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.