A recent zoning change is giving the Union Hill neighborhood, a breakaway section of Church Hill, a new lease on life.
For the better part of 50 years, the city blocks bounded by Mosby Street to the west, Jefferson Avenue to the south, North 25th Street to the east and Q Street to the north had been under a residential zoning designation known as R-53.
The zoning permitted only residential uses and prevented businesses from setting up shop without a special-use permit. As a result, many of the storefronts that flourished a century ago are mostly boarded up, and as time marched on the neighborhood deteriorated.
“Urban planners have done a lot of harm in an effort to do good,” said Matt Conrad, president of the Union Hill Civic Association.
“They put a zoning overlay over much of Church Hill that was exclusively residential, so if a business closed and didn’t reopen within two years it couldn’t be grandfathered in.”
But after two years of meetings with residents and city planners, the neighborhood is poised to make a comeback.
Richmond City Council voted last month to change the zoning to R-63, which allows by right development on corner lots.
“This is a real breakthrough for the city to take an entire neighborhood and say, ‘We think the new urban model is a return to what worked 100 years ago,’ where you have business and residential on the same street,” Conrad said.
The commercial uses are limited to the ground floor and must be less than 2,500 square feet. Permitted uses include art galleries, barber shops, salons, grocery stores, bakeries, Laundromats, dry cleaners, restaurants and video rental stores.
Conrad said he believes the new zoning will accelerate the neighborhood’s recovery.
“In the last 20 years, young people who love the urban lifestyle have been renovating gorgeous homes in hopes that the neighborhood in the future will look the way it did in the 1870s,” said Conrad.
The only thing missing has been goods and services.
“Where there are other parts of the city that are difficult for business, we are happy to take them,” said Conrad.
Conrad said the neighborhood association spearheaded talks with the city to make changes so that the neighborhood could prosper.
The zoning change also removes a parking restriction that applies to most parts of the city, requiring one off-street parking spot for every 100 square feet that is used in a commercial property.
Jefferson Avenue runs along the border of Union Hill and ends at 25th Street; it is not part of the R-63 rezoning. It is currently zoned as an Urban Business District that still demands proprietors to provide a certain number of parking spaces.
On the other side of Jefferson is Church Hill. Most of that neighborhood is zoned R-53, and entrepreneurs face an uphill struggle if they plan to open an establishment there.
Several Church Hill businesses had to wait almost two years to open.
The city is looking at applying the R-63 designation to some parts of Church Hill, but it faces opposition from some residents. The city is also looking at a parking overlay district for Jefferson Avenue to reduce the parking requirement that has stunted business growth in the area.
“It’s a long, hard road,” said John Sanchez, owner of Que Pasa, a Cuban restaurant at 623 N. 25th St.
It took Sanchez about two years to get permission to open. He had to apply for a special-use permit, and to operate both floors of the restaurant, the city required Sanchez to proffer 32 parking spaces.
According to the rules, the parking must be off street, within 300 feet of the business, and available for the exclusive use of the business.
Since most business owners can’t afford to buy additional land for a parking lot, let alone get the permission to demolish historic buildings in order to do so, the parking requirements are often a deal killer.
But after months of negotiations, Sanchez was able to get a waiver for 16 spaces. Still without a place for the other 16 spaces, Sanchez is barred from using the upstairs portion of the restaurant.
Sanchez said only about 40 percent of his customers drive cars when they visit — the rest walk, bike or ride scooters.
The proposed overlay district would reduce the parking requirement by about a third, so with the waiver Sanchez is hoping he will be able to open the upstairs in time to make it a lounge when the indoor smoking ban goes into effect in December.
Al Harris is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to [email protected]