Some residents of Union Hill, a historic district north of Church Hill, say they don’t get any respect.
Holly Jackson, owner of a cottage built in 1846, wants to paint her front door bright pink. But the Richmond Commission of Architectural Review — known as CAR — denied her application because her color choice doesn’t fit the palette guidelines for a historic structure.
Yet a modern, three-story building with commercial space and four apartments is going up across the street from her house on a triangular lot at 718 N. 23rd St.
“I’m not sure how these new developments are able to get approval,” Jackson said. “They simply don’t meet the CAR guidelines.”
An even bigger, three-story building for 27 apartments, a rooftop gathering space and retail on the ground level is proposed for another vacant lot around the corner at 2411 M St.
Matt Jarreau, the developer of both projects, said that five years ago, Union Hill was a neglected area of town and did not have the occupants or residents for these types of projects.
The neighborhood is growing and needs more commercial space, he said.
“We’re creating a little village,” Jarreau said about the developments. “This is exactly how the community operated 100 years ago.”
Jarreau said he could have done cheaper and easier projects with two-story apartments and minimal commercial space. “But it would have been a cop-out because it wouldn’t serve the community.”
Residents say they welcome new development but that it should reflect the architectural history of the area.
“People who are coming to Union Hill are drawn to its quirky charm,” Jackson said.
Dixon Kerr, a Union Hill resident for 39 years, said three-story buildings diminish the character of Union Hill because they do not suit the context of one- and two-story 19th-century buildings.
“Instead of keying off adjacent houses, the developers were allowed to use one of the largest churches in the city to justify their inappropriate height, scale and massing,” Kerr said.
The redevelopment and gentrification of Union Hill and its more glorious southern sister, Church Hill, are creating tensions between old and new and how to reconcile the two.
“We see on a nearly daily basis the thorny issues associated with development,” said Cyane Crump, executive director of Historic Richmond, a nonprofit group that works to preserve the historic fabric of the city.
Development in Union Hill is relevant not only for that neighborhood but also for other historic districts in the city, she said
“Demographics are creating new and different pressures and risks for neighborhoods and communities, increasing pressure for denser development and challenging affordability,” she said.
“We hear the complaints about new projects on vacant lots in Richmond’s Old and Historic Districts — too big, too banal, too something,” Crump said. “Sometimes, we hear opposing complaints about the same development: ‘It should look historic!’ ‘No, it should look modern!’
“Sometimes these complaints are just very challenging to reconcile.”
Nowhere is the tension more apparent than in Union Hill, which has made a comeback in the past decade after being largely ignored and abandoned.
“This is not just one neighborhood’s concern; it is citywide,” Kerr said. “But Union Hill has more vacant lots, so there is more new building here.”
Union Hill — one of 16 Old and Historic Districts in Richmond — generally is bordered on the south by East Marshall Street and Jefferson Avenue, on the west by Mosby Street, on the north by O and Carrington streets, and angled on the east by North 25th Street.
Narrow streets follow the curve of an original, hilly terrain, not the standard grid in the city.
The community gets its name from the joining of two hills through street grading in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Home to antebellum, Victorian, Classical Revival and modern architecture, it is on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
In the early 1990s, the once-vibrant working-class community became a haven for drug sales, residents say.
Jim Lampert, who has lived there for 34 years, said he recalls waking up to outlines of chalk marks on the streets where people were killed.
Unlike Church Hill, Union Hill is marked by an abundance of empty lots where houses once stood. The mixed-race neighborhood saw white flight, then black flight and, by the 1990s, most properties were neglected and abandoned.
The city, in an attempt to reduce crime and improve the area, spent millions of dollars in the late 1990s to demolish derelict homes.
The Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, a preservation group, saw things differently.
“We argued that spending a fraction of that to market vacant and abandoned buildings would increase the residential portion along with the taxes,” said Jennie Dotts, former executive director the group, now part of the Better Housing Coalition.
“The revenue would help improve public services, including schools and public safety; this is exactly what happened in Union Hill,” said Dotts, now a real estate agent with Virginia Properties.
The neighborhood has awesome, historic housing stock but nothing grandiose, said Matt Conrad, a 12-year resident. “It is still workforce housing.”
When the city tried to change zoning about eight years ago to allow mostly for single-family homes, the community rallied to preserve its unique character, Conrad said. Residents were granted zoning that would bring in more multifamily, affordable housing and commercial space.
The community is evolving for the most part in the way it was intended as workforce housing with a diverse socioeconomic base, Conrad said.
Jarreau’s proposal for 2411 M St. — a 27-unit apartment building with 11,000 square feet of commercial space fronting M, Jefferson and North 24th streets — would be built on a former drug-dealing corner.
“It will create a focal point at a five-point intersection,” he said. “This is a main commercial corridor in Union Hill, not a secondary street.” Thirty percent of the units will be affordable housing for low-income people.
Jarreau, an agent with Hometown Realty, and his business partner, Daniil Kleyman, went through multiple revisions and changed the exterior to all-brick to address concerns. They also shrunk the size of a rooftop deck to reduce the scale.
The project, recently approved by CAR, could go before the City Council for final approval in the next couple of months.
“I feel very strongly that the Jefferson (and M street) project makes a lot of sense and is an enhancement to the neighborhood,” said Jim Adams, who lives a few blocks from that intersection in Church Hill.
The community needs more services within walkable distances, Adams said. “That vacant block seems to be the ideal spot to do that. ... Some people are concerned about parking, but we have to get over that if we are going to live in an urban environment. My suspicion is some people don’t want to change.”
Adams said he is perplexed that anyone would object.
Evin Dogu, co-owner of Sub Rosa Bakery, said she is supportive of bringing more business to the area. But the height and size of the project conflicts with the charm of the area, she said.
Although Sub Rosa is in Church Hill, it would be a neighbor to the proposed M Street development in Union Hill. The bakery is on North 25th Street at Jefferson Avenue — the dividing lines between the two communities.
“Church Hill is such a unique place,” Dogu said. “There is so much charm.”
“The egregious disregard for CAR guidelines that we are seeing in Union Hill is not the situation in Church Hill,” said Mary Jane D’Arville, who lives in a house, circa 1895, on M Street.
“Church Hill has the clout, and we don’t,” she said, noting projects in Church Hill that comply with CAR’s height restriction guidelines.
One is a two-story building going up on an empty lot at North 32nd and East Marshall streets. The project, by UrbanCore Construction in Richmond, will have 1,400 square feet of commercial space, two apartments on the second floor and an attached town house .
She and other residents say they can get behind this type of development. They worry that approvals for three- and four-story structures in Union Hill set the precedent for more of the same.
They are leery as well of the Better Housing Coalition’s project to convert the former Citadel of Hope, built in 1923 by the Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union, into 52 affordable apartments for low-income people.
The Citadel building (two stories with an English basement) — which was boarded up for decades — will be rehabilitated into 12 apartment units.
New construction will include two two-story buildings on either side of the Citadel facing Venable Street; and two three-story buildings and one four-story building facing Jessamine Street.
“I have no worries about the two-story buildings; those designs seem suitable,” said Ann Wortham, who lives on Venable Street. “The three- and four-story buildings will be out of my view — for which I am extremely grateful.”
Greta Harris, president and CEO of the Better Housing Coalition, said multiple adjustments were made to the design “to try to make people happy so we could have a welcome addition and community asset in Union Hill. ... We didn’t make them fully happy.”
Nearly every project by the nonprofit developer, many in Church Hill, has been met with initial resistance, but then embraced once a project is finished, Harris said. “The people who disapproved are now some of our strongest advocates. Hopefully, that will be the case over time with the Union Hill community.”
A “semi-private” groundbreaking is planned for next week.
“The Old and Historic overlay says we have to be contextually integrated into the fabric of the community,” Harris said. “We think we have done that.”
Some infill projects are better received than others, and some developers have a better feel for working with the neighborhood than others, said Crump with Historic Richmond.
Infill presents challenges and opportunities to create beautiful, functional and sustainable structures, she said. “Designs that respect the scale, massing, setbacks and historic materials of the neighborhood, while incorporating design accents or features in a different material, seem to be particularly successful.”
The height of three- and four-story buildings to a streetscape of shorter buildings, for example, can be mitigated by adding setbacks, Crump said.
CAR guidelines specify that new construction should be compatible with historic features and reference the materials, features, size, scale and proportions of existing historic buildings. But compatibility does not mean duplicating existing structures or creating a false sense of history.
A compatible new building should be a good neighbor, the guidelines say.
“There are many, many factors that go into a building being a good neighbor,” Crump said. “What works well on one block may not necessarily be a good neighbor on another.”
By some accounts, the guidelines for Old and Historic are being pushed too far in Union Hill.
“We have no protections,” Wortham said. “The city seems to be encouraging more mass and density. Residents in Old and Historic Districts are supposed to be protected by zoning. But within the city’s current political climate, some of that zoning is ignored.”
She and others say they have been accused of NIMBY-ism, Not In My Back Yard proponents — a claim they deny.
“Like most of my neighbors, I want to see development of empty lots, but it should be appropriate to a historic district — if we are to have one,” Kerr said.