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A final vote on the $1.5 billion plan to redevelop downtown Richmond around a new arena won’t take place until next year.
The City Council voted on Tuesday to defer a decision on the massive mixed-use project, which would rise on publicly owned land if the council ultimately approves it. Ordinances advancing the project will be on the agenda for the council’s first meeting of 2020. The vote removed the possibility of a verdict on the controversial project before year’s end, and ensured council members will decide its fate in a year when they are all up for re-election.
“We’re going to do as much due diligence as possible,” said Council President Cynthia Newbille, adding that she wanted the council to take action on the proposal before beginning work on the city’s next budget in early March.
Newbille cited the ongoing review of the Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission, which must deliver a set of recommendations to the council in late December.
The council is also poised to hire an independent consultant to study the proposal. Negotiation with one firm is scheduled to take place this week, said Meghan Brown, the council’s interim chief of staff. Once hired, the consultant will have 90 days to complete its work, according to the solicitation.
The council continued the ordinances on a day that saw opponents of the project rally at City Hall. About 40 people gathered for a demonstration organized by the advocacy group Richmond For All. Many demonstrators held signs that read “People over profit.”
“Navy Hill RVA will not colonize this land unless we, the people, allow it,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, a radio host and activist who spoke at the demonstration.
The proposal calls for a 17,500-seat arena that would replace the 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.
The residential and commercial portions of the development would be privately financed by NH District Corp., the group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II that submitted the plans. It has said it would privately source $900 million for the first phase of the project’s construction.
Over 30 years, the city would owe about $600 million for the new arena. Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration wants to pay off the sum using a so-called tax-increment financing district. By establishing the district, the city would divert all new real estate tax revenue in its bounds — about 80 downtown blocks — to pay back bondholders for the project.
Speakers at the demonstration criticized the financing, which would divert $316 million in real estate tax revenues from the general fund over 30 years to underwrite the construction of the new arena.
“Our mayor will tell you this Navy Hill development is for the children,” said Kimberly Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman, who spoke at the demonstration. “The only truth in that is that the debt will be for our children.”
Also in attendance was Kenya Gibson, the 3rd District School Board representative.
Stoney and the project’s backers have said the plans could net $1 billion in new tax revenue over 30 years, a potential windfall that he has said could fund schools, new affordable housing and improvements to core services.
In other business Tuesday, the council voted to keep the city’s real estate tax rate of $1.20 per $100 of assessed value.
State law requires localities to roll back the tax rate to keep property tax revenues flat unless the locality holds a public hearing and votes to maintain its rate.
Without Tuesday’s vote, Richmond’s real estate tax rate would have dropped to $1.12 per $100 of assessed value to offset 8% growth in the city’s tax base, according to figures provided by the city assessor.
The city budget that took effect July 1 relied on revenue projections at the current tax rate. Reducing it by 8 cents would have created a $21 million shortfall in the budget that runs through next June.
No one in attendance spoke for or against the tax rate before the council vote.
Also Tuesday, the council unanimously approved a new ordinance requiring gun owners to report a lost or stolen gun to police within 24 hours of learning it is missing. Stoney proposed the rule last month.
“This reporting requirement isn’t a fix-all, but this additional level of accountability and responsibility will go far toward protecting our community and providing police with another tool to keep our communities safe,” Stoney said in a release issued after the council vote.
Police Chief William C. Smith has said the requirement would help cut down the number of crimes committed using a stolen gun. Failure to report a stolen gun is now punishable by a $125 fine for the first offense and $250 fines for each subsequent offense.
The council’s next full meeting is scheduled for Dec. 9.
Virginia Center Commons has emerged as Henrico County’s top choice for the location of a new public arena.
At the recommendation of county staff members, the Henrico Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to enter negotiations for partnering with Rebkee Co. on the facility, which would feature space for at least 4,500 seats and 12 basketball courts.
County Recreation and Parks Director Neil Luther said officials chose to recommend the proposed location because of its proximity to Interstate 95 and existing utility infrastructure. The project also presents an opportunity to revitalize the struggling mall, Luther and officials with Rebkee said.
“We couldn’t ask for a better location in a micro and macro sense of what we’re trying to accomplish with this project,” he said.
Tuesday’s announcement followed months of silence after talks between Henrico and Richmond Raceway about erecting an indoor arena there stalled out.
The county renewed the idea for a venue — first considered decades earlier — with a pitch last year to the Board of Supervisors, saying that the facility would boost the region’s growing sports tourism market and increase spending at hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
Officials say it would also meet a growing need for indoor sports facilities for school teams and recreational leagues.
Last winter, county officials estimated that the new arena could generate about $17 million in annual visitor spending, and that having a private operator manage it would save the county about $2.5 million in annual operating costs.
Officials said during a work session Tuesday that the county is budgeting $50 million for the project. It would be financed through bonds issued by the county’s Economic Development Authority.
“This is a tremendous economic opportunity,” Luther said. “We know we lose $33 million annually by not having an indoor sports complex.”
Rebkee was among six developers who bid on Henrico’s initial request for proposals, issued in July 2018. Half of them — MEB General Contractors and Eastern Sports Management were the others — submitted new bids when the county asked for new proposals this summer.
Rebkee, which is redeveloping the Regency shopping mall to incorporate residential development and a NOVA aquatic center, is partnering with Shamin Hotels on its plans for Virginia Center Commons.
Shamin CEO Neil Amin said his company is exploring the idea of building a hotel at the site.
In an interview after Tuesday’s work session, Rebkee co-founder Rob Hargett said the development company will look to rezone the property to be an urban mixed-use district that includes residential housing.
“There’s nothing yet,” he said about the ancillary redevelopment of the site. “We’re solely focused right now on acquiring the property, getting the facility open and starting the planning process.”
The county is looking to acquire about 25 acres at Virginia Center Commons from owner Mike Kohan, a New York-based property manager. The J.C. Penney and American Family Fitness buildings would remain since they are separately owned.
The arena, which would be about 200,000 square feet and roughly the size of Virginia Commonwealth’s Siegel Center, would go where Sears used to be located at the mall, but officials said the land deal has not been finalized.
Officials said Tuesday that they expect that the Board of Supervisors will vote to authorize the land purchase its next meeting on Nov. 26.
The governing board of Riverside Regional Jail hired an outside law firm last month to investigate the management practices of the superintendent it hired in April after some senior staff members at the facility raised concerns.
The law firm Harman Claytor Corrigan & Wellman in Innsbrook was retained to conduct the investigation, which is expected to be completed soon, said Jeffrey Gore, an attorney who represents the Riverside Regional Jail Authority. After receiving the law firm’s report, the board will convene a special meeting later this month to discuss it and possibly take action, Gore said.
“In recent months, the Authority Board became aware of numerous concerns from long-serving, senior staff level staff members regarding the changes in management practices at the jail since Col. [Carmen] DeSadier assumed her duties,” Gore said in a written statement approved by the board and provided Friday to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “The board felt it prudent and in the best interests of the staff, superintendent and inmates to have an outside firm ... conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation of these concerns.”
“That process is expected to be completed in the coming weeks at which time the board will review the findings and recommendations and consider what, if any, steps need to be taken in response.”
The board’s statement was prefaced with a brief summary of DeSadier’s credentials, which it noted include 35 years of experience in local corrections, with 14 of those years as a senior administrator of a large urban correctional facility. The board also noted that she has a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice and has been certified as an American Correctional Association auditor.
DeSadier, who started May 13, most recently served as chief of operations in New Orleans with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, where she managed the daily operations of the parish jail. She also was the first woman to rise to the position of first assistant director with the Cook County Department of Corrections in Chicago.
Her hiring came at a critical juncture for the jail, which had endured harsh public criticism from Chesterfield County judges for the alleged mistreatment of inmates, undergone increased state scrutiny for the death of two prisoners, and faced multimillion-dollar budget deficits.
The Times-Dispatch learned of the concerns raised by senior staff members after receiving emails from employees. After the newspaper made several inquires, the board last week authorized the statement that Gore provided on its behalf.
Employees who emailed the newspaper expressed concerns about various issues stemming from management decisions made by DeSadier and the three outside people she hired as part of her command team.
Gore indicated it would be inappropriate for the board to address any of the allegations raised by jail staff members until the independent investigation is complete.
Gore confirmed that DeSadier hired Toni Calvin as assistant superintendent on Aug. 5, Charles Armstrong as a major on Aug. 12, and Michael Moore as a major on Oct. 14.
Moore served as assistant to DeSadier when the two were employed with the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, according to The Times-Picayune. Calvin worked with DeSadier at the Cook County Department of Corrections. She took a leave of absence from Cook County on Aug. 5 but returned Oct. 25 and resumed her employment with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, said spokesman Matt Walberg. Armstrong is a former Richmond Sheriff’s Office supervisor who worked at the Richmond City Justice Center, a spokesman said.
Calvin has since resigned, Gore confirmed. He said he didn’t know why she left and couldn’t divulge the reasons even if he did know because it is a confidential personnel matter.
Through a jail spokesperson, DeSadier on Tuesday declined to elaborate on the board’s statement or answer questions about the people she hired to help lead the facility, or the status of existing senior-level staff members.
Riverside, like other regional jails, is run by a superintendent hired by a governing board of local officials and sheriffs. The jail, in Prince George County, is one of the largest in central Virginia and serves Petersburg, Hopewell, Colonial Heights and the counties of Chesterfield, Charles City, Surry and Prince George.
Hopewell City Manager John Altman is chairman of the Riverside Regional Jail Authority board.
Earlier this year, four of the jail’s current or former administrators were called before Chesterfield judges to answer for alleged mistreatment of inmates.
Two of them — including the former superintendent and a member of his command staff — were convicted of misdemeanor contempt of court and fined $100 each. Separately, two others — the then-acting superintendent and another top administrator — were put on notice for any future problems. Contempt of court charges against the pair were later dismissed.
In July, the facility was placed under closer state supervision — and forced to receive two unannounced audits every six months — by the Virginia Department of Corrections.
The board placed the facility on “probationary certification” for three years after the board’s jail review committee found shortcomings at the facility that may have directly or indirectly contributed to the deaths of two inmates who killed themselves in 2017. The committee also concluded there was evidence that the jail was not complying with some of the board’s regulations.
In addition to the unannounced inspections, the jail must submit quarterly reports to the board on its compliance with state regulations.
After thousands of public comments and months of research, a Virginia commission tasked by statehouse Republicans with studying gun violence issued a three-page report Tuesday, offering no recommendations on how lawmakers should broach the issue.
General Assembly Republicans kicked dozens of gun control proposals to the commission when they abruptly adjourned a July 9 special session on gun violence, arguing that further study was necessary to take action on the issue.
“We are choosing sound policy and a deliberate approach over political expediency and political theater,” Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said at the time.
Nevertheless, the Virginia State Crime Commission on Tuesday declined to weigh in on the 78 pieces of legislation introduced during the special session, issuing no suggestions for how lawmakers should move forward.
“Staff determined that inconclusive evidence exists to develop recommendations,” the report reads, adding that staff research into the issue didn’t yield clear conclusions.
“The absence of recommendations should not be interpreted as a finding that no changes to Virginia’s laws are necessary. Any changes to these laws are policy decisions which can only be made by the General Assembly.”
On Nov. 5, Democrats won control of the House of Delegates and state Senate. They will hold at least 54 of the 100 House seats, with a contest in Virginia Beach likely headed for a recount. Democrats will hold 21 Senate seats to Republicans’ 19.
Over the summer and into the fall, Democrats lambasted Republicans, arguing that punting to the crime commission allowed Republicans to escape the election-season conundrum before them: Vote down gun control measures that are popular among Democrats and some conservatives, or approve measures that would anger the Republican base.
The report comes days after the commission’s chairman, Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, canceled a commission meeting scheduled to discuss the topic. Shortly thereafter, House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the Nov. 18 reconvening of the special session on guns would not see votes on any bills.
Still, none of it is likely to affect how Democrats, who now control both chambers of the legislature, choose to proceed.
Gov. Ralph Northam stated in the aftermath of the elections that his party would move forward on the issue during the regular session of the General Assembly in January.
“We welcome their support, but regardless, it will be a new day,” said Brian Moran, the state’s secretary of public safety, of the crime commission’s work earlier this month.
At the top of the list are eight bills Northam proposed in July, including measures requiring universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons to include suppressors and bump stocks, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and to restore a state law, repealed in 2012, to restrict handgun purchases to one a month.
Northam also proposed legislation that would set tougher penalties for leaving a loaded gun near a child, that would allow for “extreme risk” protective orders to remove guns from people deemed a risk to themselves or others, and that would require people to report stolen or lost guns within 24 hours.
Northam is also pushing for legislation to let localities regulate firearms within their jurisdictions — including banning them in government buildings. He had called for the special session on gun control in the aftermath of the May 31 shooting at the Virginia Beach municipal center that left 12 people dead.