Kevin Vonck was on the City of Richmond’s payroll just five months when he was put in charge of its department of planning and development review.
The assignment followed the abrupt departure in January of previous director Mark Olinger, who had led the department for nearly a decade.
Today, Vonck has nearly five months under his belt in his role as acting director, overseeing a department of more than 100 employees that includes the city’s building inspections and permitting bureau, land use and zoning administration, and property maintenance and preservation divisions.
Hired last August as deputy director, Vonck, 40, arrived in Richmond from Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he worked for five years.
A University of Wisconsin alum and a married father of two, Vonck has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Delaware, where he also picked up a doctorate in urban affairs and public policy.
In a recent interview, Vonck discussed his approach and his goals for the department under his leadership. The following is an edited transcript:
Richmond BizSense: How has the past four months as acting director gone for you? Has it been an adjustment fitting into that role?
Kevin Vonck: A little bit of a parallel situation: When I was at the City of Green Bay, I was hired to be the economic development director, and four or five months in, the planning department director resigned and left for another position, so I stepped in to serve as interim of that department for a few months and ended up combining the two departments and becoming director over the combined department.
I always approach every position as, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and if you prepare yourself and an opportunity presents itself, then you get ready to step up.
RBS: Have you been given any guidance on how long you’ll be in this role as “acting” director?
KV: No. That’s not up to me to decide. “Acting” is part of the title. But to me, there’s too much going on to just say I’ll just hold things together until a new permanent director is appointed. I really believe passionately in the things that the city is doing and will give it a 110 percent.
RBS: What’s your assessment of PDR? Are things running smoothly? Is the department staffed at a level you think it should be?
KV: We do have some vacancies in permits/inspections overall, and also code enforcement and planning in general, in both preservation and zoning. We’re at about 20 vacant positions. I believe we have authorization in our budget for somewhere around 112.
One of the things that we’re trying to do is make sure that, in instances (where) someone may have been hired or come on as a specialist, to ensure that they can bring in a broader set of skills, so when we do have vacancies, they’re able to expand their work in terms of taking on other responsibilities.
I really want us to focus on customer service and that, when a planner or plan reviewer is working with someone, they can work them through as many steps of the process as possible, and you don’t have to hand someone off to somebody else and somebody else through that. That’s one of the initiatives that I really believe in, and am working on with our building commissioner Jason Carangelo, to make sure that we take steps to do that.
RBS: Speaking of permits and inspections, how’s that side of the department going?
KV: We’ve been working very hard, and there’s still a way to go, on both processes and technology. The move to online permitting and processing had some hiccups, and those are things that we continue to work on, improving the technology of how we do that. I think our EnerGov system is pretty robust in terms of managing these projects and helping to keep things in one place, but we also do want to work on how do we look at that front door and how do we interact with customers.
And also, working with a lot of other city agencies, how do we best coordinate with the department of public works, public utilities, fire and other agencies that need to get involved, how do we make that coordination better so that we can move projects through more quickly.
It’s a department piece that takes a lot of heat sometimes because of the time it takes to process applications, but there’s also some understanding that we’re a built-out, complicated city, and most all of our projects are redevelopment projects. It’s messy, it’s complicated, and so by nature, it is going to take a little longer to move forward with some of these things versus doing it on a farm field.
RBS: What other priorities do you have for the department?
KV: Looking at how do we best implement Richmond 300. It’s the community’s vision, and I think that was really put together well through that master plan. I see my responsibility as, how do we get that implemented, and how do we now take the steps … to go where the community says they want us to go.
Obviously, there are some areas of the city where we do need the zoning to catch up and reflect the market demand and development that’s occurring. We deal with a number of special-use permits because the market will maybe be ahead of where the zoning is at, and now that we have Richmond 300 in place, we have some guidance in terms of what the future land use should be in some of these areas.
We want to do zoning that fits that, but I’ll say we don’t always have to go to the max intensity and density right away. There can be incremental steps of how we get to that land use, so it’s really important to have those conversations about what’s the next step.
RBS: What else is on your plate?
KV: We’ve been talking about Greater Scott’s Addition, hoping to deliver some (City Council) papers later this summer. We’re also bringing back part of the Pulse corridor rezoning between Belvidere and Arthur Ashe (Boulevard). We went through a proposal last fall, the paper was withdrawn, so I’ve been working with my staff and we’ll be reaching back out to community members, because again, that’s an area that’s facing some development pressure.
Behind that, we’ve been talking about (the Shockoe Small Area Plan), and we’re just really beginning to get started on the Southside Plaza area, which may be the next one blossoming in the queue. Shockoe and City Center, which is the former Coliseum (Framework Plan), those two plans are the next small area plans that are going to be coming up for more public discussion.
Part of the challenge, especially with the Shockoe plan, is the future of that area and the zoning. There’s a very deep history in Shockoe, and at times a very dark history, and there’s also a market for development, of people and businesses that want to be in that area. How do we respect and acknowledge some of that history while at the same time being able to permit development that is complementary to the historic fabric of that area? It’s a challenge, because it’s an area that for some time hasn’t had as much investment, but you also can see there’s a lot of parking lots or vacant spaces that are ready for that reinvestment.
RBS: What brought you to Richmond? What prompted your move from Green Bay?
KV: I felt I was at a place professionally where I was ready to take the next step and work for a bigger city. I explored some opportunities, hadn’t been to Richmond much. In 2019, I was in Washington for an Urban Land Institute conference and took a few days after and spent some time in Richmond and Virginia Beach and just was blown away by the city. I’d heard about it but hadn’t really experienced it.
I discovered Scott’s Addition, went to the Science Museum and just really was impressed by the mix of great historic urban fabric, but also there’s definitely a spunk and a vibe to Richmond that makes it very unique. From that to all the different neighborhoods, I put it on the list of a cool place to end up.