In a recent guest commentary in Richmond BizSense, Ed Slipek made several good points about the Old Manchester neighborhood and improvements that can be made in development, though it missed the broader issues associated with the now 550-unit apartment towers proposed by New York City-based developers Avery Hall.
The proposed project (one 16-story tower and one 17-story tower) would “be situated in the mother of all cul-de-sacs,” to quote Slipek. Only one way in and one way out for nearly 1,000 people seems like a potential traffic nightmare and serious public safety situation to me. The proposal would create the tallest buildings in Manchester and largest apartment development in the city by far and would have a significant impact on the overall Manchester community.
Don’t get me wrong, the development of Manchester is a good thing for Richmond and our neighborhood. However, fast-paced building development coupled with little to no work on efforts to make Manchester more “livable” is a recipe for long-term disaster.
Unfortunately, the sole focus in Manchester for the past 8-10 years has been on “density” and how aggressively can developers be courted into building yet more rental property on every available lot. One look at the interactive map on Richmond BizSense and you will see almost nothing but proposed developments.
There are currently at least 20 current or proposed projects bringing more than 3,000 new rental units in various stages of development in Manchester, on top of many that have been completed in recent years. Just walk or drive around the neighborhood… you can’t avoid the closed streets, closed sidewalks, cranes and construction workers. And yet, there are no concurrent projects going on to make this neighborhood more “livable” or to reduce one of Richmond’s “hot zones” or to create safe spaces for our residents to walk or bike or play.
Investment in parks and green space is lacking. There has been little done to address parking, traffic, and pedestrian and bicycle safety. We’ve seen no affordable housing developed. And there is little to no investment in or support for the local businesses that have chosen Manchester as their home. Addressing these and other subjects has lagged far behind the aggressive pace of development in Manchester over the past several years.
The massive Avery Hall project will need a special use permit to build as proposed due to its intentional excess of what is allowed and ignorance of other requirements. And that requires getting input from the community, followed by decisions by the Planning Department and City Council. Based on conversations with folks sitting on the deck at Legend brewery, with neighbors, and with other business owners, there will be plenty of input provided.
Special use permits are intended to review projects that exceed normal regulatory requirements to ensure that they are not detrimental to traffic congestion, will not create fire, panic, or other hazards, will not overcrowd land, or cause undue concentration of population, etc. And they are intended to be “special,” but they are becoming “standard” in Manchester.
The proposal, even as amended to address the concern over the view from Legend’s deck, remains wildly unpopular among Manchester residents, business owners and visitors. Significant questions remain over the broad impact such a massive project will have on our neighborhood. Mr. Slipek is correct that these subjects need continued discussion and creative, cost-effective solutions. We welcome him to this conversation. The City of Richmond included these issues in the Richmond 300 Master Plan (and a previous Manchester-specific plan). But all the things that make the neighborhood more livable are not a priority while apartment development moves forward at warp speed.
Aside from this specific Avery Hall project, we should not continue down the “full-speed ahead” path for development coupled with the “stuck in neutral” path for green space and for addressing other prominent issues. The residents of Manchester do not want to live in a concrete jungle that resembles the exceptionally ugly 1960’s and 1970’s urban development in places like Crystal City in Northern Virginia. We want a vibrant, walkable, diverse community that has trees and sidewalks and bike paths and views of the wonderful James River from our local spots.
It’s time to hit the pause button on additional development in Manchester until a clear path forward is outlined addressing residential development, green space, traffic, affordable housing, parking, and all the inter-related issues impacting our neighborhood. It’s time to harmonize development with all those things that make a neighborhood livable.
We need to engage in a more serious dialogue about how to bring more parks and green space, address parking challenges, find ways to reduce the speed of cars racing down Commerce Road, Seventh Street, and other streets before someone gets hurt. And yes, we need to talk about where and how further development and density should be accomplished. Density for density’s sake is not a mantra that the City of Richmond should embrace.
Manchester has a great future ahead of it, but let’s take a pause to make sure we get it right.