A group of Church Hill residents and state preservationists are questioning the city planning staff’s reversal on controversial elements of a proposed luxury condominium high-rise that would block panoramic views from Libby Hill.
The building would rise from a steep slope of ground between Cary and Main streets just east of Tobacco Row in Shockoe Bottom. At Cary Street, it would stand 16 stories tall, including three levels of underground parking. Thirteen stories would be visible from Main Street and Libby Hill behind it.
Developers David White and Louis Salomonsky call the project The James at River Bend, and it would house 65 units, including four penthouses with commanding river views. The penthouses are set back from a facade dotted with roof terraces -- a design that’s meant to mimic the landscape, the developers say. The land, which is occupied by a stand of trees and the small outpost of an old gas station, isn’t zoned for residential use, so the developers are asking the city for a special-use permit. Their request is scheduled to go before the Planning Commission on April 21. City planning staff told White in August that it couldn’t recommend approval of the development for numerous reasons. That particular patch of land was inadvertently excluded from the 2008 Downtown Plan, staff wrote in a letter to White, but should be subject to its guiding principles including the preservation of river views and urban character. Among the concerns:
“The height of the building would cause it to stand out in the landscape and considerably alter views from surrounding areas. Though the building would not obscure the most notable view of the bend of the James River, it would change river views from Libby Hill Park.”
And “… the proposed building neither respects nor reinforces the scale and character of the adjacent buildings. The proposed height is considerably taller than buildings within the vicinity.”
But by January, planners had softened their stance. In a brief to the city administrator, staff again notes that the building will stand out and alter views. “However,” they added, “that is the nature of an evolving urban area. … The site can support additional height but done in a way that respects its context.”
The building doesn’t “enhance and reinforce [this] historic urban character,” staff reaffirms, but adds, “The biggest question becomes can a building that is clearly different in form than the urban character in which it sits, reinforce that character? The direct answer is yes.”
Precisely how the project will do so remains a “work in progress,” staff wrote.
The developers and city planners have been ironing out their differing visions, but project opponent Eugenia Anderson-Ellis of the River View Advocates says the building’s height and mass hasn’t changed.
“The height is the issue,” she says. “The height has always been the issue.” The building would stand 190 feet at Cary and 160 feet at Main, according to White’s proposal, which notes that most of the neighboring Tobacco Row’s apartment buildings are 80 to 115 feet high. Anderson-Ellis says she and other opponents met with city planning director Mark Olinger several times. “We really don’t know why they did an about face,” she says. “We never got a decent answer.” Olinger declined to comment, saying it was premature to discuss the project before the Planning Commission hearing.
White didn’t respond to Style’s request for comment. But he makes his case in the project paperwork he filed, saying the location calls for “a bold statement,” an “iconic” building punctuating the end of East Cary. High-end buyers want river views, and views demand height, he says. The development also would bring homeowners, long-term investors, into a neighborhood dominated by renters. He disputed the city’s argument that the property was “inadvertently” omitted from the Downtown Plan, saying it is much more likely that it was intentionally excluded because the city’s urban street grid comes to an end just past Tobacco Row. White conceded the Downtown Plan should inform development, but says that must be accompanied by recognition of the location, layout and topography of the property.
Much of the argument between developers and critics revolves around the view from Libby Hill and what should -- and shouldn’t -- be protected. White notes that the view of the river bend after which Richmond was named lies well west of the building. He also argues that any building of more than four stories will change the view of the river from Libby Hill, and that opponents’ objections, if taken to their logical conclusion, would limit all riverfront development and therefore the city’s economic vitality. “… Their ‘view’ is anything they can see when they look down the hill.”
Critics respond that they aren’t opposed to riverfront development that respects the surrounding character and scale of buildings. It also isn’t “our view,” Anderson-Ellis says, calling it a view that belongs to the residents of the city and the state. Preservationists note that when the city purchased Libby Hill Park in 1851, it did so citing the entire sweep of the view it affords: the lower portion of the city, the river, the falls, the railroad tracks. In 2012 Preservation Virginia named the view from Libby Hill to its endangered sites list. Critics fear the high-rise, if approved, would clear the way for more development to the east.
“It’s not just the view of one slice of river that is significant,” says Elizabeth Kostelny, executive director of Preservation Virginia. “It’s the vista. People who look out onto the river look upon Richmond’s entire history, not just the single moment when it was named. The building would change that view forever. It wouldn’t be something we could take back once we realized it was a mistake.”
City Council is scheduled to consider the application for a special-use permit April 28.