A series of recently proposed housing developments along Macdonald Avenue in downtown Richmond could spur a business renaissance in the struggling district if city and local business leaders’ predictions ring true.
In a city desperate for affordable housing, the developments reserve only about one quarter of the total number of units for residents making below the median income. The rest of the apartments would be rented at market rates.
Still, Richmond leaders are supporting the proposals on land that has sat vacant for years, hoping the developments will help a city at the fringes of a regional housing crunch.
“I’m satisfied with the developer’s vision of development without displacement and of having Richmond residents first in line,” said Vice Mayor Melvin Willis, an ardent affordable housing activist, speaking of the first proposal to come before the Richmond City Council.
The council on July 24 directed the city manager to move forward in the planning process with SAA-EVI, a private Baltimore development firm. It proposes to build between 128 and 256 apartments.
Additional ground-level commercial space, including a possible beer garden, are envisioned below the residences. The site lies between 11th Street and 13th Street on Macdonald Avenue, according to the developer’s plans.
Ernst Valery, managing partner at SAA-EVI, said the precise breakdown in the number of affordable and market rate apartments will remain in flux through the planning process. But in an interview, he reiterated the project’s parameters, stating that more than 25 percent of the units will be affordable.
He said these affordable apartments would aim to cater to renters earning between 30 percent and 80 percent of Richmond’s median household income of around $55,000. The rest of the development would be comprised of more expensive market rate rentals with no income restrictions, Valery said.
He said that most of the affordable apartments he builds would be geared towards those earning 85 to 90 percent of Richmond’s median household income. If the city wants him to include more affordable apartments, he said, “then we’ll have to look into city, state, federal programs to help subsidize” the additional costs.
Further down Macdonald Avenue lie two other competing proposals to develop another pair of vacant lots at the intersection of 19th Street. City council has yet to make a final decision on the proposals. If approved by the council, these vacant lots could turn into an even larger development than the one planned for 12th and Macdonald.
One of the proposals comes from the Michaels Organization, a New Jersey-based developer who’s looking to build 427 apartments. The other comes from Valery of SAA-EVI, who has already been enthusiastically received by the council for his other proposal on 12th and Macdonald. He wants to put up 495 apartments at this site further up Macdonald.
Both of these proposed developments would offer similar proportions of below-market-rate housing, aiming to rent between 20 and 30 percent of the apartments at a price affordable to families earning around $44,000. A representative from the Michaels Organization was not immediately available to comment on the details of the proposal.
Most city leaders interviewed said they believed the new developments along Macdonald would offer a much-needed boost to the housing stock in Richmond, particularly for middle-income earners. The proposals could together bring as many as 750 units to the city center.
Mayor Tom Butt, a supporter of the developments, says Richmond has gone too long without new housing construction. “We haven’t built anything in Richmond in 15 years. We’re just now starting to get some new projects off the ground,” said Butt.
He was among the city councilors who unanimously voted to allow the 12th and Macdonald planning process to move forward.
Even though the emphasis of the proposed developments in not on affordable housing, which is a critical need, several city officials and local business leaders interviewed said they were supporting the plans.
That’s because they believed the housing plans and the first-floor retail space that’s proposed along Macdonald would bring the patronage that the city needs to resuscitate the downtown.
“We would love to see arts, entertainment, restaurants, things that would serve the community that we don’t have right now,” said Amanda Elliott, executive director of Richmond Main Street, an organization that facilitates dialogue between businesses, city officials, and community members.
In response to concerns that a greater share of affordable housing isn’t yet part of the proposals, Butt said, “I don’t think it’s either feasible or desirable to try to turn your city into an all affordable housing city. To make a city work you have to make housing for people of all income levels. And that’s always been my goal.”
Willis said it’s key that community members remain engaged in the process, particularly during deliberations at this early stage. As the city manager works with SAA-EVI on 12th and Macdonald, and when the council eventually votes to proceed with one of the proposals at 19th and Macdonald, the details of both projects will come more into focus.
Willis said, “it’s all gonna come down to implementation,” adding that he was encouraged by the fact that, “folks who’ve worked with Mr. Valery in Baltimore said he’s a really ethical guy.”