Construction workers began to demolish a row of vacant buildings Monday on West Cary Street to make way for a disputed 100-unit apartment complex on the northern edge of Oregon Hill.

Some neighbors had called for the pre-Civil War era structures to be saved and were surprised by the quick action. The project’s plan of development has not yet been approved by the city and is the subject of a pending zoning appeal.

“I’m amazed at the disregard,” said Councilman Parker C. Agelasto, whose district includes the project. “Particularly when we were offering a compromise where they would preserve the buildings in exchange for additional height and density.”

The $18.5 million mixed-use project is planned for the 800 block of West Cary Street. It’s being led by J.D. Lewis Construction Management Inc.; company co-owner Kevin O’Leary declined to answer questions Monday about the decision to begin demolition and Agelasto’s proposed compromise.

In an emailed statement, O’Leary said the development “will be both less dense and shorter in height than is allowed by right by zoning,” and said he and his co-developers are pleased that the City Council voted late Monday against a proposal by Agelasto to change the area’s zoning to limit future development.

Richmond Planning Director Mark Olinger expressed surprise that demolition had begun, but said nothing in the city code would prohibit the action.

“They’re not starting construction,” he said. “The demolition is often viewed as a separate process.”

News of the project, announced in late February, drew protest from Oregon Hill residents, who have filed a zoning appeal challenging the project. The appeal is scheduled to be heard June 6.

The buildings, which include the former Paragon Pharmacy, date to the first half of the 19th century. Two of the buildings — 803 and 807 W. Cary St. — are among the four oldest buildings in the Oregon Hill Historic District, according to a history of the block from Charles Pool of the Oregon Hill Home Improvement Council.

The buildings are listed on the state and national registers of historic places as contributing structures to the district.

Agelasto said he’ll pursue changes to city processes in reaction to J.D. Lewis’ approach to the project.

“Other localities will not allow you to destroy historic register sites until a plan of development is approved,” he said. “This project has raised a lot of issues and is, unfortunately, going to bring some changes to how development projects are going to proceed in the city.”

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