A rendering of the development proposed for the "Westwood Tract." (Image courtesy Union Presbyterian Seminary)
A sometimes vociferous disagreement involving North Side neighborhoods and the Union Presbyterian Seminary about the fate of the 34 acres known as the “Westood tract” property reaches another plateau with a meeting scheduled today (March 6) between stakeholders, community members and representatives of the city, Franklin, Tennessee-based Bristol Development Group and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The meeting will be held at 4 p.m. in Lake Chapel on the ground floor of Union's Early Center.
The seminary and Bristol entered into a partnership in 2014 to realize a $50 million complex comprising 15 buildings with 301 units, an athletic center and pool, at first under the name of “Bristol at Westwood” and now “Canopy at Ginter Park.” The apartments are to provide close-in housing for some 20 students and the general population. Community members insist they aren't “Not In My Backyard” types and emphasize a desire for two-way communication between themselves, the seminary and the developer. In past meetings, seminary officials have said they have the authority to develop the property as they find necessary "by right."
The seminary spokesman, when contacted for comment on the neighborhood's worries, said, "Many of the community’s concerns have been addressed on our informational website." When asked by phone for further details about density, effects on the tree canopy and other aspects of the plan, communications director Mike Frontiero stated that these questions are addressed on the project page linked above.
As many of these stories do, it all starts with late 19th century tobacco, real estate tycoon, world traveler and philanthropist, Lewis Ginter. Few people of means have ever shaped the city as Ginter’s fortune managed. His numerous endeavors included bankrolling a world-class hotel, The Jefferson. He implemented the chartering of North Side neighborhoods such as Lakeside, Sherwood Park and what became Ginter Park. He brought the seminary from Farmville in Prince Edward County to Richmond. The institution's officials then were scouting possible sites due to the need for increased student housing.
Ginter built a country house on what became Westbrook Avenue, among land he sought to improve. He desired the creation of an elegant and aesthetic suburban enclave far from the messy, noisy city, but connected by the innovative electric street car. The community needed a catalyst that Union’s relocation provided. Ginter gifted the seminary with 12 acres, and the trustees acquired 34 additional acres, known as the “Westwood property.” This flatland (which, neighbors say, is prone to runoff in minor rains) is bordered by Brook, Rennie, Loxley and Westwood.
The distinctive dark red brick High Victorian Gothic campus at Brook Road and Westwood are symbols of solemn commitment. Watts Hall came first in 1896, by Richmond architect Charles Henry Read, Jr. (1846-1904). His father was a well-known New York and Richmond minister. The younger Read fought at the Battle of New Market with the Virginia Military Institute cadets, studied engineering at the University of Virginia and also trained as a draftsman for Tredegar Iron Works. There, he devised patterns for decorative wrought iron. In Washington, D.C., while in government and private practice, Read gained invaluable experience through the design of institutional buildings. His Richmond efforts include the 1894 Planters National Bank at 1200 E. Main St., a brick and brownstone Richardson Romanesque landmark, and now state offices.
Read’s masterpiece is the seminary campus. He proposed 15 buildings and constructed eight. He situated these around a quadrangle following close to the dimensions of the Lawn of the University of Virginia.
But the 34 acres have thus far remained a park setting of trees and paths with additional athletic playing fields. Some buildings appeared through time after the circa 1887 cottage of physician Hunter Holmes McGuire (1835-1900) and the later Rice and Advance apartments, which now stand empty and fenced to prevent vandalism. Two single family homes, at Loxley and Rennie, are in a style and scale similar to the neighborhood. One is a rental, the other is the residence of a seminary employee. Buildings of the Spanish Revival Mission Court apartments on Rennie Avenue, (possibly designed by Charles Robinson Jr.), were built during the 1920s for women returning from mission work. In 2010, following a lengthy time of abandonment, two were demolished, leaving one remaining and unused.
And this is where neighbors, who otherwise respect the seminary for its tremendous complementary presence and historical community ties, see cracks forming in their relationship. The discomfort felt by the seminary’s plans, and its lack of maintenance of extant structures around the Westwood lands, moved PreservationVirginia in 2016 to name the Westwood Tract as one of the state’s endangered places.
What started as a 1950s residential zoning to build dormitories, when zoning was much more simple, resulted in the Rice and Advance buildings. But the zoning then evolved into an R53 designation which is the highest, densest rating. “There’s no explanation of how it eked up,” says neighbor and historian Sarah Driggs. The present predicament resulted from “an accident of bureaucratic history,” as an observer remarked on the “Last Chance to Protect the Westwood Tract” Facebook page.
Around 1970, City Council member Wayland Rennie went to the then seminary president and said, ‘We now have a more appropriate 'institutional zoning' classification, and we think you’re more appropriate for that.” And the seminary head assured Rennie that the seminary wouldn’t use the land for anything other than educational purposes. Rennie has since filed a notarized affidavit in February about that discussion.
“Because it’s not institutional zoning, the project didn’t require architectural review by the city,” says PreservationVirginia director Elizabeth Kostelny, who also lives nearby and recused herself from the group’s 2016 “Endangered” decision.
During discussions held in past months between the various constituencies, the developer’s plans haven’t changed much and the seminary remains steadfast about its needs for in-close student housing and in this particular format.
Resident Hampton Carver, himself a developer with a background in commercial real estate, isn’t enthusiastic about the Bristol proposal. But he's also aware of vitriol that's been spread and hopes that those involved can back away and engage in an open discussion about the project.
When asked if, in his professional view, this is a smart plan, he reflects on the top selling apartment neighborhoods in Richmond: Manchester, Scott’s Addition and Shockoe. All offer certain amenities and are readily accessible to city life by walking, biking or transit. “It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he says, “unless you’re in a go-go suburban market. To put in 300 units all at once next to established city neighborhoods – that’s a heavy load.” The Spy Rock Firm is putting 200 units in a mixed-use project at Brook Road-Chamberlayne Avenue, affordable for students, and Bonaventure Realty made The Spectrum at 2017 Brook Road.
At bottom is the question: For whose benefit is the project? And why is HUD involved?
The second question first: Carver explains that in recent times, permanent lenders have become more hesitant about financing apartment buildings outside of hot markets like Los Angeles or Atlanta. HUD has devolved into a lender of choice. The reason is economic. A bank may require 30 percent equity in a loan where HUD asks for 15 percent. A conventional loan’s amortization is 20 years, with HUD the amortization is 45 years. In addition, HUD doesn’t require the note to be personally signed. “HUD has a great and important mission of making workforce housing available,” Carver says. “Working with HUD greatly reduces the rate to the developer and increases the risk to the community.”
An alternative plan (shown below) that was offered to the seminary hasn't thus far gained traction. (Editor's note: an earlier version of this article inaccurately credited the design of the alternative plan.)
An alternative development plan for the Westwood tract would be less dense and, neighbors say, more sensitive to the historic nature of the community. (Image courtesy Hampton Carver)
The hidden costs for the neighborhood, say the project opponents, include school overcrowding, increased traffic in a residential district, stormwater runoff, and diminishing property values.
A general anxiety, too, is that these 300 units could be the beginning of a potential total of 1,179 units. The seminary’s official statement about that eventuality is, “Mandates given to our administration by the seminary’s board of trustees preclude such a strategy. And such a strategy would be out of character for a seminary that has been a positive force in the neighborhood for more than 100 years.”
The upcoming meeting about the HUD Federal Housing Administration 221 (d)(4) Multifamily Loan Program concerns Section 106 of the historic review process for the project. According to HUD’s February announcement, “The meeting will discuss the Area of Potential Effect (APE), identify historic resources within the APE and open for discussion effect on historic properties.”
And this homes in on some of the neighborhood concerns. The McGuire Cottage, for example, was used for a time by married seminarians, but has stood empty since around 2005. Its Italianate porch is in poor condition and windows are out.
The urgency behind getting this particular project up and running isn’t clear. There is an underlying community concern that should the seminary relocate — as occurred with the Baptist Theological Seminary — then what is left behind is a massive apartment project owned by an out of town firm. The seminary responded in 2015 to such anxiety by saying, "Union’s future is not dependent upon the development of the Westwood Tract, and the seminary is not in jeopardy of closing if the development is not successful."
A comparison is made to the growth of the Veritas School, which moved into the former Baptist seminary, and intends to provide a K-12 curriculum.
“We love their approach and it’s a contrast,” Carver says. “Veritas School would’ve owned all this a long time ago, if zoning was right, when they bought the old Baptist seminary.”
Carver and others understand and support private property rights. The seminary received the land in perpetuity to assist in growing the institution. That R53 zoning stands to open the seminary to millions in earnings.
“We’re not these “NiMBY’s,” says Driggs. “We support the seminary, but we want to have more reasonable alternatives considered and not just dismissed out of hand. This really hasn’t been a normal public process.”
Kostelny adds, “They’ve said at meetings that they’ve been considering this for 20 years. But they never told us until they already had the plan made.”
Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, who studied the Westwood situation during her School Board days, is also opposed to the project as it currently stands. “Someone in planning said the project wouldn’t impact on the schools, but that’s a serious miscalculation,” Gray says. “The impact on Linwood Holton Elementary will be substantial ... not the least of which will be traffic.”
On Nov. 30, 2016, a letter signed by Gray and council members Charles R. Samuels and Chris A. Hilbert was sent to the HUD district office administrating multi-family housing construction. It expressed their official concern about a federally subsidized apartment project drawing potential tenants and revenue from existing apartment complexes in the Chamberlayne Avenue and Brook Road corridors. "These existing projects have worked through very difficult crime, profitability and maintenance issues over the last decade," the council members wrote, adding that the Westwood project "could do serious harm" to the current apartments and the community at large. This was in addition to environmental, traffic and educational impact concerns. In part, it seems, the discussion this afternoon will address these subjects.