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Planners back height change for museum's centerpiece
Planning Commission urges City Council to grant variance so museum can house a slave ship.


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Date published: 6/30/2005



The Fredericksburg Planning Commission recommended approval yesterday of a special-use permit allowing the U.S. National Slavery Museum to build a full-scale replica slave ship.

The City Council must make the final decision. It is expected to take up the issue July 26.

Museum officials requested the permit to enclose a 118-foot-tall replica of the Dos Amigos. The maximum height allowed in the zoning area where the museum would sit is 90 feet; the maximum allowed elsewhere in the city is 50 feet.

From the start, museum officials have said the ship would be the centerpiece and signature feature of the facility that former governor and now Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder envisions to tell the story of slavery. Wilder, the grandson of slaves and the nation's first black governor, was inspired to build the museum during a visit to West Africa as governor.

Museum Executive Director Vonita W. Foster said during the Planning Commission's first meeting on the permit June 8 that the museum's opening had been pushed back from February 2007 to at least October of that year.

The structure, designed by Chien Chung Pei of Pei Partnership Architects of New York, will stretch over 250,000 square feet and sit on 38 acres overlooking the Rappahannock River, just west of Interstate 95.

The site was donated by The Silver Cos. and is part of the developer's Celebrate Virginia South project. Celebrate Virginia South and Central Park are the only properties in the city's Planned Development Commercial zoning district.

Yesterday, the commission voted 5-1 in support of the height variance after a 50-minute discussion on whether the matter was being handled correctly from a procedural standpoint.

Commissioner Chris Schmidt voted against the proposal after raising questions about the process. Commissioner Joe Henderson was absent.

Once the commission began discussing the merits of the application, three key issues emerged:

Commissioners were concerned that approving this application could open the door for others to seek similar approval.

As a result, the commission's recommendation to the council will be worded precisely to pertain only to the 118-foot tall, fully masted ship. It also will ask the council to review the zoning ordinance for the Planned Development Commercial district.

Commissioners also expressed concern over the museum's visibility from the Rappahannock River.

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