Gloria Beard said she wants to spend more time with her children, but none of her three sons want to live in Charlottesville anymore. Beard is always cheerful, but she is not optimistic about her sons changing their minds. She said that they have found better jobs in Washington, D.C.; Ohio; and Florida with paychecks they can live on and activities that fit their interests. Another driver, Beard said, is the racism they experienced in Charlottesville.“There was a lot of Black people once upon a time. The ones that haven’t passed away relocated. I think the younger ones, the ones that really wanted to make a change, left Charlottesville altogether,” she said.
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At the end of the Civil War, Charlottesville and Albemarle County were majority African American. The count started to decline as African Americans across the South lost briefly won political rights and fled increasing violence by the Ku Klux Klan and others. Even into the present, the number of African Americans who can or want to stay in Charlottesville seems to be decreasing. The 2010 census counted fewer Black residents of the city than in 2000 and a decrease in population share from 22% to 19%. This pattern of relocation is part of what motivated Yolunda Harrell to start New Hill Development Corp. and propose a plan to guide future development of Charlottesville’s Starr Hill neighborhood. More than 10 years ago, Harrell moved to the city as a single Black woman with a job but no family or friends in the area. “What makes me want to stay? If I cannot find a way to connect, if I do not see myself and my culture actively represented throughout the community in ways that I enjoy, then I am going to look to find that space someplace else,” Harrell said.Monday evening, Harrell presented to the Charlottesville Council to make her case for how New Hill’s plan for Starr Hill can support housing, business and culture that would make someone like her want to stay.
A different focus
The draft Starr Hill Neighborhood Community Vision and Small Area Plan Concepts is unique among the city’s draft and adopted small area plans in that it foregrounds Charlottesville’s African American community. Small area plans look at all the ways a local government can affect a community, from roads to parks to housing. Rather than setting goals and strategies for an entire city or county, like Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan does, a small area plan focuses in on a neighborhood.Other city small area plans have covered historically Black neighborhoods like Dice Street in Fifeville and Garrett Street in the southern downtown area, but they mention that history as background information with urban renewal as the reason for the street layout or fears of gentrification as reasons for distrust of predominantly white planning organizations.
New Hill, on the other hand, has been intentional throughout the process about the community it intends to serve. Several of its partner organizations are Black-run and the very first paragraph of the plan focuses on the ongoing effects of racism and economic exclusion felt within the community. Harrell said that she hopes to serve the entire community by serving one segment well. Seeing the desire within the African American community to regain its footing, race had to be a focus, she said.“In our work, it would be almost malpractice to not unearth the fact that race is a factor in these disparities and these gaps that we are attempting to address,” said Local Initiatives Support Corp. CEO Maurice Jones.LISC is one of New Hill’s most powerful partners. The nonprofit has helped secure more than $20 billion in investments in the last 40 years to cities and counties between Virginia Beach and Sonoma, California, according to its website. Jones said that LISC only gets involved in solving the most intractable wealth, employment and health disparities. “If you look at the kind of planning that we do, you will see race every time,” Jones said.
Questions have swirled around the Starr Hill small area plan since it first became public knowledge. New Hill received $500,000 in city funding in late 2018, only half a year after the organization was established and before it was listed on the IRS website as a nonprofit. Starr Hill neighborhood leaders and longtime activists were unaware of the proposal before the city’s decision. New Hill started its community engagement process this spring. The team hired Beard and about four others for $20 an hour as community ambassadors to knock on the doors of residents and businesses. The team gathered feedback from community and one-on-one meetings and online surveys.
Harrell said that they also visited and studied notes from other forms of community engagement, like the citywide Dialogue on Race that began in 2009.Harrell said that she has received both questions from residents about why she chose to start New Hill’s work in Starr Hill and from residents elsewhere about why she did not choose their neighborhoods. She said that she heard fears that she was bringing more high rises and unwanted development, but she worked to show the neighborhood that development was coming regardless, and this was the chance to make it benefit them. “It’s not about us trying to do something to you but with you. Change is going to happen. Can we at least add our voice to how that change happens?” Harrell said.Harrell said that New Hill chose Starr Hill because it was an area with large swaths of underutilized land, like the parking lot at Charlottesville Union Station and the Vinegar Hill Shopping Center. Unlike Fifeville, which has its own small area plan coming to the City Council soon, Starr Hill was not already under the microscope.
A large section of the neighborhood is owned by the city and is known as City Yard. This allowed New Hill to theorize possible uses for that land without upsetting anyone, Harrell said. City Yard currently houses the city’s public works department. It is possible that the city could repurpose the 10-acre property and centralize all of its departments under one roof. However, City Manager Tarron Richardson said that the city has to analyze its existing spaces and needs first before embarking on such a project.New Hill and its partners reimagined City Yard as a housing and business center. Based on neighborhood input, New Hill has proposed locating small-scale affordable housing on the Brown Street edge of the property. The 10 to 46 attached and detached homes would be targeted to first-time homebuyers and would integrate easily with the scale of the existing neighborhood.
Other apartments would be located in four- to five-story buildings. Some of these buildings would include parking, office and retail space. The rent for these spaces would be affordable to promote small businesses needed in the neighborhood. One tenant would be a business incubator and coworking space that could serve as a hub for the city’s Black businesses.The past lives of City Yard could limit, but would not likely prevent, development, according to New Hill’s research. Gas for heating and lighting used to be produced in a plant on the property, and past studies have confirmed that the ground has been contaminated.However, the consultant responsible for the most recent study is cited in the plan as saying that this probably would not prevent residential development. The state has a remediation process to deal with health risks and cleanup on sites like these that would take roughly 2½ years. The plan also advocates for supporting a rail-to-trail project on the railroad line that crosses Preston Avenue and forms one of the edges of the City Yard property. The conversations for this project have already begun.
To prevent change in the neighborhood from pricing some existing neighbors out, the plan suggests supporting existing tax offset efforts for elderly and low-income homeowners.Housing on the City Yard property would be focused on households making 50% to 80% of area median income, which the New Hill team identified as a gap between subsidized and unsubsidized housing in the city. The median income for the Charlottesville area was about $89,000 this year.During the City Council discussion on the small area plan, Mayor Nikuyah Walker encouraged the team to consider extending the range of housing to lower income groups. Walker said that public housing primarily serves households making under 30% AMI and said that the gap starts above that income tier.Another focus of the plan is the Jefferson School, a historic African American school that has now been converted into offices, a gym, a restaurant and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.
The small area plan proposes adding two levels of parking to the Jefferson School’s parking garage and adding a green roof and walls to the new structure. The plan also proposes new landscaping, like an outdoor performance space, to further emphasize and support the Heritage Center’s key role in the community. A public plaza in the current Staples parking lot would reconnect the school building to the Downtown Mall. Many connections that used to exist at that location were severed when the city decided to raze the historic African-American neighborhood and business district Vinegar Hill.Art exhibits by Black artists throughout the inside of the Jefferson School would extend the building’s ability to tell its story beyond the walls of the Heritage Center.Harrell said that the plan is not the solution to inequitable development and wealth-building in the community but it does show the broader community what can be done and how to hold opportunities open for those who have been marginalized.
The Charlottesville City Council meeting kicked off the city’s process of deciding whether to adopt the Starr Hill small area plan into its Comprehensive Plan. On Monday, the council seemed supportive of adopting the small area plan. At the next meeting, the council plans to initiate a Comprehensive Plan amendment, which would start a 120-day countdown. During that time, city departments would review New Hill’s plan and provide comments on whether anything should change in the plan. After New Hill incorporates the feedback, the plan would go to the Charlottesville Planning Commission for a public hearing on whether to adopt the plan. The last step, which can occur after 120 days, would be a City Council vote.Harrell said that some steps in the plan can begin before city adoption. Harrell suggested affordable homeownership on the edge of City Yard as one of those steps and expanded support for small businesses as another.LISC plans to get more involved in Charlottesville in the future, too. During Monday’s meeting, Jones said that LISC could help secure the funding and investments to make the projects happen.
LISC’s usual next step is to put together or join a coalition of diverse partners. Interested partners can contact Harrell, who is the local point person, Jones said in an interview. “We’re excited about trying to make sure that Charlottesville as it continues to grow and as it continues to produce prosperity, that more and more and more and more people will be able to share in that prosperity,” Jones said. “Charlottesville is a place that can achieve that with some serious teamwork. We would be very interested in being part of that team.”Beard anticipates that the changes she would like to see in Charlottesville will take some time. She lives in the 10th and Page neighborhood but she frequented Vinegar Hill as a child and came back to African American cultural events at the Jefferson School as an adult. She would like to see an expansion of that kind of programming and space for both youth and elders. “I have my home here. I want to stay in this house as long as I can,” Beard said. “I hate to even think about relocating. If I were younger, it would be something different.”