From Parking Lots to Living Plots

The Chamberbrook area on Richmond’s Northside is rapidly adding residents.

Less than two years after a junkyard fire enveloped the tires and trash scattered across 1207 School St., the site is well on its way towards becoming 200 new affordable homes.

Rising from behind I-95, the Foundry apartments are perhaps the most visible sign that Northside’s Chamberlayne industrial district is growing into Richmond’s newest residential neighborhood. In a region with an accelerating housing affordability crisis, hundreds of new income-based one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments are a huge upgrade from a tire fire.

Such projects would not have been possible just two-and-a-half years ago, before Richmond City Council approved the Virginia Union University (VUU)/Chamberlayne Neighborhood Plan. The small area plan envisions new housing and retail, safer streets, and additional greenspaces with the city’s only historically Black university at its heart. Although popular imagination may envision many real estate rebrandings beginning with white developers, Chamberbrook began with a Black woman-led nonprofit.

Aisha Bullard had her law office on the 2900 block of Chamberlayne for 15 years and lived in Northside for over two decades. She launched the Richmond Urban Ministry Institute at the corner of Chamberlayne and Brookland Park Boulevard in 2016 following the shooting death of a 12-year-old girl across from Pine Camp.

“That changed everything we thought we had to do in the community,” Bullard recalls. “Right now [Chamberbrook]’s just space people have forgotten about. People speed through our corridor to just get somewhere else. We want people not to speed through but to live and spend time here.”

Chamberbrook — a portmanteau of the area’s two main streets, Chamberlayne Avenue and Brook Road — began as a temporary shorthand for Bullard’s broader reimagining of the corridor. After HKS Architects helped turn her napkin sketches into renderings of small businesses and housing throughout the area, the name stuck. Now the Chamberbrook Business and Arts District Association is trying to bring that dream of a new, more inclusive Northside neighborhood to life.

“Before the highways destroyed the neighborhoods of Jackson Ward and Oregon Hill, Chamberlayne used to be the highway,” explains Bullard. “It would be wonderful to witness the rebirth of this corridor, but it has to be something new because we don’t want to return to something that wasn’t inclusive. We want to reimagine something for folks of all races, genders, and ages. We’re trying to reimagine a community of small businesses in a place that didn’t have it before.”

New ground floor retail and three stories of VUU classrooms will replace a run-down motel at the corner of Lombardy and Brook Road. What once was an empty parking lot today is 152 new affordable apartments for seniors. Next to the 103 homes of The Spectrum apartments, construction is already underway to replace an abandoned warehouse with 224 new housing units. The coming 43-mile long Fall Line Trail and the potential of a North-South Pulse bus rapid transit route along Chamberlayne means these 679 new homes and any other homes that get built in Chamberbrook could offer Richmonders car-free to car-lite living here within five years.

All of the new housing in Chamberbrook is a win-win to Stewart Schwartz, the president of the Partnership for Smarter Growth.

“There are tremendous environmental and equity benefits to building more housing close to our city’s two big universities and its major job centers,” he says. “People who can find housing close to jobs and public transit in the core of our region are much more likely to walk, bike, and ride the bus instead of driving everywhere. They have significantly smaller carbon footprints and can realize lower combined housing and transportation costs — in particular, because they have to spend so much less on cars and gas.”

The biggest stumbling block to the neighborhood’s new growth is the lack of city investment in its infrastructure.

“If the private sector doesn’t see the city committed to investing in public spaces around this area, will they keep the building boom going?” Schwartz asks.

It’s also an issue Bullard has long been raising with city officials.

“We’ve talked to Bobby Vincent and DPW [Dept. of Public Works] and have submitted a few ideas to make drivers slow down,” explains Bullard. “We want crosswalks. We want bulb-outs. We want art projects that force drivers to slow down. We even want to improve the alleyways with new lighting and accessory commercial units [small shops] so people will feel comfortable walking in the area.”

After recently winning a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to assist five small businesses to locate in Chamberbrook, Bullard is enthusiastic about the growth but also vigilant to ensure it remains inclusive.

“It’s exciting,” she says. “But it means we need to be more intentional about preserving affordability in the face of increasing property values so the folks who would benefit most from not needing a car can still afford to live here.”


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