With a new look following several rounds of community input, a five-story apartment building planned in Jackson Ward is making its way through City Hall, though at the reservation of a notable neighbor.
Local developer David Gammino this week received the blessing of the Richmond Planning Commission for the 63-unit structure he’s proposing at Second and Leigh streets, on the site of a parking lot he owns across Second from the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site.
Now featuring a darker façade with a brick-siding base in response to feedback from the Historic Jackson Ward Association, the 66,000-square-foot building planned at 208-212 E. Leigh St. would consist of four floors of apartments above ground-level parking totaling 50 spaces and a corner commercial space fronting the intersection.
At five stories tall with a recessed top floor, the building would exceed the height limit of the property’s existing B-2 zoning, hence Gammino’s request for a special-use permit to allow the project.
The height also would exceed those of surrounding buildings, including the two-story rowhouse that makes up the historic site and was once the residence of the civil rights activist and entrepreneur.
The National Park Service, which manages the Maggie Walker site, expressed concern over the proposed building’s height in a letter to the city submitted last summer.
The letter, from NPS’s Andrea DeKoter, described the project as out-of-scale with the Jackson Ward Historic District, which includes the Maggie Walker site and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“While development of vacant sites in and near the district will have a positive impact on the economic health of the area,” the letter read, “the National Park Service is concerned that the scale of the proposed structure, at five stories, will negatively impact that district, one that is largely characterized by residential buildings of two to three stories.”
DeKoter went on to say that taller buildings allowed in the district should have stepped-back upper floors to lessen such impacts and “create new buildings that will be ‘good neighbors’ to their historic counterparts.”
At Tuesday’s commission meeting, Gammino said he and architect Todd Dykshorn have revised the project over the course of a year in an effort to respond to such concerns, but that a height reduction would make the project unfeasible.
Noting the roughly 1-acre property includes two existing century-old buildings, Gammino told the commission: “My goal from the inception has been to preserve those two buildings and, as a result, it has constrained the site.”
With a reduced height or unit count, Gammino said, “There’s simply no economic way to make this project work. Even at 63 units, it is a very difficult economic proposition, because 63 units is simply not enough to justify this type of construction.”
He added, “We have done everything that we possibly can in these discussions to accommodate the concerns of the neighborhood, other than address the height. It’s just the one thing that can’t be done.”
Estimated by Gammino as a $13 million project, the building would be developed using Opportunity Zone tax benefits and would fill out the site that also includes a three-story, 22-unit apartment building that houses offices for Gammino’s City & Guilds construction firm and Urban Dwell Property Management firm.
The building would consist of 44 one-bedroom apartments and 19 two-bedrooms ranging in size from 670 to 1,270 square feet. The units would be market-rate, with specific rents to be determined, and the ground-floor commercial space would total 1,400 square feet.
The site, which Gammino purchased in 2020 for $3 million, is adjacent to Third Street Bethel AME Church and across Leigh Street from the four-story Eggleston Plaza mixed-use development. Just to the north is the mixed-use development that includes The Rosa and Van de Vyver apartments.
City planners said Tuesday that the five-story height is acceptable according to the city’s master plan, which recommends building heights in that area of two to four stories but allows for a greater height along so-called “Major Mixed-Use” streets. Both Leigh Street and Second Street are identified in the plan as such streets.
Planners also noted Gammino’s efforts to respond to the concerns, through multiple revisions that may not be apparent.
“What this body doesn’t see is all the drafts to get to this point,” said Kevin Vonck, the city’s planning director, who described this version of the project as an improvement over what was originally presented.
“I can attest, from the first – I’ll say politely in architectural terms – ‘box’ that we got, to what we have here, there has been a lot of back and forth,” Vonck said.
Mark Baker, a consultant representing Gammino in the request, said revisions have included the recessed top floor, as well as the changes and additions to the building’s façade, which now includes a third-floor cornice and other architectural elements that he said are meant to break up the building’s massing. A rooftop common area that had been open-air was also enclosed in the new design.
“This special-use permit has actually been a good thing,” Baker told the commission. “It’s allowed us to engage with the community, and I think they do feel like they’ve been heard over the course of our many meetings and discussions.”
Janis Allen, president of the Historic Jackson Ward Association, said in a hearing that she concurred with Baker’s assessment, though she stressed that NPS’s concern about the height carries additional weight.
“I think it’s important to note that the Maggie Walker house is still concerned about the height. That’s not a small thing,” Allen said. “They are a legacy member of our community, they are key to the fabric of Jackson Ward, and that opinion is a very important one to us.”
Allen said the association neither officially supported or opposed the project, but had come to terms with the height if it meant preserving the existing buildings on the site.
“We certainly don’t want to demolish historic structures,” she said.
Commissioners were unanimous in recommending approval, with Chairman Rodney Poole emphasizing the time and effort put into reworking the project in light of the concerns.
“This is a wonderful example of how an applicant and its representative can engage with the neighborhood,” Poole said. “Maybe we’re not going to find all of the things that everybody agrees on, but the engagement is the key.”
The request now goes to the City Council, which is slated to make a final decision at its regular meeting Monday.