What are the seminary’s plans for The Westwood Tract?

Seminary trustees charged the school’s administration with developing a plan for the Westwood Tract that would 1) provide the next generation of housing for students with families, 2) provide a reasonable financial return to the school and 3) maintain the school’s tradition of being a good neighbor in Northside Richmond. In response to this charge, the school plans to partner with a developer to build apartments on the eastern 15 acres of the 34-acre tract.

Who is the seminary’s partner in this apartment development project?

The Bristol Development Group, headquartered near Nashville, Tennessee is working with the seminary to craft and execute a joint venture agreement for apartment units on 15 acres of the Westwood Tract.

What will the new apartment project look like?

The project will contain approximately 301 units in a combination of two and three story buildings of various designs. It will have 112 one-bedroom units, 186 two-bedroom, and 3 three-bedroom units.

Both surface parking and garage parking will be available. A clubhouse with fitness center and a swimming pool will be a part of the project. The development will be tied architecturally to the main academic quad.

How many apartments will be available for Union Presbyterian Seminary students?

The number of apartments available for students is expected to begin at 25 when the project opens. That number is expected to rise in future years with student enrollment.

Will all seminary student apartments be grouped together?

Our current expectation is that seminary students will not be grouped together into a single enclave within the new apartment community. In order to take full advantage of the variety of unit styles, apartment sizes, views, rent levels and floor plans available, students will have the opportunity to choose from any apartments within the complex.

Will this result in the destruction of an environment of community of seminary students and families?

By offering higher quality apartments for families, we actually will invite a broader range of students into the community as previous housing options provided limited options for families with children. Because of the greater variety of apartment designs that will soon be available on the Westwood Tract, we believe more, rather than fewer, of our students will choose to live close to campus, thereby building up community. We are equipping our graduates to build communities in the church. The Westwood development will provide a greater opportunity for our students to put that into practice while at Union. This unique community will continue to thrive.

Will members of the seminary community who do not live in the Westwood Tract apartments be allowed to use amenities such as the swimming pool and fitness center?

The amenities in the Westwood Tract apartments will be available to apartment residents and their guests.

What process will be used to determine which students live in the new Westwood Tract apartments?

Though a specific process for assigning students to the new Westwood Tract apartments must still be devised, as is now the case with on-campus housing, priority will likely be given to certain students based upon their family status, tenure with the school and perhaps other factors.

What will be the monthly rent rates for the apartments?

Although students will pay the same rent rates as members of the public who occupy Westwood Tract apartments, seminary students will receive extra scholarship money to help offset their rent. Rent rates for the apartments will be established based upon market conditions at the time of opening. Preliminary rent forecasts range from approximately $1,000/month to $2,200/month.

How much extra scholarship money will be provided to help students offset the cost of rent?  

Extra scholarship money provided to students who live in the Westwood Tract apartments will be determined based upon market conditions at the time the apartments open. Plans are now being developed to guide both the amount and prioritization of scholarship money that is made available to students and their families who live at Canopy.

How will the cost of utilities for the new apartments be paid?

All apartment residents will pay for their own utilities.

What will be the term of a lease on a Westwood Tract apartment?

We anticipate that all apartment leases will be for a term of twelve months. The seminary is still evaluating what arrangements might be made for students who are away from their apartment during the summer for internships and other work/study opportunities.

Will it overburden enrollment at Richmond Public Schools?

No. While not a part of the Plan of Development review criteria, impacts on schools were analyzed. Based on demographics of the target market, an average of 4 additional students per grade are projected to result from this development — in a neighborhood where a recent Richmond Public Schools study projects declining enrollment.

Is the seminary in financial trouble?  

No. The seminary is in an extremely strong financial position, with over $125 Million in a long-term financial endowment. Cash flow generated from an ownership interest in the Westwood Tract apartments will allow the seminary to draw less from the endowment to cover the cost of running the school than would otherwise be the case, thereby ensuring the viability of the endowment for future generations of students.

What will happen to the seminary if the development is not successful?

Nothing about this development project threatens the ongoing viability of the seminary. The seminary will not close if the development is unsuccessful. The only asset the seminary is putting at risk in the development is 15 acres of land. If the development is unsuccessful, that land is all that could be lost. The seminary is not putting any of its investment assets or operations at risk to support this project.

Is there a market/demand for these apartments?

We, and our development partner believe there is, and will be, market demand for the units that will be constructed on the Westwood Tract. This belief was recently re-confirmed with an independent market study conducted for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. While no real estate project can be guaranteed to be successful, we believe the opportunities to create attractive new student housing and income for the seminary while developing the property at only one-fourth of its allowed density justifies any market risk being taken. Several apartments constructed in the area recently are, as expected, filling at normal occupancy growth rates of 18 to 24 months.

Does the project have broad support in the community?

Yes. Most of those who have expressed support are speaking to us privately.

What will happen if the apartments are not leased at capacity?

Apartment managers normally manage properties to about 93% occupancy. There is little doubt that we will achieve 93% occupancy. What is unclear is whether managing to that occupancy level will require rents that are higher or lower than we have forecast. Our financial forecast assumes it will take 18 months after completion of construction to reach 93% occupancy.

Is the project more an effort to make money than to increase and improve student housing?

No. Mandates given to our administration by the seminary’s board of trustees preclude such a strategy. And such a strategy would be out of character for a seminary that has been a positive force in the neighborhood for more than 100 years. The current plan is to build only 301 apartments. Much of the rental income for the seminary will be applied toward scholarships that will offset rental costs for our students.

Five of the 19 acres that will be untouched by the project are leased to an urban farm. How much profit will the seminary make on the lease?

The annual rent will be $0.00 and it’s a 10-year renewable lease.

Will the buildings be in character with the neighborhood?

The building designs will be attractive and fit in nicely with the neighborhood. They will tie architecturally to the main academic quad. Garages will face inside the property. The units will be high-quality with estimated rental rates averaging $1,400 per month. In response to some residents’ concerns we have reduced the height of the buildings from four stories to three, which is the height of the current Advance Apartments, and reduced the number of units from 349 to 301. We believe this revised plan will have a positive effect on property values in the neighborhood.

How much open/recreation space would be left?

The plan preserves 19 acres. There are no current plans for development of this 19 acre parcel.

Who will own the remaining 19 acres?

The seminary. The partnership involves only the 15-acre portion.

Did the seminary pursue an alternate option to preserve all 34-acres as open space?

An option to sell all 34-acres for conversion to open space also was considered. Unfortunately, the complexity of deal structuring, the time needed to marshal all resources to accomplish this plan, and the ultimate aggregate value of tax benefits available made this plan one that the seminary board of trustees did not support.

The seminary believes that all of us — seminary and community — are best served by having us participate in any development of the Westwood Tract rather than just selling property we don’t otherwise need and letting someone else decide what happens on it.

Why not allow the Veritas School to take over this space?

Veritas has expressed an interest but has never submitted a formal offer to buy any of our land.

Instead of new apartments, could we instead fix historical housing in the area and place students there?

One great advantage of the plan our board of trustees has approved is that we achieve much needed replacement student housing by using the land as a resource to provide the funding to achieve that housing. By contributing only 15 acres of vacant land to the project, we will get new housing for our students, plus an income stream to help subsidize their rent in that new housing. Renovating older homes would have required an up-front source of funding that is not currently available. Yes, we did consider simply selling the land to raise money for new student housing. Such a sale, however, would have put that land into the hands of a developer who could and probably would have built at a density 70-percent greater than what we have planned.

Could students be housed on the historic quad campus instead?

We don’t have enough square footage on the quad to renovate into the needed number of student apartments. At the very least, renovation would be accompanied by new construction.

What happened to the plans for building/renovating on the quad?

Though there have been some preliminary discussion about the possibility of renovating or building on the quad to provide updated student housing, there has never been a plan to do so. Renovation and new construction on the quad remain potentially viable possibilities if needed in the future.

Could the existing apartment buildings on the Westwood Tract be renovated instead?

The Rice apartment building, which has been vacant for about six years because of its age and state of disrepair, might someday be renovated. Because of the organization of load bearing walls, the number of units that could be included in a renovated building is small and the cost per unit renovated would be costly. Rice also lacks elevators. The Advance Apartments do not allow for significant renovation. Concrete stairwells, lack of elevator shafts, forged steel infrastructure, and cinder block walls make renovation of that group of buildings impractical.

Why build 301 units for 20 or so students?

To subsidize rents for our students who wish to live in the apartments. These being high-quality apartments that are compatible with the neighborhood, many of these students will need the subsidy to afford them. Simply replacing the existing apartment buildings on the Westwood Tract to accommodate just 20 or so students would not produce a sufficient revenue stream to generate the subsidy. It also would not allow for flexibility in needed units, which varies from year to year. Much of the return the seminary achieves from this project will be used to subsidize rent for students who live in the complex. Though we do expect to begin by housing about 20 students there, we expect that number to grow in the years to come, thereby requiring an increasing subsidy from the seminary.

Will it be feasible to renovate the new apartments in 30 years or so?

The new apartments will be high quality. Whether or not the seminary might choose to renovate them in 30, 40 or even 50 years will depend on factors that will be known only when that time comes. These factors include the relative costs of renovating vs. building new, the availability and cost of other building sites, the construction technology available at that time, legal and regulatory requirements then in force, the features and characteristics demanded by occupants several decades from now, and most importantly, whether creating up-to-date living space through renovation is economically viable.

By way of comparison, had those who originally constructed Advance Apartments 50 years ago been able to predict the following, they might have built those apartments in a fashion that allowed for renovation:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act now requires any apartment of more than three stories to have elevators.
  • Fire detection and sprinkler systems are now required in all multi-family housing.
  • Use of almost-impossible-to-move cinder block walls is no longer considered viable.
  • As few walls as possible are, these days, load bearing, specifically to make renovations easier.
  • The four-pipe heating and cooling system (that allows only heat or cooling on any given day) is now outdated technology.
  • Wireless communication is now possible, except in buildings like Advance with excessive steel and concrete.
  • Current student residents expect washer dryer hookups, cable TV access, larger bathrooms and modern kitchens.

What will become of the historic McGuire House?

No decisions have been made on the McGuire House. It is located on the 19 acres that are unaffected by the project.

Will the large trees be saved?

All the trees along Brook Road in the first and second row are to be saved.

Will the labyrinth remain?

No decisions have been made on the labyrinth. It is located on the 19 acres that are unaffected by the project.

What will happen to the walking trail and community garden?

These are located on the 19 acres that is not being developed.

Will street level views be made available for viewing?

Street level views will be provided to any interested parties once the buildings are designed. That design work is still underway.

How will the plan prevent traffic congestion?

The project will comply with all city and state traffic ordinances.

How will storm drain issues be addressed?

We will comply with all building codes. The seminary will be unable to obtain a building permit unless the site is engineered to meet all applicable codes regarding stormwater run-off. The project will improve the current situation by reducing the flow rate, adding a significant number of inlets and reducing the drainage area. Further, although the property is not within the 100-year floodplain, the regulations of the stormwater standards have been met. As a way to assure that stormwater will not have a negative impact on the neighborhood, the general contractor installed large underground pipes to store and control rainwater. These large pipes will retain water that will be collected during significant rain events until it can be safely and slowly released into the city stormwater system without adding to flooding that might otherwise occur on our neighborhood streets.

Why not develop along Westwood Ave instead of Brook Rd?

Orienting the apartment complex along Westwood Ave rather than Brook Rd threatens the viability of the project. Optimum marketing of the apartment units is achieved by giving the development maximum exposure along the more heavily traveled Brook Rd.

Why not develop along Chamberlayne Ave instead of Brook Rd?

We do not own property on Chamberlayne Ave. We already own the land for the Canopy project. If we wanted to develop anywhere else, we’d have to buy that land and/or buildings with money we do not have for that purpose. Creating student housing in a project on the Westwood Tract does not require us to invest any cash, only land we already own.

Was the 34-acre tract gifted to the seminary for educational purposes only?

No. We have no record that when we received that property in 1912 that there was any restriction placed on how it could be used, and no indication we could never sell it or build on it.

Did the community participate in the planning process and were compromises made?

Yes. The seminary assembled a group of development professionals and church leaders to formulate a plan. Three equal goals were established: provide a resource for accomplishing our mission; optimize the long-range financial benefit to the seminary; and create a plan that respects the surrounding community. No one goal was greater than the other. Beginning in March of 2014, Union engaged the community for input and feedback. At least 17 formal community engagement meetings and numerous more individual meetings were held, including a charrette with interested neighbors that was moderated by a professional land planner hired by the seminary. Based on creative input gathered through this process, Union paused all development proposals for almost a year to seek a donor to purchase the land and gift it as a public park in exchange for state tax credits, which would have achieved our goals. Even after hiring a consultant to lead that donor search, it became clear that support did not exist, so the seminary’s land-use committee returned to its work. Based on numerous and often opposing suggestions, significant changes to the plan were made. The site layout was revised to add numerous smaller buildings with seven apartments each, designed at the approximate size of the existing apartment buildings that have occupied the Westwood Tract for more than five decades. Building height was reduced to two- and three-story levels so the tallest structure was no higher than the Advance Apartments complex, which is being replaced by the project. Architectural revisions — including materials, color schemes, and the addition of a focal corner feature — were made. Density was reduced by 22 percent. Green space and setbacks were enhanced. Parking areas were screened from public streets. The entire plan was significantly revised by the time Union began the formal approval process with the city. In October 2015, a public hearing was held before the Richmond Board of Zoning Appeals, during which neighbors voiced opinions, both supportive and critical. The BZA’s vote of approval allowed the project to move forward.

Were the building permits properly studied and awarded?

Yes. The Plan of Development (POD) was extensively reviewed and commented on by the Department of Public Works, Traffic Engineering, Department of Public Utilities, Zoning, Planning and Development Review, among other city agencies; revisions were made; and finally, when all applicable regulations were met, the POD was approved and the building permits correctly issued.

Why do some in the neighborhood oppose the project?

The project has broad support in the community, despite a vocal minority that claims otherwise. Facts have been replaced with unsubstantiated studies, misleading, inaccurate statements — intentional or not —  and baseless presumptions. They have a pattern of claiming everyone else is wrong. They claim the city’s zoning map is wrong, the current zoning ordinance of the city code is wrong and was not properly adopted, and the zoning administrator’s determination in 2012 and 2016 were both wrong. They further claim the POD was wrong, the Department of Public Works was wrong, the Department of Public Utilities was wrong, and the BZA decision in favor of the zoning administrator and determining the property is zoned R-53 was wrong. None of these claims have any factual basis for support. Each of the claims are rooted in the opposition’s desire to have the property remain undeveloped as an entitlement to their property in which none have a property interest.

Did the project get special treatment from the City of Richmond by having building permits issued very quickly following the application for them?

No. The application for building permits was filed on September 7, 2016, but permits were not issued until April 11, 2017. Because of the high visibility of this project, we believe it received extra scrutiny before permits were issued, which contributed to the length of the seven-month approval process.