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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