Council narrowly approves mixed-use development in Reservoir St. neighborhood

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

A multi-story, mixed-use apartment complex planned on Reservoir Street is moving forward after a series of close votes by the Harrisonburg City Council on Tuesday. 

A rezoning request and three special use permits for the project won approval with each passing on a 3-2 vote, after an hour’s worth of discussion about what principles should guide the city’s development. Mayor Deanna Reed and council members Chris Jones and Richard Baugh voted in favor of the project, while council member George Hirschmann and vice-mayor Sal Romero were against it.

The decision had been tabled from the council’s Oct. 8 meeting so that Hirschmann could be present to vote on it. 

More than 30 nearby residents came to that last meeting to show their opposition to the project, which is planned as a 375-bedroom housing complex with retail spaces on a 6.6 acre property that is currently forested.

City staff had recommended that the council approve the project, with the added stipulation that there be no stand-alone building that did not include housing units. The planning commission had voted unanimously to deny the rezoning and two of the special use permits. They voted unanimously in favor of the third special use permit to allow the mix of retail and residential, demonstrating that they agree with that idea – just not this specific application.

Part of a broader debate

Council member Jones began discussion of the project by responding to some of the neighborhood residents’ concerns about college students that would likely be attracted to live in the complex.

Talking about college students “in an objectifying and belittling way is unacceptable to me,” Jones said. 

Mayor Reed later echoed that sentiment. 

“Let’s also be respectful of our students,” she said. “They’re half of our population. They’re half of our population. And we need to figure out how we’re going to live together.” 

Hirschmann sided with the property’s neighbors, saying that while there is student housing across Reservoir Street, the site in question is a residential neighborhood.

“I just think its a shame sometimes when people have a neighborhood, they’re comfortable there, and then you’re essentially disrupting it by what you want to put in it,” Hirschmann said. He added that, given current enrollment projections at James Madison University that show relatively flat growth, the city did not need more student housing.

Vice-mayor Romero voted against the project for different reasons, citing a need for affordable housing rather than higher priced apartments.

“We are so limited in the inventory that we have in our city as far as land that we can use to create these opportunities for first-time home buyers,” he said. “I would love to look at a piece of land like this and say, ‘is there somebody out there interested in doing, rezoning to R8?’”

The council unanimously approved the addition of an “R8, small lot residential” class to the zoning ordinance in June, which could be used to build small homes attractive to first-time home buyers.

Baugh said because the property is already zoned as medium density, anyone who owns it has the right to “fill it up with townhouses,” which would likely also bring in a bevy of student renters.

He also pointed out that this property is targeted for mixed-use development in the city’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan, which was created with community input to guide Harrisonburg’s future development. 

What’s not in the plan, he said, is a limit on new student housing.

Besides, Baugh said, if students are attracted to these new apartments, “existing student housing goes on the market as apartments that still need to be rented.”

“And the history has been that the people who move into them are working families,” he said. 

Fairness in housing

Romero said he wasn’t a fan of the idea of working-class families inheriting the apartments that wealthier students leave behind.

“You go in there and you see who lives there – a lot of people that look like me and people who have come from other countries, some people of color,” he said. “That has created some segregation in our city. And that is something that I would like for us to address more intentionally.”

Jones objected to that characterization of segregation. He said segregation would be “deliberately moving and separating people by whatever falls under the protected classes.” 

“I think what you’re failing to describe is basic economics,” Jones said. “Based on your argument, we owe reparations to all the people that live in the northeast neighborhood right now, because of the destruction that happened in R4.”

Jones was referring to the “urban renewal” project of the early 1960s, in which the city used public funds and eminent domain to seize and demolish several blocks of houses in the historically black neighborhood, and build overtop with structures such as present-day Rose’s and the county administration building.

“We do. Absolutely,” Romero answered.

Also at the meeting:

  • The council unanimously agreed to authorize the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority to issue up to $15 million in bonds to Newbridge Village Associates in Henrico County, Va. to purchase and rehabilitate an apartment complex. The authority “routinely acts as the issuer of private activity bonds to finance housing projects around Virginia,” according to a memorandum from City Attorney Chris Brown. The city bears no liability for the bond, and the authority will earn various fees for their service as the issuer.
  • The council unanimously approved an ordinance amendment to the sections of city code that regulate the auxiliary police force. Among other semantic changes, the amendment allows the retention of up to 35 auxiliary officers, up from the current limit of 25.

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  1. Matthew Phillippi

    I think what irritates me most about this is the way that Chris Jones and Deanna Reed simply dismissed concerns about students in the area as “objectifying and belittling.” Several of the people involved in fighting this decision are JMU alums, they work for the university, and understand the valuable contributions that the students make to the community. The issue with the students living in the area is that it does turn a neighborhood from being quiet and family friendly into something else. It drastically increases the traffic in an area and this does hem in a neighborhood with high density housing on all sides. I’m personally offended by these two council members, and as someone that has been a member of the Harrisonburg Democratic Committee and typically votes for Democratic candidates, I feel betrayed by them. I preach better relations with students to others in the community, and I have lived among students a long time. This mischaracterization of the positions from our neighborhood is disingenuous and defamatory.

    As for Richard Baugh’s commentary about opening up affordable housing, that has indeed been a trend. But the opportunity exists for there to be newer affordable housing in this area instead of hand-me-downs from students in other areas (which are usually closer to campus and would be more convenient for them) after they have been run down and are no longer shiny and new.

    I’m also disappointed in this decision as I think about the impacts on my neighbors on Foley Rd. There is a family that is right behind us that moved in about the same time. The increased traffic for them will be huge. Their property is adjacent to this development. What impacts will they see? What about the flooding impacts on the folks living on the lower end of the neighborhood? You can’t tell me that in an area that already sees flooding with a hard rain that increasing the amount of impermeable surfaces by that much up stream, as it were, won’t increase this.

  2. Sarah S. Lock

    I am writing concerning the vote by City Council to approve the Reservoir Street development on October 22 and in support of previous letters to the editor.
    My husband and I have been homeowners on Foley Road since 1984. We were very disappointed that three members of the Council choose to ignore the unanimous recommendation of the Planning Commission, not to allow this 5-6 story high-end rent project, in this location. Where was the concern for the traffic boondoggle and constant flooding that already exists, that they will make much worse? How will ambulances or fire trucks get through already contested traffic? We will have to risk our lives daily trying to get out of Foley Road, with no stop light to allow us to turn left safely on to Reservoir. The only good thing about this future deadly accident location is that it is close to the hospital for the victims. Jones’s comment that neighborhood homeowners should have known this area was going to be high density when we bought our home was ridiculous and shows his ignorance of the history of the city. 36 years ago, when we moved in, there was no student housing or Hospital, Valley Mall was only 6 years old and struggling. Reservoir Street was barely a two lane country road that had a puddle where you had to avoid the ducks.
    We were very offended by the biased and condescending lectures we got from Mr. Jones, Mr. Baugh and Ms. Reed trying to justify their vote, ignoring the serious issues the Planning Commission and neighborhood has with this project. There was no student bashing at the prior hearings as they claimed. Only the real concern about the having a constant stream of 400 transient 20 year olds living in our back yards and the fact of declining college enrollment that reduces the need for new construction. Many in the neighborhood are alumni or employed by JMU.
    We were especially disturbed by this attack since my husband and I witnessed Mr. Jones hugging Mr. Willy Lanier, the former JMU football player and financial developer of the project, in city council chambers before the meeting. How can Mr. Jones be an impartial judge with this personal bias?
    I thought there was some integrity and honest deliberation to the process, but it seems the whole decision was pre-determined by cronies who use alternate facts to justify their votes. Where is the oversight to apply some standards of ethical behavior? Mr. Jones should recused himself from the vote because of his obvious bias for the developer. Jones, in an email responding to my concerns, claims that he isn’t friends with Lanier, but just likes to hug people and that he thinks Lanier “ is a nice person and will be good to work with during the creation of this project”. If that is true, why was Lanier the only one he hugged in the room?
    I have another question. There was a meeting September 10th hosted by the developer’s local representative, Mr. Funkhouser and Blackwell Engineering, to try to convince neighbors that this project would really be good for us. We were told, like we should be impressed, that Willy Lanier would be coming to the Council meeting for the final vote. The scheduled public comment and vote was on October 8th. The City Council Chambers was full of those in opposition and testifying against the development. I wondered why Lanier wasn’t there since we had been told he would be. After the public testimony the Mayor called for the vote. That is when a Jones stepped in to request for a delay in voting because George Hirschmann wasn’t present and the vote was postponed for the next meeting. Next meeting, October 22 and what do you think, there is Lanier, present for the final vote like we were told in September. How did he know not to show up for the previous meeting, and be present to hear all our complaints, when the rest of us were told to come? Mr. Jones?
    Why even have a Planning Commission if their advice is to be ignored? How many more quite neighborhoods are these members of the Council willing to destroy with their monstrous developments, catering to and exploiting the richest JMU students to make money and win influence?

    Sarah Lock, Harrisonburg

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