Progress Denied 

Highland Park residents want to fix their crime-infested eyesores. But they and their councilwoman say the city won't let them.

Highland Park, one of Richmond's original "streetcar suburbs" in the northeast corner of the city, has witnessed a real-estate upswing in recent years.

Many of the area's Queen Anne homes have been renovated and sold, in part because of the efforts of the city's Neighborhoods in Bloom program and Highland Park Community Development Corp. Property values are spiking, and the area is gaining cachet among young professionals and empty-nesters. One house the Highland Park CDC bought and rehabbed sold for $95,000 in 1999. Last month it went for $220,000.

The prosperity has yet to spill over to the southern tip of Highland Park, however, where many home values hover around $65,000. Now, community leaders say, the area has a chance to become a rare enclave of high-quality affordable housing.

But two key properties stand in the way: The abandoned apartment complex at First Avenue and Dove Street, known as Northridge and Carrington Gardens, and a large vacant lot about a half-mile down the street where the former low-income housing complex Matthews Heights once stood.

The Highland Park CDC has plans to redevelop both properties into high-quality affordable housing developments. These projects "will begin reshaping the image of the community," City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson says.

The problem is that the city is holding things up, says Robertson, and that city administrators haven't responded to her complaints about the "blighted, abandoned, open, exposed" buildings in the apartment complex. And she says the city, which owns the nearby vacant land, is blocking the Highland Park CDC from building 39 homes there as well.

City Administrator William Harrell did not respond to several requests for comment by press time.

The community's leaders are worried about the future. Even if New York-based Bush Realty Associates, the owner of the Northridge and Carrington Gardens, fixes up the complex, they fear another inevitable decline. "We're actually seeing déj… vu," says Wallica Gaines, executive director of the Highland Park CDC, a nonprofit that seeks to buy and rehabilitate blighted properties. The city-owned land nearby, just down First Avenue from the apartments, was once home to a similar, crime-ridden complex called Matthews Heights.

About three years ago, the owners of Matthews Heights failed to pay their property taxes and the city announced it would put the place up for auction. Residents feared any new owner would simply maintain the apartments as they were and continue to make money off low-income tenants supported by federal housing vouchers. So the Highland Park CDC convinced the city to buy Matthews Heights and negotiated with the owner's bank to forgive an outstanding loan.

The organization did all this, Gaines says, with the understanding that the city would one day sell the property for redevelopment. "If it were not for our intervention," Gaines says, "this project would have been sold to the highest bidder two years ago."

The Matthews Heights apartments were demolished in July 2003. Since then, the land has remained vacant and the Highland Park CDC has been working on a proposal, per a development agreement it signed with the city, to build 39 Victorian-style homes in a condominium development, each of which would sell for an estimated $220,000, or $229,000 with a garage.

The CDC researched the site and assembled a team of lenders, attorneys, engineers and a contractor for a development to be called the Pointe at Chestnut Hill. The only difficult part was getting the funding, Gaines says. While that was being negotiated, the CDC ran out of time.

The development agreement with the city, signed in December 2004, stipulated that the CDC had 120 days to get all the details straight. But, Gaines says, it also said the CDC had the right to request a six-month extension, and that "such approval shall not be unreasonably withheld." The CDC asked for the extension. The city said no.

"They did not ask one question," Gaines says. "It was just a straight denial." Attempts to talk to Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and Harrell about the denial have been fruitless, she says. "I kind of liken it to your best friend stealing your wife," she says.

Robertson, too, feels betrayed. "For the administration to just jerk this carpet from underneath of your feet!" she says. The group has pleaded with administrators to reconsider their decision. The city has yet to deliver its ultimate answer.

Both Robertson, former head of the Highland Park CDC, and Gaines suspect the city simply wants to make as much money as possible off the land. A developer who wants to build a 90-unit apartment complex there, like the old Matthews Heights, could certainly afford to pay the city more for the deed. "They're going to make a whole lot more out of the deal than a sensitive project," Robertson says.

Then residents could be facing another problem like the one a half-mile north at First Avenue and Dove Street: the brick husks of the Northridge and Carrington Gardens apartments. The last residents of Carrington Gardens moved out in February, after city inspectors found leaks, sewer problems and unsafe wiring and condemned the property. "The conditions were horrible," Gaines says. When the city condemned the complex, she says, "it helped, because everyone was looking forward to something positive happening with that property."

Little has happened thus far. The buildings have since been gutted of anything valuable, such as windows and toilets, and their doors have been boarded. But that hasn't deterred criminals from claiming the property as their own, Gaines and Robertson say.

"We're beginning to see gang activity over there," Gaines says. The evidence: scrawled graffiti on several buildings. Trash, from mattresses to children's toys, is strewn everywhere. The apartments' owner recently hired a contractor to cut the grass and clean up some of the trash on the property, but more is being discarded there every day.

"What we really need is for those buildings to come down," Gaines says. Residents in the area say they would like to see a mixture of housing with some businesses, she reports, which would boost the neighborhood's overall appeal.

"There have been significant resources placed in Highland Park by the city …," Gaines says, "and it would just be horrible to see this development just drain these resources that have been placed there." S

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