A controversial development in Northside got a long-awaited green light earlier this month.
The Union Presbyterian Seminary at 3401 Brook Road received approval Nov. 4 for its plan to develop a new $50 million apartment complex consisting of more than 380,000 square feet on a 15-acre tract located catty-corner to the school.
The project was originally intended to take up the entire 33-acre parcel bordered by Westwood Avenue, Loxley and Brook roads, and Rennie Avenue, which the school has owned for more than 100 years. But after neighbors voiced fervent opposition, the plans were adjusted.
The city’s Board of Zoning Appeals allowed Union a special exception that will let it split the acreage into two parcels: 15 acres for the apartments and a 19-acre piece of open land that also has a few existing smaller buildings.
Current plans include constructing 15 apartment buildings with 301 units and a clubhouse. The group hopes to begin work by the end of the year.
“This is a really high-quality complex,” Union Presbyterian President Brian Blount said. “We think it will be a contribution in terms of the aesthetics and the overall quality of housing in the neighborhood.”
For the seminary, which was founded in 1812, the goal of the project is to expand housing options for its students with families. The school classifies itself as a theological institution and educates pastors and ministers, who are of varying ages and come from all walks of life.
The apartment complex, to be called Bristol at Westwood, will offer living options for students closer to the campus and will lease units to the general population to create a revenue stream through which the seminary can offer its students more robust scholarships.
“We know ministers aren’t going to earn huge incomes, so if they leave here with a significant debt, they’ll be paying it all their lives,” Blount said.
Union is working with Tennessee-based developer Bristol Development Group. The deal includes creating a new ownership entity for the land with the developer, of which Union will have a minority interest, according to the school’s CFO, Mike Cashwell.
Bristol has selected Northern Virginia-based Fortune-Johnson as the general contractor and The Daniels Firm, based out of Dallas, as the architect. Fifth Third Bank is providing the financing.
The project has an 18-month construction time line, and Cashwell said the seminary hopes enough work will be completed by next summer to allow some students to move in before the entire project is finished.
The plan for this project has been several years in the works. Blount said when he took over as president seven years ago, the idea was already floating around the seminary. When the land was first donated to the school in 1910, it was meant for development before the stock market crash of 1929 halted those plans, according to a seminary news release.
The plan as conceived with Bristol Development Group has been discussed for the past two years, and neighbors have actively voiced their opposition. Their main concerns are the loss of open space on the 15 acres, the effects the development might have on their property values, its impact on nearby schools, and infrastructure issues.
Stephen Weisensale, chair of the Ginter Park Residents Association, voiced his concerns about an increase of traffic on surrounding roads with the addition of 301 households in a mostly single-family neighborhood.
“There are concerns that smaller streets like Loxley and Rennie will become through streets to the apartment people,” Weisensale said. “There are a lot of kids on those streets.”
And neighbors are still concerned about the remaining 19 acres, which have remained largely open space with a walking trail and a community garden. It is the only sizeable open site in the area, according to Weisensale.
As of now, Union said it has no immediate plans to develop the remaining land.
“We understand it’s private property and with that, it’s the seminary’s right to develop it as they see fit, but we’re concerned about losing the most substantial piece of open space on the north side of Richmond,” Weisensale said.
Blount said the school has taken neighbors’ concerns into consideration, adjusting plans where they can. He said he, Cashwell and many other individuals involved with the seminary live nearby.
“And the seminary lives in this neighborhood, too,” Blount said. “We have a huge investment in this being a quality complex because it’s what we want for our students.”