By Bridget Manley, publisher
Correction: A previous version of this story listed the number of units as 110. The correct number is 156 units.
As the Harrisonburg City Council continues to grapple with the area’s housing crisis, the latest proposal for a multi-unit development demonstrates how difficult it can be for new homes to be built in the city.
At its Tuesday night meeting, the council considered a 156-unit development called “The Edge,” proposed for the not-yet-extant corner of East Market Street and Franklin Street. According to developer Pinnacle Construction and Development Corporation, it would also feature a pool, fitness center, electric car charging stations, and other amenities. Under the proposed plan, the developer will extend Franklin Street all the way from Reservoir Street to East Market Street adding sidewalks, on-street parking, and narrowing the roadway to slow traffic through the area. Franklin Street now dead-ends east of Reservoir Street before reaching East Market Street.
While the council ultimately voted 4 to 1 in favor of the new development, several members were reluctant in their support for the project during the Tuesday evening meeting, particularly after hearing from Franklin Street residents who worry about what will happen to the quiet street that their children play on.
The units proposed for The Edge would not qualify as affordable housing, with prices for a one-bedroom starting at $1,300 per month. The apartment complex will also have two- and three-bedroom units for rent, and is designed to attract families, graduate students, faculty and staff of JMU and other professionals.
The proposed housing will not be marketed for undergraduate students, according to William Park, president of Pinnacle Construction and Development Corporation.
“This is not four-bedroom, four-bathroom housing,” he told the council.
Many residents expressed concern that extending Franklin Street to East Market Street will dramatically change the character of the now-quiet street and the six-acre woodlot between the dead end and East Market Street where 100 different species of birds and a bear have been seen.
Some residents of Franklin Street asked council to reconsider the street extension, saying that they chose that street to live on because of the quiet dead-end that allows for play, walking and socializing.
One resident, Sarah Showalter, told council that while her neighbors are committed to welcoming new residents of the street, she worries about Franklin Street becoming an “easy cut-through” between East Market Street and Reservoir Street, two of the city’s busiest. Showalter was also concerned about the affordability of the apartments.
Other residents asked council to consider parking issues in the area, storm runoff that is already a problem for businesses in the area, and mountain views that will be disrupted by the high buildings. While acknowledging such concerns, council noted that the issue of affordability was a bigger concern.
Councilmember Sal Romero, who cast the lone dissenting vote against the housing complex, said that while housing is desperately needed in the city, he didn’t feel that The Edge met the city’s biggest needs.
“When we talk about how few spaces of land we have left in the city, I know the urgency…People talk to me every day about affordable housing,” Romero said.
Councilmember George Hirschmann agreed, saying that, “it just doesn’t ring as affordable.”
Councilmember Chris Jones, however, made an impassioned argument in favor of the complex. He argued that while the cost was not what some people could afford, the developer would not be proposing such a complex if there was not a need.
Jones said that growth in tech jobs and at JMU, EMU, and Sentara were drawing highly paid professionals to the area – professionals who only see growth in Rockingham County and who eventually move there.
Keeping these professionals in the city would help grow the tax base, which funds the city schools and other local services, Jones argued. Pointing to growth outside the city in places like Preston Lake, Jones added that it is important to provide housing options of all kinds in the city.
In the end, the vote came down to Romero voting against the complex, Hirschmann, Jones and council member Laura Dent voting for it. Mayor Deanna Reed, after taking a moment to think, voting “hesitantly yes.”
“It’s going to take all kinds of housing to get us through this,” Mayor Reed said. “It will take all kinds of housing to get us out of this housing challenge.”
Council approves new city precinct maps, JMU polling location and salary increases
On Tuesday evening, the council also approved new precinct lines for Harrisonburg, based on federal census data and the Virginia Supreme Court ruling of new maps in December.
Harrisonburg has eight precincts and two wards, and votes at-large for all elected offices. Voter Registrar Mark Finks told city council that his office’s considerations in redrawing the lines included population growth in the Simms, Smithland, Stone Spring and Waterman districts. The Registrat’s office also wanted to combine voting at VMRC and EMU into one polling location, and helping some voters who had to vote at Thomas Harrison Middle School, passing Waterman Elementary – another polling locations – on the way.
District lines have been slightly altered for every precinct but JMU, but Finks says that the changes affect less than 1,500 voters in the city. Those voters will have to vote at new poling locations, and city officials will be sending letters to city residents to alert them of the changes.
City Council also approved Godwin Hall as the new poling location on the campus of JMU.
Council also approved a 5% mid-year salary increase for city employees, as well as a one-time retention payment for full and part-time employees.
Both Jones and Reed expressed concern that city police – many of whom have taken second jobs to make ends meet – will resign and exacerbate the staffing shortage in the city. Reed said that a police shortage in Harrisonburg is concerning for her. Currently, the city’s force is down 19 officers, with many are working overtime to make up for the low staffing levels.
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