, in 1993, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority broke ground on what would be 34 Victorian-style houses on the 800 blocks of West Leigh and Catherine streets, near the neighborhood's eastern border. Four years later, according to the VCU history, the Carver revitalization plan had to its credit the renovation of 157 residences, the rehabilitation and sale of 32 houses to first-time buyers, and the redevelopment program's purchase of 81 run-down structures.
But crime still troubled the neighborhood. VCU Police Lt. Chris Preuss says today's Carver is a far cry from the early 1990s, when a core group of youths and young men "kind of ruled the neighborhood with an iron first."
He recalls a neighborhood in which children didn't ride their bicycles. Elderly folks holed up in their homes. Porches were empty. Meanwhile, the drug dealers rotated on and off the streets, serving a year or so for possession before being spit back out in the neighborhood. "It begins to piss you off, just as a human being," Preuss says of the time.
Then police teamed with the commonwealth's and U.S. attorneys to prosecute 20-some people for felonies. Almost immediately, Preuss says, a change came over the neighborhood, one he likens to the scenes in "The Wizard of Oz" when the munchkins come out to play after a house falls on the Wicked Witch. Children played outdoors. Adults sat on porches.
Abernathy says she doesn't feel crime was as bad as it was reputed. Indisputably, however, the neighborhood's problems have shifted. While Carver — like most neighborhoods — still has crime, resident complaints are more likely to be about noise or uncut grass than about an out-of-control crack house down the street. "As much as they're nuisance crimes and you want to take care of them," VCU's Preuss says, "you just want to smile because if this is the worst, something right is happening."
To some Carver residents, the big nuisance can be explained by a factor that was rising like the neighborhood's home values: VCU's enrollment. While the university transitioned from its commuter-school roots, it began to expand across Broad Street. Its students began looking at Carver as a residential option, moving into private developments such as Carriage House Apartments as well as rented houses.
The relationship between students and the older residents — particularly those who have lived in Carver for decades — has been uneasy. Town and gown tension is a common feature of many communities with universities, but it's a new phenomenon for long-term Carver homeowners who can recall when students largely left the neighborhood alone. The students, with their attendant noise, bother some new residents too, but others say they like living around the college kids. Noden, the neighborhood newcomer, says he likes his home's proximity to VCU. And he's looking forward to the fall semester, he says: "It provides a higher energy level."
Rush, the civic league president, says that's why she's here. "I moved here because I liked having the students nearby," she says. "That was a selling point to me."
Charleen Baylor, who was president before Rush, says she wants Carver to be diverse. Whatever gripes she may have, she says, they generally lie more with the owners of the properties rented to students than with the students themselves. It's the negligent landlords who turn blind eyes to the loud parties, uncut grass and beer bottles strewn in yards.
"When you start having people who are not vested in the community, not making sure the property is protected, that's where the problem lies," Baylor says. "A lot of people want to blame VCU. It's not VCU."
THAT PERSPECTIVE — that it's not VCU — wasn't always a popular one. With the university's 1999 opening of the Siegel Center, the 190,000-square-foot athletic facility that houses the Verizon Wireless Arena, many people were wary of VCU's intentions for the modest neighborhood. But later Eugene Trani, then university president, somewhat mollified many in the community by promising not to cross north to Marshall Street unless Carver requested it. "We don't have any plans now or in the future" for doing so, university spokeswoman Pam Lepley says. "It was an affirmation. It's not a legal document, but it's certainly on the record."
In 1996 Abernathy and Trani formed the VCU-Carver Partnership, which has helped foster harmony. University students help out in the neighborhood, tutoring children and joining in on community cleanups, and the partnership provides meeting space for the civic improvement league, whose members get free use of the Siegel Center's fitness center. Its director, Ron Brown, lives in the neighborhood.
As a result, neighborhood frustration seems to have shifted from VCU and onto developers and absentee landlords. "I have no problems with VCU," says Abernathy, who once worked in the university's community-development office. "I know that VCU is growing in leaps and bounds. Developers are just jumping on the bandwagon."
If they are, the latest among them is Gilbane Development Co. A Providence, R.I.-based real estate development and construction company, Gilbane originally proposed a mixed-use, student-oriented development in the 1200 and 1300 blocks of West Marshall, one block north of the Siegel Center.
The project, primarily aimed at VCU (and the much smaller Virginia Union University), featured a whopping 277 units with 895 bedrooms. Many residents were apoplectic: Where would they park? How much traffic would the development bring? How loud would the students be?
By July 18, when the city Planning Commission rejected the project 4-3, it had been scaled back to 163 units with 498 bedrooms in the 1200 block alone. The vote left opponents like Abernathy ecstatic, while supporters were disappointed.
Smarting from the rejection but convinced of the project's value, Gilbane representatives asked City Council to delay its vote for 120 days — meaning the next move won't come until October.
"Ultimately, we have to figure out what we can do to try to resolve the concerns raised by some in the community that were in opposition, city staff and city officials," says Andrew Condlin, a lawyer for Gilbane.
Condlin says Gilbane had spoken with the university to make sure there was a market for the project, but that's been the extent of the conversation. "We do realize there is a need," he says, "and there is a market there."
John Keegan, a Gilbane vice president, says attempts to reach out to VCU were similar to the overtures made to Carver residents and city staff. "They were consulted really as part of us wanting to be good neighbors," he says.
The Carver Area Civic Improvement League had voted 13-10 against endorsing the project. Carver's councilman, Charles Samuels of the 2nd District, said he would vote with the neighborhood. Mayor Dwight Jones also indicated he wouldn't support it. Nevertheless, the neighborhood is far from united against the project.
Rush, the league president, was mystified by the Planning Commission's vote. She says the Marshall Street site needs a good development. "Status quo is not good for the community," she says. "A vacant lot of broken glass and gravel, encircled by chain-link fencing, is not attractive. It's not helpful. It's not useful."
Baylor, her predecessor, sees it as less of an intrusion and more as a way to keep investors at bay. Single-family homeowners probably aren't going to want to live so close to the Siegel Center, she says. The student development, she surmises, is likely to be managed to a certain standard; with investors, you never know what you're going to get.
New resident Noden, who can see the site from his front porch, says he'd like to see a development on the Marshall Street site. "I feel that it would be good to have something there — as opposed to what's there now," he says, glancing down his street toward the lot. "It's going to increase property values in the area. It's better to have something nice."
The lure of increased property values appeals to younger residents, who see their houses as investments. But for older residents who've lived in Carver for decades and have little intention of selling, property value increases just mean bigger tax bills. The influx of students already has raised rental rates, Abernathy says, pushing them largely out of reach of working-class families.
She also says it's not necessarily true that people wouldn't buy a house that looks onto the Siegel Center. She points out parts of Leigh Street, where some of those homeowners have less-than-scenic views of the interstate.
Many Carver residents want their neighborhood to be dominated by single-family homeowners, but some suspect that's a quickly fading possibility. (Recent city figures indicate that 313 of the 855 dwellings in the neighborhood have three or more units already. Another 448 are single family, and the rest are duplexes.) Residents in their 20s, after all, are the ones demographers say are flocking to cities, and many of them prefer to rent. "Young people are not interested in buying right away," Baylor says. "Empty-nesters could probably afford to move to Rocketts Landing."
And it's not just the influx of students that's troubling people in the community. Affordable and moderately priced housing is also of concern. "There's a big need for work-force housing and more affordable housing," Baylor says. "That's one of the things holding up the redevelopment of the neighborhood. They want to put affordable housing in Carver, and we're not quite sure what that means."
The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has run into snags recently in its quest to develop Catherine and Leigh streets. The houses are supposed to be affordable, meaning an owner can't earn more than 80 percent of the local median income. A buyer with such an annual salary probably can't afford to buy in Carver, so someone must cough up more in subsidies to bridge the gap between what's market-rate and affordable. Right now, that's just not easy, Juanita Buster, a city planner, writes in an email. As a result, the housing authority is looking for a new developer.
What lies next for Carver could mirror what's happening in a lot of American cities as higher-income people return, pushing working-class and poor people out into the suburbs. With VCU's growth, it's likely that the students will keep on coming.
Abernathy says she'd like to see a moratorium on student housing Carver, but in the meantime she hopes the neighborhood won't be turned completely into a collegiate outpost with little room for families. "I'm prayerful it will not," she says solemnly. "We've worked so hard." S
Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, Style incorrectly reported the size of Gilbane Development Co.'s proposed student housing project on West Marshall Street. The project includes 277 residential units.