Problem Solvers


HOLMBERG: Is Richmond its own worst slumlord?

Posted at 11:25 AM, May 22, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-23 06:25:31-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - CBS 6 requested the records of all property the city either owns or has control over. It’s a lengthy list and includes much, much more than City Hall, schools, parks, offices, medians, right-of-ways and all the buildings any city needs to keep its operation running.

The list consists of more than 1,800 properties worth at least a billion and a half dollars.

That includes 980 some properties owned outright by the city, 769 owned and managed by the city’s housing authority, 75 owned by the Richmond Metropolitan Authority and a handful owned by Venture Richmond, according to most recent data from the tax assessor’s office.

It includes vast and valuable buildings that have been vacant for a generation, like the Intermediate Terminal building by the city’s old river port. Whole, long-empty schools sit in poorer neighborhoods where children grow up around them, like the old Whitcomb Court Elementary.

Vast lots of overgrown city property where problem properties were demolished, like on Lynnhaven near Commerce Road, where the city tore down a vast and ruined apartment complex.

“This was the biggest demolition ever in the city of Richmond,” said 9th District City Councilwoman Reva Trammell.

“Look at it,” she said, pointing to the overgrown acreage. “It could be single-family homes. It could be all kinds of stuff besides and eyesore. Look at this trash. Look at this poor neighborhood. Look at the children.”

“And we just say, ‘we got no money,’” Trammell scoffed. “I wonder why ‘we got no money.’”

There a stately bank built in 1927 frozen in time for a decade in the hands of Richmond’s housing authority on W. Brookland Park Boulevard.

“They have property all over the city as valuable as that,” said Sam Forrest, who is rehabbing the property next door. “And they just sit on them. It’s been there for years.”

Two blocks west on Brookland Park Boulevard, a gas station owned by the housing authority for 10 years, also frozen since someone walked away from a tar bucket and mop on the now-ruined roof. A neighbor frequently mows the grass there.

Irvan Fortenberry owns an insurance business next door. “It kind of distracts away from business,” he said. “It’s definitely an eyesore on the community.”

The school system’s book repository, still in use in a million-dollar building off the Boulevard, is so poorly cared for the roof is near collapse and storm water falls where it will, flooding the wall by a door that warns the room inside contains high-voltage equipment.

“If I kept my property the city keeps their property, the way RRHA (the housing authority) keeps their property,” said Richmond developer Charlie Diradour, “I’d be cited. I’d be taken to court.”

Blighted properties the city has given away have only gotten worse, like the old juvenile detention hall, a ghost of a building that children sneak into and explore.

The city’s housing authority owns several hundred vacant lots, along with plenty of boarded up houses, some of them in neighborhoods plagued by murders and vice offenses.

The broken window syndrome has been well-proven in this city. Rundown, vacant properties attract rundown, vacant lives.

“All cities suffer from blight,” Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones said. “But in Richmond, we have really taken a proactive stance on trying to deal with it.”

His office issued an email in response to questions about this issue, noting the city has created a vacant property reinvestment fund that is working on a dozen properties now.

The city has received federal HUD grants for blighted vacant homes and has hired a new person focusing on RRHA’s many vacant properties.

And the current administration has moved forward with the total transformation of the Dove Court housing project and the continued rebirth of the old Blackwell neighborhood.

City Council President Charles Samuels said it makes no sense to keep hanging onto problem properties.

“Whenever we have properties that are currently owned by the city, unless they’re being used, I’d really like to see us continue to work to get these properties off our name and back onto the tax roles,” Samuels said.

The city is rich with some of the most breathtaking riverfront property and sprawling chunks of land. There’s an eagle’s nest on the Fulton Gas Works property, a vast, prime location which has environmental issues and is regularly visited by urban explorers and graffiti artists.

The long vacant GRTC bus barn in the Fan also has environmental clean-up issues and is considered to be one of the most pivotal properties in Richmond.

Clearly, this city is land and property rich. It also has persistent budget and blight problems.

Could one fix the other?