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Hilbert critical of city’s handling of St. Luke project in Gilpin Court

Jeremy Lazarus | 11/2/2017, 11:47 p.m.
Richmond City Council President Chris A. Hilbert is “utterly distressd” at City Hall’s handling of the proposed $3.6 million redevelopment ...

Richmond City Council President Chris A. Hilbert is “utterly distressd” at City Hall’s handling of the proposed $3.6 million redevelopment of the historic, but vacant St. Luke Building in Gilpin Court.

He calls it a prime example of the way the administration of Mayor Levar M. Stoney bungles the review of projects that create jobs, generate tax revenue for the city and promote economic growth, belying the mayor’s promise to improve government operations.

Mr. Hilbert said he plans to ask a City Council committee to investigate the bottlenecks in planning and building permit operations frustrating people who want to invest in the city at a time when the city needs every dollar of revenue.

City officials have not responded to requests for comment about the development.

The 3rd District council representative, whose district includes Gilpin Court, is a strong backer of the St. Luke project and secured $100,000 in the current city budget to help pay for sidewalk improvements and other infrastructure needs around the site.

That is why he is particularly upset at the city’s failure to help move along a project that represents the first new development in Gilpin Court in at least six decades, while permits for projects in Scott’s Addition, Downtown and other prosperous areas are expedited.

According to Mr. Hilbert, city officials misplaced the original application for a building permit for the St. Luke project that owners Wanda and Margaret Stallings and their partner, Charles Ayers Jr., filed in April.

The city’s snafu stalled the team that is seeking to put 12 upscale apartments and commercial space in the four-story building at 900 St. James St. The building once was the home of the Independent Order of St. Luke that famed Richmond businesswoman Maggie L. Walker led and the original site of the group’s bank she founded and headed for more than 30 years.

“This is not the first time an application has been misplaced,” Mr. Hilbert said, “but it should be the last. There is no excuse for this to happen, and it just sends a terrible message to developers.”

Despite efforts to computerize the permit operations to make it easier for people to file applications, the problems continue, he said.

Mr. Hilbert said planners and building officials failed to properly communicate with the St. Luke development team about specific requirements and then refused to take responsibility for creating problems.

He said each time the development team answered city requests for information or responded to new requirements, city officials would bring up additional things that had to be done before a permit could be issued.

“It was dribbled out,” he said.

For example, the St. Luke team has just been told it needs an encroachment permit, which the planning department said could take 18 months to issue. But that permit was never previously mentioned.

The city also now insists that the developers install an alley, even though no alleys currently exist in Gilpin Court and inclusion of an alley was never previously a condition.

Additionally, after the group submitted its plans, city officials told them the plans for landscaping had to be done by a certified landscape architect.

Mr. Hilbert said all of these difficulties could be dispelled if the city had an appropriate application form that included all the requirements and made it clear what permits would be needed for specific projects.

Mr. Hilbert said the city’s sloppy operation is a far cry from what he is used to at the Virginia Housing Development Authority, where he works as a senior underwriter. He said there is no reason why Richmond cannot have a proper operation to handle development projects on par with its neighbors.

“This is crucial for the city,” he said.