Empty lot in Union Hill where a mixed-use, three-story building is now arising.
Union Hill is a run-down neighborhood adjacent to its more famous neighbor, Church Hill, in the City of Richmond. Some of its working-class houses predate the Civil War, but the years have been unkind. For decades, the population was predominantly poor and African-American. Many of the lots are vacant, and many of the houses that remain are dilapidated. There is little commerce — not even retail — and jobs are far and few between.
But the gentrification wave that swept over Church Hill has spilled into Union Hill, and some of the old gentrifiers, drawn by the stock of inexpensive historic architecture, are unhappy with what some of the new gentrifiers are planning. In particular, residents are objecting to a building with four apartments and ground-level retail that is under construction on an empty lot. The building would… horrors!… be three stories tall, and totally out of character with the neighborhood of mostly two-story buildings.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch describes the “thorny issues” associated with revitalization, which, remarkably enough, does not appear to involve the poor, African-American residents who have long lived in the neighborhood. This debate does not pit hip, young urban gentry against the poor, powerless and displaced. Rather, the controversy poses a philosophical question of interest mainly to the affluent: Should a neighborhood be frozen in place architecturally in order to preserve its irreplaceable historic character, or should it be allowed to evolve in ways that provide more amenities to residents? Then throw in a question that goes unaddressed in the article, what right should neighbors have to obstruct a building that demonstrably does them no harm beyond offending their architectural sensibilities?
Developer Matt Jarreau is erecting a modern, three-story edifice on an empty, triangular lot on N. 23rd Street. He’s not tearing down an older structure. Nor is he building a structure that is wildly out of place for the neighborhood — a large, hulking church stands across the street. A rendering depicts a restaurant with outdoor seating, a valuable amenity for a neighborhood with precious little retail presence. But the rendering also pictures a building with flat brick walls, plain windows and minimal adornment that is neither attractive nor in keeping with the architectural character of the neighborhood. Jarreau is planning an even bigger, three-story building with 27 apartments on another vacant lot around the corner.
From the city’s point of view, Jarreau’s real estate investments surely are seen as a bonus. By building on vacant lots, he is creating taxable value. Union Hill is endowed with under-utilized streets, water, sewer and other infrastructure, so the incurs no additional cost. From a fiscal perspective, the two projects represent all gain, no pain. Even better, Jarreau is not displacing anyone — no structures are being torn down, no poor people are being evicted.
“We’re creating a little village. This is exactly how the community operated 100 years ago,” says Jarreau. It would have been cheaper and easier to go with two-story apartments and minimal commercial space. The community needs more services within walkable distances.”
Not everyone is buying that logic. Dixon Kerr, a Union Hill resident for 39 years, says the large buildings diminish neighborhood character because they do not suit the context of one- and two-story, 19th-century buildings, the Times-Dispatch reports.
As seen in other Richmond neighborhoods such as Church Hill and the Fan, historic neighborhoods that are stylistically and visually consistent are viewed in the marketplace as charming. Charm enhances real estate values. Conversely, disrupting neighborhood integrity by erecting buildings that are architecturally jarring or out of scale kills the charm and ruins property values.
Bacon’s bottom line: Both points of view are valid in their own way. I’m torn. I lived in Church Hill for many years and appreciated the historic-district guidelines that prevented people from doing idiosyncratic things like painting houses bright Wahoo orange and blue that would detract from neighbors’ property values. But, then, Church Hill had something worth preserving. Truly, the historic district was, and still is, an architectural gem.
At the risk of sounding like a snob, I have to say that Union Hill is no Church Hill. Some of its buildings may be old, but they are architecturally undistinguished. Moreover, so many have been torn down that restoring the neighborhood to its 19th-century prime is impossible. If people want to preserve the old buildings that remain, that’s fine. But that desire should not discourage others from investing in the neighborhood, creating new housing options, building new amenities and bolstering the city tax base.