Politics


The Shockoe Ballpark proposal has a new ally.  Time will tell if it’s a new and also powerful ally.  His name is Del. G. Manoli Loupassi,who has proposed a bill in the General Assembly to fund a ballpark with tax dollars. I don’t remember his role in the ballpark planning while he represented the 1st District on city council.

According to today’s Times-Dispatch:

The proposal would apply only to the state’s 4 percent portion of sales taxes generated by the stadium and structures associated with it, potentially hotels and retail and office space.

Diverting tax money from the development to pay off the development seems like a good financing plan to me.  The devil is in the details, however.

It was unclear yesterday exactly how much money might be available and what would happen if revenues aren’t sufficient to cover bond payments. Officials with Richmond Baseball Club LC, a group led by Highwoods Properties, said they would elaborate today.

In another, perhaps more interesting development, the ballpark development group has hired state Sen. Henry L. Marsh III as their lobbyist.

Marsh, as many of you know, represents Richmond in the state Sentate, is a former Richmond mayor, and mentor to new General Assembly delegate Delores McQuinn.

Delegate McQuinn is the political sponsor of the Richmond City Counil’s Slave Trail Commission.  The word on the street is that she will not be giving up her seat on the commission as she moves from city to state politician.

My hope is that the McQuinn-Marsh relationship will help advance the cause of memorializing the ugly history of Shockoe, which the Slave Trail Commission has championed effectively,  and not subsume that important effort to other political goals. Because as much as I’d like to see surface lots in Shockoe disappear and life returned to that neighborhood, I’d like even more to see the hsitory that’s been paved over for so long properly acknowledged.

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Communication: key to good government.

Someone should write that book and give it to our “leaders.”

I once had to read the book Communication: key to your marriage, which was full of cliches, dull anecdotes, and painfully obvious advice. But the thesis of the book is true; if you can’t communicate with your partner, your marriage won’t work.

The same is true for government; if different branches of government can’t talk to one another, the city won’t work.

There are too many cases of poor or non-existent communication in this city to mention them all: wilder-council, wilder-school board, school board-school board. The school board issues in particular have riled up community activists and politicians who rightly point out who suffers in these spats.

But it’s not just the children in our educational system who are suffering, people. Won’t you think about the plight of the high-rise condo developers for a change?

A fight about the high-rise proposal Echo Harbour has been brewing for a while now. At issue is land that RRHA, the city’s housing authority, sold to the developers to provide emergency access to the development.

Now that RRHA’s former executive director, Sheila Hill-Christian, is Wilder’s Chief Administrative Officer, she’s convinced RRHA to reverse their decision and “un-sell” the land.

And it’s all due to poor communication, she alleges to the TD.

But after she was tapped by Wilder and confirmed as the city’s chief administrative officer, she informed the authority’s board in November that she was unaware the city opposed the deal, and she asked the panel to reconsider.

The results of this lack of communication?

The developer of the proposed Echo Harbour condominiums filed a $5 million lawsuit against the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority over its attempt to back out of a contract for two riverfront lots.

All because the city administration forgot to mention that it opposed using this land in a way consistent with the current (not draft) master plan.

Oops.

This city is totally out of control.

Our attorney is trying to warn us:

Although the State owns a number of the buildings located within the area encompassed by the Plan, none of those State buildings must comply with any of the recommendations outlined in the Plan due to the State’s immunity from land use controls by a local government.

This parental warning came in the context of investigating whether Planning Commission Chair Bob Mills has a conflict of interest in voting on the Master Plan since his architectural firm is employed by both the state and VCU.

River City Rapids hits the nail on the head:

I find it slightly ironic that if the DMP indeed has zero authority over those buildings that Mr. Mills represents in his work capacity, then why is his concern so passionate and outright that he (and others) insist the language in the report in regards to VCU be drastically toned down and some sections of it removed completely?

You tend to be the most defensive about things that matter to you most. And legal opinion or not, people’s actions tell you exactly where they stand and what they stand for.

Inflammatory! Outrageous!

Who asked all these people what they thought should happen in Richmond? And why are they telling us what to do?

That’s the sentiment expressed (with my, ahem, rewording) about the master plan by planning commission members. The TD reports that several members were upset by Richmond residents’ request that the West Hospital at VCU be preserved:

“They’re kind of able to do what they want,” said commission member William M. Hutchins. “Why alienate them? They do a tremendous amount for the city.”

Commission Chairman Robert Mills said he found “inflammatory” some of the references to VCU, including the focus on preserving the old, art deco-style West Hospital.

Never mind that the concept of a master plan is to focus on design elements that make a city livable. Never mind that the point was to ask residents what they love about this city- what needs to stay and what needs to change.  If residents’ ideas ruffle the feathers of the power-brokers, we should ignore them.

John Sarvay at Buttermilk & Molasses recently posted about the difference between traditional zoning and the design-focused (form-based) zoning pushed by the master plan:

Traditional zoning worries about what people do inside of the buildings they own, and seeks to keep like clustered with like. Form-based code worries about architecture and design, about a building’s relationship to its neighbors, about creating functional and useful urban space.

So a major point of a master plan is to influence the architectural style used around the city. In that light, comments about which buildings contribute to making Richmond a livable, interesting city are completely appropriate.

It seems to me that any downtown landholder could be incensed by a master plan telling them how to build or what to preserve. Why would we be especially worried about VCU’s feelings?

Pictures of the building VCU wants to demolish, and the master plan wants to preserve:

west.jpg

west2.jpg

West Hospital, photo by taberandrew

From nearby Chesterfield Co. to the Pacific Northwest, Americans signaled their dissatisfaction with poorly planned, automobile-dependent, farmland-destroying sprawl. At least, that’s what I choose to believe! Here’s the evidence:

Chesterfield Co. voters replaced 4 of its 5 Supervisors, which, according to the TD, is a backlash against their recent rapid growth:

The dramatic changes on the board can be attributed partly to a growing sense of dissatisfaction with some of the suburban sprawl-like growth that has occurred in Chesterfield in recent years.

And with most of the board changing as a result of the election, some of that growth will be slowed at least temporarily. County policy prohibits action on rezonings by a lame-duck board with a majority of its members not returning.

At least one candidate, Marleen K. Durfee, campaigned on a smart growth platform. Let’s hope they can usher in a new era in Chesterfield Co. with a focus on transportation options- transit, biking, & walking, in addition to the private automobile which currently reigns supreme. That would be real progress.

Outside Virginia

On the West Coast, Oregon voters partially reversed a “property rights” initiative they’d passed 3 years ago because of the sprawl that resulted.

The story here is a bit complex- Oregon has urban growth boundaries which limit where growth can occur. In 2004, voters passed Measure 37, which required localities to either 1) allow development on land outside the growth boundaries, or 2) compensate the owner of the property for “lost” value of the land due to its location outside the boundary.

Of course, most local governments couldn’t pay the claims submitted, so rural lands and forests were developed with massive subdivisions and commercial sites.

Fast-forward to yesterday. Voters passed Measure 49 rolling back the provisions of Measure 37. From the Oregon Bend newspaper:

Under Measure 49, landowners can build as many as 10 houses — or up to three houses on prime or irrigated farmland — but cannot pursue large-scale subdivisions and commercial developments.

They passed this measure by a wider margin than the “property rights” Measure 37 was passed.

In neighboring Washington St. voters rejected a massive transportation plan, Proposition 1.

The ballot initiative was a complicated mix of road and transit funding, requiring an increase in taxes. Politicians hoped that by proposing one initiative with funds for both roads and transit they would create enough alliances to pass the bill. They were wrong.

This was not clearly an anti-sprawl vote- analysts say it was likely a mix of anti-tax, anti-road-building and anti-transit sentiments.

But the Sierra Club and some other environmental groups celebrated the defeat of the proposition because it would not, in their estimation, do enough to break Washington’s reliance on private automobiles and roads for transportation.

So a good election day for anti-sprawl advocates. Let’s hope these votes signal a commitment by Americans to stop our sprawling ways and break our dependence on cars!

It’s fitting on this first-in-a-while rainy day to write about the lack of transparency in our city government. Despite recent promising events, like the charette, Richmond’s politicos are rapidly returning to the status quo of obfuscation, backroom deals, and just plain old incompetency.

Story number one

Mayor Wilder cancels a town hall meeting to discuss the “revitalization” of Gilpin Court. Wilder’s mouthpiece Linwood Norman was unusually forthcoming about their wheeling and dealing:

“There’s behind-the-scenes planning going on, but the meeting was to kick that off,” Norman says…

How, exactly, does one kick off “behind-the-scenes planning” at a public meeting?

What?

Does that even make sense?

The real story is that land so close to downtown is too valuable to waste on poor folks- just ask Phillip Morris who funded (in part) a “revitalization plan” for the area which is so close to their new real estate investment. How much public input was part of that plan? So far as I can tell, none.

Story Number Two

Staubach Co. chosen to create plan for N. Boulevard.

John Sarvay said it best at Buttermilk and Molasses:

One thing not made clear in the Times-Dispatch’s recent article on the selection of The Staubach Company as the development company-of-choice to figure out what to do with 60 acres of city-owned land in North Richmond is how the Dallas-based company was selected. Apparently, they don’t have to attend spring training to play ball with Richmond’s City Hall — unlike Tulsa, where Staubach had to submit a proposal (competing against three other development firm[s])….

Here’s hoping one of Staubach’s first recommendations is that the significant residential population surrounding the North Richmond tract be included in the conversation, not to mention its most immediate educational neighbor — Virginia Union University. (I’m sure VCU already has tickets to the game.)

Thank you, John.

John and I have been repeatedly hammering the theme of the necessity of public involvement in planning. It’s dismaying that our elected representatives have handed the reigns over completely to a corporation from out-of-town. We’ll be watching what happens.

Story Number Three

Despite the headline on today’s TD about massive improvements to the city’s parks, there’s no mention whatsoever of the parks master plan which was to be finalized and revealed in September.

Has anyone seen this elusive document?

The Parks Department’s webpage sure hasn’t. The only page about the master plan is absurdly out-of-date.

Nothing like poorly advertised opportunities for public input followed up with no presentation of the results!

Speaking of poor advertising, River City Rapids reminds us that the results of another charette will be presented tonight!

“Presentation on the future of Monroe Park” Thursday, Oct. 18 from 6:30-9 p.m.

The meeting will be held in the first floor meeting room of VCU’s Brandt Hall, 720 W. Franklin St. across the street from the park. For more information, call Tyler Potterfield, 804-646-6364.

Of course, that information is not available on Monroe Park’s website- not even on their calendar of events.

Apparently, Richmond has a disease. No word has been given on our prognosis. Will we recover? Is our case terminal? Are there any doctors out there who know how to cure us?

According to the headline of a recent Style article, we have a condition known as “Projectitis.”

The symptoms:

  • “searching for the Next Big Thing to save [our] downtown”
  • “sinking millions in scatter-shot mega-improvements that attempt to lure people back downtown”
  • building a ” festival marketplace”
  • “one-way-street mania”
  • “tearing out a chunk of your city to make way for superhighways”
  • building convention centers

Well, Richmond certainly has these symptoms. Style calls them “the urban planning equivalent of a boob job.”

So to sum up: we’re desperately ill with projectitis, getting implants instead of medically necessary surgery.

The cure?

Master planning “acupuncture.” (I’m not making these medical metaphors up- this one’s in paragraph 11 in the Style story if you don’t believe me.) I didn’t follow how acupuncture works as a metaphor. Let’s try another one.

Richmond’s community development director, Rachel Flynn says Richmond needs to turn itself into a healthy ecosystem.

She sees a successful downtown not nucleating around a single grand project, but a batch of mixed-use buildings in a variety of sizes: “It’s kind of like biodiversity. You need insects that the birds eat.”

Hmmm. So high-rises eat mid-rises, which eat single-family homes?

I’m totally lost now.

The treatment I’d choose for Richmond is best described by the urban planner Victor Dover, without the use of medical or biological metaphors. He describes his experience in another city, South Miami. (It’s unclear if S. Miami had projectitis or not):

“[South Miami’s] Main Street had been de-designed by engineering and road-widening projects that resulted in boarded-up storefronts because it was pedestrian-hostile,” he says. “Three hundred and fifty citizens in a chorus said we want Main Street back.” So they helped draft a plan that called for wider sidewalks and on-street parking, and every time a project gets proposed, the citizens can point to that plan and hold the decision-makers accountable to it, Dover says, because they helped write it. [emphasis added]

Citizens People holding politicians accountable for a plan we help create. Can it happen in Richmond? Can it cure what ails us?

And more to the point, do our politicians care what we think? Or are they too busy suing other branches of government and raising money from business interests to care about a citizen-authored plan?

Can Richmond be cured? Feel free to chime in with your answer.

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