A few dozen West Side residents who gathered with officials from the city Planning Department at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary to discuss proposed zoning changes to their neighborhood had one clear message on Tuesday evening: pump the brakes.
Residents shared concerns about the proposed changes, which would relax city code to allow for duplexes on single family lots, triplexes and quadplexes on corner lots, waive some parking requirements and eliminate the minimum lot size. But residents mainly criticized the city’s lack of investment in residential areas of the West Side over the past decade.
Rick Martin, president of the NAACP Charleston branch, said the zoning changes proposed by Planning Department Director Dan Vriendt and Planner John Butterworth are in good faith, but aren’t what the West Side needs right now.
Martin and other members of the Tuesday Morning Group, made up of black community members who meet weekly to discuss ongoing community issues, said they’ve been continually frustrated with the West Side Community Renewal Plan.
They say the plan is not specific enough, doesn’t comply with the law or have significant community input. Martin said all parties — West Side residents, the city and the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority — need to come together and work out a single redevelopment plan that addresses the big picture.
“A redevelopment plan is more than rezoning. We understand that’s only one slice of it, but the collective interest here is a desire to see more than just that one slice,” he said.
The current West Community Renewal Plan was adopted by Charleston City Council in June 2008. It was designated as a 20-year plan.
Leaders of the Tuesday Morning Group and Charleston NAACP grew frustrated with the lack of action on the plan, they said. With the help of Charleston attorney Kitty Dooley, they submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to see how the city was spending money to address slums and blight.
The FOIA showed $5.8 million had been spent by CURA in that 10-year period, Martin said. But only about $200,000 of that $5.8 million had been spent on residential slums and blight. The majority of the money was spent on commercial projects.
The 2008 renewal plan noted that around 81% of the buildings on the West Side are residential.
In April 2019, CURA Executive Director Ron Butlin said that after 10 years, the plan’s residential components needed to be looked at more closely. CURA then released a draft plan to amend the 2008 plan to address those issues. However, that plan has been held up since.
The 2019 draft plan went before the city’s Urban Renewal and Economic Development Committee on Jan. 23.
The committee sent the draft plan back to CURA, however, after West Virginia University’s lead land use attorney, Jesse Richardson, read the plan and authored a legal opinion on it. He wrote that “a court would be slightly more likely than not” to find the draft plan does not comply with the law.
Richardson said the draft plan primarily lacks specificity; mainly, the draft plan doesn’t include detailed costs for proposed projects or investments, which is required by state Code.
“[State code] requires projections of costs and revenues to carry out the plan, as well as sources of revenues. The West Side Plan does not include those items,” Richardson wrote in the legal opinion.
But Richardson said the wording in the state Code for slum clearance and urban renewal projects is unclear and can be confusing.
CURA members decided, in a Feb. 12 meeting, to sit on the draft plan for now and look to work with other West Virginia cities’ urban renewal authorities to get the language cleared up by the state Legislature.
But the draft plan is still on the agenda for CURA’s 9 a.m. Wednesday meeting.
The Planning Department hopes that by relaxing the code, more developers can invest in housing projects in the neighborhood.
One concern shared by residents was the plan would allow for overcrowding, but Vriendt said that wouldn’t be the case.
“Sometimes there is a fear of density, because rental property in the city can have a bad name. But I think new, quality rental property is not something that should be feared,” Vriendt said.
Butterworth said while there are concerns over the renewal plan, the changes should still go forward, because action is needed immediately in the neighborhood.
“The community renewal plan doesn’t guide this. This is a change that needs to happen whether the community renewal plan is adopted tomorrow, or last year, or 10 years from now,” he said. “This has to occur to make sure that we need to get the new investment that we need.”