Begin Again

City Council majority strikes $1.5B Coliseum and Downtown development project, urging the administration to start over with public inclusion

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 2/14/2020, 6 a.m.
Start over — and this time include the public. That’s the cry from the five members of Richmond City Council ...
Naomi Isaac urges Richmond City Council to kill the $1.5 billion Coliseum replacement plan at Monday’s meeting. She was among a long line of people speaking on the proposal before council voted to scrap it. Behind her, supporters and opponents of the plan hold up signs reflecting their views. Photo by Sandra Sellars

Start over — and this time include the public.

That’s the cry from the five members of Richmond City Council who followed through Monday night in eliminating the $1.5 billion Coliseum replacement and Downtown redevelopment plan, just as they said they would do when the nine-member governing body met last week as a committee.

The five members overrode efforts by the four others to keep the proposal — already on life support — alive for another two weeks to allow it be amended before final consideration.

But no one from the city administration, the Navy Hill District Corp. developers or City Council supporters re- leased any of the proposed alterations.

The decision to strike the project from the council’s agenda was a defining moment for the city government and the council, which almost rou- tinely has embraced taxpayer- supported development plans that the business community has pushed as beneficial.

The rejection vote could well impact the political futures of Mayor Levar M. Stoney, who will seek re-election in Novem- ber, along with most of the City Council members — giving voters their first opportunity to issue their judgment on those who supported or opposed the massive proposal.

What is clear is that the council vote shot down the signature project of Mayor Stoney, who ducked Monday night’s meeting and later expressed disappointment. He also vowed to continue to work to move the city forward.

The vote also crushed the hopes of the Navy Hill District Corp., led by Dominion Energy top executive Thomas F. Farrell II, which had spent multiple years and millions of dollars spearheading what the group described as a “transformational plan” for a 10-block area near City Hall that includes land from which the city government had displaced a once thriving black community decades ago.

In a statement, the Navy Hill group also expressed disappointment but declared its pride in the “proposal that we delivered.”

“This was a missed opportunity to address many of the issues we heard about through countless hours of community engagement.”

The decisive vote to strike from the council agenda all ordinances related to the Navy Hill proposal came after more than 120 people spoke for or against the contentious proposal. Supporters envisioned the plan creating thousands of new jobs for people previously hard-pressed to find work, along with a large mix of apartments, offices, restaurants and retail spaces, a new hotel and a new Coliseum. Opponents saw it as a boondoggle for the wealthy that would cost taxpayers dearly.

The divisions the proposal generated, particularly within the African-American community, were embodied in two men — James E. “J.J.” Minor III, president of the Richmond Branch NAACP, who strode to the microphone to urge City Council to back the measure that he said would create new hope, and John Dixon, a former Petersburg police chief and president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, who encouraged the council majority to stand firm in their rejection of a risky development.

Despite the vote, the majority sought to dispel any impression that they are anti-development toward the sector of Downtown encompassing the Coliseum, the city’s main court- house, the city Social Services building, parking lots and the former public safety building. The area, along with two city- owned parking lots south of Broad Street, has been eyed by City Hall as a potential redevelopment area since at least 2009.