Should Historic Neighborhoods Be Allowed to Evolve?

Empty lot in Union Hill where a mixed-use, three-story building is now arising.

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.

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19 responses to “Should Historic Neighborhoods Be Allowed to Evolve?

  1. “Even better, Jarreau is not displacing anyone — no structures are being torn down, no poor people are being evicted.”

    Really Jim?

    You don’t see this as the start of gentrification which will inevitably result in poor people being displaced?

    Put a note in your calendar for May 8, 2020. Write a follow up column. Want to bet what will happen?

  2. Jim, again, I’m just so grateful to have any ‘lay’ person talk about urban planning and reach an audience I’m willing to agree with almost anything you say! 😉 You raise the range of perspectives here, well; I will make a point to go see Union Hill next time I’m in Richmond.

    But, too – urban design and neighborhood character is not just the sum of its parts. Perhaps less important than the condition of the individual buildings is their massing, scale and consistent setback (‘street wall’) and streetscape, as a block or series of blocks. This is especially true with neighborhoods of vernacular architecture.

    Presumably Jarreau’s (any relation to Joel!?) lot is zoned commercially, and is likely on a corner. It could bring welcome vitality.

    I worked for the New York Dept. of City Planning in the late 80’s, when the policy tensions of gentrification and affordable housing were arising. Fascinating subject without simple answers.

    Thank you, again, for contributing to the understanding of urban planning!

  3. OK, we can distinguish between direct and indirect displacement. Jarreau is adding to the housing stock, and he is not evicting anyone from their abode.

    Your point is that by investing in the neighborhood, Jarreau will contribute to an increase in property values. Higher property values will mean higher taxes, which will be passed along as a cost of poor homeowners and/or renters. So, yes, I agree, that could lead to indirect displacement over time.

    Of course, allowing the neighborhood to languish could lead to displacement as well. Every time a sub-standard house gets razed because it’s unsafe to live in, a poor family must find someone else to live. Many Union Hill households have been displaced that way in the past.

    Which scenario is worse?

    • It’s not a question of which scenario is worse. It’s a question of how to deal with the inevitable gentrification of desirable neighborhoods and resulting increase in income inequality for the city as a whole. This is happening in cities and neighborhoods all over the US. Gentrification is disrupting poor and middle class people in most of DC, the Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago, the East Village of New York, Hell’s Kitchen in New York, Boston, etc. Landlords sell their properties after kicking out the tenants at the end of their lease. Developers either tear down the property and build new or gut the building leaving only the external shell untouched. Either way – the poor and middle class people who had been living there aren’t coming back. The revitalized neighborhoods attract wealthy outsiders while the poor and middle class scramble for what affordable housing is left – driving up the price of “affordable” housing (and making themselves relatively poorer at the same time). The Gini Coefficient of the city rises along with the desperation and anger of the poor and middle class. In fact, among the 100 largest metro areas, 57 have a significantly higher 95/20 ratio in 2014 than in 2007 (including all three of Virginia’s major metro areas).

      Cities try various things (all of which seem to fail):

      1. New York City regulates its landlords with endless rent control and mandatory affordable housing requirements and taxes residents making over $25,000 per year with a 3 – 4% personal income tax. However, between 2000 and 2014, the median New York City rent increased 19 percent while household income decreased by 6.3 percent. In that same period, the city’s homeless population more than doubled from 22,972 to 51,470. There are now around 60,000 people in the city’s shelter system, an all-time peak.

      2. Los Angeles raises the minimum wage to $15 per hour but still has the 7th highest 95/20% ratio difference among the biggest 100 American metro areas.

      3. DC has a graduated city income tax rate that goes from 4% to almost 9% but still has a massive affordable housing crisis.

      Now Jim – anybody who studies history knows that a society can only economically terrorize a sizable percentage of the population for so long. You eventually get riots in Baltimore or Donald Trump in the White House.

      And let’s be honest – Virginia is just about as bad a place as exists in the US for understanding the consequences of trends. From destroying the famland with excessive tobacco cultivation to the truly brain dead decision to serve as the capital of the Confederacy Virginia is less for lovers than it is for bad ideas. Will Richmond insist that yuppie renovation be accompanied by the mandatory construction of sufficient affordable housing to handle the displacement of poor and middle class people? Will the General Assembly either raise the minimum wage or allow localities to do so? Will the General Assembly allow localities like the City of Richmond to levy local income taxes in order to provide affordable housing, job training etc to the increasingly marginalized poor and middle class?

      You see – the problem with living in a politically backward state that follows the Dillon Rule like it’s a religion is that you have to be especially careful with unintended consequences. The group that has all the power (state legislature) isn’t going to lift a finger if hard times befall your beloved River City. Worse yet, they Imperial Clown Show in Richmond won’t even let Richmond help itself.

      So, you might want to think through the consequences of high scale gentrification before you decide its just the free market at work. The free market didn’t elect Mussolini, disgruntled Italians did.

  4. Jarreau’s project is not displacing anyone. Market forces down the line might. Poor people might benefit from rising home prices if they are homeowners. NIMBY’s will exacerbate rental prices by constricting supply and making it more costly to build.

  5. I agree with you about Union Hill. Maybe I’m a snob, too, but I also think that so much of its original character has been torn down that it’s distinguishable from other parts of the city.

    kvdavis2 makes a good point about the zoning (Is it commercially zoned?).

    If it’s a commercially zoned vacant lot, I tend to side with the developer in this instance.

  6. It does tear us two ways. On the one hand the charm of a neighborhood is often accidental, and gentrification is merely further investment in the neighborhood by those who perceive and appreciate its charm and want to nurture and reinforce that charm. And those sorts of people who “get it” tend to have the money to price out of the neighborhood those who don’t get it. We have lots of that going on up here in NoVa and Washington, DC.

    On the other hand, look at the streetcar suburbs of Richmond today, say, what we so grandly call the Fan and Museum Districts, or near Byrd Park, or along the Boulevard itself. These are not unbroken rows of two story homes but, scattered throughout, are two and three story apartment buildings — particularly locations within a shorter walk of where the streetcars actually ran. And also scattered throughout — anathema to modern zoning — were stores, laundromats, bars, even downstairs from residences.

    I suspect what you are reacting most to is not the scale of this development but its lack of visual appeal. You say, “the rendering . . . 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.” Yes, that is a shame. The only alternative, however, is more prescriptive “historic district standards.” Or maybe some jaw-boning by City officials and future neighbors — if any of them have the leverage to do so.

  7. what Gentrification is probably not. It’s not young families with kids who will attend the neighborhood public school, at least early on in the gentrification timeframe.

    In fact, I cannot imagine young families with kids and the kids will wander freely in the neighborhood when not in school.

    Not sure gentrification is much different than the well off razing a 50-60’s style ranch in a middle class subdivision neighborhood and replacing it with a McMansion… though the schools would be better.

    • “Not sure gentrification is much different than the well off razing a 50-60’s style ranch in a middle class subdivision neighborhood and replacing it with a McMansion” —

      Hear, hear! Gentrification means being at the mercy of changing tastes and even the absence of taste. Gentrification means increasing the density of living in ways that crowd out many of the old timers and offend the ones left behind. Gentrification means, unfortunately, the arrival of dual-income families with au pairs for the kids who spent so much getting “in” that they can’t afford to contribute the time it takes to really participate in the neighborhood in ways that made it a neighborhood. Gentrification means ignoring others without their priorities. Gentrification means impatience with traditions even while embracing them outwardly, means demands for more and better government services, and means money, not time, talks. Gentrification means mummification. I can go on; there are so many reasons to be skeptical of gentrification, but it has its preservationist up-side and we need to make peace with it.

    • Doesn’t really happen that way. At least, once we remove the core confusing words. Is Arlington County a community of subdivisions or a city? Given Arlington is more than twice as densely populated as the so-called City of Richmond I’d say redevelopment of Arlington is an urban gentrification issue. Beyond that, very few ranch houses are razed and replaced with McMansions – even in Arlington. They are replaced with condo buildings. You do see some razing of ranch houses in favor of bigger houses in that part of McLean near Arlington. Once again, the character of the area has moved from suburban densities to urban densities. McLean has a population density roughly equivalent to the so-called City of Fredricksburg.

      Knocking down existing structures in mid to low density areas in order to build new is rarely an economically viable proposition unless there has been some dramatic change (like building a Metro station nearby). However, gentrifying entire neighborhoods (Bucktown in Chicago for example) or entire cities (SanFrancisco for example) is an increasingly common occurrence.

      Here’s a Ginni Index interactive map of Virginia. The worst inequality is in the cities …

      http://mmj.vcu.edu/2013/12/20/income-inequality-data/

      Further urban gentrification only makes that inequality worse in the cities where the gentrification is occurring.

      • I think it’s not binary but a continuum …

        ranch homes to larger homes to multi-story to condos… etc.

        I’m quite sure at some point in the past – when Arlington was a suburb on the other side of the Potomac.. it had a much lower density –

        and I have to take a little bit of an issue.. there ARE single family homes in Arlington…. not on huge lots anymore… but still detached single family homes on side streets . and you have to drive to get to anything.

  8. re: ” increasing the density of living in ways that crowd out many of the old timers and offend the ones left behind. ”

    one way to deal with gentrification is to REQUIRE set-aside proffers for affordable housing or perhaps better to incentivize re-development that accomplishes that goal so that lower income people are not displaced but instead can stay.

    Over and over discussions center over how to accommodate the affluent “creative” workers … opposition to minimum wage … and general ignoring of the lower-income service workers who are mandatory for a city to work.

    We relegate them to some areas of town where their kids go to usually the worse schools in the region and even state..

    Urban areas OUGHT TO BE the holistic sum of the parts – to INCLUDE the folks who do the service work that urban areas must have to function.

    Instead – we blather about “immigrants” and too many people living homes…food deserts… folks who get entitlements ..for “working”… EITC, etc..

    We blather on and on about gentrification and McMansions with an occasional perfunctory lament about “affordable housing” and how minimum wage will cause “unemployment”.. and ERs are health care for those who “don’t deserve” employer-provided insurance.

    We are being overrun by a generation of ” get off my lawn” types..

  9. This is a pretty good analysis of cities, urban areas, income inequality and (to some extent) housing prices …

    https://www.brookings.edu/research/city-and-metropolitan-inequality-on-the-rise-driven-by-declining-incomes/

    • yes.. a good article .. thanks..

      it pretty much debunks Richard Florida’s elitist view of “smart” folks defining urban areas.. not sure why Bacon was ever attracted to his philosophy to start with!

      All urban areas need a diverse variety of labor at different rates but when we have a significant number of workers who cannot afford to live where they work – AND they don’t make enough to commute to the exurbs, we have a problem especially when they get assailed for living too many to a house… or needing entitlements, or have to send their kids to under-resourced schools that will not educate their kids to the level needed for them to do better than their parents did but instead remain slave to their generational poverty.

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