RICHMOND, Va. -- Asbestos-removal work began Thursday to build a new large apartment complex in Ginter Park that hundreds of neighbors have been fighting for months.
The Union Presbyterian Seminary owns the land where the complex will be built, and they argue it is necessary to house students and help the school financially.
But hundreds of neighbors continue to fight the project, and nearly 600 people have signed on to a petition they plan to give the Seminary and the city next week to try to stop the complex from being built.
The Westwood Tract in Ginter Park has long been used as a recreational area for residents.
"The Seminary has been very generous in letting the neighbors use it," neighbor Sarah Driggs, who is opposed to the apartment complex, said while walking along the Westwood Tract. "300 apartments take up a lot of space."
Driggs is one of hundreds of neighbors opposed to the project, and she felt like it might be stopped when City Council voted last month to study the potential impact of the complex on the neighborhood, but just weeks later the city issued building permits for the complex.
"It was quite a shock," Driggs said. "They seem intent on saying we want development to come to this city, and this is development so we're going to allow it."
Mark Olinger, the Director of the Department of Development and Planning Review, told CBS 6 reporter Melissa Hipolit in an email that council's resolution "did not ask the Administration to reexamine the decision about the Westwood Tract, which is a pretty significant distinction."
"The Resolution asked the Mayor and CAO to “study the potential effects”…of any proposed development in the Westwood Tract, including such items as schools, historic preservation, storm water drainage, and traffic," Olinger wrote. "There are costs associated with the study of the Resolution, estimated to be in the $50,000-75,000 range, and the Administration is looking at ways to fund the study"
But, the Seminary's President Dr. Brian Blount, said the city and the Seminary have already studied the potential impacts.
"As far as I understand it we have met or exceeded all of those expectations that the city engineers do on those categories," Blount said.
He said the Seminary, which began this project five years ago, is still listening to neighbors' concerns, but at this point he is hoping the complex can open by the fall of 2018.
"We've made some significant adjustments to what is there trying to listen to the neighbors over that five year period," Blount said.
Blount said he has already passed along the petition to his board, and that they will discuss it at their meeting next week.
"My sense is that it's good to go, but again one never knows," Blount said about the project.
There is an appeal before the Zoning Board on the project, which the board will hear in June.
In a statement to CBS 6 Mayor Levar Stoney said he is disappointed in the Seminary for not doing more to address neighborhood concerns.
"It's a shame that this development has the potential to damage the long-standing relationship between the Seminary and the neighborhood.
I am renewing my call for the Seminary to seek common ground with the neighbors over their concerns and will continue to work toward bringing both parties toward an amicable resolution of this dispute."
A spokesman for the Seminary said Seminary president Brian Blount and others have worked with the community during the course of this project.
"In an effort to maintain that goodwill, the seminary and its representatives have held many, many meetings with neighbors over the course of the past few years, including a charrette from which significant creative input was gathered," spokesman Mike Frontiero said. "Input from our neighbors led to numerous design modifications that addressed building heights, materials, color schemes, density, green space, setbacks and parking area solutions. We welcome the mayor’s participation and look forward to additional conversations with him."
The City Attorney has told administration that neither the zoning appeal, nor council resolution can prevent the developer from proceeding with development of the project.
Denying the issuance of permits to which the developer is legally entitled would put the city at risk of a costly lawsuit and potential liability for money damages.