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downtown redevelopment proposal
Richmond City Council kills $1.5B Navy Hill deal

The $1.5 billion Navy Hill deal is dead.

A majority of the Richmond City Council voted Monday night to strike the downtown redevelopment proposal from its docket, citing a lack of transparency, financial risk to the city and other issues. The decision torpedoed Mayor Levar Stoney’s signature project and dashed the hopes of the development group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II.

“It’s been said several times that our job is to negotiate this deal,” said Kristen Larson, the 4th District councilwoman. “I feel like our number one job is to represent the people, and I feel like that’s what I’m doing through my actions tonight.”

The council vote came after more than two hours of public comment from supporters and opponents of the project that centered around replacing the Richmond Coliseum. Some who spoke showed up three hours before the meeting to address the council.

Voting to spike the project were Andreas Addison of the 1st District, Kimberly Gray of the 2nd District, Council Vice President Chris Hilbert of the 3rd District, Larson, Stephanie Lynch of the 5th District, Ellen Robertson of the 6th District and Reva Trammell of the 8th District.

Opposing the decision to spike it was Michael Jones of the 9th District. Council President Cynthia Newbille of the 7th District abstained.

Addison, Robertson, Newbille and Jones lobbied their colleagues to continue the project to the council’s next meeting, when a final vote initially had been scheduled.

“Our city and our citizens deserve our due diligence on any project before us to fully vet it,” Newbille said. “Not to try is not acceptable.”

Stoney, who was not at Monday’s meeting, said in a statement late Monday:

"It saddens me that Richmonders won’t benefit from the housing, jobs and economic empowerment this project would bring – and I’m disappointed that council did not follow through on the process they laid out to review and evaluate this transformative project for our city – but I’m resolved to wake up tomorrow and keep working to move our city forward."

Farrell’s group, NH District Corp., said it was disappointed by the decision.

“We were actively working on amendments to incorporate the suggestions we heard, but unfortunately, those who opposed the project voted to end it before learning more — which is regrettable,” NH District Corp. said in a statement issued shortly after the vote.

NH District Corp. rallied residents and business owners to attend the meeting using a barrage of print, television and social media advertisements. The campaign amounted to a last-ditch effort to stave off the plan’s all-but-guaranteed defeat after a majority of City Council members made clear their opposition.

Supporters said the deal was the best chance to spur growth downtown, create jobs for residents who need them and meet a growing need for new housing stock. If the council rejected the plan, they said, it would send a negative message to prospective investors in the city.

“This is the transformational project that Richmond needs,” said Rodney Poole, a 3rd District resident who is also chairman of the city’s Planning Commission.

Opponents said they believed the project would put funding for schools at risk and contribute to rising housing costs in the city and displacement. Many said they distrusted the project’s backers — namely Farrell — to deliver on the developers’ promises.

“This project puts the desires of private developers over the needs of Richmond’s citizens,” Jessica Simms said Monday, asking the council to strike down the deal.

The position of the majority of City Council members has been clear for the past two weeks. A bloc of five members requested that Stoney scrap the existing proposal and start over. A resolution supporting that request prescribes an approach for a new redevelopment process. In a joint statement issued before Monday’s meeting, the bloc’s members said they were committed to working with the administration to conduct that process.

Their resolution asks the Stoney administration to complete a small area plan with “robust” public input, an appraisal of the city-owned land in the vicinity, and an assessment of the infrastructure. It requests that after taking those steps, Stoney issue a new solicitation for redevelopment of the area. Stoney called the request “selfish” and “laughable” during a news conference Jan. 27.

“We’ve laid out a pathway forward,” Lynch said of the resolution.

Stoney put out the original call for proposals in November 2017. His administration received one response when bidding closed in February 2018. It came from Farrell’s group, which had publicly indicated its interest in redeveloping the swath of publicly owned land months in advance of Stoney’s solicitation.

The Stoney administration negotiated with NH District Corp. over a period of 18 months, during which it fought the release of the plan’s documents in court. Stoney finally unveiled the proposal last August, setting in motion six months of public scrutiny and review.

At the outset, some on the council wanted to hold a citywide referendum on the project. A majority of the council opposed taking that course. The Stoney administration opposed it, too.

Despite protests from the Stoney administration and the developers, the council seated a citizen panel to review the project. That panel issued a report at the end of last year stating it did not view a publicly financed arena as a “sound and reasonable public investment in the redevelopment of downtown.” Its final report also said the project posed a risk for city schools.

Earlier this month, a consultant the council hired said it believed the project would insulate the city from longer risk and drive growth downtown. However, it noted several weaknesses in the plan, including a lack of capacity for the city to oversee the massive deal.

At issue since the early stages of the project was the creation of a special tax zone to help pay for the new arena. That zone, called a tax increment financing district, would have spanned 80 downtown blocks under Stoney’s initial proposal to the council.

The district would have diverted $600 million in downtown tax revenue from the city’s general fund to pay back the cost of replacing the Coliseum. That money would have otherwise gone to pay for core municipal services like roads and schools.

After months of public scrutiny, even the project’s proponents conceded the approach was unpopular and needed changing. A short-lived bid to redirect state sales taxes to the project died at the Virginia General Assembly this session.

The Navy Hill proposal called for a 17,500-seat arena that would replace the shuttered Richmond Coliseum; more than 2,000 apartments and condominiums; a high-rise hotel; 1 million square feet of commercial and office space; 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; renovation of the historic Blues Armory; a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders; and infrastructure improvements.

PHOTOS: Richmond City Council kills Navy Hill plan

Richmond councilwoman apologizes at 3-year-old's funeral that he ‘did not have a safe place to play’ in the city

The apology was barely more than a whisper, yet its weight reverberated throughout the cavernous sanctuary of New Life Deliverance Tabernacle in South Richmond on Monday before falling sharply upon the hundreds of souls in its presence.

“My heart bleeds with yours,” Richmond Councilwoman Ellen Robertson said softly to Sharmar Hill Sr. and Shaniqua Allen. The couple were seated just steps away from an open bright blue casket holding their 3-year-old son, Sharmar Hill Jr.

Nestled next to his body in the small casket was a stuffed toy — Catboy — from his favorite cartoon, “PJ Masks.”

“On behalf of the city of Richmond, I extend an apology to you, that your child did not have a safe place to play right in front of their doorstep,” Robertson said through tears. “I know this pain is something greater than you can ever imagine — no one should lose their child in such a violent way.”

Sharmar Hill Jr. was fatally struck by a stray bullet while playing in front of his Hillside Court home about 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 1. Police have said they believe two groups of people had been shooting at each other when Sharmar was struck. As of Monday, no charges have been placed in the shooting.

“For the larger community, I want to say to you, we’re sorry, we’re sorry ... that these instances happen too often,” Robertson said, then paused. “Little children shouldn’t have to come to a funeral where a little child has lost their life to violence.”

The impact of Sharmar’s death was evident as hundreds turned out to pay their respects, including Gov. Ralph Northam, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Richmond Councilwoman Reva Trammell. They stood with friends and family, loved ones and strangers alike.

But it was Sharmar Hill Sr. who led the service with an outpouring of emotion for his little boy. Wearing a white shirt with images of Sharmar and their family, and the word “DADA” in big letters on the back, he recalled that Sharmar “just changed my life.”

“God has given me everything that I’ve asked for,” he said. “The love is so real ... this is God’s work.”

He continued: “Just pray that God give us this strength and allow us to earn the wings so we can join our son — and I feel like that’s my opportunity to lead my family to heaven and join him again.”

Hill then turned to Allen and told her he loved her and promised to take care of her. The words trailed off as he got on one knee and offered her an engagement ring. As the room realized what was happening, it erupted into thunderous applause. The couple hugged tightly.

Moments later, Sharmar’s casket was closed. The room, once again, fell silent.

The mayor described Sharmar’s death as more than just another tragic shooting.

“Today, I know that our faith is being tested ... because it’s hard to celebrate a life when that life can be counted in months, not years,” he said. “Sharmar Hill Jr. was just 39 months old — he was just a baby.”

He continued: “We have been robbed — the violence that claimed the life of this beautiful, innocent child robbed his family of birthdays, of graduations and of the joys of parenthood and family for years to come.”

He called upon the community to pray — then take action.

“God alone cannot fix this; where thoughts and prayers end, actions must pick up,” Stoney said. “Today, I pledge that we will do everything in our power to bring the perpetrators ... to justice.”

Northam also spoke Monday, a day before the procedural midpoint of a General Assembly session in which he’s pushing for gun control. Legislation, however, took a back seat inside the church as Northam expressed his sympathies not only as a pediatric neurologist who has grieved alongside families who’ve lost children, but also as a father.

“Pam and I and the commonwealth grieve with you and I know the community grieves with you for another child that was lost too soon,” said Northam, referring to his wife, Pamela Northam. “I can’t imagine that there is anything more difficult than what you are going through.”

Sharmar “was just playing outside at his own home, something every child should be able to do,” Northam said. But as the family struggles to find answers, they can rest assured that their little boy, their “Simba,” as Sharmar’s parents called him — a nod to the beloved character in the Disney movie “The Lion King” — would go on in spirit.

“Looking at this crowd, I know Sharmar was loved,” Northam said, and “that love does not go away because he is no longer here with us.”

He added: “You hurt so much now because you loved him so much.”

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Senate votes to drop third year of state gas tax increase, but Richmond area would get new regional levy

The Senate voted Monday to reduce Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed 12-cent-per-gallon statewide increase in the gas tax by one-third, eliminating a 4-cent-per-gallon hike in the third year of the plan for transforming Virginia’s transportation funding system.

But proposed regional increases would add about 7 cents a gallon in much of the state, including the Richmond area.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the governor’s transportation package, Senate Bill 890, introduced a substitute bill on the Senate floor to scale back the statewide fuel tax increase. However, the revised bill also would impose statewide the regional fuel and sales taxes already in place in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and localities along the Interstate 81 corridor in western Virginia.

The revised bill would raise the state gas tax from 16 cents per gallon to 24 cents a gallon. The regional taxes would add about 7 cents a gallon on a weighted average. The combined taxes would be about 5 cents per gallon less than the national average for state fuel taxes.

“That money stays in your districts for your projects,” Saslaw said of the regional funds.

The Senate gave preliminary approval to the revised legislation, which will come to the floor for a final vote on Tuesday.

The House of Delegates adopted a version of the transportation funding package on Monday that includes a 12-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax over three years. House Bill 1414 passed the House by a 56-42 vote.

“By passing this legislation, we will continue to grow our economy and reduce congestion, make our roads safer and transform passenger and commuter rail,” said House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, in a statement. “It is a win for Virginians in every corner of the commonwealth.”

The revised Senate bill would restore the annual vehicle registration fees that Northam had proposed to cut in half and compensate for the loss of transportation funds from eliminating the gas tax increase that the governor had proposed in the third year.

But the Senate also endorsed Senate Bill 972, proposed by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, that would raise the annual registration fee by $4 a year to help boost pay for Virginia State Police instead of relying on the state general fund budget for their compensation. Currently, the owner of a typical vehicle pays a $40 annual registration fee.

“State police are woefully underfunded,” Edwards said. “This money would be used for them.”

Edwards also had sponsored Senate Bill 452, which would have imposed regional taxes on areas in rural Virginia to raise transportation funds solely for their use. That proposal was made part of Saslaw’s funding bill and amended to extend to parts of the state that do not have regional fuel and sales taxes for transportation.

In 2013, the state included regional taxes for transportation projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Last year, the state adopted a $2 billion plan Northam proposed for improving Interstate 81 that would be funded partly by regional taxes in the localities along the 325-mile interstate corridor.

This year, the House has approved legislation proposed by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, to create the Central Virginia Transportation Authority. House Bill 1541 would impose higher gas and sales taxes for transportation projects in nine localities: Richmond, Ashland, and the counties of Chesterfield, Henrico, Hanover, Goochland, Powhatan, New Kent and Charles City.

Saslaw’s bill does not include any of the governor’s proposed measures to reduce traffic fatalities. Those provisions were part of Senate Bill 907, proposed by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, but there was little left of the governor’s original plan after the Senate Transportation Committee amended and approved the bill on Monday morning.

The committee persuaded Lucas to drop a proposal to allow police to operate speed monitoring cameras in three interstate highway safety corridors, including the overlapping stretch of Interstates 95 and 64 in Richmond, and up to two more in the future.

Lucas agreed with the request, made by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, because she said the speed monitoring plan remains in transportation funding and highway safety bills approved by the House. Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, is sponsoring the safety package in House Bill 1439.

Last week, the same Senate committee killed and then revived Lucas’ bill. First, however, it eliminated provisions that would have prohibited anyone from having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle on public roads and allowed law enforcement to pull over drivers solely for failing to wear seat belts.

It also dropped a provision that prohibited drivers from holding mobile phones in moving vehicles because both chambers already had adopted the restriction in separate legislation.

Lucas had already abandoned the governor’s proposal to eliminate Virginia’s annual vehicle safety inspection requirement in the face of opposition. Jones’ House bill would change the inspection requirement to every other year.

All that’s left of her bill is a requirement that all passengers wear their safety belts and a provision that allows local governments to reduce speed limits below 25 mph in residential and business areas with heavy pedestrian traffic.

Even so, Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, criticized the original bill and the revised version.

“What this looks like is a desperate effort to make sure [the Virginia Department of Transportation] salvages something out of the bill,” Cosgrove said.

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, defended the governor’s safety package for trying to reverse a surge in fatalities on Virginia roads in the past five years.

The administration estimates its plan would reduce fatalities on Virginia roads by 15% to 20%, or 120 to 160 people a year.

“We all agree on the problem,” Favola said. “We need to come up with solutions.”