Tuesday, February 16, 2016

City Officials Respond to Westhampton Theater Plan

Posted By on Tue, Feb 16, 2016 at 11:15 AM

click to enlarge news04_westhampton.jpg

The developers proposing mixed-use properties to replace the Westhampton Theater have more work to do at City Hall.

Richmond's Planning and Development Review Department has responded to their application for a special use permit and addressed technical items including the proposed height of the building changing from 28 feet to more than 60 feet. You can view the full plans here.

The issues of height and parking have been opposed by some neighbors in a group known as Save Libbie and Grove, which numbers more than 1,200 people on Facebook. The group has posted signs throughout the area.

While zoning says the height may be no more than 28 feet, the Master Plan from 2010 seems to allow for as much as three stories.

Ames Russell, a member of the Save Libbie and Grove group, noted in an e-mail to Style that although he welcomes enhancements and growth in the neighborhood, "the use of special use permits to circumvent the zoning law is bad public policy and will irreparably harm the scale and character of the neighborhood."

First District City Councilman Jon Baliles posted this to his webpage:

The Department of Planning and Development Review has returned their comment letter about the Westhampton Theater development project that can be read here. The applicants will have time to review and make modifications to their plan based on this letter as well as the many emails we have received in support and opposition. I expect to host a meeting concerning any revisions sometime in March and hope to announce that date in the coming weeks.

An excerpt from the staff report:

“In areas designated for Community Commercial land use, the Master Plan specifically recommends B-2, UB, and UB-2 zoning districts. All three recommended zoning districts permit the type of development currently found in the Libbie-Grove Service Area. In addition, the maximum building height permitted is 35 feet in the B- 2 district, 28 feet in the UB district, and three stories in the UB-2 district.

Many aspects of your proposed development are consistent with the recommendations made in the Master Plan and/or the requirements of the underlying UB (Urban Business) zoning. Staff is supportive of the mix of uses proposed for the development, including active uses at the corner of Grove and Granite Avenues, key aesthetic features, including use of a variety of storefront treatments, the stepbacks and setbacks of the upper floors, and a reconfiguration of the site which includes underground parking and closing two driveway entrances to Grove Avenue.

However, the proposed development is for a four-story building with a height of over 60 feet. In contrast, the maximum height of buildings permitted in the UB district is 28 feet. Accordingly, the existing buildings within the surrounding UB district are primarily either one or two-stories. However, there are several non-conforming buildings with heights greater than the permitted 28 feet (including the Westhampton Theater on the subject property at approximately 40 feet). As a result, staff finds that scale of the proposed building represents a change to the character of the LibbieGrove Service Area.

Furthermore, the recent Master Plan study in the area resulted in a consensus that the current pattern of development in the shopping district is appropriate and should remain in place. From our February 10, 2016 meeting, we are aware that you are working to revise the proposal to mitigate the effects of the proposed height and look forward to seeing those modifications.”

The Westhampton owners sent this letter out regarding the most recent development:

Neighbors and Friends:

The purpose of this post is to provide an update on our plans to redevelop 5702 & 5706 Grove Avenue (current site of the Westhampton Theater and Long & Foster office).

Today we received a letter from planning staff at the City outlining their response to the Special Use Permit application- we will be forwarding this letter to the neighborhood representatives soon for distribution to those who care to review it (I’m not able to post the letter to NextDoor). This is part of our ongoing effort to be as transparent as possible.

As we have maintained from the beginning, this project is a work-in-progress and we expect to continue to refine and enhance the design, leaning heavily on input from residents, merchants, neighborhood associations, City of Richmond planning staff, and other stakeholders in the neighborhood.

We’ve held over 30 meetings including several with the Westhampton Citizens Association board, the Westhampton Merchants Association, all of the neighborhood reps in the Westhampton area, one public meeting at St Christopher’s, and a great deal of meetings with individuals who have reached out to us- we have not refused a meeting with anyone because we value your feedback, and we’ve been able to make some great improvements to the design as a result of it. Frankly, we appreciate the fact that so many people care about this property and this neighborhood… it’s the reason why my wife and I chose to live here.

It is our sincere intent as developers and as a Westhampton resident myself, to design a project that is high quality & that is a value-add to the neighborhood. While a majority of the people we’ve spoken with are excited about new neighborhood commercial storefronts, the first Taste Unlimited in Richmond, and substantially improved pedestrian features, landscaping and patio space, there are some reasonable concerns neighbors have shared with us regarding height of the proposed project and potential impact to traffic on the streets surrounding the development. We will be working diligently in the coming weeks to address these concerns.

It has been our belief from the beginning, that a prudent and well-designed mix of retail, office and residential space (where the impact to traffic and parking is spread throughout the entire day) is substantially better for neighbors than one large attraction like a movie theater, with 759 seats, where traffic during peak hours can cause stress on neighboring streets. Upon a thorough review of the plans, you will find that the intent is to diffuse the density associated with one large building that can hold 759 people with a group of small-to-medium sized local retailers and offices… the people who want to move their offices here are your neighbors, who have become tired of the long commutes and would prefer to walk or bike to work.

We plan to spend the next few weeks with our design team to evaluate the list of recommendations and concerns we’ve received, and plan to refine the plans and hold another round of public meetings to solicit additional feedback- hopefully next month.

While existing zoning prescribes the height, permitted uses, and parking requirements that are acceptable for this property and others in the commercial district, it does nothing to dictate all the other important elements that should be included in design: an attractive and upscale exterior facade, the use of quality materials that will withstand the test of time, quality local businesses as tenants (not chains), patio space to bring neighbors together in a fun atmosphere, and a development team that is focused on delivering a legacy project. The Special Use Permit process is not a loophole, it is in fact a standard procedure where many property owners are able to get relief on zoning where it may be needed… in fact over 45 properties within a few blocks of the Libbie & Grove intersection have obtained SUPs to get a variance to existing zoning for one reason or another, even some personal residences that have signs on their property in opposition to our project.

We believe that if we are to preserve the Westhampton commercial district as a first class neighborhood shopping experience, we all need to work together to reinvest in older properties that are in need of rejuvenation. As Dick Fowlkes, co-owner of the beloved Peter-Blair store, told the Richmond TimesDispatch in December, “We’re dying at Libbie & Grove”… I can assure you as a Westhampton resident that we take our obligation very seriously to breathe new life into the Westhampton commercial district.

As always, you may reach out to me by phone (804.697.3561) or by email (jason.guillot@thalhimer.com) with any questions. A copy of the SUP plans submitted on 12/23/15 can be downloaded on our website at www.westhamptonongrove.com.

Your neighbor and committed partner,

Jason Guillot Westhampton, LLC

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