NOB/Navy Hill: Is there another way?
This post is part of a series on the NOB/Navy Hill downtown development plan.
Let’s recap where we are:
The Mayor and a group of developers led by Dominion CEO Tom Farrell want to build a new Richmond Coliseum downtown, among other improvements. I’ve spent the last few weeks outlining my concerns about their proposal, including the following:
The project requires building a lot of stuff downtown, including convention space, that the city may not need or support
The developers invoke the name of the historically black neighborhood in a particularly icky way, in light of the project’s specific goals of gentrifying downtown
But at the heart of my concerns is the main chess piece in the deal: the Coliseum. I’ve called it Farrell’s white whale. Still, it is clear that the vision of the city shared by both Farrell and Mayor Stoney includes a new downtown arena.
At this point, the Coliseum basically is the City’s beach house.
It’s nice to own a vacation home! You might get a lot of use out of it, and it can be a great place to entertain friends or even lend out. But a vacation home is expensive. It costs a lot to furnish and upkeep, and that flood insurance - yeesh. Will you actually be able to rent the house enough to cover the mortgage payments? And what if you need your beach house money for maintaining your “regular” home, or for other needs like doctor bills? Before you can buy a beach house, you need to be absolutely sure you can afford it.
My point: I don’t think Richmond can afford a beach house. Or, in case metaphors aren’t your thing: we can’t afford a Coliseum.
The Mayor and developers are presenting this plan as basically cost-free for the city. We all get a brand new downtown, and private money pays for it! But the numbers have never added up. Just this week, Justin Griffin at NoColiseum.com pointed out that the developers’ plans rely on the new arena becoming one of the top ten in attendance – in the world! (Look, I love RVA. But that’s not happening.)
If the city wants to pay $100M, $200M, even $300M for a new Coliseum, then let’s have that conversation. Let’s talk about our priorities. Let’s talk about who would benefit from such a project, and how. Basically, let’s talk about what kind of city we want to live in.
The one thing that the city MUST do is to escape the trap the Mayor himself seems to have fallen into: the idea that this development proposal is the ONLY way forward. It is NOT.
The Mayor said when he endorsed the project: “If we do nothing we do not create over 20,000 jobs. If we do nothing we will not build nearly 700 new affordable homes. If we do nothing we will not generate a billion dollars in revenue that can be used to make critical investments in our neighborhoods – our schools, our streets, and our services."
First of all, doing nothing would probably be better than the deal as it currently seems to stand. Doing nothing won’t cost city taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Plus it may not even be necessary; as I’ve mentioned before, downtown may already be on an upswing without any need for a kickstart from the city. The Dominion tower has just been built, and nearby developments have already been announced. What if downtown is just the next Scott’s Addition?
Still, we could grant the Mayor his point that doing nothing is not an option. But we can still do something that is NOT the Navy Hill plan: something smaller, or something different, or something in line with community needs. We could even do some of the stuff in the Navy Hill plan – it’s not ALL bad! Some halfway-decent ideas:
As I noted before, there may be some capacity for new office space downtown – we could try a smaller-scale RFP focused on just a new office tower or two.
The Blues Armory is a beautiful historic building, and it would be fantastic to restore it into a new event space! (Although the city already owns such a space – Main Street Station – and I’d like to know more details about how the city is handling that so far.)
Could some of this smaller-scale development help pay to regrade Leigh Street? That’s a necessary step in restoring that part of downtown as a walkable, pedestrian-friendly area.
And here’s the rub: we could have considered some of these options already if the Mayor hadn’t gone all-in on Tom Farrell’s plan. If the city had been open to ALL ideas, then the best parts of the Navy Hill plan could gain support from city residents without us having to swallow all of the nonsense.
If and when the coliseum project fails to be approved by City Council (as I hope it will), the Mayor should lick his wounds, and then go back to the drawing board. He should offer more RFPs, work with Navy Hill and other developers, and come up with the smaller-scale, lower-risk projects that he should have been looking for in the first place.
Two other things the Mayor and city MUST do in the future:
Continue pushing for affordable housing and minority contracting requirements in development deals. As I’ve said all along, Mayor Stoney deserves real credit for pushing to include these as part of the deal. But the requirements have to be REAL ones, with hard targets, enforcement mechanisms and claw-back options. These should just be standard in RVA.
Engage the community. As the Partnership for Smarter Growth’s Stewart Schwartz noted last year, “today’s most successful cities fully engage their residents in planning for the future of their communities, and no longer plan behind closed doors with a small group of business people.” The city should develop something like a community benefits agreement, where city residents drive development conversations.
As for the Coliseum? If a private developer can figure out how to make it feasible WITHOUT hundreds of millions of public dollars, then great. If not, it’s probably time to cut bait. Let’s tear it down, sell the land, find something else useful to do with that space. (Again, I’d love a beach house, but...)
After a mayoral election in which candidates were pushed to avoid “big shiny projects” (o where have you gone, Jon Baliles?), it is time to find a development path forward that finally avoids them for real.