By Ryan Alessi, publisher
A development with 274 high-end apartments to be built next to the Regal movie theater won the city council’s initial approval Tuesday, allowing for housing in the middle of one of the city’s main shopping districts.
Under the proposal, the Regal Harrisonburg would remain open. Armada Hoffler Properties, the Virginia Beach-based company that owns the property, will construct a mixed-use development with apartments, some businesses and a parking garage on the north side of the property along Evelyn Byrd Avenue.
“What I love about this is that it’s repurposing dead, empty parking lot space,” council member Laura Dent said.
The project also will prompt the city to convert some of the four-lane roads around that development into three-lane roads to accommodate new bike lanes. The development also will include sidewalks that will connect disparate sections of sidewalks on Evelyn Byrd Avenue and University Boulevard.
The development’s plan comes with certain requirements, including:
– One-bedroom apartments making up at least 10% of the total units and three-bedroom apartments making up no more than 40% of the units.
– No apartments with more than three bedrooms.
– Installation of bike markings through the development and a new bus shelter on Evelyn Byrd Avenue.
Council member Chris Jones said the development will lead to additional biking, add new retail space, allow for the residents to walk to many businesses and provide a development that might attract young professionals.
“I’m excited about it,” he said.
Vice Mayor Sal Romero, who works for the Harrisonburg City Public Schools as his day job, said such a development could go a long way toward keeping teachers in their 20s and 30s from moving on to other cities.
“In our efforts to really attract more young people to work in our city schools … often times younger people won’t stay in the area,” Romero said. “Places like this can be a little hub where people feel like they have a network and support.”
Jennifer Harris, vice president of development for Armada Hoffler, said the apartments might attract some college students, especially considering their proximity to the Reservoir Street entrance to JMU. But she said college students aren’t the target demographic.
“We are not looking to be in the student housing business any longer,” Harris said. “We will be renting these by the unit, not by the bed.”
While city council members and Mayor Deanna Reed have emphasized affordable housing in recent years, a study of Harrisonburg’s housing last year showed the city lacks available apartments on the upper end of the income scale as well as the lowest end.
That has a cascading effect on the market. People who could afford higher-priced apartments — those whose earnings put them in the highest 20% of the Area Median Income — are then snapping up properties others could afford, perpetuating the housing crunch.
Adam Fletcher, director of community development, told the council that a Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy study showed that 2% of Harrisonburg’s rental properties are vacant.
“It creates a very tight market with inadequate inventory,” Fletcher said.
Constructing a mixed-use development in the middle of one of Harrisonburg’s main business zones called for the council to change the city’s zoning ordinance. The council unanimously approved its first reading Tuesday and will give final approval as early as the next meeting Feb. 22. But the council Tuesday also approved the specific parameters for the development, effectively giving the project the green light.
Affordable housing opportunity
To offer more affordable housing, the council also approved provisions that will allow Our Community Place to convert a duplex into four units that could be rented at a reduced rate to people who are homeless but housing ready.
The organization, which provides services and support to people facing homelessness, will renovate the two units at 50 and 52 Reservoir Street.
Moment of silence after a tough week
Tuesday’s meeting, which came a week after a gunman killed two Bridgewater College officers, began with a moment of silence in honor of John Painter and J.J. Jefferson.
Mayor Deanna Reed called for the council and the community to take the moment “for our Bridgewater students and faculty and the families of the officers who lost their lives and gave their lives to save others.”
Reed later said she met with Bridgewater College President David Bushman.
“It was a very heavy visit,” Reed said, adding that she watched Bridgewater students bring flowers to the makeshift campus memorial.
Each of the council members echoed Reed’s support for Bridgewater.
“We’re going to need a lot of time to heal for those that we lost and those who were taken from us over the last week,” said Jones, who wore a Bridgewater shirt during Tuesday’s meeting, which remained online because of the community’s high coronavirus numbers.
Reed also said she met with leaders at JMU and EMU on Tuesday and “both universities in our city have challenges going on.”
JMU students held a vigil Monday night and university officials canceled classes and assessment exams Tuesday in the wake of a death on campus Monday afternoon. University officials later said in email that the person who died wasn’t a student, staff or faculty member.
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