DHR, city council members continue Manchester historic district debate

City Council members Ellen Robertson, Reva Trammell and Parker Agelasto, from left, meeting with DHR staff and director Julie Langan, right.

An enhanced outreach effort on a proposed historic district expansion in Manchester continued Wednesday with a meeting between state officials and the three Richmond City Council members whose districts are involved.

About two dozen people attended the meeting between staff with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the City Council’s Parker Agelasto, Ellen Robertson and Reva Trammell, who each voiced concerns about the department’s notification process and potential effects of the expansion requested by developer Michael Hild.

The expansion would extend the existing 75-acre Manchester Residential and Commercial Historic District – an area generally southeast of Cowardin and Semmes avenues – to properties generally to the south and west, roughly tripling the size of the district to include parts of the nearby Blackwell and Swansboro neighborhoods.

A map of the proposed boundary changes

It would add 155 acres spanning about 60 city blocks to the district, allowing many properties in that area to be eligible for state and federal historic preservation tax credits.

DHR Director Julie Langan acknowledged that more could have been done to alert community members and the City Council of the proposal, which was scheduled to be decided last month but was delayed until September at Langan’s request to allow for more outreach.

“In this particular situation, we misunderstood how much had really been done,” Langan said. “We thought there had been more outreach than there had been. I assume some of the responsibility for that.”

In the time since the proposal was tabled, Langan and her staff said they’ve been meeting with stakeholders and retooling their mailings to include more information about the historic district designation and related programs, such as the historic preservation tax credits that the designation allows.

They said they’re also planning to attend upcoming meetings of the Blackwell Community Civic Association and Manchester Alliance neighborhood association. Staff and volunteers also plan to walk through the area with flyers in hand, in an effort to reach renters and other community members who would not receive the notifications that are sent to affected property owners.

Langan said such outreach goes beyond what is typical for her department, but she said response to the proposal has warranted the extra time and effort.

“We are, I think appropriately, de-emphasizing the importance of tax credits, because that’s not what drives most districts,” she said. “It’s celebrating a neighborhood’s history. That seems to have gotten lost in early discussions, and yet I think it’s the most important part of the district designation.”

Robertson challenged Langan on that point, maintaining that developers such as Hild seek such designations to benefit from the tax credits allowed.

“We say that we’re celebrating history, but I’m not sure if I understand the process by which we are celebrating it and how we are helping the community understand the value of that celebration, of what the history is,” Robertson said.

“One thing we do know is the reason why there is such an increased investment of property being acquired in the community is because of the tax credits and the development opportunity. That’s evidence-based just by action that has taken place.”

The former Siegel Grocery Store at 2005 Hull St. (J. Elias O’Neal)

Hild, whose Church Hill Ventures with wife Laura Dyer Hild has been on a redevelopment streak in Manchester, has at least nine properties that would be added to the district and therefore eligible for the state and federal credits. Those include the Siegel’s Supermarket site at 2005 Hull St., which they purchased last October for $630,000. The other eight properties are single-family homes.

Attendees asked how many properties overall the Hilds own in the proposed expansion area. Langan said she did not have that information.

Hild has declined to comment on the matter since facing scrutiny from attendees at recent community meetings.

DHR’s Preston Page, who is helping to coordinate the outreach effort, said attendees at those meetings and others they’ve spoken with since felt left out of the process.

“They just want to be included. They feel like the private sector is moving without their input, and these community members have been owning homes and lived in that area for generations. They felt a little bit disrespected,” Page said.

“Yes, the historic tax credit was designed to preserve history, but looking at the actual tax credit, it’s very pro-business,” he said. “You need a lot of up-front capital … to rehabilitate your property and see the tax credits on your tax return. Most of the property owners cannot afford that.”

Agelasto encouraged DHR to consider neighborhood identities and differences when considering a district expansion. He also stressed that district designations can provide protections for historic properties and help manage development.

“The historic designation does afford DHR the opportunity to review major, federally funded projects that may affect that district. It can’t prohibit those projects, but it can certainly say that those projects would have an adverse impact on the history,” Agelasto said.

“If historic resources are going to be damaged, then there has to be mitigation – somebody has to pay for the damages that are being done on that community,” he said. “Think about I-95 if that provision was there when they came and bulldozed all of Jackson Ward. There would have been protection and major mitigations to accomplish that infrastructure.”

The Board of Historic Resources and the State Review Board are scheduled to consider the expansion at their Sept. 20 meeting in Petersburg. Langan said a public hearing would be held prior to that meeting in mid-August. A date for the hearing has not been set.

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