Walter Parks hit a roadblock last month at City Hall.
The Richmond architect, who has worked on dozens of historic rehab developments, stood and watched as the city’s planning commission voted down his 13-unit apartment conversion project in Shockoe Bottom by a 6-2 vote.
The issue: Windows.
Specifically, the commission didn’t like that two of the apartments would not have eye-level windows.
“The apartments had windows, but what we had to decide was do windows or skylights 12 to 14 feet up in the air count?” said planning commission member and landscape architect Doug Cole, who voted in favor of Parks’s project.
Parks’s run-in with the planning commission was precipitated by the adoption last year of a three-page position paper that says residential projects seeking approval from the planning commission – or almost every historic conversion project – must have windows that open onto the street. Apartments without a traditional window have been dubbed “windowless units” by their detractors.
Developers target for rehabilitation old buildings that are eligible for historic tax credits to offset their costs. But to get the incentives, they consent to restrictions on how much a building can be altered. Because projects require a certain number of units to ensure profitability, developers have turned to architectural designs that allow daylight to enter the units but do not meet the traditional definition of a window.
The planning commission is concerned that when trends change or the market becomes saturated, projects with a large number of windowless units will be the least desirable and the first to fail, potentially leading to blight.
The commission’s new position comes as the use of such units has become more common in warehouses in Scott’s Addition, Manchester and Shockoe Bottom as the stock of tax-credit-eligible buildings dwindles.
Since 2007, the commission has approved 232 residential units that do not have exterior windows, according to city records.
Local developers say the policy shift, as well as increased scrutiny from authorities that issue tax credits, threatens the future of tax credit development in the city.
‘They are substandard units’
Dave Johannas, head of architecture firm Johannas Design Group and a member of the planning commission who was one of driving forces behind its window resolution, worries about the long term.
“The development of these windowless units in Richmond has come about in the past 10 years, and we’ve all come to just accept it as normal,” Johannas said. “I was trained not to do that in architecture. If you have apartments in a building with windows you can’t see out of, they are substandard units.”
Johannas said the chase for more tax credits should not jeopardize the need for property to be developed responsibly.
“When the market is saturated, the first units that are not going to be rented are units that suck,” he said. “And the units that don’t have windows are at the bottom of that list. We have a responsibility to prevent the future slum dwellings of Richmond where we can.”
Developers say the market – not City Hall – should decide what gets built.
“The buildings we are talking about here are never going to be warehouses again,” said Tom Papa of Fountainhead Properties. “Nobody else, besides apartment developers, has figured out what to do with these things. Unless common sense prevails here, it will single-handedly bring down the program in Richmond.”
Fountainhead’s projects at South Canal and the former Miller Manufacturing sites will have apartments with indirect light, Papa said.
Both sides agree that the state and federal tax credit programs, run by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the National Parks Service, have had an enormous and positive impact on Richmond. According to DHR records, 972 rehab projects in the city valued at more than $1.5 billion have received state tax credits since the program’s inception in 1997.
The problem is that most of the eligible historic buildings in Richmond where windows weren’t an issue have already been converted into apartments. What’s left are buildings like 3200 Clay St. in Scott’s Addition: A large, city-block-size warehouse old enough to qualify for credits but too big to give every apartment an exterior window within the financial confines of the project.
The issue comes down to how much profit a developer can squeeze out of a conversion, which is expensive to being with.
“If [warehouse] owners are going to charge $30 to $40 per square foot for the [undeveloped] buildings, I need 80 to 90 percent of it to be leasable space,” said David Gammino, owner of development and construction company City & Guilds. “For some of these buildings in Scott’s Addition and Manchester, if you can’t do these interior units, that goes down to 60 percent, and it’s just not worth it anymore.”
Developer Tom Wilkinson called in Walter Parks to design 3200 Clay. The end result: more than half of the 139 apartments did not have exterior windows.
Parks has pioneered these kinds of interior units by doing architectural back-flips to get light in from the outside without the use of traditional windows. Parks uses light wells, atriums and skylights, which might not offer a view of the street but bring in sunlight.
“To have a viable project, you have to have to create a good place to live,” Parks said. “And for that you have to bring in light. But with these massive buildings you have to be creative about how you get that light in.
“The last thing we want to do is create dungeons. Nobody would want to live there,” Parks said.
The special use permit for the Clay Street project was approved in February 2012 with Doug Cole being the lone dissenting vote. But for some in the planning commission, 3200 Clay was a turning point. Four months later, in June, the commission adopted its new policy against units with no exterior windows.
The definition of a “window” also comes into play.
“There is no definition of ‘window’ in the international building code, but if you just Google it, the definition that comes back is an opening in a wall or ceiling that lets in light and/or air,” said Tom Papa of Fountainhead. “And, by that definition, all these apartments have windows.”
Mark Olinger, head of the city’s planning department, said tax credits should not be the only reason a building is developed.
“There are some people who say, ‘Why is the city doing this when the developer is taking all the risk,’” he said. “Up front, that’s true. But somewhere down the road, the developer will not be in that project. And if that project goes sideways because it’s not marketable, it’s a significant risk.”
‘What else do you do with them?’
Despite the planning commission’s stance against windowless units, its recommendations aren’t the final word on any given project.
Two weeks after the planning commission rejected Walter Parks’s Shockoe Bottom project at 18th and Franklin streets, City Council approved it.
“There are some [projects] that are just clear violations of planning’s position statement and no further discussion is necessary,” said Charles Samuels, the City Council president. “There are other cases, as in this case, it may technically violate the language of the position statement but it would be better for the city if it moves forward.
“I think each case deserves to be heard on its merits. City Council is not just going to be a rubber stamp.”
Olinger said that he was sympathetic to the developers’ concerns about the tax credit programs limiting their ability to alter buildings and that the city is in contact with the state and federal government about those issues.
For Parks, whose project was the first to test the new resolution, the issue boils down what the tax credit program was always intended to be.
“Those buildings – the warehouses and factories – they are part of the fabric of this city, and they should be preserved,” he said. “I love the old industrial look and feel. So really the question becomes, what else do you do with them? Throw them out? I think that would be a shame.”