A $1.4 billion proposal to replace the Richmond Coliseum and redevelop a broad swath of downtown remains secret as Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration enters its 14th month of negotiations with the nonprofit group that pitched the plans.
Reporters and residents have turned to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to squeeze information out of the city about what Stoney has said could become the biggest economic development project in the city’s history. But those requests have met resistance.
The Stoney administration has responded with a carve-out under the state open records law meant to protect from public disclosure documents pertaining to negotiations that could hurt its bargaining position. The exemption is discretionary, meaning the city does not have to deploy it, but is choosing to, even after the mayor endorsed the plans in November.
Now, one of Stoney’s most persistent critics is challenging the city to defend its use of the provision in Richmond Circuit Court.
On Thursday, Paul Goldman filed a petition arguing the city cannot use the provision to shield the legal structure of NH District Corp., a nonprofit entity led by Dominion CEO Thomas F. Farrell II that submitted the lone response to the city’s request for proposals. He is asking the court to force the city to release the information.
Goldman asked for the details in writing last month, and the city’s Department of Economic Development denied his request, citing the clause. The Stoney administration told Goldman it “has not made a decision to ‘award or not award’” a contract to Farrell’s group, according to an email included in Goldman’s filing.
Matt Welch, a senior policy adviser in the Stoney administration, declined to comment on the matter, citing advice from the city attorney.
In an interview, Goldman said the information he requested would have no bearing on the city’s ability to negotiate. He said he believed the city was employing the exemption allowed under state law too broadly.
“If you take [the city’s] response literally, they’re saying giving me the title page of the proposal would adversely affect their bargaining position,” Goldman said. “The title page.”
Goldman’s filing comes five months after Stoney announced at a downtown news conference that his administration planned to move forward with NH District Corp.’s proposal by submitting it to the Richmond City Council for approval.
The plans call for a 17,500-seat arena that would replace the Richmond Coliseum; a 527-room high-rise hotel; more than 3,000 apartments, with 680 reserved for people earning less than the region’s median income; 790,000 square feet of office space; 275,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; a $10 million renovation of the Blues Armory; and space for a new transfer plaza for GRTC Transit System bus riders. The plans also include infrastructure improvements in the roughly 10-block area north of Broad Street where the development would rise.
Stoney has said the project will create 21,000 jobs, including 9,000 after construction is completed, and provide more than $300 million in business for minority-owned contractors. He has touted a report by a consultant his administration hired that estimates the project could generate $1.2 billion in tax revenue beyond what is necessary to pay for it over 30 years.
Since announcing his support, Stoney has refused to release the full proposal and fought to keep it secret.
Late last year, his administration fended off a separate legal challenge stemming from a Freedom of Information Act request that it denied. A resident asked for a copy of the full proposal; the city said releasing it would hurt its bargaining position.
A Richmond General District Court judge sided with the Stoney administration at a hearing in December, but the resident who brought the challenge is appealing the decision.
This isn’t Goldman’s first brush with Stoney. In 2017, Goldman led a petition drive with the Richmond Crusade for Voters for a ballot referendum on a City Charter change. Called the schools modernization referendum, it required Stoney to assemble a fully funded facilities plan for Richmond Public Schools or say it couldn’t be done.
Stoney, who said he opposed the referendum, released a plan in response to the charter change at the end of last year. Goldman said in response that Stoney had not fulfilled what the charter change required of him.
Goldman is a former law partner of one of Stoney’s opponents in the 2016 mayoral race: Joe Morrissey, who has served as a delegate and as Richmond commonwealth’s attorney. He is also a former adviser to one of Stoney’s predecessors, L. Douglas Wilder.
A hearing is not yet scheduled on the matter.