What Richmond’s top planner once called “the detached garage of the central business district” could soon be fertile ground for new development.

The Richmond Planning Commission on Monday unanimously endorsed a package of ordinances aimed at facilitating construction and growth in Monroe Ward, the area of downtown bounded by Belvidere, Broad and Ninth streets and the Downtown Expressway.

Under current zoning, 25% of the area is occupied by surface parking lots, a use that city planners say has rendered it desolate and disconnected from the rest of a downtown area that has seen new investment in recent years.

“I think it’s time we fix Monroe Ward,” said Mark Olinger, the city’s director of the Department of Planning and Development Review.

Fostering development in the area emerged as a priority for the city in 2017, ahead of the launch of the GRTC Pulse. The city’s Pulse Corridor Plan, adopted by the council that year, outlines the city’s intent to reconsider land uses and promote density in certain neighborhoods surrounding the bus rapid transit line on Broad and East Main streets.

Olinger’s department pitched the Planning Commission its initial proposal for Monroe Ward last fall. The recommendations included replacing a patchwork of residential and industrial zoning that allow the parking lots to exist with newer designations that ease height and use restrictions and promote certain goals, like pedestrian-friendly streets.

On Monday, the department revealed changes to its original plan meant to assuage concerns raised by property owners and residents over the past several months. A frequent concern that city staff members said they heard was whether the changes did enough to protect historic buildings, particularly along Franklin Street.

Originally, the department recommended rezoning Franklin and loosening height restrictions on the street. Some worried the prospect could result in new construction dwarfing the historic buildings that line the street, or lead to their eventual demolition as land values rose and developers ran out of vacant lots on which to build new mid- or high-rises.

As a compromise, the planning department recommended — and the commission endorsed — maintaining current zoning on Franklin Street that allows for residential and office uses. But it also proposed amending the existing zoning ordinance to forbid parking lots as a primary use.

Much of the area will remain zoned B-4, which allows residential and commercial uses. In response to feedback it received, the department also amended its original plan to scrap a provision of the city’s designation that has functioned as a de facto height restriction by requiring taller buildings to be set back further from the street.

“Richmond can’t afford to lose the remaining historic fabric in Monroe Ward, which is some of its finest,” said Cyane Crump, executive director of Historic Richmond. She complimented city staff members for reconsidering the proposal after hearing the concerns.

Aside from those changes, the commission gave its blessing to rezone the southwestern portion of Monroe Ward to the TOD-1 designation, allowing for building heights up to 12 stories.

The commission also endorsed the establishment of a 73-block plan-of-development overlay district that would require any new project exceeding 1,000 square feet to go through a special review process. The process is meant to ensure each project meets the design tenets of the Pulse Corridor Plan, city staff members said.

The council, which must sign off on the changes, is scheduled to weigh the ordinances at its next meeting on July 22.

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