How the City of Richmond Kneecaps Itself

Andreas Addison. Photo credit: Jonathan Spiers, Richmond BizSense

by James A. Bacon

Andreas Addison may be a city councilman in Richmond, but it doesn’t look like he’s getting any special treatment from city hall. With plans to open a gymnasium, he is renovating an old brick building in Scott’s Addition, a neighborhood that is transitioning from light industrial and warehousing into a hipster haven. 

He signed a lease early last year and applied for permits to remodel the space, reports Richmond BizSense. Five months later, he thought he was on track to get his building permit and start work. Then he got a call from City Hall.

The city rejected his permit because an access ramp he’d planned to install on the building’s exterior encroached upon the 10-foot-wide sidewalk. Addison would have to move the ramp inside the building. The change cost him $40,000 and eliminated space for a juice bar he’d intended to install. “The phone call came at month five and (the ramp) was on page two of the plans,” he told BizSense. “Why did it take four months to get to that point?”

Addison did finally get his permit, but the delay hurt his business. Having burned through 12 months of free rent, he is now shelling out cash for a building that should have opened months ago. “For a first-time business owner investing in this type of project,” he says, “it’s very discouraging.”

Addison’s experience is common. City officials say they’re dealing with budget constraints, personnel shortages, technology upgrades and outages, and COVID, and they’re trying to improve. But the permitting process has been a nightmare in Richmond for decades. It’s something that never seems to get better, and it’s throttling redevelopment in a city where the business community would like to invest.

“The gravity of the situation can no longer be understated,” says Danna Markland, CEO of the Home Building Association of Richmond. Developers of big projects have the financial resources to endure the extended permitting process, but homeowners and smaller companies often don’t.

“Rejecting my permit is saying no to investment, saying no to the jobs, saying no to the revenue. That is not on the table as an option,” Addison said. “We’re at a moment with this recovery and this opportunity as a city to grow and to truly embrace our future, and I feel like these details are what’s going to make or break our success.”

Bacon’s bottom line: In his first bid for office, Mayor Levar Stoney ran on a platform of competence. Combining a pro-business philosophy with a social-justice sensitivity, he would be a mayor who got things done. After the George Floyd protests/riots, however, his rhetoric and priorities shifted dramatically. The only projects to get expeditious approval were those that took down the city’s Civil War statues. Violent crime is up. The education provided by city schools is a cruel sham. Real estate redevelopment is progressing at a pace far below the city’s potential. Neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield counties lack the inheritance of walkable streets, historic architecture, museums and other cultural institutions, but people have to live and work somewhere, and that’s where the economic growth will flow by default.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


9 responses to “How the City of Richmond Kneecaps Itself”

  1. David Wojick Avatar
    David Wojick

    I once studied the building permit system for Seattle, because it was taking 9 months to get a major permit. There were 16 offices reviewing every permit and the average rework rate was around ten times so they were processing 20,000 apps,not the 2,000 they thought.

    We analyzed the rework and found 60% coming from a new energy efficiency code that was being defined by trial and everyone’s error. Another 20% came from two offices giving contradictory guidance. The Traffic Dept wanted parking garages exiting on the alleys while the Fire Dept wanted them exiting on the streets.

    If you track the work and rework you can weed out the delays.

  2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    It is easy to blame the city (and I think there are a lot of problems with the city). However, there is another direction in which Mr. Addison should be looking to place blame. That encroachment issue sounds like a pretty straightforward issue. Therefore, he should be asking his architect why he/she was not aware of that provision of the city code and did not take it into account in drawing up the plans.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      My son-in-law is a renovation contractor and his stories about the city would fascinate and horrify. Good times and bad, problem permits or easy ones, it’s just screwed up. It long predates Stoney but he promised to improve it.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        I came to the conclusion long ago that, for some reason, the city of Richmond just does not seem to be able to get the basic functions of government right. I have expressed this view to someone who is familiar with the workings of the city, who tells me it is not the regular folks in the trenches who are at fault, but management. Rather than concentrating on getting the basic government functioning well, mayors tend to get distracted by shiny, new prospective development projects.

        That being said, it would be useful to know if, in the case cited in Jim’s article, the code provision in question was clearly laid out and if the contractor’s architect knew about it.

  3. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Well, there’s always the other possibility. That because he’s a city councilman, he thought he’d get away with it and is surprised that he didn’t.

  4. Read George McGovern’s OpEd about how running a B&B opened his eyes to all the bad legislation he supported because of his low ‘business acumen’.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Decades ago, I recall reading a piece about the $10,000 tree in LA from an ordinace requiring greenery in restoration projects. Meh.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” It long predates Stoney but he promised to improve it.”

    so Stoney did not create the mess but his mistake was promising to fix it?

    of course that’s what politicians do but reading JABs narrative, one can believe it’s Stoney that caused it.

    Many cities have these problems by the way. If you ask businesses in Spotsylvania or Stafford county how the permits and applications “work”, you’ll get a very similar story and we have no “Stoney” to blame.

    What often “works’ – along the lines of what Dick alluded to was the folks who the businessman depended on to do the site analysis and prep and they failed him.

    In the two counties, the developers that have the most success are the ones that have professional staffs and consultants – they know the requirements of the permits AND they have legal help if they need it.

    Finally, just about anyone who has built a house from scratch can and will tell you that the permits are but half of it. The contractors and their subs also do a fine job of snafus… sometimes.

    A local church put up a small storage building, jumped through all the
    county’s hoops with flying colors only to be told by REC that it would take 5 months to get the electric.

    horror stories one and all – not just Stoney’s or Richmonds problem.

    And if Richmond were so bad, why don’t folks go build their stuff in Henrico including the “walkable’? That’s not a “free” “built-in” that Richmond has that Henrico missed out on. Richmond got it by planning and taxation and Henrico chose not to. Henrico epitomizes car-centric planning IMHO.

    Be fair in assessing and comparing.

  7. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    This screed sounds more like griping than constructive criticism. The entrepreneur worked at City Hall on similar projects. Five years of experience as a councilman. Now he complains the “system” didn’t work. that’s a long time with eyes closed. Good PR though for the new business.

Leave a Reply