About the Pear Street project before Council on Monday

06/05/2014 8:20 AM by

City Council is scheduled to consider 2 ordinances relating to the proposed Pear Street project at their next meeting this Monday, June 9.

The two ordinances would together authorize a Special Use Permit allowing a condo development on the northernmost lot in the block bound by Pear, Dock, and Main Streets, and close an unused portion of East Cary Street.

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Portion of Cary Street to be closed

Portion of Cary Street to be closed

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Because the proposed use of the land does not match the current zoning of the property, a Special Use Permit (SUP) is required for the project to be built.

The land is currently zoned M-1 Light Industrial, which does not allow residential uses and limits building to 45 feet in height except under certain specific circumstances. Rocketts View SCP LP would like to build a 16-story building, with up to 65 condominiums.

Developer David White says that the only way that the project will work financially is if they are allowed the extra height.

Rocketts View SCP LP bought the property in December of 2001 for $131,250. The 2002 the property was assessed at $40,900. The assessment jumped to $197,000 in 2007 and then to $750,000 in 2013.

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Opponents of the project assert that the scale of the development puts it at odds with surrounding buildings and would have a negative impact on the view from Libby Hill Park.

Stewart Schwartz, founder of the Partnership for Smarter Growth, calls the development “one of the most significant issues currently facing the neighborhood. […] I don’t think you can overstate the spiritual and economic value of Libby Hill Park to our community. Or the importance of the public stake in open, inclusive planning that resulted in the Downtown Plan and Riverfront Plan.”

For the record, Partnership for Smarter Growth has not taken an organizational position on the project but has a history of strongly supporting the Downtown Plan and the inclusive public planning that it represents.

River View Advocates have been tracking the project since early on, and have led the fight against the proposal under the 180RVA banner (Facebook / @180RVA). 180RVA includes “residents from across the city, and two statewide groups, Scenic Virginia and Preservation Virginia”.

180RVA has a petition with just over 1,300 signatures. The group is organizing supporters to come to the next City Council meeting and show their opposition ot the proposal (“please wear something GREEN so they can see we are united”).

They are also joined by the Church Hill Association, whose membership voted in May to oppose the project – a decision preceded by greater-than-usual division in the ranks of the association. A dispute, in part, over funding opposition to the project led to the resignation of much of the CHA board in August 2013.

A letter from the 180RVA to the Richmond Planning Commission in late March 2014 laid out their concerns about the project:

  • Fails to meet the standards for granting of a Special Use Permit as set forth in the City Charter;
  • Fails to Conform with the City’s Downtown Plan; Master Plan; and Zoning Ordinance;
  • Will forever mar the historic and panoramic views from Libby Hill Park;
  • Disrupts the historic integrity of the Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District […]
  • Would set a major precedent for granting SUPs for similar high-rise structures on nearby parcels from 25th Street to Rockett’s Landing;
  • Fails to study or even consider traffic from the proposed Echo Harbor development, (“Richmond on the James”), Rocketts Landing or the subdivision projects in Eastern Henrico.
  • Fails to consider the a recent project modification to approximately 60 units averaging only 800 square feet, indicating a possible shift from high-end units to an apartment building.

180RVA’s latest volley, a letter from attorney Andrew McRoberts, focussed on the Special Use Permit process itself and argues that Council may lack the legal authority to approve this particular SUP.

While one gets the idea that they would perhaps prefer to have have the land go undeveloped, 180RVA’s official stance is that they are only asking for any development to match the scale and height of the adjacent Tobacco Row buildings. Tobacco Row is zoned B-5, which allows residential use but limits height at 5 stories.

Members of the group, themselves longtime residents active in the neighborhood, counter the suggestion that Church Hill is inherently opposed to development with a list of projects that have been shaped by community involvement.

“If [Church Hill Association] had not spoken up, there would be a plastics manufacturing facility at 25th and Franklin, with forty foot tall silos holding plastic pellets to be melted down into industrial size brushes for street sweepers, ” says Marion Macdonald, one of the stalwart guardians of Libby Hill Park.

“If CHA had not spoken up, instead of the Charity Square condos at 25th and Franklin, there would be service station full of rubbish and dumpsters.”

Eugenia Anderson-Ellis says directly, “180RVA is not opposed to development. We are opposed to piece meal decisions that ignore a careful planning process which involved hundreds of citizens over many weeks. The Downtown Master Plan and the subsequent Riverfront Plan are marvelous examples of democracy at work.”

Anderson-Ellis also provides backstory for the current fight. “Jefferson Mews was to have been a high rise for subsidized housing. Imagine what that shadow would have done to the surrounding blocks, and see what an beautiful addition that block is to the neighborhood as built in scale with its surroundings.”

“The Superior Building would have been torn down, had we not protested. The City would have lost considerable tax dollars and we would have been stuck with an ugly suburban style grocery. ”

Follow the action at Monday’s City Council meeting. Come down in person, watch on tv (WCVW 24/Comcast), or follow along on Twitter at #rvacouncil.

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The James at River Bend from Libby Hill

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