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Jason Tesauro celebrates victory over the city of Richmond's building permit application process. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Nested's renderings of the front of the Tesauro house. (Image courtesy NESTED)
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Nested's renderings of the rear of the Tesauro house. (Image courtesy NESTED)
“Welcome to my hell. I’m in building permit limbo, too,” said Julia Battaglini. She's gutting the old Buddy’s Place for her launch of the new Secco Wine Bar in the Fan. Battaglini and I commiserated over our paper chases with the City of Richmond’s approval process, which in 2016 is about as streamlined as the Supreme Court confirmation process. Before a construction team can break ground, the city requires a building permit to be green-lighted by the Public Works, Public Utilities, Zoning and Building departments. Submitting that permit request — not securing, mind you, just submitting — took two people nine separate visits to the byzantine bureaucracy at 900 E. Broad St. Surprise, surprise, there is no Genius Bar at City Hall.
Building a house is like planning a wedding. Your architect and general contractor are the maid of honor and best man. Subcontractors and interior designers are your bridal party (which means at least one of them will end up being an expensive headache). Yet, before the “I do’s,” there’s a proposal of marriage. Your building permit request is an engagement ring, and the city’s approval is your fiancée’s emphatic “yes.”
But wait a minute, Casanova. If your nueva casa is in one of Richmond’s 16 designated old and historic districts, you’ve got to respect tradition and ask for her papa’s permission. In this town, that means a pilgrimage to the Commission of Architectural Review (CAR) and comprehension of their bible: “Old & Historic Districts of Richmond, Virginia Handbook and Design Review Guidelines.” Among other things, the 127-page handbook outlines specs for doors, windows, cornices, masonry, massing, awnings, railings, downspouts, porches and paint (there’s a palette of 60 approved colors from “Roycroft Mist Gray” to “Black Bean”). If designs are in keeping with guidelines that “protect the historic, architectural, cultural and artistic heritage of Richmond,” CAR issues a Certificate of Appropriateness.
From the outset, we knew that our front facade and roofline would be the big issues since our rear facade is shielded from public view and thus out of the commission’s jurisdiction. CAR wants new construction to blend in, but it doesn’t want faux old designs that mimic historic homes. Likewise, it doesn’t want non sequiturs that undermine integrity and visual flow (see entry under “McMansion among row houses.”) With our architects, we put to CAR a design that was like a mullet: All business in the front and a party in the back. But, like the mullet, it failed. CAR sent us back to the drawing board to address issues with the roofline, front porch, basement and windows.
We rejiggered the plans and even laid out the lot with string so we could walk through each room and hallway. We lowered the roof, nixed the basement (neighbors were concerned that excavating would jeopardize their foundations), switched the porch for a stoop and replaced our modern windows with a more traditional design. When another CAR meeting came around the following month, we were ready to present a refreshed application. That’s when it got ugly.
After the Commission heard our case, they opened the floor and invited neighbors to chime in with support or gripes. This was an early Festivus, complete with airing of public grievances. "We insist that CAR considers the impact of nonstandard designs and how new construction affects the quality of life,” said one neighbor. “It simply does not fit within the block.” I figured we were sunk. Another homeowner, however, restored my faith with his comments: “The design is very cool and creative and if I could afford it, I would probably want to hire the firm that put it together.”
Then we sat in silence while the commission debated aloud. One nugget nearly brought me to tears: “We as a body continue to see the same cookie-cutter production house time and time again. What I respect about this particular application is that it has made an attempt to break away from that very standardized form. … There have been a lot of attempts made with the design to be a good neighbor … and I applaud the applicant for coming up with an interesting solution to a very difficult lot."
It was a nail-biter, but in the end, the vote came out 5-3: Approved. Red tape, green light. Thank you, CAR. We promise to build a killer abode that adds flavor to our city while preserving the character of our Chimborazo Park Historic District. Stay tuned, RVA, it's about to get real (estate). And dear homeowners around the 3600 block of East Broad: Let me know if you’re gluten free, because I see some home-baked muffins in your future. It’s time to get neighborly. As for ye naysayers, I invite you to come by once we break ground. While I’ve got the shovels out, we might as well bury the hatchet.