Land Use Drama: Battling for the Common Good

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I was trying to explain to one of my coworkers some of the ins and outs of City Planning. While doing so, I must have used the word “land use.” “Tell me more about land use” he said curiously. Mmmmmm, well it’s about how we use land, where things are placed in the community and for what/whom – housing, recreational facilities, restaurants, parks etc. At my last office, when there was some big fuss about what to do with some piece of land or the design of the building…I would say “Land Use Drama!” As I have been walking around my neighborhood, I have gleaned a bit of information about land use drama here, about the battles and dissention over what to do with land in our this city.

The Stadium in Shockhoe Bottom

While I am on my morning walks around Church Hill, there are two different signs in the yards of a set of neighbors, one in support of the minor league baseball stadium in Shockoe bottom and those against. It made me wonder what kind of people support such an endeavor and what kind of are against it, their values and interests. I just got here, but it seems odd to place a baseball stadium pretty much in the middle of an urban fabric, even if that fabric needs some work in order to become thriving. I like small street blocks, old brick buildings and history…i.e. quaint character that can’t be replicated. I am also for development and redevelopment and the economic development potential it brings. The fight in this case seems to be between economic development, much needed redevelopment and investment AND history, the history of a slave trade, the most historic part of the city and the original grid. Cities are bombarded with these battles both historically and presently. Over the entrance of our office building is the quote from Jeremiah, admonishing us to “see the peace of the city.” I wonder what it means to be a peace maker in the mist of such drama. It makes me want to find a way to renew and propsper without demolishing history and create development that both honors the past and takes us into the future. Or maybe just get people around a table instead of on either sides of things.

The Libby Park View

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My favorite walk is about a ½ mile down Grace Street, turning on 28th and reaching Libby Park. Libby Park has by far the best view of Richmond that I have seen. It is supposedly responsible for the naming of Richmond, as the founder of the city thought the view was similar to a town called Richmond on the Thames in England. This sign indicated that there was a proposed development to build a condo building that would block this important view. This yet again creates a schism between those for and against. I love the view and hope to stays, but I also realize how important development is not blocking a view is hard to write into a zoning law or enforce.

Gentrification and Mixed Use Housing

My neighborhood, Church Hill is close to downtown and is perhaps one of the most up and coming neighborhoods in the city. It’s become attractive to young professionals and is gentrifying.\. Most people I chat with say that new condo developments, restaurants, bars and coffee shops have been popping up all over the place. Coffee shops and high-end restaurants are a sure sign of gentrification which on the flip side means renewal in a sense, but renewal that benefits whom? Redevelopment has its obvious benefits, but this also comes with costs. Often that cost is displacement and amenities that do not benefit existing residents who are often lower income and/or people of color. Neighborhood change is inevitable and I don’t think it’s a bad thing per se, but it often happens in a way that is not for the good of all, the common good.

There are also plans and public meetings about the redevelopment of one of the city’s largest public housing projects in Church Hill (Creighton Court, 500 units) to create a 1200 unit mixed income community. Mixed income communities are those in which the residential units have a mixture of public housing units, affordable units and market rate units. It’s a method to deconcentrate poverty and delude some of its effects on a neighborhood, upgrade housing, promote homeownership and bring into a community the social and economic benefits of middle income households. They are a good idea, but I wonder the result of putting people who are different races and classes (with different norms, values and tastes) together without a conscious effort to bridge these gaps. On one hand it’s good to occupy the same space, as there is potential for relationship, but I can also imagine there will be clashes in culture and class. Moreover, housing is only one piece of the puzzle in combatting poverty, I hope the services and greater access to employment will follow.

All of this land use drama invokes deep questioning in me about division, about race and class, redevelopment, renewal and how we live together with different views and competing interests for the common good. Working for the peace and prosperity of the city involves thinking through and about these land use decisions, battles and the issues we face and their consequences on the entire community but especially on the least among us. I think sometimes people of faith think working for justice or the thriving of the city means doing charity, but maybe it means understanding the larger fabric of the city and being involved in decision making processes that could result in its benefit…working for the common good. I am glad we pray for the healing and thriving of the city daily, these battles remind me that we need prayer, we need God and we need a new way of being to live in peace. When I pray for the coming of the kingdom, I think about both preserving beauty and history, about economic prosperity and decent housing for all, about diversity and uniqueness all wrapped up into one big vision. I’m reminded that it’s not my vision, but God’s vision.

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