When the years-long effort that was Richmond 300 came to a close with the long-range plan’s adoption in 2020, Maritza Pechin’s role as the project’s manager was done. But Pechin wasn’t done with Richmond.
The time she spent embedded in the city’s government as a consultant with national planning firm AECOM, helping guide the development of the master plan update, led Pechin to make an unusual move: leaving the private sector to take a job at City Hall as a deputy planning director, overseeing the newly created office of equitable development.
The second-generation urban planner and married mother of two said the switch was mostly about seeing the plan she’d spent so much time on through to implementation, along with related efforts she’s also now managing such as the Diamond District redevelopment project.
Since arriving in Richmond a decade ago, the Harvard graduate with a master’s in city and regional planning from the University of Pennsylvania has served as an adjunct professor at VCU and spent a year at Fulton Hill Properties, the local development firm led by Margaret Freund.
Pechin sat down with Richmond BizSense to discuss her new role at City Hall, her motivations for her move to the public sector, and what’s next for the Diamond District and Richmond 300’s rollout. The following is an edited transcript:
Richmond BizSense: You started working with the city consulting on Richmond 300. What prompted your move from the private sector to becoming a city employee?
Maritza Pechin: I worked a lot on that master plan, and I really wanted to be able to see something come out of it. I’ve probably done 25 plans or more in my career, but I’ve never implemented them.
So, what does it mean to actually go from saying The Diamond needs to be redeveloped with a public-private partnership, to doing that – to helping write the development agreement, to helping get it through council, to getting the development team on board? That’s a different skillset. I wanted to lean into growing that experience.
There was a little bit of a call of, I want to join the mayor’s administration in this role so that I can help the city transform in the way that Richmonders said they wanted it to transform. Because otherwise it’s just a plan that sits on a shelf. I see so much momentum and positive excitement in the city, and I just want to be a part of seeing that come to life.
RBS: What made you want to pursue planning and development as a career?
MP: My mother is an urban planner, retired. She’s always worked on big transportation infrastructure projects, whereas I’m more interested in land use and real estate development, obviously understanding how transportation plays into all of that. She moved back to Puerto Rico because my mom got a job working on the implementation of a subway system in San Juan. She worked on that project for a company that was one of the founding companies of AECOM.
RBS: So, you’re a second-generation urban planner?
MP: Yes. I have a picture: when I was born, my mom was working on the Big Dig project in Boston, and there’s a drawing that one of her colleagues made of a card welcoming me, saying ‘congratulations on your daughter.’ The drawing has people sitting in chairs at a public meeting, and there’s a little baby that’s supposed to be me, watching my mom presenting at the public meeting.
So, I’ve been going to public meetings since I was an infant. And my children have now, too (laughs). It’s built into my DNA, I suppose – going to public meetings.
RBS: What brought you to Richmond in the first place? How did you come to work for the city?
MP: I was born in Boston and grew up mostly in Puerto Rico. I came to the mainland for college and I’ve been here since. My husband went to the Brandcenter for graduate school; that’s why we moved here. I was able to keep my job working for AECOM, which was based in Alexandria at the time. I was working from home; I did that for 3½ years.
With the workload that we had at that moment, I was going to be traveling, and I had a small baby and didn’t want to have such a heavy travel load. My husband encouraged me that I’d always wanted to do real estate, so I worked my network and ended up working for Margaret (Freund). I helped her entitle Studio Row, which became Artisan Hill. I helped her with some tenant buildouts at Canal Crossing, and with the addition on top of the Glave Holmes building, and the Lofty building in Chimborazo.
I worked for Margaret for a year as her development manager, and then AECOM brought me back to be an embedded consultant, working for the city on the master plan.
RBS: You’ve been more involved in planning, but you’re also the project manager on the Diamond District effort, which is more of an RFP scenario. Why are you heading that up?
MP: I have experience in responding to RFPs from the consultant side, and I have experience from graduate school and my studies on analyzing public-private partnership deals. And I have the real estate background, having worked for Margaret. I understand all of the pieces, and I also know how to run a process.
Ultimately the RFI/RFO thing is a process. It’s like moving everyone along in the same direction.
RBS: Why is the Diamond District as a project and planning effort so important to the city?
MP: It is nearly 70 acres of publicly owned property that’s right in the center of all of our strong, growing communities, and it’s on two major highways – three if you count 195. As we think about the growth of the city over the next 20 years, the Diamond District can absorb a lot of people. It can also provide a lot of amenities to current residents.
For the city as a whole, the city should not be holding onto big pieces of property that are parking lots or grass. We need to turn those over to become tax-producing things. Not just real estate tax, but BPOL and meals tax and all those other things, and providing the services and amenities that Richmonders need and want.
City Center, the Diamond District area – we need to redevelop those properties, but also make sure that as we do so, include affordable housing and sustainability features that will help sustain Richmond over the long haul.
RBS: The city has moved quickly on implementing parts of Richmond 300. What’s next after the Diamond District?
MP: City Center (rezoning), Southside Plaza, Route 1/Richmond Highway. Jackson Ward – that’s a huge effort I’m helping launch right now. The Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment, which is part of the Secretary of Transportation’s office, has funded an $825,000 feasibility study to look at and run a community process about how can we reconnect this community that was severed by the highway, and we want to position ourselves for federal funding.
RBS: The City Council responded to Richmond 300 with requests for numerous changes. Where does that stand, and what was your reaction to that?
MP: The plan is a plan, and it can be amended. But a lot of council’s concerns that came up through their amendment requests are either related to things that are fundamentally not in a master plan – things that you wouldn’t include in a big land-use master plan document, that’s either way too specific or completely out of scope – or they’re things that will get done via implementation.
We just won a grant from HUD to do a community plan for Jackson Ward and Gilpin Court, to see the redevelopment of the public housing into a mixed-income community. That’s an example of how the master plan cannot be expected to solve all of these issues at a very small detail, because the master plan is a very comprehensive look at the city’s growth.
Some of the things that City Councilmembers are concerned about are really related to deeper dives into certain parts of the city, and the master plan calls for that. Other parts of the comments are really related to zoning and the zoning rewrite. Some of the amendment requests are actually slightly in conflict with each other, because some of them want to have more density in certain places and other ones don’t. I think the master plan ended up walking the line between those two camps.
The rewrite of the zoning ordinance, that’s where it’ll get a lot more sticky, because that’s when you’re actually talking about what can I do with my piece of land. The zoning ordinance is the legal document. The master plan is a guide that, yes, has some legal weight, but zoning is the one that really has the authority. So, when we do that, that’ll be an interesting process.
RBS: When does that happen?
MP: That’s a good question. Hopefully soon.