The folks behind the proposed Navy Hill/NOB development are haunted by the specter of failed projects in Richmond’s past. The Sixth Street Marketplace and Redskins training camp are often brought up by skeptics to show how Richmond can’t do these kinds of projects without screwing it up.
City leaders and project boosters bristle at these comparisons. Things are different now, they argue, so don’t saddle us with the problems of the past. But it can be hard to blame skeptics when the faces behind the coliseum proposal are so very, very familiar.
Why does it seem like the city is always involved in some kind of “big shiny project”? Why is it that the same developers, law firms, and wealthy elites always seem to have a hand in the key moments in local politics, with Richmond’s own Dark Lord, Dominion’s Tom Farrell, at the center of it all? Why the same story, seemingly over and over again?
Social science has the answer! Actually, four answers. Here are four things you need to know about local politics that may help put some things in context.
1. LOCAL POLITICS IS ABOUT LAND USE
Why does local politics always seem to be about development projects? Well, that’s just what local politics IS. It’s land use, maybe always and forever.
As political scientist Paul E. Peterson noted back in 1981, cities and other localities mainly want to “enhance their economic position.” This means they want to increase tax base to provide services and solve problems for residents. (Sometimes they care more about the problems of rich residents than poor ones, but let’s save that for now.)
The main tool that local governments have to improve their economy has always been their land. They influence the use of it mostly through zoning regulations, for sure, but also through a host of other economic development tools and incentives. And so most local political battles are focused on the best way for cities for use their land – where to locate transportation lines, what kinds of businesses to support and attract, how to stimulate housing development of different kinds, etc.
So for cities, it has always been about land use. It may always be.
2. PROPERTY INTERESTS DOMINATE
Some of the most powerful people in local politics, then, are the private interests that own and develop real estate. They have an especially powerful economic incentive to work with city leaders to spur economic development; growth of the city ensures growth in the worth of their property investments. And local government leaders need them to help ensure that growth in the city’s tax base.
The result is what sociologist Harvey Molotch called a “growth machine” – a mode of local politics, where the default focus is on economic growth through the development of buildings and land.
The power of local landowners has only become enhanced as businesses have become more mobile in a truly global economy. A corporation can get a sweet development deal from a city by threatening to move their offices or factory to another city or state. (Hi, Jeff!)
But an equally powerful company in a city or county may be one that stays, such as the local developer that owns the major industrial park or shopping mall in town. These developers, as well as utility companies, hospital corporations, and other “fixed-place” business interests, may have a real estate portfolio, a network of local contacts, vendors and suppliers, and political connections that make moving costly to impossible, but also enhance their local power. Out of a sense of noblesse oblige or profit-motive (or both), powerful figures representing these interests often take on the role of a local booster.
I’m talking, of course, about Tom Farrrell. Whether or not he sees the Dominion Energy Arena as the crown jewel in Richmond’s renaissance or in Dominion’s marketing plans, he wants an arena downtown. His desires are driving the entire Navy Hill project.
3. WEALTHY INTERESTS OUTLAST POLITICIANS AND POLITICS
One of the themes of the 2016 mayoral election was the rejection of “big shiny projects.” And yet the winner of that election, Levar Stoney, has embraced Farrell’s group and is backing the Navy Hill proposal with full force. How does a reform-minded mayor become so quickly absorbed by the machine?
For one, resistance may not pay off very much, and joining up may not hurt you even if a deal goes south. A major principle of democracy is being able to hold leaders accountable for their actions. But for long-term development deals like a new arena, those leaders are often long gone by the time the bill comes due. Politicians come and go, but the developers, corporations and CEOs remain; they can outlast resistant political individuals and coalitions.
Even reform politicians might find it easier to work with entrenched interests than defeat them. Some scholars, led by urban theorist Clarence Stone, suggest that economic interests join with political elites to form a ruling “regime” that lasts over multiple elections, officials, and administrations.
Even if you give the best of intentions to Stoney – he wants to fund schools, and hire more city workers to meet citizen needs – you can see where this deal becomes almost impossible to turn down. What if a guy was lurking outside YOUR office with an idea that he says will solve all your problems, and who just happens to be the most powerful man in the state?
4. THE LURE OF THE BIG SHINY PROJECT
We should never forget, also, that city leaders are actual human beings, with psychological needs of their own. You do not have to be a Freudian weirdo to recognize that everyone wants to make their mark on the world; politicians may be more driven by the idea of legacy than anyone. Seeing your name on a plaque in a building lobby or on a sign outside a new park – or, yes, an arena or stadium – helps a mayor or county supervisor know that no matter their faults or failures, they have accomplished something in this world.
There are, of course, political benefits as well. As journalist Mike Royko once wrote about how Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley worked, “The fastest way to show people that something is happening is to build things.” A building project is a tangible example of political accomplishment, even if the community may suffer from it in the long term.
But even if a Mayor does not resist this lure, can a city still defeat the growth machine? One key thing a city can do is create fair and accessible institutions - mechanisms and rules for public input and accountability. For Navy Hill, the City Council’s Commission seems to be taking its role as an independent body seriously. On a longer-term scale, the city’s Richmond300 planning process is bending over backwards to gather public input (although we’ll see how seriously city leaders take the results of that process).
In the end it often comes down to citizen voices and politics; people have to say no when they don’t like a development deal. The growth machine is powerful, but it doesn’t always win.