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Oregon Hill Neighbors Say Richmond’s New Master Plan Could Be ‘Devastating’

The historic Oregon Hill neighborhood may look different if the Richmond 300 plan is adopted by City Council. (Photo licensed through Wikimedia Commons)

With the Richmond 300 master plan set for a final vote from City Council next month, representatives of the Oregon Hill neighborhood are pushing back against the measure, which they say could devastate the historic neighborhood.

Currently, the overwhelming majority of the neighborhood is zoned residential, meaning businesses and large developments wanting to locate there need special approval from the city Planning Commission. The final Richmond 300 plan calls for rezoning Oregon Hill to “neighborhood mixed-use.” While that would keep single-family homes and small apartments (3-10 units) as the primary use, it would allow large apartment buildings (10+ units) and commercial spaces as secondary uses if rezoning goes through.

Charles Pool, a member of the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association and resident since 1976, said he and others fear the proposed designation will open the door to redevelopment.

“We already have the perfect zoning in our neighborhood,” he said. “It’s residential with a 35-foot height limit. The mixed-use designation they’re trying to foist on us has it twice as high, up to four to six stories.”

Pool said the new designation “would be devastating.”

Oregon Hill is a historically working-class neighborhood near the James River, bordered by Hollywood Cemetery to the west and S. Belvidere Street to the east. 

It’s also just a few blocks south of Virginia Commonwealth University’s main campus. As VCU has expanded rapidly, the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association has become increasingly concerned about redevelopment. The group has tried unsuccessfully to get VCU to pledge not to encroach on the neighborhood.

Pool said he and other neighbors are concerned the rezoning that could come as a result of the Richmond 300 master plan will be taken as a greenlight for VCU and other developers. 

“Anytime [a developer] submits an application for a special use permit, the first thing they look at is ‘does this coordinate with the master plan,’” he said. “So if somebody is coming in to tear down a whole block of Oregon Hill to build four-story apartments, the city will say ‘yep, that’s what the master plan says.’”

The Richmond 300 master plan is expected to guide the city’s growth over the next 20 years. 

At a meeting of City Council’s Land Use, Housing and Transportation Committee Tuesday, 5th District Council Member Stephanie Lynch backed the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association. Lynch, who represents Oregon Hill, suggested an amendment to the proposed master plan that would keep the neighborhood’s current residential designation.

“They feel very strongly about wanting to move forward in our new Richmond master plan with a residential land-use designation to really try to protect, preserve and honor the direction that the neighbors want to go,” she said. 

At that same meeting, Richmond’s chief planning official Mark Olinger pushed back, saying that changing the land-use designation would not automatically change the zoning to allow for taller buildings. Although the Richmond 300 plan does call for an overhaul of Richmond’s zoning code, Olinger says that’s a 3 to 5 year endeavour. 

“It is a long-term process that will require review and approval of the Planning Commission and, ultimately, by council,” he said. “Nothing we are doing in this plan will change the zoning once it’s adopted. That’s a second iteration.”

Olinger also said he foresees large commercial development continuing to take place along major hubs like Broad Street, regardless of the new land-use designations.

Richmond City Council is set to take a final vote on the Richmond 300 master plan at its Dec. 14 meeting.

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