Asking permission to build anything in a Richmond-area historic district is a notoriously onerous undertaking. Endless red tape, denied permits, groveling appearances before architectural committees and rebuffed attempts to appease the neighbors offer little positive reinforcement.
So Bill Jefferson didn't ask. He just paved.
Or so Jefferson's neighbors say of his recent paving of a vacant lot on the southwest corner of North Colonial and Monument avenues, which he turned into a 10-space parking lot. Jefferson's company, River City Renaissance, also owns the apartment building next door at 2903 Monument Ave.
"On the side of their apartment building there used to be a lawn," says Jeff Cimbalo, one of at least three neighbors who have complained about the lot to city officials. "I came back from Atlanta, from a trip, and it had been done. It took one day. They were done by that evening."
The next morning, Cimbalo says, he went to talk to the construction supervisor about the desecration of what he considered an "urban park" and was told that the new parking spaces would be available for rent. "He was very excited for me," Cimbalo says. "He said they're going to put a letter in my mailbox."
Cimbalo says he asked if the guy had a permit to do the construction and was greeted by vigorous head-scratching.
A representative of River City Renaissance, who spoke on condition of anonymity, disputes Cimbalo's version of events. He says the vacant lot has always been designated parking, "and now it's paved." He says he's unsure if the lot was approved by the city as parking. The River City representative says he's unaware of any correspondence with the city or notice of violation, but says none is necessary because "we didn't build or construct anything." He notes that the two-dimensional nature of the project makes legally defining a paving project as construction "subject to interpretation."
However, others disagree.
"I talked to a River City [representative] and asked for them to stop work and apply for a Certificate of Appropriateness," writes Saul Gleiser, an official in the city's department of community development. "This work might need more than a Certificate of Appropriateness as they are changing the use of this particular parcel."
Jefferson lives on Monument Avenue within throwing distance of the parking lot. An online business directory listing describes Jefferson's company as a "real estate investment company specializing in historic properties remodeling."
It's this area of specialty that makes River City's decision to pave without permission all the more egregious, says Fan District Association President Krista Mathis Samuels. The parking lot is in the Museum District, but the violation of the area's historic character is of common concern.
"This is somebody that knows the business," Samuels says. "I'm sure that he was aware of the fact that he needed to speak with the city about getting permits."
Worst of all, Samuels and others worry, once something is done like paving a natural space - there's little likelihood of taking it back.
"I think that really would be the biggest issue once it's done, it's done," Samuels says. "The city can tell him he's done the wrong thing, but [the property] is not going to go back to what it was originally."
Cimbalo calls the act calculated.
"The only thing shadier they could have done is if they'd done it in the dead of night," he says. "It's easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. I hate to be cynical, but if this is a business calculation that they're just going to pay whatever fine that the city imposes, then the city should go out of its way to make sure they don't profit at all." S