City Council looks to ease zoning for homeless shelter locations

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 5/28/2020, 6 p.m.
City Council this week took the first step toward lifting zoning restrictions that have largely limited homeless shelters to Downtown ...

City Council this week took the first step toward lifting zoning restrictions that have largely limited homeless shelters to Downtown and low-income sections of the city.

The approval vote Tuesday allows Lenora Reid, the city’s interim chief administrative officer, to study and propose a zoning change.

The vote came on a night when City Council also voted to allow the demolition of a historic Church Hill school building.

However, the council hit the pause button on two other significant issues: An ordinance to authorize Richmonders to use their homes for short-term, hotel-style rentals and a separate resolution that would have allowed the city to seek developers for the Coliseum and other city property near City Hall.

Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, 6th District, spearheaded the resolution aimed at removing shelter zoning restrictions, an outgrowth of her effort to ensure the city’s winter homeless shelter does not return to her district.

Last fall, she wrangled a promise from colleagues to overhaul zoning to expand potential shelter locations in exchange for allowing the Annie Giles Community Resource Center to be used one more time as an overnight shelter during the winter.

The issue became more urgent after advocates for the homeless established a tent community for the homeless next to the center. In mid-March, the city relocated the tent city residents to hotels and cleared the site as part of its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In other business, City Council voted 6-3 to overrule the city’s Commission of Architectural Review and allow the razing of the 1922 George Mason school building on North 28th Street to make room for tennis and basketball courts beside the new Henry L. Marsh III Elementary School. Marsh Elementary, named for the city’s first African-American mayor, is nearing completion and expected to open this fall.

Council President Cynthia I. Newbille, 7th District, led the majority in voting to demolish and memorialize the old building with an archway built from the old school’s bricks, columns containing cornerstones from the building and commemorative plaques.

The council also approved slashing nearly $12 million from the current budget to reduce a projected shortfall, but also approved spending $1.35 million to improve access to Brown’s Island and recreation centers.

Councilwoman Stephanie A. Lynch, 5th District, won a 30-day delay on the ordinance on short-term rentals in a bid to gain language to protect current businesses that have turned homes into untaxed hotels.

Meanwhile, the proposal to surplus city property in Downtown is to be replaced by one allowing the old Public Safety Building on 9th Street to be put on the market. A private company wants to buy the property for a $350 million development involving Virginia Commonwealth University.