The effort to bring a dense section of apartments to the Willow Lawn area has hit an unexpected speedbump.
Thalhimer Realty Partners and Crenshaw Realty recently shelved part of their plan to build two sizable apartment buildings in the neighborhood, mainly to give the county and GRTC time to figure out how best to handle bus traffic and bus commuter parking at the Willow Lawn Pulse bus station, the last stop on the Pulse line.
The project was initially planned as two 7-story buildings totaling 585 units to replace a set of five outdated office buildings on Willow Lawn Drive and Byrd Avenue.
After lengthy discussions with neighbors and at the request of Henrico County Supervisor Dan Schmitt, the developers have placed the Byrd Avenue portion of the project on hold, while moving ahead with the Willow Lawn Drive portion.
Originally proposed for 330 units across seven stories, the site at 1506-1510 Willow Lawn Drive is now slated for 265 units in a structure that would be four stories at the property line and step up to seven stories further back on the site.
The downsizing came as a concession to neighbors in the surrounding single-family homes, who were worried about the height, traffic, parking and other factors.
A rezoning proposal for the Willow Lawn Drive portion received recommendation for approval from the county planning commission earlier this month. It’s expected to head to a board of supervisors vote next month.
Thalhimer and Crenshaw have enlisted attorney Andy Condlin with Roth Jackson to help with the rezoning process.
The building would rise on the west side of Willow Lawn Drive where three 1960s-era office buildings currently reside across from Kroger. The 2.5-acre property is owned by Crenshaw, which is partnering with Thalhimer on the project.
The building would house a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments with a parking deck built into the structure.
Poole and Poole Architects is the designer of the apartment building. The group has yet to retain a general contractor and has not yet lined up financing.
As for the second site in question, at 1904-1910 Byrd Ave., its future is less clear.
Over the course of community meetings and discussions with neighbors since the project was first proposed in September, focus turned to concerns from citizens and the county over bus traffic and bus commuter parking.
The concerns centered on commuters taking up too many parking spots along the surrounding streets and in the Willow Lawn retail area due to the lack of an official lot for bus riders. Another issue is the current route buses currently take through the neighborhood: they are forced to loop around from the westbound Pulse stop on Willow Lawn Drive over to Byrd Avenue in order to get back on Broad Street to the eastbound Pulse station.
That’s when Schmitt stepped in.
Fresh off joining the GRTC board of directors after Henrico gained representation on the body for the first time, Schmitt asked Thalhimer and Crenshaw to agree to a long-term deferral of the rezoning case for the Byrd Avenue portion of the project.
Schmitt said time is needed to find land for a proper park-and-ride lot and to potentially eliminate the buses cutting through the neighborhood.
“We have to get a transfer station or park-and-ride of some sort,” Schmitt said of the Willow Lawn stop. “It’s the busiest Pulse station because it’s the end (of the Pulse line).”
The problem is that GRTC and the county have yet to find enough land at the right location and right price for a park-and-ride lot.
“We have struck out in trying to find land,” Schmitt said. “We’ve looked at five locations and haven’t been able to nail it down yet.”
Todd Eure, assistant director of Henrico’s Department of Public Works, said the need for additional Pulse parking on that end of the route has been a priority for some time.
“The county has been working with GRTC and the City of Richmond for the last several years to identify potential sites that could work for parking for the western end of the Pulse corridor,” Eure said in an email.
Eure said the need is for up to two acres to allow room for commuter parking, a bus transfer and looping area and a break and restroom area for bus drivers.
Federal funding could be available for an acquisition, but only if certain requirements are met, such as the site being fully ADA accessible to the nearest Pulse station.
One idea on the table to potentially solve most of the problems is to extend the Pulse a bit further west of Willow Lawn to create a new last stop on the line that could be in proximity to more available land, Eure said.
“We are also beginning discussions with GRTC to consider an extension of the Pulse further west on West Broad Street to serve more of the county, as well as to look for opportunities for parking and transfers beyond the Willow Lawn area,” he said.
With all that in limbo, Schmitt said he couldn’t in good faith vote on a rezoning for the project until these bus issues are resolved.
“There are too many unknowns,” Schmitt said. “I’m hesitant to make a zoning change from office to dense residential when I don’t even know where the bus station is going to be. I don’t know where the transfer station is going to be. I asked (the developers) to pause this and they were gracious enough to do so.”
Jason Guillot, a principal at Thalhimer Realty Partners leading the effort, said they’ve technically withdrawn the rezoning case for the Byrd Avenue site on what amounts to a long-term deferral for likely close to two years.
“We’re waiting to understand what kind of solution GRTC and the county will develop over there,” Guillot said.
The Willow Lawn Avenue project still requires a plan of development approval. Guillot said that process will likely run through the fall and push the start of construction into early next year. Construction is expected to last around two years.
“The transformation of Willow Lawn Mall over the last 15 years or so by (Willow Lawn owner) Federal Realty and the county is a major success story, and we believe that complementing single-family homes and condos in the neighborhood with apartments across the street is supportive of the investment that’s been made in the 450,000-square-foot mall,” he said. “Mixed-income, and mixed-use neighborhoods are more sustainable in the long-term.”
While there was plenty of debate with neighbors over the plan, Guillot said one topic that was agreed upon by all involved is that there’s a better use for the two properties in question than aging office buildings.
“The three 1960s-era office buildings are well past their prime and maintaining these functionally obsolete structures has been a major challenge for the Crenshaws … just ask the neighbors. This was the first major point of consensus at our community meetings: these buildings are tired-looking and they need to go,” Guillot said.
The Crenshaw buildings are occupied by smaller tenants, such as attorneys, nonprofits, and real estate and marketing offices.
Ahead of the new development, office tenants in the Crenshaw buildings are beginning to vacate. Among them is Two Rivers Law Group, which relocated earlier this year to 2820 Waterford Drive in Chesterfield.