No Public Input? Jackson Place Treads New Ground 

Last week, the simple rezoning case paving the way for a much-talked-about development in Jackson Ward went off without a hitch. It passed the city's planning commission 5-2, with little grumbling.

But there was something missing: a development plan.

The 5-acre site targeted for Jackson Place, a mixed-use commercial and residential development including up to 240 so-called affordable housing units, is expected to transform north Jackson Ward just south of Interstate 95 by 2010.

The property is being developed by the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority and the Better Housing Coalition. In this case, the residentially zoned district wouldn't allow such a variety of uses and needed to be rezoned.

But there was no mention of the sizable plan in the rezoning proposal that passed the planning commission last week. That represents a new way of doing business for the city's community development office, says Kathy Graziano, the city councilwoman appointed to serve on the commission. She calls it a "major policy shift."

Traditionally, Graziano says, developers request a special exception or conditional-use permit for sizable projects that don't comply with a property's zoning. In those cases, public input on the proposal is required by law.

If the property is rezoned, however, no public input is required on the developer's proposal after the fact. City Code only dictates that a development plan be reviewed and approved by the city administration, i.e., the planning staff.

It's been done this way in the counties for years. Local planners say the city is merely catching up to the way its suburban counterparts do business. But some people contend that the process shouldn't apply to larger developments, which usually still require some special permit that requires constituent approval.

Morton Gulak, associate professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the change shouldn't be alarming. City Council, he says, still has the final say and can reject the rezoning without more details.

"I don't see a problem with it," Gulak says. "In just a matter of course, there are a number of checks and balances." Besides, he says, City Council "is the final check in this system." City Council is scheduled to take up the issue in committee Jan. 16. S
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