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OPINION: Let Us Succeed 

Oregon Hill neighbor asks City Council to support amendment to let the historic neighborhood keep its residential zoning.

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Scott Elmquist

Oregon Hill is a survivor. This small, dense, basically intact, 19th-century working class neighborhood has withstood fire, the ravages of time and a massive Downtown Expressway that ripped through its heart and demolished many homes.

Over the years, it has adapted to change but remains a cohesive community with a very aesthetically pleasing streetscape. Listed on both the state and national registers of historic places, the socio-economic aspect of our neighborhood has changed the most in the last few decades. Once a predominately white, working class community, Oregon Hill has evolved into one of the most diverse places in the city.

It’s now home to seniors and students, professors and poets, workers and artists and families. The community has worked with law enforcement to keep crime rates extremely low. Our parks are well-used and maintained and our schools are among the best in the Commonwealth. At least 14 babies have been born into Oregon Hill families in the last couple of years. That’s the plan: If we can attract and keep families and put their kids through our public schools, all boats will rise. We are proud of our schools and families.

It was devastating when the Richmond 300 committee, a group weighted heavily toward developers, their lawyers and Virginia Commonwealth University, decided to transform Oregon Hill into something different. At first their goal was a designation of a downtown city center. Think Ninth and Main and 20-story buildings in an area where current zoning allows two-story buildings. After a strong pushback, they downshifted to a still inappropriate mixed-use designation. After the requisite zoning tweak, the inappropriate designation would incentivize developers to buy up historic housing and demolish it to erect incompatible four- to six-story student housing complexes.

It also would encourage VCU to creep its campus toward the James River – all of this in a fully developed community when open lots exist within 2 miles that are begging to be developed.

The university has refused to give the neighborhood a no-encroachment agreement for decades, although it has done this for other neighborhoods. The whole Richmond 300 plan so far has been a sad commentary on the community having no voice in the city’s planning decisions.

Gratefully, at a recent Land Use Committee meeting, our wonderful City Council member, Stephanie Lynch, offered an amendment to have Oregon Hill keep its residential designation. After all, more than 99% of the buildings in our R7 zoning are residential. Our tax base has risen exponentially over the last two decades. Property assessments are way up, some even 70% in the upcoming year. Oregon Hill has all the makings of a true success story for Richmond!

We respectfully ask our City Council to support our Lynch’s amendment. In doing so they will save our families, our schools, our historic streetscapes and our future.

C. Todd Woodson is an advocate for community and animal welfare issues and longtime member of the American Federation of Musicians and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. City Council gave him the Jesse Reynolds Award in 2005 for community mobilization and his work improving city parks. The Sierra Club’s Falls of the James Chapter gave him the Green Giant Award in 2015.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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