The Richmond Coliseum opened with a roar.
A surprise pyrotechnics show of ten “aerial bombs” ripped off right as Governor Linwood Holton sank a ceremonial shot on the new basketball court, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in its August 22, 1971 issue.
Holton said the arena would be “a symbol of the renewed spirit of our city.” Mayor Thomas Bliley predicted it would make Richmond “one of America’s great entertainment centers.” President Richard Nixon even chimed in via telegram, saying the $24 million project was a tribute to the “fine cooperative civic spirit of your community.”
These days, residents like Anne-Marie McCartan are less effusive about the bulbous, concrete-and-steel arena.
“It’s just dead space down there,” she said at a recent community meeting. “It’s not inviting. It’s just concrete. There’s no activity.”
Developers have a $1.4 billion plan to bring life back to the blocks. Their proposal would not only replace the Coliseum, but also transform the surrounding blocks with a bevy of new housing, office and retail space. Mayor Levar Stoney endorsed the blueprint in a speech on Noember 1.
“This is our chance to pass on prosperity to everyone in our city and to secure a better future for our children,” Stoney said. “All we have to do now is go out there and make it happen.”
In the almost eight weeks since that speech, the city is still negotiating a final agreement with developers.
An increasingly vocal group of skeptics have used that time to dig into the deal, and are urging Stoney to pump the breaks. They see an old pattern at work: big promises from City Hall on projects cooked up without their input.
Justin Griffin is a local attorney who started a website analyzing the deal. He says the Coliseum project is just the latest example of a mayoral preoccupation with splashy development projects, from the 6th Street Marketplace to the NFL Training Camp.
“It seems like every two or three years in Richmond, the mayoral administration, no matter who's in power, gets distracted by a new shiny project,” Griffin said. “I say, let's take a step back. Let's actually focus on what the citizens of Richmond want the government of Richmond to focus on, and maybe down the road, once we have our house in order, then maybe we look at some of this civic furniture.”
Students leave Navy Hill School on its final day of class in 1965. The school was demolished to make way for Interstate 95. (RTD Collection/The Valentine)
The Old Navy Hill
Before there was the Coliseum, there was Navy Hill.
The Valentine’s archives give glimpses of that neighborhood: a horse-drawn carriage rolling down a quiet street, black students rushing out of a local school.
Navy Hill was once a thriving African American neighborhood. Ben Teresa, an associate professor at the Wilder School of Government at VCU, unearthed a 1961 redevelopment plan from the Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority (RRHA) showing 527 families occupied the area surrounding the current Coliseum, all but seven of them non-white. Planners wrote that the houses were “so poorly maintained as to exert a blighting influence on the adjoining area.”
Teresa says city leaders had been eyeing the land north of Broad since the 1930s in pursuit of what they saw as maintaining a strong central business district (CBD). They saw the presence of largely low-income housing as incompatible with that vision.
“This area, immediately adjacent to the CBD, and partially included within the planned civic center, is becoming daily less acceptable for housing,” city planners wrote in the RRHA plan. “Incompatible uses are invading the area.”
Urban development projects like the new I-64 and I-95 highways and the Coliseum forced most residents out. Teresa and his colleague, Kathryn Howell, who both co-founded the research group RVA Eviction Lab, say the city compensated homeowners, but didn’t help relocate renters.
“That really set off a trajectory of instability of housing for low income African American communities that's really continued on through the present day,” Howell says.
The Richmond Coliseum has averaged about 90 events a year for the past five years, according to the Hunden report. The report estimates a new arena would generate about ten more events a year. (Ben Paviour/WCVE News)
The New Navy Hill
The latest plans come from a group called the NH District Corporation, in a nod to the old neighborhood. The group is led by Tom Farrell, CEO of Dominion Energy, and includes several other prominent local business leaders.
Though the specifics of their plan remain under negotiation, the broad outline has been made public. It calls for developing 10 blocks of city-owned land that sits mostly north of Broad Street. Publicly funded portions of the project include a new 17,500-seat arena, a new GRTC transfer station and renovations to the historic Blues Armory building, which would become an event space.
The arena and several other public pieces of the project would require between $500 and $620 million in public financing.
There’s also private development: about 2,800 new units of housing, a new Hyatt hotel, almost 740,000 square-feet of office space (almost 75 percent of it slated for use by the VCU neuroscience department) and about 275,000 squarefeet of retail and restaurant space.
The city and the developers have been locked in closed-door negotiations for months. The main source of public information on the project comes from a $112,000 report the city commissioned from Hunden Strategic Partners, a consulting firm often hired to review potential fiscal benefits of proposed economic development projects.
The city says it would create thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Critics have taken issue with some of those claims, and WCVE News will examine them more in a forthcoming piece.
WCVE news director Craig Carper sat down with reporter Ben Paviour to review some of the numbers behind the proposed Coliseum redeveopment deal. Here's audio of there conversation.
Mayor Levar Stoney (Craig Carper/WCVE News)
‘Built Around People’
The involvement of Farrell and other key business leaders has brought capital and clout to the project. But it’s also raised concerns that the project is structured around the needs of politicians and the business community rather than locals.
Writer and activist Chelsea Higgs Wise says the city should have started with a “trickle-up” process that began with community involvement.
“If you were thinking people first, then this project should have been built around the people,” she said at the mayor’s announcement in November. “Those are the partners we need to have had next to the mayor today.”
Instead, critics say the project was built around a proposal by developers.
In June of 2017, Richmond BizSense reported that Farrell and others were developing a plan for a new arena. That November, the city put out a request for proposals for the site. They eventually selected the only one they received: the one from Tom Farrell’s NH District Corporation.
Farrell personally contributed $3,500 to Stoney’s campaign. The six listed members of the NH Foundation, which is affiliated with the NH District Corp, have collectively given almost $2.6 million in statewide political donations since 1996, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. Farrell’s employer is the largest corporate political donor in the state over the last 30 years. The developers’ spokesman, Grant Neely, is the director of Dominion’s strategic communications.
Skeptical community members note that Neely previously served as chief of staff for former Mayor Dwight Jones. He was first brought on as a spokesman for Jones’ proposed ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. Jones eventually scrapped that plan in the face of fierce public opposition.
Neely says he’s working on this project strictly as a “community volunteer.” He says that Farrell won’t personally profit from the deal. Another spokesman for the developers, Jeff Kelley, says that’s true of all Dominion executives and that Farrell’s role is to drum up investment for the project.
Neely also says it’s a misconception that the proposal didn’t involve community input. He says developers held informational meetings and were guided by two public plans: the city’s 2009 downtown development plan and the 2017 Pulse Corridor Plan.
“It's important to understand that that plan is itself the result of many months of community engagement and the downtown plan before it was also the result of many months of community engagement,” he said.
Neely has hosted informational sessions and appeared at other community events, including Councillor Reva Trammell’s recent district meeting. That event drew several high-profile critics, including former City Councilor Marty Jewel and the controversial former Delegate Joe Morrissey.
The mayor has also made the rounds; in an appearance at the Richmond Crusade for Voters, he bristled at accusations the city was diverting money from other services to pay for the new arena, calling it “fake news.” A spokesman later said he was joking.
The $24 million 6th Street Marketplace opened in 1984 as a way to draw shoppers back downtown. The mall struggled financially, and most of it was torn down in 2003. (Ben Paviour/WCVE News)
‘Old Richmond Way’
Stoney has acknowledged that past projects didn’t always live up to promises. But he says uncritically slapping that nay-saying onto this project is “an old Richmond way of thinking.”
Part of what makes this deal different, Stoney says, is its commitment to housing and minority-owned businesses. Stoney pushed the developers for a plan much more ambitious than what they originally proposed, including $300 million in contracting business for minority-owned businesses and 680 units of affordable housing.
The plan calls for 280 of those units to sit on-site, with the remainder funded by non-profits, donors and projected revenues from the so-called tax increment financing district that will pay for the new arena. In a blog post, Richard Meagher, an associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon, questioned the lack of specificity in the timing, costs and location of that off-site housing.
“How do we know developers will keep their promises?” he asks.
A spokesman for Stoney says the final legal documents will include enforcement provisions.
Meagher also worries that the onsite housing units, which target people earning between 60 and 80 percent of the area median income, won’t serve the most vulnerable residents. Kathryn Howell of VCU says there’s an especially acute need for housing for people earning less than that.
“When you're talking about city owned land, there is an incredible responsibility to serve the public,” she says. “And the public that you have, not just the public that you want.”
Neely says it’s unfair to hold the developers responsible for meeting all of the city’s housing needs. He’s called the project the largest affordable housing development in city history, though Teresa and Howell of VCU say that distinction depends on the definitions of affordability and whether public housing is included.
“The mayor and his team put our group through the ringer,” Neely says.
A model of Richmond's proposed Coliseum on display at the Valentine Museum in 1966. (RTD Collection/The Valentine)
All or Nothing
Both the developers and the mayor have encouraged the public to debate the proposal through the mechanisms of City Council. But developers say they’re worried about rising interest rates, and Stoney is acting with a sense of urgency.
“Either we take the steps and the unique opportunity we have now with this project to make a transformative difference in the lives of our residents,” he said in November. “Or we do nothing and keep waiting and hoping for all this to happen without any investment needed to really make it happen.”
That’s a false choice, according Howell.
“It's a, ‘How do we do it better?’” she says. “Because we can do it better. And I think that's the big piece about this is that very few people are saying let's just leave it as-is. Most people are saying, ‘Okay, but we can do it better.’”
The Stoney administration says they’re just doing their job: laying out a blueprint for the city’s future.
But they’ll have to court a City Council that seems increasingly skeptical of the project. On Monday, the Council voted 8-1 to establish a new commission to vet the deal, marking a sharp turn from an earlier 5-4 subcommittee vote earlier this month, and overriding the wishes of Stoney.
They faced an energized group of critics like Scott Price, the policy director for Alliance for Progressive Virginia.
“Maybe it will be wonderful,” Price said. “Maybe we’ll all look back and say, ‘Whew, I’m so glad we had this project.’ But I’m here to say that I suspect that that’s not the case.”
The second part of our series, Unpacking the Numbers Behind the Coliseum Redevelopment Deal, takes a look at the financing and other numbers involved in the deal.