The city of Richmond has reached a major turning point. Mayor Levar Stoney is promoting a plan by the Navy Hill District Corporation, a non-profit development group, to completely reshape downtown Richmond.
Various interests are referring to the plan as the “downtown development,” the “Navy Hill development,” or the “North of Broad” or “NOB” development. Whatever we call it, the plan calls for a new arena to replace the aging Richmond Coliseum; renovation of Leigh Street to restore walkability; renovation of the Blues Armory; a new bus transfer station; and private development of hotel, convention, commercial and residential space. It’s a bold plan. But is it a good one?
I should say at the outset: I’m skeptical.
My pessimism is born not of familiarity with Richmond boondoggles of the past, although such skepticism certainly would be warranted [cough-cough, Redskins, cough-cough, CenterStage, etc.]. Instead, I’m writing from the perspective of someone who has studied urban politics for two decades. And from that experience, I know that with big development projects, particularly those built around arenas and sports facilities, there’s a way that things go:
Plans are developed quietly by a coalition of city elites (typically the administration and wealthy white developers) without any community input
There are BIG ANNOUNCEMENTS with much fanfare about jobs, “economic impact” and new tax revenue for the city
There is a rushed process of approvals, fed by claims about urgency and efforts to portray any questioning as unnecessary delays
Community members, typically racial minorities, engage in mostly frustrated attempts to have some input in the process, with a handful co-opted by contracts or appointments
Finally, a series of disappointing revelations over ensuing years, and sometimes decades, as the promised jobs, housing, and tax revenues do not materialize and hidden costs are revealed
This is an old story, told over and over again in cities and counties across the country. It’s important to note that you don’t need evil, greedy people to make this story happen. City officials want to increase tax revenue; developers want to make money, but often also see their mission as “improving” areas of the city that are “blighted.” The economic and political pressures to “get something done” are enormous. Everyone is looking for a win-win, and they’re not terribly interested in slowing down to review numbers and projections to see if such a rosy scenario is probable or even possible.
Which brings us to the two city personalities who play the biggest roles in this deal.
First is Dominion CEO Tom Farrell, the bogeyman behind the project. As head of the development group that is spearheading this project, his involvement has raised concerns among some city residents (on social media and elsewhere) that this is part of some kind of Dominion power grab. I don’t know that this kind of conspiratorial chatter helps much. I don’t know Farrell personally, but I get the sense that he feels like he has the city’s best interests at heart. (In other words, he’s probably not Montgomery Burns.)
But it IS true that Farrell has been interested in a new coliseum long before the mayor, commissioning a study back in 2011. And while the Navy Hill group acts like they simply responded to the Mayor’s call for proposals, the reverse is actually true; Farrell’s group developed their plan in June 2017, while the Mayor’s request for proposals didn’t come out until November. (How strange that Farrell’s group was the only one that responded to an RFP that seems to have been based on Farrell’s development plans!) And it is clear that the affected communities, particularly poor communities of color, have not really been consulted in any of the planning. This is especially troubling considering the development group’s adoption of the “Navy Hill” neighborhood name (more on that below).
The other key player is Mayor Stoney. He is a promising young leader – or at least he was, until he fell into the same trap that local government leaders often succumb to. During the past two years of his administration, Stoney had shown he is willing to do the hard work of municipal governance: supporting community wealth-building; taking on the slow, hidden effort of bureaucratic reform; getting the School Board and the City Council to work together through his Education Compact; waging a hard-fought, successful battle for a meals tax increase to fund school construction.
By contrast, his support of this development plan abandons the steady approach, in favor of quick solutions to hard problems; in favor of wealth elites instead of local communities; and in favor of wishful thinking over hard realities.
Again, as a scholar of urban politics, I find it hard to watch this same tragic story unfold again, here in my own city. If I do anything useful in my work, and particularly on this blog, it is connecting scholarship to current events here in Richmond, so that RVA citizens can understand what is going on, and what to do about it.
With that in mind, I offer below a detailed evaluation of the NOB project, focusing on some key components and issues that are already being discussed in the media, online, and elsewhere. I hope to keep updating this site as efforts to approve the project progress. I also hope this site becomes a useful resource for citizens interested in learning more about the project – and about the history of similar projects.
I should point out that the city has not released an “official” plan yet. The city is still negotiating with developers. The city’s contracted financial firm (Davenport) has not yet conducted an analysis, as they did with previous proposals like the Shockoe ballpark once favored by previous Mayor Dwight Jones. What we do have is the Navy Hill group’s website, with some vague numbers unsupported by evidence; and a couple of problematic “private” reports that analyze it (more below). The final proposal will have to be approved by the City Council as a series of city “ordinances” (legislation, akin to the laws passed by Congress).
Still, my efforts here are far from premature. Please note that the Mayor is actively promoting the plan, and Farrell’s development group is holding meetings all over town. Council member Andreas Addison even has written a (misguided) op-ed in support of the proposal. So we can’t wait until all the plans are in to begin evaluating it.
Below are a series of links to pages describing particular aspects of the project. Keep checking back, as I’ll release one of these every few days.
Stay informed. Stay active. It’s only the city’s future at stake.
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