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Proceeding As Planned

Oregon Hill's rezoning is in line with city planners' vision, but will Ethyl care?

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Since cities are in constant flux, it is amazing that things line up politically, economically and architecturally as well as they do and as often as they do. Oregon Hill made a giant step toward a better alignment between planners and zoning Monday, Sept. 23.

City Council voted 8-1 to zone the neighborhood for single family homes. Previously, it had a broader, mixed-use designation.

The rezoning was a victory for Richmond as it attempts to increase its population and tax base. The desirability of home ownership in such historic, anchor neighborhoods as The Fan, Church Hill, Ginter Park, Woodland Heights, the Museum District and Windsor Farms proves the point overwhelmingly: Solid old neighborhoods work.

The rezoning is an obvious win for Oregon Hill in a campaign led by the recently formed Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association. By banding together to confront an important cause, residents got results.

The rezoning will give property owners security that their historic neighborhood will remain architecturally cohesive.

The victory, however, is bittersweet. One of the issues that rallied Oregon Hill forces in recent months was the prospect of Ethyl Corp. and Commonwealth Properties developing eight, low-rise structures containing 138 apartment units on a spectacular, 4-acre riverfront knoll. The site is near Belvidere Street, across from the Virginia War Memorial.

Oregon Hill residents are not against development. The not-for-profit, Oregon Hill Home Improvement Corporation (OHHIC) has not only restored historic buildings but also constructed a number of sensitively designed, new homes on vacant lots. All they are asking is for Ethyl and Commonwealth to build something compatible with the direction the neighborhood is moving.

The developers, however, appear to stubbornly maintain that since they received permits and city go-ahead, they got in under the wire. "If you down-zone this property tonight, the construction is going to keep going," an attorney for Ethyl reportedly said at the hearing. What is disheartening is that the developer doesn't seem to see the common sense in not playing villain and destroyer when it could be hero and healer.

Perhaps Commonwealth Properties sees little market for single family homes in Oregon Hill — believing that suburban-style apartments are the way to go. If this is the case, they obviously have little appreciation for how spectacular and special the site is — why wouldn't anyone want to buy a house there? And haven't they noticed the new townhouses (with built-in garages) currently being purchased for $100,000-plus as rapidly as they are being built at Belvidere and Spring streets?

If they insist on garden-style — like Honey Tree and St. John's Wood — here's an idea: Why not build them east of Belvidere Street on land Ethyl has already cleared surrounding its stately corporate headquarters?

Ethyl has been lording it over Gamble's Hill for almost half a century in a place of isolated splendor it created for itself by systematically destroying or ignoring many artifacts. The glorious, Gothic revival Pratt's Castle was the first landmark to go. Then Ethyl allowed removal of the rock-embedded cross that symbolically marked the spot where the first English settlers arrived in 1607 and made the Gamble's Hill overlook off-limits to the public. It demolished the historic, triangular-shaped Binswanger Glass Building, and the site is now a parking lot. It advocated removal of the gutsy, concrete, Depression-era Second Street bridge. It has ignored the historic stretch of James River and Kanawha Canal that runs through its property. When it demolished the former penitentiary, it left no trace of foundations from famed architect B. Henry Latrobe's earlier, 18th-century prison. Yes, it restored Tredegar Ironworks, but while simultaneously destroying a number of Oregon Hill homes where Tredegar's workers lived — and in the neighborhood where many of their descendants still reside.

So up here in the 21st century, if Ethyl and Commonwealth are tone-deaf to how great cities evolve, and hellbent on garden-style apartments, why not build them on the Elysian, grassy expanses Ethyl has cleared on Second, Sixth, Byrd or Spring streets?

And apartment living is already well-established east of Belvidere from the Monroe Park Towers to Shockoe Slip. Residents could walk to downtown work, public libraries, area churches, Virginia Commonwealth University classes and to the fun activities on Brown's Island.

If Ethyl wants apartments, why not introduce them on its own corporate campus? If they prove a smashing success, Oregon Hill might see the light.

In the interim, let building on Oregon Hill reflect what zoning and the master plan currently allow — single family homes.

"The situation has gotten ugly out there," an Ethyl attorney told City Council, referring to verbal taunting and damage already inflicted on a pre-construction phase, erosion fence.

Duh. Simple solution: Talk with the neighborhood, those most affected. Not at it. S

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