RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The plan to replace an elementary school that has sat empty in South Richmond for a decade has divided some, including two neighborhood groups that disagree on the potential community benefits of the $45 million housing development project.
Last year, Richmond City Council approved the sale of the 5.1-acre parcel of land where the old Oak Grove Elementary School has remained vacant since 2013.
The developers who bought the property, a partnership between Lynx Ventures and the housing nonprofit Maggie Walker Community Land Trust known as Oak Grove Partners, proposed a $45 million housing development project.
Despite their similar names, the Oak Grove Neighborhood Association and Oak Grove Civic Association shared opposing views on the project and what it could bring to the community during Richmond’s Planning Commission meeting on Monday.
What happened to Oak Grove Elementary?
The old Oak Grove Elementary School property — located at 2200 Ingram Avenue — was abandoned after Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary opened in January 2013.
In 2017, 8News reported on a paperwork error by the city’s school board that left the old Oak Grove empty for years without maintenance or any plan to move forward with the site. 8News reported on the events that led to the school sitting empty for years, which came after the school board failed to sign the building over to the city.
The empty school and the property surrounding it are run down, an eyesore that community members agree needs an overhaul.
Windows are broken, graffiti can be seen inside and outside the building, and fallen trees remain on the ground. The vacant building has housed drug users and has exacerbated crime concerns in the area, community members say.
A look at the project
Oak Grove Partners will demolish the shuttered school to make way for the development, which, according to city documents, will be limited to up to 250 housing units and 15 single-family attaching dwellings or multifamily dwellings.
John Gregory, with Lynx Ventures, said he didn’t have exact rental prices but that they would start at around $850 per month and the development would include a range of mixed-income rental units.
The development will also have no less than 175 parking spots and won’t exceed four stories, the city’s plan states.
Ryan Jackson, who spoke on behalf of Oak Grove Partners during the city’s Planning Commission meeting, said the project will include a swimming pool, more tree canopies to address urban heat island concerns and electric vehicle charging stations.
This includes a 2,500-square-foot indoor space, Jackson said, that can be used for neighborhood meetings and for people to get community services from providers. The space will have an entrance for people who don’t live in the development, Jackson added.
The developers also plan to set aside nearly half an acre for green space, Jackson said Monday, that they would be willing to deed back to the city down the line.
Jackson also said Oak Grove Partners has decided to establish a rent discount program for existing Oak Grove residents who want to move into the development.
The plan requires the developers to complete at least 220 multifamily units offered with 30-year income rent restrictions to households earning on average no more than 60% of the area median income and at least 15 for-sale townhomes at or below 80% of the area median income within five years.
According to the city’s report on the proposal, the developers project a total capital investment of over $45 million, leveraging over $20 million in state and federal funds, and expect the plan to create more than 150 construction jobs.
The Richmond 300 Master Plan designates the property for residential use, requiring developers to get a special use permit for the project to be built.
The special use permit request, which was recommended for approval by the city, was heard by Richmond’s Planning Commission.
The divide over the proposal
Richmond residents spoke in favor and against the project during Monday’s planning commission meeting.
Those backing the plan, including the Oak Grove Neighborhood Association, said it would help address the city’s ongoing affordable housing crisis and help reduce crime in the area.
Those opposed to the project, including the Oak Grove Civic Association, raised doubts about how aware residents are about the specifics of the plan and concerns about traffic and how affordable the development will be.
Charles Snellings, president of the neighborhood association, said nearby residents he’s talked with overwhelmingly support the project. He disputed claims that developers did not make residents fully aware of the plan, saying that “countless meetings” were held with community members.
Snellings also took aim at the Oak Grove Civic Association, pointing out that some in the group don’t live in the community and that the developers made changes to the project after speaking with them about their concerns.
“The opposition of the development who uses the guise of the Oak Grove Civic Association is anything but civically minded,” Snellings said.
Barbara Starkey-Goode, the civic association’s president, said the group has been part of the community for 30 years and that members recently went around the neighborhood to learn what the residents thought about the project.
“I know they [developers] said they have talked to so many people. But there’s so many people that we have spoken to that live directly from, across from the school,” she said during the planning commission meeting. “Of course, they have heard that something coming, but they did not that it was going to be 244 apartments added to that community.”
Starkey-Goode and Frank Wilson, another civic association member, said they have signed letters from residents who “knew nothing” about the project and were not in favor of it coming to the area. Wilson said some of the letters were from residents who initially signed messages of support for the project last year.
Wilson also questioned the rental prices cited by Gregory on Monday, pointing out it was different than the figure he shared with the civic association.
Gregory told 8News in a phone interview after the meeting that changes were made following those civic association meetings, saying the developers made concessions and altered their plans after 18 months of community feedback.
Emails shared with 8News show Wilson, who said he doesn’t live in the community but will starting next month, has been in contact with city leaders, including Mayor Levar Stoney’s office and Councilwoman Reva Trammell, dating back to 2015 about his proposed effort to repurpose the school building into a childcare facility.
In an interview before the planning commission’s meeting, Wilson conceded that it was unlikely that the project would be halted or see substantial changes. But Wilson said the community was not divided on the project, but not fully informed of the plan, adding that he would try his best to get concessions from the developers and to give community members more time to consider the project’s impact.
Starkey-Goode and Wilson asked the planning commission to delay weighing in on the special use permit request until the civic association’s next meeting in October.
They told the panel the delay would give developers time to answer questions that they couldn’t when they last met with the civic association. Jackson told the planning commission that developers could lose out on potential affordable housing funding if they agreed to delay the process.
Once the speakers were finished, the Richmond Planning Commission voted to recommend the approval of the special use permit request.
The request will go before the Richmond City Council on Sept. 25 for a final vote.
This story has been updated to include more context about the paperwork error that led to Oak Grove Elementary sitting empty for years.