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Richmond Residential Neighborhoods Push Back Against Density 

click to enlarge Westwood Tract faces Brook Road between Westwood and Rennie avenues. The Union Presbyterian Seminary was given the land in the early 1900s.

Scott Elmquist

Westwood Tract faces Brook Road between Westwood and Rennie avenues. The Union Presbyterian Seminary was given the land in the early 1900s.

Two tense meetings last week have pitted residents against nearby development plans and thrown a spotlight on zoning regulations in Richmond.

At City Council on March 27, North Side residents expressed opposition to construction of a 301-unit apartment complex by Union Presbyterian Seminary on what’s known as the Westwood Tract.

And at Powhatan Recreation Center on March 30, a crowd of East End neighbors of an old trolley barn shared concerns about a plan to demolish it to build an 82-unit apartment building known as Glenwood Ridge.

“I just can’t for the life of me see how people who approved this zoning visualized that we would one day get this,” Glenwood neighbor Raymond Cousins said. “It’s monstrous.”

Questions of aesthetics have plagued both projects, with neighbors upset about what they see as an institutional, suburban design. In both cases, the developers have made facade changes.

But the deeper problem for opponents appears to be the suitability of a large apartment complex in the neighborhood and a frustration with the zoning that allows it. Common themes of both meetings included concerns about school overcrowding, traffic, infrastructure and historic preservation.

“The city incorrectly zoned this R-53,” Rodney Poole, who opposes the Westwood Tract project, told City Council. “I think you have an extraordinarily unique situation here. You do have a right to initiate rezoning.”

Both proposals adhere to current regulations and owners of the land say their rights to it allow the apartments. Changes to the zoning at this stage could trigger lawsuits against the city.

The public meeting on Glenwood Ridge was a courtesy of the developers, and the resolution before City Council on the Westwood Tract merely studies the impact of the proposed development.

Both groups of residents questioned the openness of the zoning and development processes. The city planning director, Mark Olinger, was on hand at the Glenwood Ridge meeting to shut down accusations of decisions made behind closed doors.

“No, no, there were public meetings,” he said of the 2010 zoning changes. But absent a strong grid of streets and alleys in this block, Olinger added, the project reflects what Glenwood’s zoning designation can look like.

“This isn’t going to satisfy anyone. It doesn’t satisfy me,” he said. “When we drafted the language, we may not have intended something this large. But that’s what happened in R-63 without streets or anything breaking it up.”

The Westwood Tract is a similarly large, gridless parcel.

Glenwood Ridge also faces concern about its designation as affordable housing. The nonprofit developer from South Carolina, Humanities Foundation, will take families making between $28,000 and $43,000 and accept some public housing vouchers.

The crowd asked if the managers would accept felons and violent offenders as tenants. “We do a background check, a full asset and income check,” Shane Doran of the foundation said. “We vet them much more thoroughly than market rate apartments would.”

The Glenwood neighbors also cited walkability. Olinger and the developer suggested that a bigger tax base for Richmond could spur more streetscape improvements, and more density could bring desired amenities such as grocery stores.

“Richmond is in high demand now,” says Stewart Schwartz, policy committee chairman for the Partnership for Smarter Growth. “We’re not in a situation where the city has to beg for development and not have a say in shaping development.”

Schwartz, who attended both meetings, says the partnership hasn’t taken a position on either project. It generally supports compact development with a strong transit network, but Schwartz says they share a concern with the process of community input and city oversight.

He says the issues highlight the need for more planning staff and a website that offers more effective communication and information on neighborhoods.

Schwartz also suggests that the state processes for historic review and tax credit evaluation involve more local community input.

Opponents of both projects have also invoked the historic review process of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as a means of slowing or halting the projects.

By-right development is standard across the country, Schwartz says. But Richmond has a zoning problem rooted in the era when the city was losing residents to the suburbs. “And some of it is out of whack with good urban design,” he says.

“We’re operating off a master plan that in many ways is not reflective of the recent conditions in Richmond,” Councilman Parker Agelasto said, noting that it was adopted in 1999. Richmond population has grown at least 10 percent since then.

Olinger told the Glenwood crowd of about 40 people that master plan revisions are in the works and will involve extensive community participation.

The Glenwood Ridge project now looks fairly certain. City Council approved a resolution to study the potential effects of the Westwood Tract project. S

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