by James A. Bacon
When last we visited the re-development of the Libbie & Grove neighborhood of Richmond (“The Densification of Richmond“), public opposition had stymied the conversion of a BP gas station into a four-story luxury apartment complex. The proposed facility was just too big — it would have been out of place in a district of one- and two-story shops.
But the neighborhood is too desirable for investors just to tuck tail and slink away. A group of investors led by Scott Boyers, who had pushed the BP conversion, now proposes to add a floor to the two-story Chadwick Antiques building nearby and turn the upper two floors into four apartment/condos that would start at 1$ million or rent for $3,000 per month. This proposal, which would not alter the ambiance of the region as dramatically, won unanimous approval from the Libbie Grove Association of merchants.
The Chadwick Antiques proposal follows the development of the Tiber condominium project on nearby Patterson Avenue. Before construction is complete, 10 of the 15 condominium units, which start at $600,000, have sold already.
What’s remarkable about the interest in the Libbie & Grove area is that the commercial district is nothing special architecturally. This is not Park Avenue in Manhattan or Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. The buildings and storefronts are nothing special to behold.
But the area does do a few things right. First, it has a good mix of restaurants, boutiques and professional buildings, not to mention a small grocery store and a movie theater specializing in independent films. The buildings are set back far enough from the street to make room for a wide sidewalk and ample patio seating for the restaurants; on-street parking creates a barrier from the traffic on the busy streets. The area has adequate parking (just barely) and, critically, much of it is tucked away behind the buildings out of sight. There are few parking lots to detract from the pedestrian experience, although the BP station is hideous and does cry out for redevelopment.
For the most part, Libbie & Grove is the quintessential walkable neighborhood. I dare say that you will see more walkers, joggers and moms pushing baby strollers on Grove Avenue than anywhere else in the Richmond region (with the possible exception of the highly walkable Monument Avenue). As a consequence, people are willing to pay a premium to live nearby.
How to densify. The logic of metropolitan growth and development dictates that there will be considerable pressure to re-develop places like Libbie & Grove. What we have learned is that Richmonders are open to change — the response to the Chadwick proposal has been very positive — but change has to be incremental. Three-story buildings in the neighborhood are OK; four stories on a large-footprint building that would stand out like a sore thumb are not.
Over time, we’ll see more re-development. I expect to see some tear-downs — the 7 Eleven on Libbie is not only an eyesore but could be converted into a much higher-value property if three-story buildings become the new norm. Some of the smaller, less attractive single-family dwellings along Libbie and some side streets could bite the construction ball as well. Change will be incremental, stretching out over a decade or more. Measured change that occurs property by property is far less likely to inspire a backlash by nearby residents than if a big developer swooped in with grand plans to transform the neighborhood. All’s well that ends well.