‘Lower-income’ apartments at Rocketts Landing?

Resolution would permit use of bonds for construction, but required terminology gives county officials some pause
An artist's rendering of a proposed apartment building at Rocketts Landing.

A new mixed-use apartment building could begin to take shape soon at Rocketts Landing, but it may not come without some controversy.

The county’s Board of Supervisors Jan. 22 will consider approval of a resolution that would allow the community’s developer, WVS, to obtain construction funding for the 156-unit building through the sale of Virginia Housing Development Authority bonds.

Those bonds are designed in part to enhance the availability of lower-income housing in areas where such units do not current exist and where they likely would not otherwise be built by private developers.

The proposed five-story building would offer studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments for rent at prices ranging from $788 a month to $1,339 a month, as well as 11,000 square feet of commercial space, according to Henrico Community Revitalization Director Mark Strickler.

The building, expected to cost $18 million, would become the first at Rocketts Landing to feature rental units. The board’s approval next month of a resolution designating the site of the structure, at Route 5 and Stancraft Way, as a revitalization area would clear the way for the use of VHDA bonds.

But during a Dec. 11 work session, County Manager Virgil Hazelett told the board that although he supported the resolution, he did have some hesitation about it. That’s because the document must indicate that “private enterprise and investment are not reasonably expected, without assistance, to produce the construction or rehabilitation of decent, safe and sanitary housing and supporting facilities that will meet the needs of low and moderate income persons and families in the [a]rea.” It also must assert that sufficient housing needed to support other development in the area does not currently exist.

Both could be challenging claims, Hazelett conceded, given that Rocketts Landing already is home to hundreds of people and a number of commercial and retail businesses and that the anticipated apartment rental costs may be too high to qualify as “low-income” housing.

The latter point could be particularly murky because of the way the VHDA defines income levels. Its guidelines for the bonds require that at least 20 percent of the units be rented to households that make less than 80 percent of the region’s annual median income (AMI) – in this case, less than $60,500. Another 20 percent of the units must be designated for households that make between 90 and 120 percent of the AMI (less than $90,750). But the guidelines do not consider how many members a household includes, Strickler said.

So, although the bonds are designed to help provide housing to low-income households, “that may not always be true” in this case, Hazelett said. The implication: a single person making less than $60,500 per year, for example, would qualify as “low-income,” as would a married couple making a total of $85,000 annually.

On the other end of the spectrum, board members wondered aloud how the implication of “low-income” housing at Rocketts Landing might be received by residents who already live in the community – many of whom paid a premium for luxurious condos and most of whom likely know nothing of the developer’s proposal.

That’s a concern that weighed heavy on the mind of Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson initially, though he said that upon consideration, he believes it can be allayed.

“If it’s explained properly, I don’t see a big public outcry from the people who are already there,” Nelson said. “I feel comfortable enough that I can support [the proposal]. I want to see the project move forward.”

Passage of such a resolution would set a precedent for the board, which has never before approved one similar, Strickler said. That likely would encourage other developers seeking to build similar projects to ask the board for additional resolutions in the future, Hazelett said.

The Board of Supervisors approved a provisional use permit for the site of the proposed apartment building July 24, authorizing “an increase in building height limitations for residential townhomes, office and commercial buildings, and an increase in density for multifamily dwellings and residential townhomes,” according to a planning report.

As part of that case, WVS presented a master plan for a larger portion of land at Rocketts Landing, which in addition to the apartment building also would include a 150-unit condominium building along the river; a 15,000-square-foot commercial building adjacent to the condos; and three nearby commercial buildings, totaling 105,000 square feet of space.

Incoming County Manager John Vithoulkas, who will take over for Hazelett next month, said that the impact of Rocketts Landing has been significant.

“It’s been a very good project for Henrico County,” Vithoulkas said.

Said Nelson of the proposal: “It will continue, I think, to move forward a project that is both beneficial to Henrico County and Varina.”
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