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UPDATED: Majority of Richmond City Council asks mayor to pull downtown redevelopment plans; Stoney is defiant

In a rebuke to the $1.5 billion Navy Hill plan, a majority of the Richmond City Council plans to ask Mayor Levar Stoney to pull his controversial economic development proposal before a final vote next month.

His response? No chance.

The formal request, co-patroned by five members of the nine-person council, was introduced at Monday’s council meeting. The request made clear that the proposal Stoney has championed does not have the necessary support to win approval from the council. That would require seven votes.

Undeterred, Stoney told reporters the request was “laughable” and “selfish.” He said the council had not made an effort to improve the plans. The council bloc behind Monday’s request, he continued, did not want to vote against his signature project in an election year; all nine council seats are on the ballot in November.

“Honestly, I think if this was 2019 or 2021, we would be doing this today,” Stoney said. “But guess what? They’re thinking about their elections more than anything. They should be thinking about the city of Richmond and the future.”

NH District Corp., the development group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, criticized the council members in a sharp statement.

“It’s unfortunate that instead of looking for ways to improve the Navy Hill proposal, these council members are putting their heads in the sand and hoping that the city’s problems resolve themselves,” according to the statement. “We proactively sought to sit down with each of these five members to ask them for their ideas, amendments and recommendations to make this the best possible deal for Richmond, to which they have offered nothing.”

The council resolution requests that the administration complete a small area plan, conduct “robust” public engagement, complete appraisals of the city-owned land in the vicinity, and do an assessment of the infrastructure. It requests that after taking those steps, Stoney issue a new solicitation for redevelopment of the area.

The original solicitation, issued in November 2017 and closed in February 2018, yielded a single response, from Farrell’s group. It had indicated its interest in replacing the Richmond Coliseum and redeveloping the area several months in advance of Stoney’s solicitation.

Sponsoring the resolution are Councilwoman Kimberly Gray of the 2nd District, Council Vice President Chris Hilbert of the 3rd District, Councilwoman Kristen Larson of the 4th District, Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch of the 5th District and Councilwoman Reva Trammell of the 8th District.

The resolution was first reported by Jason Roop, a freelance reporter and former Style Weekly editor.

The request came as Stoney and NH District Corp. have intensified efforts to rally public support for the plans. In recent weeks, they have made a series of announcements billed as improvements to the terms of the deal.

Among the changes: requesting a portion of the state sales tax to help pay down the cost of the publicly financed arena and shrink the size of a special tax zone that Stoney initially proposed to the council. The project’s backers have also announced a pledge to bring 2,000 additional jobs downtown as well as a new minor league hockey team to Richmond if the project is approved.

Those announcements have served another purpose: ramping up pressure on council members who have expressed doubts about the project. However, council members making the request said they are unmoved.

“Most of the things that are being put on the table have not been finalized or materialized and I question whether all of the deliverables and promises that have been put into the proposal last minute will actually come to fruition,” Lynch said.

“To me, what it looks like and I think what people are thinking, is it looks like a bunch of Hail Mary passes, and where was that stuff in the summertime? Where was that stuff before?”

Replacing the Coliseum should be a regional effort, Hilbert said Monday afternoon, shortly before announcing at the council meeting that he would not seek re-election.

“[The counties] need to be part of this,” he said. “If they don’t want to join us, maybe it’s something we shouldn’t do.” He added: “I’m not budging. I told the administration a month ago that I was a hard ‘no.’”

The Navy Hill 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.

Michael Jones, the 9th District representative, said he wanted the council to carry out the process it originally laid out to review the plans. The resolution is a deviation from that process, he said.

“Now we have to talk about this resolution, not the merits of the project.”

Early next month, the council is set to receive a report from a consultant it hired to review the project at a cost of $215,000. Stoney criticized the council bloc for requesting he pull the project before hearing the consultant’s findings.

“That’s like ending the game in the third quarter before even playing the other quarter of the game. It’s ridiculous,” he said. His administration has spent “over $1 million” vetting the plans, he said.

Council members scoffed at Stoney’s gibes.

“What we’re doing is responding to the wishes of the people and our constituents,” Gray said.

The council request is nonbinding. If adopted, it would not force Stoney to withdraw the plans, meaning the ordinances would remain on the council’s docket. A final vote on the project is scheduled for Feb. 24.

The resolution was referred to the council’s Organizational Development Standing Committee. It meets at 5 p.m. Monday.


DANIEL SANGJIB MIN/times-dispatch

About 2,000 Virginia educators and supporters gathered at the state Capitol in Richmond on Monday to call for more school funding. The proposed two-year budget calls for a 3% raise for teachers in the second year. Some people chanted “Three percent is not enough!” (Details, Page A6.)

Transportation bill rolls on, with inspections restored, but every other year

A sweeping transportation funding and safety package proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam has found the fast lane in the House of Delegates.

A House transportation subcommittee endorsed the package on Monday after revising the legislation with a compromise that would require auto safety inspections every two years instead of cutting the annual state inspections entirely. The vote was 6-2, with Dels. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, and Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, opposed.

House Bill 1414, sponsored by Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, will go before the full House Transportation Committee early Tuesday. If the committee approves it, the measure will move next to the House Appropriations Committee for review of its implications for the state budget.

“Help is now on the way!” Filler-Corn said in a pep rally with Northam and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, on Monday to tout the relief from traffic congestion that they said the package would provide.

The heart of the bill is a proposal to increase the state gas tax by 12 cents per gallon over three years and then tie it to the rate of inflation rather than the wholesale price of fuel. The administration regards the plan as crucial to sustaining revenues for transportation improvements while Virginia seeks a long-term replacement of fuel tax revenues that diminish as vehicles become more efficient or cease to use gasoline or diesel entirely.

The governor has pitched the plan as a way to shift more of the funding burden to out-of-state drivers, while helping Virginians by cutting vehicle registration fees in half and, originally, eliminating inspections.

At the same time, the package would finance the state’s share of a $3.7 billion deal with CSX and Amtrak that would give Virginia control of track and right of way for expanding passenger rail service that is predicted to double between Richmond and Washington over the next decade.

“When we get all this done, it will probably be the most successful transportation package we’ve had in almost 40 years,” Saslaw predicted at the rally.

However, Northam’s proposal to eliminate state vehicle safety inspections ran into fierce opposition from law enforcement, automobile dealers and repair businesses, vehicle insurance agents, and retail gasoline marketers.

The governor said earlier that his proposal was “alive and well,” but Subcommittee Chairman Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, quickly tried to blunt opposition by changing the inspection requirement to every 24 months instead of 12 and merging it into the omnibus bill instead of separate legislation that would be easier to kill.

Opponents acknowledged the concession but remained opposed.

“One year is safest,” said former Virginia State Police Superintendent Wayne Huggins, now executive director of the Virginia State Police Association.

Bruce Keeney, lobbyist for the Virginia Gasoline Marketers Association, said the program flunked 1 in every 5 vehicles inspected in 2018 for major safety defects, such as bad steering and worn brake pads and tires.

Keeney warned that eliminating or reducing the requirement would cause motorists ultimately to pay more, while hurting businesses that conduct the inspections and make repairs. “You are talking about 17,000 jobs at risk,” he said.

Billy Duffy, owner of Duffy’s Repair Service in Ashland, predicted that if the state changes the annual requirement, “you’re going to see a lot more fatalities on our highways.”

State transportation officials say that isn’t true. They cited a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that found 94% of traffic fatalities are caused by distracted or inebriated drivers and failure to wear seat belts — key safety features of the legislation.

“This legislation addresses the big issues that are driving fatalities and injuries on our highways in the commonwealth,” Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue said.

The bill would make failure to wear a seat belt a primary traffic offense, which means a driver could be cited for that alone. The measure also would prohibit open containers of alcohol for passengers as well as the driver, and ban the hand-held use of cellphones or other mobile devices. Separately, the subcommittee voted unanimously to approve House Bill 874, proposed by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, to outlaw drivers from holding phones in moving vehicles.

The omnibus legislation also would allow use of speed-monitoring cameras in designated highway safety zones, including the overlap of interstates 95 and 64 in Richmond. The system would allow ticketing of drivers who exceed the speed limit by more than 10 miles per hour, although the violations wouldn’t count on their driving records.

The only other public concern raised over the transportation package came from environmental groups and electric car manufacturers, who oppose Northam’s proposal to impose a user fee on owners of high-efficiency or alternative-fuel vehicles to compensate for paying less in gas taxes.

The issue is tricky for environmental groups, which strongly support the governor’s proposals for boosting passenger rail and mass transit service in Richmond and other parts of the state.

“There is a lot of good stuff in this bill,” Trip Pollard, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in an interview.

However, Pollard added, “We really think it sends the wrong signal on climate” by discouraging purchase of electric and high-efficiency vehicles that emit less carbon pollution linked to climate change.

Northam agrees with efforts to make vehicles more efficient and less dirty, but he also thinks that all drivers should pay their share of the cost of building and repairing the roads they use.

He said the proposed investments in rail and mass transit represent the best way to reduce traffic congestion and the pollution that comes with it.

“We can get more people using passenger rail and off our roads,” he said.

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UPDATED: University of Richmond officials, students and athletes respond to racist vandalism in dorms

Three University of Richmond students were targeted last week in acts of vandalism that the university’s president and students are describing as racist.

First, an African American student’s residence hall door was defaced, prompting a campuswide note from university President Ronald Crutcher.

The next day, Chief of Police Dave McCoy reported to students that three incidents aimed at “intimidation with a racial and national origin basis” had occurred.

At a Spiders men’s basketball game that night, students wore black and carried protest signs.

In notes to the campus community, school officials have chosen not to repeat what was written. A photo provided to the Richmond Times-Dispatch shows the n-word scrawled on a homemade blue-and-pink door sign bearing a name and a UR sticker saying “Proud first-generation college student.”

In the other incidents, two students of Middle Eastern descent appear to have been specifically targeted, according to pictures of defaced door signs that were shared with The Times-Dispatch.

Crutcher described the initial act as a “disturbing racial epithet” in his message to students Friday morning. He called the incident “disgusting,” noting that the university last week was commemorating the birth and legacy of civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr.

“This cowardly and racist act is profoundly hurtful and deeply offensive,” Crutcher wrote.

“An act of racism against any of us on this campus is an act that affronts all of us, and everything we are committed to as a University community,” he said. “We will not tolerate members of our community being targeted for harassment based on their identities.”

The incidents come as the university is in the midst of holding dialogues to foster a more inclusive community and sponsoring research aimed at telling the school’s fuller history. Earlier this month, for example, the university acknowledged that there’s compelling historical evidence that part of its campus is built over African American slave burial grounds.

University officials on Monday declined to make Crutcher available to discuss how the incidents might affect those efforts.

In a message cosigned by leaders from the university’s Black Student Alliance, the Multicultural Student Solidarity Network and two student government organizations, students said the community must recognize that racism still exists on campus.

“Every Spider should be treated as a valued member of our community,” the statement reads. “We, as a university, have failed in that regard. It is important that we recognize this failure and that we move as a group to address the discrimination that people on our campus deal with” every day.

The message to students included an invitation to a discussion on campus Tuesday for the launch of a student-led dialogue about race and its impact on the student body. An organizer said the event is open only to students.

University spokeswoman Cynthia Price said the vandalism was anonymously reported. Two of the incidents happened in the Marsh residence hall, she said; she would not say where else the graffiti was found.

After Saturday’s basketball game, UR redshirt junior player Nick Sherod said the university’s sports fans and student-athletes should not be afraid to speak out.

“I think that some things are more important than basketball and what happened on our campus is pretty unacceptable,” said Sherod, a graduate of St. Christopher’s School, near the UR campus. “And I think sometimes people don’t want to intersect sports and social activities, but I don’t think you can do that.”

“Whoever’s door that slur got written on, that’s going to be with them for the rest of their life,” Sherod went on to say.

Chris Mooney, in his 15th season as Richmond’s coach, also addressed the in-game protest by UR students. Of the graffiti and students’ demonstration, he said, “I feel terribly that that would happen and respect their right to voice their frustration or the pain that the individual would feel.”

On Monday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations called for the opening of a federal hate crime investigation into the matter. In a brief phone call, CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said the organization had not been told whether the targeted students are Muslim.

“We’re seeing that [every minority group] is being targeted more often. It’s everybody across the board,” Hooper said. “That’s why we try to speak out whenever it happens to anyone in any community.”

Earlier in the weekend, McCoy said university police officers would be increasing their presence at Marsh Hall to deter “incidents in which a hate crime can occur,” adding that an act of vandalism motivated by bias directed at an individual can meet the threshold for a hate crime.

McCoy said the university police department is leading the investigation and has not asked for support from Richmond or Henrico County police.

Virginia legislature ratifies Equal Rights Amendment

Virginia has officially approved the Equal Rights Amendment.

Twelve days after the state Senate and House of Delegates initially backed the women’s rights measure, both bodies approved it again Monday. The passage makes Virginia the 38th state to do so, potentially making the measure part of the U.S. Constitution, although its future is unclear.

“Writing women into the Constitution is long overdue,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who presided over the Senate on Monday as the president pro tempore of the body. Lucas is the first woman and first African American lawmaker to hold the title.

Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, the first woman to hold that title, presided over the House. She echoed a similar sentiment as Lucas.

“Finally, women have a place in our nation’s founding document,” she said in a statement after the vote.

While the House and Senate versions of the ERA are identical, each body had to approve the other’s. Monday’s vote was a formality after the chambers backed the ERA on Jan. 15.

The Senate approved the resolution in a 27-12 vote, while the House voted 58-40 in favor. ERA supporters, many wearing sashes touting equality, gathered in the galleries and cheered the votes.

The proposed federal amendment says: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

“These 24 words will be the 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, the patron of the House version of the resolution. “ERA now and equal rights for women forever.”

Filler-Corn said in a statement that House Clerk Suzette Denslow, also the first woman in her post, will send copies of the resolution to President Donald Trump, the heads of Congress and the national archivist.

“The Equal Rights Amendment will be enshrined in the Constitution of the United States in very short order,” she said.

The measure is likely to face a court battle.

Between 1972, when Congress sent the ERA to states, and 1982, the deadline, 35 states ratified it, three short of what is needed to be part of the U.S. Constitution. Since then, two more states — Nevada and Illinois — have ratified it. Five states have withdrawn their support, but it’s unclear if rescinding ratification is allowed.

While Virginia’s ratification makes it the 38th state, the U.S. Justice Department said earlier this month that it’s too late for ratification.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said he would challenge the federal Justice Department’s opinion.

“I expect the archivist to fulfill his responsibility under the law, but if he refuses to certify that the ERA has been added to the Constitution, I will take action to ensure the will of Virginians is carried out,” Herring said Monday. “Women have suffered as a result of discrimination and inequality in this country for centuries, and I will not stop until I have exhausted every option to ensure that they will never have to face those inequities again.”

Congress is considering bills that call for the elimination of the ERA deadline.

Even with the uncertain future, Virginia legislators recognized Monday’s historic nature.

“As the first African American and first woman to hold the title as president pro tempore, I feel the significance and the gravity of this moment,” Lucas said. “I think of my ancestors who arrived on these shores 400 years ago. I think of the history of my people not being recognized as human beings, fighting for freedom, fighting to receive education, fighting to have a place in society and fighting for equality.”

She added: “Today is a day that we update that all men are created equal.”