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Neighbors Clash About City Oversight of Union Hill

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Union Hill, a neighborhood in Church Hill, is poised to clear the first hurdle to officially becoming one of Richmond's old and historic districts. But some of the area's residents are less than enthusiastic about the looming designation.

One of them, Buddy Corbett, a longtime Richmond bouncer, worries that the Commission of Architectural Review, which must approve all modifications to homes in city old and historic districts, isn't up to the task.

He refers to recent incidents in which the board attempted to nix a major condominium project in the area — developer Margaret Freund's Oakwood Heights — only to have the decision overturned by City Council.

At the same meeting, council approved a fence that longtime preservation activist Jennie Dotts wanted to add to her house. The city's architectural review board objected because the fence hadn't been there during the building's period of historical significance. Dotts has since called for a moratorium on the city's adding new old and historic districts.

Corbett says such examples illustrate the problems with the review board. “They can't stop the big guys,” he says, “so they spend all their time obstructing all the people that are living in the neighborhood that they're supposed to be protecting.”

An old and historic designation also would limit the kinds of new building in the neighborhood. “There's nothing wrong with a little contemporary flair being scattered through your neighborhood,” Corbett says. “We don't live in Colonial Williamsburg.”

To the contrary, the Union Hill Civic Association is excited about the potential designation, says Matt Conrad, the group's president.

“Union Hill is one of the oldest and most fragile neighborhoods in the city,” Conrad says. “Our civic association is concerned about inappropriate infill and destruction of our historic housing stock.”

Conrad and his neighbors formed a separate group two years ago, the Union Hill Historic District Initiative, to explore moving toward the designation. A class of city planning students at Virginia Commonwealth University studied the neighborhood to gauge whether the new designation would make the area too expensive for elderly and low-income residents. The study concluded it would not. The class teacher, Kim Chen, works at the same historic renovation firm as David Johannas, chairman of the Commission of Architectural Review.

Johannas says that Corbett's concerns not withstanding, the board is ready to recommend approval to the Planning Commission. If that body approves the designation, City Council must approve before the switch is final. If Union Hill becomes an old and historic neighborhood, it will join Monument Avenue and Shockoe Valley among the 16 such areas in the city.

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