RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Turning left off of Route 1 onto Ingram Avenue, a driver is welcomed by a a stone marker commemorating the intersection as the site of a confederate battery during the civil war and, just a few feet in further back, a sign that reads “Oak Grove Community”

A few blocks down the tree-lined avenue, which is lined on both sides by one- and two-story houses, sits the shell of Oak Grove Elementary. Data from the City of Richmond shows that most of the homes in Oak Grove were built before 1950, and the neighbors who turned out to watch a press conference by the Oak Grove Civic Association on Thursday were mostly elderly retirees who had lived in the neighborhood for decades.

Old Oak Grove

They were largely, though not uniformly, standing in opposition to a plan by Lynx Ventures, a Richmond-based developer, to turn a disused elementary school into 240 apartments.

The old Oak Grove Elementary, which was built in 1975, was replaced by the updated Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary in 2013. Then, a clerical error by the school board left the building abandoned for four years with no maintenance and no efforts by city hall to find a new use for the space.

An exterior view of Oak Grove shows boarded-over windows and barred doors, but also a well-maintained playground. (Video: Jakob Cordes/WRIC)

Now, Lynx Ventures has plans to demolish the old elementary school and replace it with high-density housing. Lynx’s other projects have followed a similar model, including their efforts to rehab old industrial buildings in Manchester, which became the Current and New Manchester flats.

But members of the Oak Grove Civic Association say they don’t want to see the site handed over to a private developer, especially since they’ve been lobbying the city for years to turn the building into a community center or much-needed daycare facility.

They questioned why the city – which has been in possession of the property for about five years – hasn’t responded to their proposals for the land.

“What this community needs”

“I’ve had the honor and pleasure of living in this neighborhood for over 50 years,” began Barbara Goode, the vice president of the Oak Grove Civic Association.

Goode has been speaking out about the school since the school board’s mistaken abandonment was first exposed by 8News in 2017. For over five years, she’s been speaking in favor of finding a new public use for the site.

“What this community needs is a recreational space for our seniors and our children,” she said. She was frustrated when she heard about the proposal for 240 apartments at the site of the school, because she felt the developer hadn’t consulted the community before setting the plans in motion.

Frank Wilson, who runs a daycare center associated with a local church, said he brought his own proposal to the city years ago, but has been soundly ignored.

“My organization has been seeking to retain this property since it shut down,” he said, adding that they were prepared to invest $1.5 million in rehabilitating the property, and “were not seeking any funds from the city.”

“I don’t know how many childcare operations have shut down because of COVID,” Wilson said. “But it’s a lot.”

He said Richmond Public Schools have been requesting more Headstart slots from the church daycare, but they have no remaining space to expand. Wilson also said he supported using some of the space as a community center, and that the property could help reduce crime among younger residents.

“When you don’t have things for them to do, places for them to go, that leads to trouble,” he said.

“Blackwell have their community center, Bellemeade has theirs,” one longtime resident said. “What does Oak Grove have?”

Can it be saved?

John Gregory, one of the heads of Lynx Ventures, attended the press conference on Thursday. After Goode and other residents finished their prepared remarks, Gregory spoke with them briefly, starting with an apology for an earlier miscommunication with the Oak Grove Civic Association.

He told Goode they had reached out to the leadership of the Oak Grove Civic Association, but misunderstood that they were waiting for an official request to speak at their meeting. Gregory also told 8News the company had previously held three separate community meetings with local residents.

Flyers distributed by Lynx Ventures to community members ahead of community meetings they held earlier this year. (Photo: Lynx Ventures)

At the press conference, he said he believed Lynx Ventures was the perfect company to take on the role of redeveloping the old school.

“We’ve been developing in the community for a long time,” he said, adding that the housing built in Oak Grove would be “affordable,” though he didn’t provide hard numbers.

Lynx has a mixed history with providing affordable rents. In New Manchester Flats, just a 3-minute drive from Oak Grove, 1-bedroom apartments go for $1,100 and 2-bedrooms go for about $1,350 – both well below the Richmond average of $1,483 and $1,754, respectively.

But it’s a different story at The Current, Lynx’s latest mixed-use project on Hull Street, where a 1-bedroom is upwards of $1,600 and the cheapest 2-bedroom goes for $1,845.

Ultimately, Gregory said that while preservation of existing buildings – like the industrial shell that became New Manchester Flats – is a commendable goal, Oak Grove Elementary will likely need to be razed.

“We appreciate the desire to save old buildings,” Gregory said. “But this one is not in a condition to be saved.”

Photos of the abandoned school’s exterior show boarded-over windows, trash strewn around the property and doors on the rear of the building seemingly deliberately broken into. (Photos: Jakob Cordes)

“We’ve heard a lot about how this building needs to go,” Gregory said, citing concerns from neighbors over crime and the safety hazard the building represents.

What Does the City Have to Say?

Lynx Ventures is now seeking a rezoning that will clear the way for the city to sell them the land and jump-start the project. According to Gregory, that case will come before the board int he next three months, but beyond that, the timeline is harder to pin down.

“It just depends on a variety of factors,” Gregory said.

8News reached out to the Mayor Levar Stoney’s office to find out whether the city was aware of the proposal, what the process for turning over the land to a private developer was, and what stage the project was currently at. The mayor’s office did not respond before publication.

This wouldn’t be the first time the city has turned over a former school to private developers to turn into new housing. The former Robert E. Lee High School in the Fan is now known as Lee School Lofts, and the Robert Fulton School found new life as the Schoolhouse on Artisan Hill in Richmond’s East End.

But for now, the old Oak Grove Elementary sits empty, as it has for nearly ten years.