January 24, 2018
Poplar Lawn partners have a plan for the “ugly house next door”
Comprehensive rehabilitation is beginning at 135 Liberty Street under the direction of project:HOMES. The proverbial “ugly house next door” is vacant and severely blighted. It has multiple safety and code violations. It is in a condition that makes its purchase and renovation by an individual unfeasible without subsidy. And, it is one of a number of revitalization projects under way by various groups, all targeting the Liberty Street and Harrison Street corridors of the Poplar Lawn Historic District.
The larger neighborhood initiative, funded and facilitated by The Cameron Foundation, represents a partnership of several nonprofit housing and preservation organizations working with the City of Petersburg. The other partners include Preservation Virginia, Virginia LISC, project:HOMES, Rebuilding Together Richmond, HistoriCorps and local churches in the area. The collaborative calls itself “Partners for Neighborhood Renewal – Poplar Lawn.”
“This initiative is intended to demonstrate that distressed historic neighborhoods in the region can be saved if resources are focused and targeted on a small area, such as several blocks of a neighborhood,” explained Cameron’s President J. Todd Graham. The effort was conceived as a result of a 2014-2015 survey conducted jointly by Preservation Virginia and the City with funding from The Cameron Foundation. The survey assessed the condition of properties in several Petersburg historic districts. In the area of the Poplar Lawn Historic District that’s located west of Sycamore Street, the condition survey found that, of the 163 houses identified in 2005, 21 of those structures no longer stood in 2014. With this discovery, Preservation Virginia’s staff returned to The Cameron Foundation to suggest that many of the homes along the Liberty-Harrison corridors might be saved with modest investment.
“Preservation Virginia asked if there was a way to intercede collectively to reverse the deterioration and loss of homes in historic districts,” Graham said.
Tapping the community development expertise of Virginia LISC, which operates under a national network, The Cameron Foundation staff sought advice to learn what distressed communities in other parts of the country were doing. The Foundation staff also conducted research to learn more about how philanthropy acts as a catalyst for historic neighborhood revitalization in other places. Virginia LISC recommended a multi-pronged strategy that includes rehabilitating owner-occupied homes as well as partnering to acquire and rehabilitate vacant single family homes and rental properties to bring them back on line for occupancy.
“Distressed neighborhoods such as the Poplar Lawn Historic District struggle with many challenges, such as low rates of homeownership, an inventory of larger houses requiring extensive renovations and market values too low to support the rehabilitation costs,” said Candice L. Streett, executive director of Virginia LISC. “Due to the special designation of houses in a historic district, rehabilitation costs can be higher, as well, to satisfy the preservation standards set by the local architectural review board.
In working with nonprofits and community development corporations to acquire and rehabilitate vacant single family homes for sale to homebuyers, Streett explained, “This strategy will help to preserve the historic housing stock and eventually establish higher market values, with a goal of generating market interest in the Poplar Lawn neighborhood.”
With a mission of improving lives by improving homes, project:HOMES is an able partner in what Graham describes as a key component of the overall strategy. Project:HOMES’ Neighborhood Revitalization Division has been successfully completing shell renovation projects in Central Virginia as part of its single-family homeownership development work since 2004. The organization is taking on the “ugly house next door” to create a model home at 135 Liberty Street, fully renovating it with funding assistance from The Cameron Foundation, then listing it for sale. This is the first shell renovation that project:HOMES is undertaking in Petersburg.
The City of Petersburg is actively involved in this pilot neighborhood effort by allocating Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for housing renovations and by providing code enforcement. It sent area homeowners correction notices in 2016 as part of its code enforcement program. Since that time, repairs have been fully completed on seven of the neighborhood properties, and repairs have begun on eight others.
“Partners for Neighborhood Renewal’s collaborative approach provides an amazing opportunity to revitalize and preserve Petersburg’s precious history. Rich history that is incorporated in homes beautifully designed over a hundred years ago. We will have a greater impact and accomplish more by coordinating our efforts in this way,” said Petersburg City Manager Aretha R. Ferrell-Benavides.
Rebuilding Together Richmond, which focuses on repairing the homes of low-income homeowners, also has assisted with some repairs at 18 Liberty Street. The organization was able to replace the roof, some siding, and address safety concerns by making electrical repairs with combined funding from The Cameron Foundation and the City of Petersburg’s CDBG program. Student volunteers from ECPI University also painted the home’s picket fence during Rebuilding Together Richmond’s annual Fall Fix-up Day in October. Partners for Neighborhood Renewal joined in to host its first Community Day in conjunction with Rebuilding Together Richmond’s activities to increase awareness of the larger group’s work.
At the Roger Pryor Campbell house on Harrison Street, a new partnership has formed between the property owner, First Baptist Church, and historic preservation experts HistoriCorps. The house, constructed in 1860, was home to a successful African-American barber and property owner in the early 20th century. It is a rare example of “Carpenter/Gothic” revival architecture in Petersburg. HistoriCorps’ unique model combines historic preservation with workforce development, engaging students and volunteers who receive valuable training and workforce skills in the preservation trades while participating onsite in the restoration of a historic building at its field schools. The 2017 field school at the Roger Pryor Campbell house wrapped up in December, with the organization anticipating additional phases of work.
The Partners for Neighborhood Renewal strategy is attracting attention not only from local audiences, but also is proving to be of interest to historic preservationists and developers across Virginia. Partners for Neighborhood Renewal – Poplar Lawn was featured in a workshop at Preservation Virginia’s 2017 conference, which was held in Petersburg on October 6. Attendance was standing room only and gave the partners the opportunity to talk in more detail about each of their roles in the collaborative effort.
“With combined investment of resources and expertise from multiple partners, these ‘ugly houses’ can be resurrected to demonstrate the revitalization potential of the neighborhoods,” suggested Graham. He added, “As we move into 2018, we will continue with the existing revitalization strategies that we’re deploying through these partnerships. It will take time to generate the momentum that we need, but ideally, this work will help attract additional private investment in the Poplar Lawn neighborhood and serve as a model that could be replicated in other distressed neighborhoods.”
ABOUT VIRGINIA LISC
Virginia LISC works with residents and partners to forge resilient and inclusive communities – great places to live, work, visit, do business and raise families.. For more than 27 years, Virginia LISC’s work with community organizations to revitalize under-served Richmond-area neighborhoods has led to physical improvements, safer streets, increased property values and highly engaged residents.
LISC consults with community development organizations to ensure that they form appropriate business plans, create solid financing strategy and secure the right human and capital resources before new projects are launched. By providing grants, working capital, development funds and technical support to nonprofit developers and localities, Virginia LISC has created opportunities for dozens of neighborhoods to receive strategic real estate investments, providing families with access to better housing, childcare and employment choices.
ABOUT THE CAMERON FOUNDATION
The Cameron Foundation strives to transform the Tri-Cities and surrounding counties into a healthy, vibrant and economically vital region by strategically leveraging resources for community impact. Founded in 2003, The Cameron Foundation is a private foundation that was formed from the proceeds of the sale of Southside Regional Medical Center by the Hospital Authority of the City of Petersburg. Its service area includes the cities of Petersburg, Colonial Heights and Hopewell; the counties of Dinwiddie, Prince George and Sussex; and the portion of Chesterfield County lying south of Route 10. Since the Foundation began grantmaking in 2004, it has awarded more than $83 million to organizations serving residents of this area.