Seminary’s $50M project wins approval

Union Presbyterian Seminary is moving forward with plans for 300 apartments near its school campus. Rendering courtesy of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Union Presbyterian Seminary is moving forward with plans for 300 apartments near its school campus. Rendering courtesy of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

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.

The seminary's main school building sits at Brook Road and Westwood Avenue diagonally across from the development site. Photos by Katie Demeria.

The seminary’s main school building sits at Brook Road and Westwood Avenue diagonally across from the development site. Photos by Katie Demeria.

“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.

The land right now is primarily walking paths and open green space.

The land right now is primarily walking paths and open green space.

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.”

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19 Comments on "Seminary’s $50M project wins approval"

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Patrick Sullivan
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What a disappointment…. This project is out of touch with the surrounding neighborhoods and the positive progress being made. Probably shouldn’t be surprised though when the team is a Tennessee Developer, Dallas Architect and Northern Virginia Contractor who are from very different markets. Feels like we will look back on this with the same quizzical wonder that accompanies a drive down Chamberlayne Avenue wondering who thought all those apartment buildings were a good idea. A sad day for Ginter Park and Northside.

Union Presbyterian Seminary
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Hi Patrick. As President Blount stated in the article, the seminary lives in this neighborhood too. We have a huge investment in this being a quality complex because it’s what we want for our students.

Ashley Young
Guest
Union Presbyterian Seminary – why not renovate or tear down and rebuild existing dorms? They are obviously outdated and your students do not want to live in them. That solves your housing problem. I’m disappointed there was not more consideration given to the other potential revenue opportunities for the Seminary. I believe Veritas offered to buy the land and I also believe residents in the area offered to pay more in taxes to provide the Seminary with financial assistance. My comments are only based off memory of the updates I received in my neighborhood newsletter, so please correct me if… Read more »
Union Presbyterian Seminary
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Ashley, thanks for your question. One great advantage of the plan our board of trustees approved is that we achieve much needed replacement student housing by using the land as a resource to provide the funding to achieve that housing. By contributing only 15 acres of vacant land to the project, we will get new housing for our students, plus an income stream to help subsidize their rent in that new housing. Renovating older housing would have required an up-front source of funding that is not immediately available. The Rice apartment building, which has been vacant for about six years… Read more »
Mario DiMarco
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Patrick i could say it any better, and totally agree. Its a rare moment i see you negatively criticize the design of a new development. I think the rareness is a testament to its truth.

Don Polaski
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As a business publication, you might wish to ask why UPS and Bristol think young professionals would choose to live in these apartments as opposed to ones in Scott’s Addition and other “hot” neighborhoods. While UPS is making a “huge investment” here, the neighbors are absorbing a great deal of the risk.

Ashley Young
Guest

Many young professionals are flocking to Northside. Bellevue is pretty much the quintessential young professional neighborhood now. My husband and I are both 28 and live in Ginter Park. We had zero interest in moving into the sterile, industrial lofts of Scotts Addition and the Bottom – especially since we have three dogs. Many of my friends are renovating homes in Barton Heights and other neighborhoods.

While I absolutely do not agree with this project, it is inaccurate to say Northside is unattractive to young professionals.

Don Polaski
Guest

Ashley: I’m not denying that the Northside is attractive to young professionals. I’m saying that this development in this particular space, distant from restaurants and other things, will face stiff competition. And that worries me.

Melissa Savenko
Guest

Patrick, I completely agree. I grew up in Ginter Park, this is a sad day. The project is unattractive and architecturally out-of-context. It looks like suburban apartments in Ashburn. Yuck.

Union Presbyterian Seminary
Guest

Hi Don. The better question is ‘Why wouldn’t young professionals want to live in Ginter Park?’ We, and our development partner believe there is, and will be, market demand for these high-quality apartments. While no real estate project can be guaranteed to be successful, we believe the opportunities to create attractive new housing and income for the seminary while developing the property at only one-fourth of its allowed density justifies any market risk being taken. Several apartments constructed in the area recently are, as expected, filling at normal occupancy growth rates of 18-to-24 months.

Don Polaski
Guest

I hope you’re right, and that you continue to be right for decades to come. I have my doubts. You can downplay the risks, but it would be nice if the seminary acknowledged that the neighbors are being forced to absorb risk. Most neighbors consider their homes as a key investment — this project (even if it works) threatens property values. And if something should go wrong next year or 15 years from now, the seminary can leave and survive. We’d have much more difficulty leaving without taking a huge financial hit.

Neill Caldwell
Guest
Spin it, UPSem! Do your dozens of students really need 301 apartments? Why not renovate the many empty or nearly empty buildings already on campus? The worst part is giving up ownership of the land to this outsider development company. When you pack up and move to Charlotte in the next couple of years, Ginter Park will be left with the mess. Maj. Ginter is rolling is his tomb at Hollywood Cemetery tonight. Despite your big words about the neighborhood, it is clear that you do not listen to the community, or the Lord, who said “love your neighbor.” Your… Read more »
Charles Frankenhoff
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I have no opinion on developing the land itself, but man, did the building have to be that ugly? It’s like a pastiche of bad short pump architecture.

Hopefully they fire the architect and hire a decent one ASAP.

Union Presbyterian Seminary
Guest
Hi Neill. We have more than 100 students enrolled at our Richmond campus and living throughout the Richmond community. Many of them desire adequate on-campus housing that these apartments will provide. The apartments will be managed through a partnership, so we are not giving up control. Major Ginter was a developer himself. He did not give the land to the seminary for the purpose of instructing pastors and Christian educators. In his book “Lewis Ginter: Richmond’s Gilded Age Icon,” Brian Burns wrote that Ginter made the offer “to give momentum to his development.” At the time, Ginter’s dream to build… Read more »
Don Polaski
Guest

Would you be willing to share how much you intend to subsidize the apartments and how many? We’ve heard 25 apartments but have never heard what the subsidy might be. If you can’t say, then perhaps you can share the rents and subsidies from last year in the Advance Apartments.

pierce homer
Guest
This development (300 units) is more than all of Laburnum Park (227 units). It will generate at least 1800 trips a day, mostly peak hour trips. It will burden local streets and schools, with none of the contributions expected of a private developer in this day and age. Its decades-old zoning is terrible planning that would never have been approved in an open or contemporary planning process. The sad fact is that the longstanding trust between the seminary and the surrounding community has been severed. Few believe that this undertaking was only about finding housing for 20-30 seminarians. There are… Read more »
Susan Rebillot
Guest
We currently reside in a National Historic District in St. Petersburg, Fl, where there has been tremendous pressure due to demolitions of historic homes and incompatible, insensitive new builds. We are relocating in early December to Ginter Park. This redevelopment of seminary land is a very familiar situation. If the seminary board were truly concerned about preserving the character of Ginter Park and protecting everyone’s property values and quality of life, they would be selecting a Richmond architect and developer skilled and invested in developing a project that is specifically sensitive to this historic district. The “architecture” of this project… Read more »
Don Polaski
Guest

Susan: Welcome to the neighborhood! I grew up in Pinellas County and my mom grew up in St. Pete.

Brenda S Bradley
Guest
Housing for 20 to 30 students? Is that all? Hire a local architectural firm to design for these few students with some room to grow, tear down the existing out dated student housing structures and rebuild on that site. Do a Pat Robertson style 700 Club request for contributors from the various congregations who benefit from the UPS training program to pick up the extra funding needed to house these students. Northside has taken decades to upgrade its reputation, restore numerous distressed properties and now UPS wants to upend it with 301 apartments to provide housing for 20-30 students? For… Read more »
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