The Richmond City Council-appointed panel that will review the $1.5 billion plan to redevelop the area around the Richmond Coliseum will include an avowed public supporter of the project.
Hakim J. Lucas, president of Virginia Union University, will join eight other appointees on the Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission. His participation divided the council because of an opinion column praising the project that he helped author in December.
“This is really messy,” said Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, who opposed Lucas’ nomination because of concerns about his impartiality. “This is really working against the public’s interest. I hope they’re paying attention tonight to how you all are disregarding the people.”
Others defended the choice, saying Lucas’ nomination was necessary to improve minority representation on the commission; four of the nine members appointed are African American.
Councilman Chris Hilbert, who represents the 3rd District, in which VUU is located, said he felt the historically black college needs a say in what could be the biggest economic development deal in the city’s history.
Asked whether he believed Lucas could judge the project objectively in spite of his public advocacy for it, Hilbert replied: “He’s told me that he would.”
Supporting Lucas’ nomination were Hilbert; Councilman Andreas Addison, 1st District; Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, 6th District; Council President Cynthia Newbille, 7th District; and Councilman Michael Jones, 9th District.
Opposing it were Gray, 2nd District; Councilwoman Kristen Larson, 4th District; Councilman Parker Agelasto, 5th District; and Councilwoman Reva Trammell, 8th District.
In a letter to the council, Lucas addressed questions about his objectivity and ability to set aside his publicly stated view of the proposal.
“My support for the growth of Richmond does not eliminate my ability to advocate work and be objective to the detail of the project,” Lucas wrote in a Sept. 17 letter addressed to Newbille.
The column at issue was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in December.
“For our community, there are real risks in doing nothing,” the column said. “The status quo is not good: a broken-down Coliseum, an unattractive downtown area, and vacant land that contributes no tax revenue to the city. And if Richmond does not get this done, it’s hard to see how there will be a next project.”
It has since been disclosed that NH District Corp., the group that proposed the Coliseum plans, developed the column bearing the names of Lucas and Makola M. Abdullah, president of Virginia State University. The end of the op-ed said the authors could be reached at an NH District email address.
Lucas submitted an application to participate on the council review panel earlier this year. He was not included on the seven-person slate the commission’s previously appointed leadership submitted to the council to round out the membership.
John Gerner, the commission’s vice chairman, said Lucas’ public statements in support of the project factored into the decision not to nominate him.
“Once you’ve made a public position, it’s awkward to change that,” Gerner said. He added: “In the end, we will work with what the council decides.”
Lucas’ appointment came at the expense of Richard E. Crom, an IRS analyst and the only certified public accountant originally nominated to help vet the financial projections on which the complex proposal relies.
Also appointed to the panel are:
- Mark M. Gordon, a former Bon Secours Mercy Health executive;
- Grindly R. Johnson, Virginia’s deputy secretary of administration;
- Suzanne S. Long, a partner at Meyer, Baldwin, Long & Moore;
- Mary Harding “Mimi” Sadler, a historical architect with Sadler & Whitehead Architects;
- Michael J. Schewel, a former secretary of commerce and trade for the state; and
- Corey D.B. Walker, a professor at the University of Richmond.
Newbille said she wanted appointees sworn in by week’s end. Once that happens, the commission must hold public meetings and keep minutes of its discussions.
The commission will have 90 days to issue a report based on its review.
The plans the commission will study call for a 17,500-seat arena, the largest in the state; a high-rise hotel with at least 525 rooms; 2,500 apartments, with 480 reserved for people earning less than the region’s median income; 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 to make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate the area.
The council also plans to issue a request for proposals for a consultant to vet the deal. Council members have also scheduled a number of work sessions to discuss the project. The next one is scheduled for Oct. 7.