Developing their future: Friendship Court residents want more say

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Piedmont Housing Alliance CEO Frank Grosch is leading the redevelopment of Friendship Court and says its current level of maintenance service is “not okay.”
Photo Jack Looney Piedmont Housing Alliance CEO Frank Grosch is leading the redevelopment of Friendship Court and says its current level of maintenance service is “not okay.” Photo Jack Looney

A group of Friendship Court residents is pushing back against redevelopment plans, calling for more inclusion as developers move forward with attempts to revamp downtown Charlottesville’s largest subsidized housing neighborhood.

The Piedmont Housing Alliance announced last fall that it was purchasing the property with 150 low-income units in 2018 and was transforming it into a large-scale, mixed-income apartment complex, promising to continue rent subsidization for existing apartments, while constructing hundreds more market-rate units that could cost as much as $2,400 a month.

And last month, using $260,000 from the city, the nonprofit released a 68-page draft version of its master redevelopment plan. But the Friendship Court Residents Association, in a recent letter to PHA chief executive officer Frank Grosch, says residents want more of a say in the planning process. “The plan says that ‘resident input has driven the process,’” wrote the FCRA in its June 30 letter. “We ask that you change that language in the plan and when you talk about this process in the future. We do not feel like we have been in the driver’s seat for any of the most major changes you are planning.”

Specifically, the resident group wants to be part of the team that determines the number of apartments in the eventual neighborhood, the size of the apartment buildings, the design of any through-streets that bisect the community, the details for underground parking areas and the specifics for proposed green spaces and play areas.

Tamara Wright is a member of the FCRA steering committee and one of three residents who signed the letter. She says PHA has made efforts to interview residents and gather input about their concerns and desires—the draft master plan has sections entitled, “What we heard and what that tells us,” detailing the listening sessions with residents. Wright is also one of seven residents on PHA’s 14-person advisory committee.

But, Wright says, residents haven’t been part of crafting the actual plans and solutions around issues that are discussed. Instead, that has been left to developers, and PHA then tells residents what solutions it deems best, which doesn’t foster an environment of inclusion, she says, regardless if those plans actually address the issues raised. It comes across as belittling and demeaning, she says.

“I think Frank really needs to understand the residents more,” says Wright. “I think he’s only looking at it like, ‘We’re just helping, we’re just trying to make it better for you,’ and he’s not really trying to understand what would be better for us. What you think could be better may not be better.”

The resident association letter follows a two-hour June 14 meeting, when Grosch met with members of the FCRA to discuss concerns. There, residents say Grosch committed to a host of issues, ranging from window safety latches and the relocation of the existing community garden to new appliance guarantees and management’s response to maintenance requests.

Wright and several other residents on the FCRA say maintenance requests aren’t addressed in a timely fashion by Edgewood Properties, which did not return requests for comment, taking weeks, sometimes months, to be fulfilled. PHA doesn’t currently have a majority ownership of Friendship Court, which prevents it from directly solving housing issues. But when residents raised these concerns with Grosch, they say they were told that their future wealthier neighbors won’t tolerate delayed requests for service.

“When he says things like that, it rubs me the wrong way, because it makes it seem like we tolerate anything and we accept being treated any type of way,” says Wright. “Why does it take tearing it down and bringing people in with money in order to give us a nice place to live and better units? Why can’t you have enough respect for us and the fact that we’re here and just do those things for us? Because it’s really not for us, it’s for [the wealthier future residents]. And it’s like, ‘You’re just going to reap the benefits in the process, so just suck it up.’”

Grosch says he knew this sentiment was not well-received. “The idea I am trying to express is that levels of service will rise when the property is redeveloped,” says Grosch. “The truth is that the current levels of service are, on their face, less than I have come to expect after 30 years in the apartment business. It is most decidedly not okay.”

He says PHA is working with its current co-owners the National Housing Trust to get responses to management-related questions. Further, he says PHA has tried to include residents every step of the way, hiring a full-time on-site community organizer, chosen by residents, to act as a liaison. And the lead project designer, from the San Francisco Bay area, and her team have conducted hour-long-plus in-home interviews with 16 residents, as well as several teen focus group sessions.

Some of the disagreement may be due to the perception that the lengthy draft plan, which was delivered to every apartment, is the final word on redevelopment ideas. That is not the case, says Grosch, adding that resident feedback on the plan is highly encouraged.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with the most frequent comment being, ‘Don’t wait!’ or words to that effect,” says Grosch. “That said, we are really just at the beginning of the design process. We are eager to work with residents…to develop the specific designs for the site, the buildings and the amenities.”

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