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Q&A: Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney talks about Navy Hill, housing and future political plans

It was a trying third year at City Hall for Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

His proposed investments in schools and roads survived the most contentious City Council deliberations of his tenure. The 9-cent real estate tax hike he wanted did not.

His top administrator was embroiled in a nepotism scandal because five of her relatives had city jobs in departments she oversaw, an inspector general investigation found. Stoney fired her; he has not set a timetable to hire a permanent replacement.

His signature project — the $1.5 billion Navy Hill plan — is inching through a council review that could derail its advancement and the mayor’s ambition for downtown.

Ever the optimist, Stoney was all cheer in late December as he prepared to round the corner into the final year of his term. He sat down with the Richmond Times-Dispatch for 15 minutes to discuss housing, the Navy Hill project and his future political plans.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

RTD: What’s the status of your promise to lift 1,000 people out of poverty annually by 2021?

Stoney: We’re working ourselves toward that. I don’t know what the exact numbers are, but what I’m very proud of is that, since I became mayor, we’ve knocked down the poverty rate in the city. I think we were at 26% [in 2016] because I remember saying that number so many times, and now I think we’re at 21.9%. We’re making a dent in ... the poverty rate, but we’ve still got to do more.

That’s why I’ve been focused on my One Richmond agenda that invests in public education and improving public education in the city, that invests in better housing choices and more affordable choices for our residents, that invests in job creation opportunities and workforce development and also mass transit, so people can actually get from their homes to their jobs. That’s the One Richmond agenda for us.

RTD: It has been a couple of years since you had your big housing summit [in October 2017]. You still haven’t introduced the package of ordinances that would promote affordable housing, which you promised. When do you aim to do so?

Stoney: We’ve tackled affordable housing in a few ways, obviously, with the eviction diversion program; that’s one end of the spectrum. Then you have homelessness. You’ve seen me champion the opening of homeless shelters — whether it’s in Manchester or even the [proposed] shelter on Chamberlayne Avenue in North Side, as well. I’ve created a goal of 1,500 affordable housing units by 2023. We’re well on our way on that. We’ll have an update in 2020 on that. What you’ll see from me in 2020 is a comprehensive approach to housing in the city at all different levels.

RTD: Is that going to be first quarter, second quarter?

Stoney: I’m not going to put a timeline on it, but you will hear from the administration. Normally I give a ‘State of the City’ speech in January. Seems like an opportune time to do so.

RTD: There’s been a lot of advocacy around the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority and public housing in the city. An issue that has risen to the fore that I’m curious about: Is it your opinion that RRHA should replace each public housing unit it demolishes with another physical unit of public housing as it takes on redevelopment of its communities?

Stoney: It’s my belief that every resident who currently resides in Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority get a quality place to live. Currently, if you go to — as I’ve done — you go to Gilpin Court, you go to Creighton Court, and you ask those residents, “Do you deserve better conditions? Do you believe the conditions that you currently live in are satisfactory?” they all will say, ‘No, they’re not.’ So instead of talking about redevelopment, we need to start acting on that commitment, and that’s going to take residents giving feedback and public engagement as well, but also RRHA coming up with a plan that gives opportunities for better choices, whether that means on-site, where they currently live or in other properties owned by Richmond public housing.

RTD: So you view the commitment to one-for-one replacement to mean a physical unit or a voucher?

Stoney: So I see it differently. Yeah, or a voucher. I do believe that as well. But let’s say this, let’s say you have a property like Mosby South. Currently, there might be 150 units there. It’s my hope that we densify, because I’m a growth and densification, that we densify and make 300 units available. That allows for 150 of those residents to return to the same site.

RTD: Let’s pivot into this little economic development deal that’s before the City Council. This has come up in the council’s discussion of the [$1.5 billion] Navy Hill proposal over the last few months: Why hasn’t your administration committed to conducting an appraisal of the publicly owned land that is set to change hands if the council approves this deal?

Stoney: I think what we’ve done is we’ve taken into consideration all the community benefits that are involved in this project. That includes the upgrades in infrastructure, the cost avoidance of demolishing properties like the public safety building and the current Coliseum. We took all that into consideration when we negotiated this project. Right now, the $15.8 million [proposed sale price] is a negotiated price taking into consideration all the cost avoidance.

If the City Council sees fit that this is not a good number for them, I want them to articulate that. We introduced these ordinances back in August. The commission has done their part. Residents have showed up at a number of town halls and community meetings. It’s now time for the City Council to articulate and verbalize what they want to see strengthened in the project.

RTD: Certain council members have articulated they want to see an appraisal done. It’s not clear to me what would be the harm of knowing the actual market value of those city-owned properties.

Stoney: As I said, it was a negotiated price, a negotiated price that involves all those things I just told you. And we think it’s a fair value because we’re getting a number of community benefits: 20,000 jobs, affordable housing units, market rate units. We’re getting all that in the middle of a downtown that has only seen 2% growth while the city has seen 8% growth. So if the City Council wants to improve upon the Navy Hill project or if they want to strengthen the project, I want to hear them. I want to give them the proper time to kick the tires and look under the hood. They’ve had since August. It’s my hope that next year, in 2020, we’ll get to the decision-making time.

RTD: A past ally of yours — the Richmond Education Association — came out in opposition to the project in spite of your assurances that it will benefit schools. Why are you having so much trouble getting people who would purportedly benefit from this project to support it?

Stoney: There have been a number of other organizations that have endorsed the project as well. I don’t know whether or not the Richmond Times-Dispatch or any other news outlets–

RTD: I’m interested in this one in particular, the Richmond Education Association. You’ve said schools would be the biggest beneficiary of this project.

Stoney: They are — a half a billion dollars over the course of 30 years. I don’t know what was behind the decision-making of the Richmond Education Association. Here’s the thing: I’ve got a brother who shares the same blood line as I do. But guess what? We don’t agree on everything. We might have a disagreement right here — REA and this office — however, we’ll be able to work together in the future. I plan on that.

RTD: Are you meeting with their leadership to talk about their concerns?

Stoney: Obviously. Our door is always open. And we are appreciative that they allowed us an opportunity to speak with them on a regular basis as well.

RTD: One of those concerns is that this is going to hurt school funding at the state level by affecting our standing in the Local Composite Index [funding formula]. Your administration has said those concerns are “unfounded.” That’s not the same thing as those concerns not being true. Have you actually run an analysis to see how it would affect the city?

Stoney: You’ve got growth in Northern Virginia. You’ve got some growth in Hampton Roads. You’ve got to take all that into consideration when looking at the LCI. … Here’s the thing: All the individuals who may use this as a premise to say no [to the project] also believe that the LCI is a broken formula, right? That’s where we start. … At the end of the day, we all agree the General Assembly needs to step up and do their job.

RTD: If it appears that this project does not have support of the council, will you withdraw it before a final vote?

Stoney: No. I think it’s decision-making time come Feb. 24. I think they’ve had ample time. As I’ve stated in the past, this is the most criticized, most studied, most talked about economic development project in the city’s history. And I think those involved deserve a vote. I’ll say this though: Simply saying “no” is not a plan. Saying “no” doesn’t get you jobs in the downtown area. Saying “no” doesn’t get you more affordable housing downtown. Saying “no” doesn’t get you $300 million in investment into black and brown businesses. So I think the people of the city deserve a little bit more than “no.” They deserve diligent, hard work from the City Council to kick the tires and offer suggestions, concerns and recommendations to strengthen this project.

RTD: Does your administration have a Plan B if this proposal is rejected?

Stoney: I’m the most optimistic public servant that has probably ever served in this office, so let’s take step one first. Step one is to consider the proposal on the table. We’ll worry about step two after that.

RTD: Do you plan to seek a second term as mayor next fall?

Stoney: Yes. I intend to run for mayor ... and I intend to fulfill my term and my commitment to the city. I think I’ve got the best job in the commonwealth of Virginia, and I come to work every day working hard as hell to ensure that we lift every person in this city up. I’m looking forward to being out there in 2020, doing my job as mayor, but also knocking on doors and being seen in neighborhoods throughout this great city.

RTD: Have you ruled out a statewide run in 2021?

Stoney: You know what? 2021 is so far away right now. My only focus right now is running for mayor. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, but like I said, I’ve got the best job in the commonwealth of Virginia.

Louisa County construction students spend school days building home from start to finish

MINERAL — Michael Sluss squats down in the pantry of a home under construction 3 miles from his high school. It’s a Wednesday morning in the middle of the school year, and this is the junior’s classroom.

Sluss, a carpentry II student at Louisa County High School, is working on the blocking for the shelves in the pantry, cutting the wood and nailing them into the home’s framing. Around him, classmates work on the roof, underneath the house and in each of the three bedrooms.

They do this every day, taking a bus 10 minutes from the high school to a plot of land on Smith Road for three hours where they are building a home from start to finish. It’s all part of a partnership with the Fluvanna-Louisa Housing Foundation, which owns the land and will eventually sell it at cost to a family in need.

“There are families out there that don’t have homes that need them, and we’re able to help give them that,” Sluss said.

Sluss is one of 10 upper-level carpentry students working on the house, laying the foundation and putting a roof over the three-bedroom, two-bathroom frame. He got interested in construction as a freshman when his father asked for his help building a shed.

They’re working under the supervision of Rodney Carter, the school’s carpentry teacher who built custom homes from 1989 to 2007. Carter serves as the de facto site superintendent, with students coming to him for advice and direction.

“They can learn a lot about life in just being out here,” he said, adding that he’s enjoyed getting to know the students more on the site than he’s able to in the classroom.

Carter has tried to instill three things in the roughly 10 weeks the students have been on-site: do quality work, finish on time and meet the specs you’re given.

Saun Williamson, a senior whose father owns a construction business, rotates tasks as a veteran carpentry student and said the project has given him on-the-ground experience while letting him get closer to his peers.

“It’s really showed me how much work goes into building a house,” he said.

Bo Bundrick, the county school system’s career and technical education director, said students built a home last year for the architectural design teacher, who designed the house before students built it. The current project is the school’s second build.

“We want to build a house a year,” he said. “It’s real-world experience.”

The school system has about 50 career and technical education classes with fundraising efforts for the programs coming from services such as haircuts from cosmetology students and oil changes from automotive students.

“We’re trying to build the mindset in our youth that you can make a living doing these trades,” Bundrick said.

Lindell Chavis, the assistant director of the housing foundation, said the home’s price will be lower because the students are building it as part of a school project.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” she said.

The home is set to be completed this spring. A recipient has not yet been chosen, but the hope is it will go to a school employee.

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Henrico's Belmont Golf Course closes for 2020 amid mixed reception to county's deal with First Tee

When the Belmont Golf Course in Henrico County reopens in spring 2021, a large part of it may no longer be recognizable to longtime patrons.

After county officials vowed to find a way to keep the beloved course open despite perennial revenue deficits over the past two decades, Henrico’s Board of Supervisors unanimously accepted the terms of a lease and management agreement with The First Tee of Greater Richmond.

The deal, approved in December, says the nonprofit First Tee will invest at least $3.25 million in repairing and improving the property. The county will allocate $750,000 for the renovations and forgo lease payments during the deal’s 20-year term.

Some Belmont supporters have been reluctant to celebrate the deal, given that First Tee is planning to convert the 18-hole course — which hosted the 1949 PGA Championship — into a regulation 12-hole course to make space for a six-hole “short” course, along with a driving range, a practice area and a putting course.

“The initial reaction I heard from folks is resistance to that,” said Ron Stilwell, a Lakeside neighborhood resident who helped organize his neighbors and golfers to advocate for preservation of the course. “It’s a real concern.”

First Tee and Henrico officials are bullish on the renovation plan, thinking it will make the facility more inclusive for youngsters and newcomers, as well as casual players who find it difficult to commit the time to play 18 holes.

At the Henrico supervisors’ meeting in December, First Tee board member Jon Hottinger said the golf industry is moving toward building smaller courses and practice facilities to make the game more accessible, such as Sweetens Cove in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the Bobby Jones Golf Course in Atlanta.

“We love this community. ... We exist to strengthen the character of it by helping kids, adults and seniors” through the game of golf, he said. “Yes, it’s about sport. But it’s also about having fun.”

The Florida-based First Tee, which locally operates facilities in Richmond and Chesterfield County, focuses on youth development in golf through programs and partnerships around the country.

Some of Belmont’s most ardent supporters feel that the renovation plan, while commendable, sacrifices the historic integrity of the only golf course in Virginia to have hosted a PGA major championship tournament.

Designed by renowned American golf architect A.W. Tillinghast, the Belmont Golf Course opened at the former location of the Hermitage Country Club in 1916. The county purchased the property in 1977, almost 30 years after Virginia native and Hall of Fame golfer Sam Snead won the 1949 PGA Championship there.

County officials say that First Tee’s proposal was the best of the five bids that were submitted for the public-private partnership, meeting the financial needs of the county as well as the community’s desire to retain a golf course in the Lakeside neighborhood.

“This proposal threads a lot of needles,” said Recreation and Parks Director Neil Luther. “For us, the biggest one is the fact that they’re doing this for the community, for the benefit of the course and a broader group of players. ... It’s not just a business proposition.”

Luther said that while some of the bids proposed leaving the design of the 18-hole course intact, First Tee had the best financial offer, especially since it is not planning to incur any debt in handling the renovation project.

The county had started to worry about the course in recent years because of a steady decline in rounds played. The balance of a fund for the course had been depleted about five years ago, and Belmont has been operating at a deficit ever since, raising questions about its future.

While other public parks are also maintained and operated at a loss, since they are free, officials have often pointed out that far fewer people golf than visit any of the county’s parks.

“I understand it doesn’t fully check the box of an 18-hole course, but so many boxes here are checked for our citizens, taxpayers and youth,” Supervisor Dan Schmitt said before the board voted on the deal.

Pete Grainger, a Lakeside resident who frequents Belmont, said he and others still feel disappointed knowing that other proposals sought to maintain the course’s layout.

“They said they were listening to the will of the people many times, that this was democracy at work,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “I guess we were fairly naive to think that we had some impact on them.”

Grainger said some people think the county might have unfairly neglected other companies that bid on the project, and are looking at options to contest the county’s decision to award the deal to First Tee.

Officials have said there will be time over the next year for First Tee, which will work with the firm Love Golf Design, to hear from the public. The agreement calls for the creation of a community advisory committee, but Grainger said he does not think any of that will change what has been proposed.

In an interview Tuesday, County Manager John Vithoulkas said he believes that First Tee’s proposal meets the wishes of the wider community in Lakeside, especially with its focus on youth development, faster play times and better connections to nearby walking and bike trails.

“For anyone to suggest there was unanimity for an 18-hole course, that is simply not true,” he said.

A county spokesman said Tuesday that the agreement with First Tee has not been finalized but that it could come together as soon as next week.

The course is expected to remain closed through all of 2020 so the renovation and repairs can be made before an anticipated grand reopening in spring 2021.