Lee Medical Building conversion gets thumbs down from BZA

Opponents of the proposal came out in force at the hearing. (Photos by Jonathan Spiers)

Facing stiff opposition from area residents and their elected representative, a plan to convert a Monument Avenue office building into apartments hit a snag this week, failing to secure a requested permit for the project.

The city board of zoning appeals voted unanimously Wednesday to deny a special exception permit for the Lee Medical Building at 1805 Monument Ave., beside the Robert E. Lee Monument.

The denial does not mean the plan to convert the property into 63 apartments is dead, as that number of units is already allowable according to a ruling by the city zoning administrator.

The Lee Medical Building overlooks the Robert E. Lee Monument. (BizSense file photo)

The decision does prevent the developer from being able to make structural alterations to parts of the building’s interior that Jennifer Mullen, the Roth Jackson attorney representing the group, said would have allowed more-efficient and spacious units.

Mullen argued that the number of units was not at issue in terms of deciding the permit, as the ruling from the city zoning administrator found that existing property rights allow the conversion to the 63 units proposed. Mullen maintained that the only issue to be decided was the structural alterations that she said would have allowed more space for the units overall.

Not in agreement

Board members disagreed, contending that the criteria with which they’re charged to make such decisions takes into account whether the proposed use is “reasonable” and if it adversely impacts neighboring properties and values. While Mullen noted the project can go forward without the permit, board member Roger York countered that it couldn’t as proposed for the purpose of the permit, as the smaller space to work with would likely require smaller – or fewer – units.

“The applicant stated that if we turn this down, they can still develop this property. I don’t think there’s any question that they can do that. Whether they can get 63 units that are actually marketable is some question,” York said.

The medical office building was constructed in the early 1950s. (BizSense file photo)

“It might end up being 55 or something. It would still be an intense use,” he said. “There’s no question that, if we turn them down, they can do something with this property that may be viable for their purposes.”

The developer, an entity called Lee Medical Building Developer LLC, plans to go forward with the project despite the permit denial, said Matthew Raggi with Thalhimer Realty Partners, which is assisting with the project.

“We were disappointed by the BZA’s decision not to allow for larger units in certain areas of the building as we believed they would enhance the overall project,” Raggi said in an email Wednesday, “but as we presented in the meeting, it doesn’t change the overall development plan.”

Opponents of the proposal came out in force at the hearing, many wearing stickers opposing the special exception. Among those who addressed the board were area resident Joe Reid, a partner at law firm McGuireWoods, and real estate agent Tom Innes, who submitted an affidavit as an industry expert testifying that the project would adversely affect neighboring property values.

City Councilwoman Kim Gray, whose district includes the property, was among those who spoke in opposition at Wednesday’s hearing, reinforcing opponents’ concerns that the project as proposed was too dense and would add to parking and traffic concerns.

A sticker worn by many of Wednesday’s attendees opposing the special exception.

“I stand united with my constituents and ask that you deny this special exception,” Gray said.

Plans call for converting the six-story building, which totals about 49,000 square feet, into 56 one-bedroom units and seven two-bedroom ones. Exact square footages could not be verified, though Mullen said they would average above 500.

The building was put under contract to be purchased last summer. Raggi said at the time that the transaction was expected to close in a few months, but city property records still list the owner as Aramin Properties LLC, which purchased the building in 2005 for $2.4 million. A recent city assessment valued the 0.4-acre property at $2.34 million – up from a $2.2 million assessment last year.

Raggi has said the apartments would be comparable in rental rates to newer Class A rental communities in the Fan and Museum districts such as Cary Street Station and Carytown Crossing. He said the conversion would maintain the building’s rear surface parking lot, which totals 63 spaces.

The development team is working with local architects Scott Gordon of The Yellow Room Inc. and Robert Mills of RM Architect. Capstone Contracting is the proposed contractor for the project, and Timmons Group has handled site surveying.

Virginia Credit Union is the proposed lender for the project, a cost estimate for which has not been released. Sadler & Whitehead is handling historic tax credit consulting.

The project adds to other development and investment around Monument Avenue’s statue-centered traffic circles. One Monument Avenue on nearby Stuart Circle is being converted to condos after it was purchased last year in a $12 million deal. Nearby, a new six-story, 105-unit apartment building by Fountainhead Properties and WVS Cos. is under construction behind St. John’s United Church of Christ.

Note: This story has been revised from its original version.

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13 Comments on "Lee Medical Building conversion gets thumbs down from BZA"

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John Lindner
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A disappointing, if not typical, response from city residents who don’t want developers to be able to develop their own properties or utilize the street parking in front of their own properties because the existing residents “own” it. There’s no question that the increased density would negatively impact parking, but with 63 on-site spots, it’s tough to argue that they wouldn’t be able to mitigate a large part of that, or at least far more than most developments. There’s no question that people parked on the street when the building was used as a medical office. What will be missing,… Read more »
Ashley Smith
Guest
With all due respect, that’s a ridiculous sentiment. The developer could make even fewer, yet still spacious, apartments and everyone wins. No one is forcing the developer to enter the neighborhood of the residents opposing the proposal. No one is forcing the developer to ma make 500 s.f apartments. No one forced the developer to purchase and propose development. Current residents chose their neighborhood for many reasons, likely quality of life being a strong factor. Why would you oppose their desire to maintain their quality of life? We have had an immense increase in new apartments in our City, and… Read more »
David Humphrey
Guest
This argument is also a bit flawed. If the City is so horrible and there are so many parking and cycling issues people would not want to move there, but as you said we have had an “immense increase in apartments in the City”. It is like the old saying “It is so crowded that no one goes there.” In this case both things are not likely to be true. Either the problems are not that bad or not as many people would want to move to the city. In my experience those involved in real estate professionally can sometimes… Read more »
Ashley Smith
Guest
Hi David, thanks for your comment. Not that I want to start a debate, but I need to point out that the demographic occupying many of these new apartment developments may not be looking at pedestrian/biking safety, nor public schooling, etc. Market research shows us the likely demographic are looking for city vibrancy, a thriving beer/art/entertainment scene, excited to live on their own as young adults, proximity to all things city life (cheaper uber rides, shorter commute to work) etc. They are also renters, which unfortunately usually means they are not (again, this is usually, so fpr those not like… Read more »
David Humphrey
Guest
Ah, I guess in that case no one must be homes in the city and the prices must be going down. Nah, seems to me the prices are going through the roof. If there were so many troubles in the City you would think that no one would be buying the homes and therefore prices would fall, but that is not the case. So, I think both renters and owners are moving to the city. I am not a young renter, but I did buy in the city for the vibrancy. It is something people need to consider when they… Read more »
Chris Crews
Guest
FWIW: Much of the new (and successful) development is taking place in areas that were formerly business-oriented. Look along Broad Street, through Scotts Addition, throughout Jackson Ward. What was formerly a warehouse or manufacturer employing a few dozen is now apartments or condos housing many. Monument, where this project sits, is predominantly single family homes on large lots. Granted, larger single family homes than most of the Fan or greater downtown, but that’s the neighborhood. It would seem that the NIMBYs you point to aren’t really anti-development so much as they are anti-density in this particular spot. It’s also at… Read more »
David Humphrey
Guest

There are plenty of apartment buildings all up and down Monument. Also, it is not a new building it is a commercial building turning into a residential building, which is exactly what was described. They just don’t want it to happen near them. If that isn’t NIMBY I don’t know what is. You are correct that they aren’t anti-development per se or even against businesses being converted to residential. Just anti-development and conversion near them, which is pretty much the definition of NIMBY….

Chris Crews
Guest

“…it is a commercial building turning into a residential building.”
Ah. There’s the rub.

Tim Harper
Guest
I agree completely with Chris. We keep hearing about how so many people are moving to the city but in reality they’re only moving to a few select neighborhoods such as Scott’s Addition , the Fan, Manchester, etc. The archaic street grids only allow for a limited amount of population and traffic. In the meantime, we’ll get to hear a chorus of self-righteous types carp about how longtime residents in such neighborhoods are backwards and ignorant. There are plenty of neighborhoods in the city ripe for development and full of city vibrancy but they’re deemed unsuitable because they’re not within… Read more »
Fred Squire
Guest
John, Agree 100%. Typical city politics and response. Just like libbie and grove and also the bon secours school at patterson and libbie. Kick the can down the road because of the folks who don’t want change and can’t see what an improvement will do to that area. I’ve been in the city since the 80’s. Parking is always bad in that area. Why now is it an issue? Sooner or later the folks complaining are going to find the developer is just going to say “screw it and screw trying to be a good neighbor…..Low end apartments that fit… Read more »
Michael Dodson
Guest
Fred, Bon Secours was a lease of a City owned building worth several million leased at a bargain basement that was promised to a be nursing school in a rehabilitated building. After several years of lies they then die NOT keep their promise Bon Secours (which has never fully built out East End promises either under Redskins deal) decided to change it to commercial office space and tear down 1/2 of the old complex. The hospital group put out on RFP for redevelopment of a City owned parcel of land. Bon Secours wanted to as part of the bate and… Read more »
Fred Squire
Guest

Michael,

Your story, if it is the whole story, (and I have no reason to doubt you) is even more of a reason that folks have no confidence in City officials or the councilman that are elected to serve each district.

The amount of downright abuse of tax payer funds, lack of oversight or accountability is I am sure criminal at the least and certainly grounds for widespread firing of many staff.

However, the city mentality is to keep everything internal, and just need to fire that pesky auditor.

Michael Dodson
Guest
Nothing criminal just poor leadership and judgement. City Council approved deal Jones administration asked for, the revenue failed to materialize at the training camp so the $10 million EDA bond was wrapped into the general fund (approved by Council and had to so there was no default on repayment), Bon Secours decided to go another direction and convinced Council to amend their deal. Everyone followed the letter of the law but not the spirit / intent / wishes of the voters nor did they act in the the citizen’s best interest. And your right those pesky auditors keep finding stuff;… Read more »
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