By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The city of Norfolk recently voted 7-1 to approve the plans of a Richmond Developer to repurpose an historic church building in Park Place. The action was received at council mainly by opponents of the effort who said it was an example of gentrification.
However, proponents of the action, including some resident leaders of the community, have expressed another view that favors the Monument Properties project.
Park Place Civic League President Charles Johnson, and some other resident leaders of the community, including Rodney Jordan, wrote support letters to the Planning Commission and City Council, in favor of the Monument Properties project.
According to Johnson, as part of its approval of a project, the city requires developers to reserve at least 10 percent of the new units to be labeled as affordable housing .
“I cannot speak to another’s reason for the opposition but clearly there is self and community interest,” said Jordan, who is a member of the Norfolk School Board and longtime resident of Park Place. “I have a self and community interest in supporting the project. Over the past decade, there has been an effort of love, sacrifice, and commitment toward making Park Place a healthy neighborhood of choice.”
Jordan said establishing such a neighborhood rests on a strategy he called “The VEP — Visioning and Engagement Process.” This includes capacity building and economic diversity by attracting households who could afford rents and mortgages at or above 80% of the Area Median Income (AMI). He said the Monument Project increases the supply of housing.
Park Place is transitioning back into a stable middle and working-class neighborhood in the heart of the city.
Monument Properties, based in Richmond, bought the Park Place United Methodist Church from its owners, The Elizabeth River District of the United Methodist Church Mission Board, and now plans to invest $14 million to build 58 apartments in the aging complex.
The upper level of the massive 5,000 square foot building, where the main sanctuary exists, cannot be altered without additional approval.
Opponents who spoke before the council before its vote complained the developer will be charging market rates of on average $1,200 to $2,000, a rate that they said is too high in a city that grapples with providing affordable housing.
Monument Properties reportedly will help residents offset the cost of rent by including utilities and other amenities. This will reduce the cost of housing for the residents in an area where $1200 is the starting point for market-based rent in Norfolk and other urban areas without utilities.
Opponents of the Park Place United Methodist project noted that several faith-based social action groups serving poor families youth, and the homeless and a small evangelical Black church would be displaced from the site.
These groups replaced parts of a small private school that operated in the building until it moved to Ghent several years ago.
The church and the community support groups are supported by Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) as part of its effort to help the less privileged in Park Place and nearby communities, according to Johnson. Now those groups will have to find a new location.
On the night the city council approved the Monument Properties’ repurposing plan, Councilwoman Mamie Johnson, (Ward 3) was poised to vote no, unless the city worked to help the groups relocate.
It is not clear, if the city will follow through on Johnson’s demand. The lone opposing vote was Councilman Paul Riddick, who is preparing to retire from council this year.
The Park Place United Methodist Church was built in 1917 when the Park Place community was mostly white and upper income. But as African Americans began to move into the community and other majority-white neighborhoods, whites fled to nearby suburbs.
Along with white flight and the congregation’s aging, the church which seated 2,000 congregants, shrank and before it closed, reportedly 20 members were attending services.
The only other project Monument Properties has done within the regular Park Place residential area was the repurposing of the old Boys and Girls Club, according to Charles Johnson.
He said the development company’s other area projects are in the Historic Railroad District , which is in the Park Place Civic (League) District. It is highly industrialized with housing catering to (mostly people without children). He said this has raised the (rental) housing cost index in Park Place, which is the main concern of opponents of the new development.
According to Johnson, before the COVID epidemic over 70 percent of the housing stock in Park Place was “affordable.” But now, “as in other parts of the city that is shrinking.”
“Before the pandemic the average rent (in Park Place) was around $800, and that was very affordable,” said Johnson. “Now it’s around $1,000 and rising as are rental rates nationwide.”
Johnson said Park Place, Huntersville, and Lindenwood have some of the highest rates of subsidized housing in the city, and more are being added.
Recently, in Park Place, the nonprofit group Virginia Housing Cooperative built a 50 unit low-income development on Gosnold Avenue between 24th and 25th Streets.
Johnson said the non-profit wants to expand the housing development to 90.
Although the city approved it, the Civic League opposed it, fearing a reconcentration of low-income housing and poverty through pockets of the city.
This also is one of the fears expressed by opponents of the St. Paul’s Redevelopment project in the downtown area where low income public housing residents of that area are being moved out to make way for plans for a massive ‘mixed income” redevelopment project.
Johnson said in the coming months, the city may be auctioning off some 600 vacant lots for market and affordable housing construction.
A large portion of those lots is located in Huntersville, Park Place, and Broad Creek, where there is a need for a mixture of both affordable and market-rate housing to buy and rent.
“We do not oppose affordable housing. There is a great need for it in Norfolk, “ said Johnson. “But why should neighborhoods like Park Place and Huntersville’s share of it be so large? Yes, there is a shortage of affordable housing in every city, but other neighborhoods should be considered too.”
Johnson explained that the story of the United Methodist Church development has more to it than what is being portrayed by opponents of the project and in the daily print media.
“It has evolved from racism, faith-based displacement to finally an act of gentrification of a so-called ‘needy’ Black neighborhood,” he said. “People are being excited over these three things. But there are two sides to every story.”
Johnson said that several church groups and Monument Properties inquired into buying the Methodist Church property.
“But Monument was the only one who had the $1.5 million the Elizabeth River District of the United Methodist wanted for it,” he said.
Johnson said the church and civic community groups now housed in the church knew several years ago that it was for sale.
“We are not opposed to the church and groups helping our youth, poor families, and the homeless,” said Johnson. “But if groups/individuals want to continue its good works in the community it can do so. And there are other properties in our communities which could be bought and used.”
“Dealing with religion and spiritual beliefs can be a minefield,” said Jordan. “I find the missionary appeal in some houses of faith tends to operate from a deficit model. They see lower-income neighborhoods of color as lacking in faith, despite those neighborhoods often having more houses of faith per square mile than any other neighborhoods.”
“My wish is that more ministries would be set up to cater to the spiritual needs of those who maintain structural racism and segregation and poverty to change their hearts and minds to enter into the fellowship of sisterhood and brotherhood with genuine interaction with their neighbors versus trying to help those victimized by those practices to survive within it.”