If Richmond wants to substantially increase its investment in schools, social services, affordable housing and other priorities, there are two choices.
One is to raise taxes — which isn’t popular. The other is to attract new businesses and economic opportunity to expand the pool of taxpayers and increase city revenues — which isn’t easy.
NH District Corp. is taking on the task that isn’t easy, but necessary. It will transform an economically stagnated portion of downtown Richmond and turn it into walkable streets, residences and a long-needed convention hotel. It will restore neglected historic properties and replace a functionally obsolete Coliseum. It will put property that has been exempted from taxes for decades back on the rolls, which is the mechanism we use for funding city programs — like schools.
“But Richmond is on the rise,” says the counter argument. Won’t this area “organically” develop on its own, like Scott’s Addition?
Scott’s Addition, and other areas of Richmond where growth is happening, enjoy intact infrastructure, streets, developable parcels and, in many cases, an inventory of existing buildings that can be transformed into other businesses.
The Navy Hill area is nothing like Scott’s Addition or other areas of downtown. It was designed to purposely disrupt Richmond’s normal infrastructure. It reshaped streets, created tunnels and blocked normal connectors. In the 1960s and ’70s, we turned our backs on proven planning principles, and we can and should course-correct that today.
Now that it is past its useful life, there is nothing the Coliseum can be adapted to that makes any sense for Richmonders today. The parcels of land and streets it altered must be recreated if we are to put these properties back to work generating revenue. And that will not happen organically. It would cost $10 million alone just to demolish it to start again — something that the city cannot afford today, and not a cost a one-off development could support.
But why a new arena?
Richmond has a rich history in the arena business. Despite the fact that we have outgrown our Coliseum, we are a market and city to which touring shows and tournaments desperately want to come — if only we would provide a proper venue. The good news is that cities, with a well-vetted plan, can use the destination-attraction power of these venues as an urban development catalyst. In that way, an arena can be the single most important component in transforming a city center.
As an urban planner and sports architect for the past 30 years, I have worked on dozens of major arena projects, and in places like Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Columbus. I’ve also worked in many smaller non-NBA cities and, with few exceptions, these arenas were built in downtowns, with each becoming a case study in catalytic urban growth.
This practical experience led to an understanding of “arena-anchored” mixed-use developments as an economic engine for blighted areas. It happened first in Columbus, Ohio, with Nationwide Arena and its 75-acre Arena District. The private sector funded development, and with a complete plan in hand, turned vacant public land downtown into tax-generating private development parcels with new businesses and new residences. The same thing happened in Kansas City with Sprint Center, and in Allentown, Pa., with the PPL Center. All transformed their empty city blocks and parking lots into taxpaying urban communities.
Mark Rosentraub, a leading economist in the relationship of sports venues and city economic health, acknowledged this trend in his most recent book, “Reversing Urban Decline: Why and How Sports Entertainment and Culture turns Cities into Major League Winners.” He argues that cities must think about their blighted city centers as transformational opportunities, and that well-planned and programmed arenas are one of the most important tools for that transformation.
We no longer live in the Richmond of the 1970s. Today’s fans have experienced modern facilities in other cities. They can watch virtually any form of sports or entertainment on their smart phones and whenever it suits them. Despite those advantages, we all still crave the live experience. That sense of community is what makes cities memorable places to be, and desirable places to live.
With Navy Hill, Richmond has been offered a plan for a downtown that cannot otherwise evolve without intervention and innovation. It’s a plan that puts our public land assets to work and it delivers on the priorities of more school funding, jobs and affordable housing. Navy Hill builds a better downtown — one that we can pass along, with pride, to a future generation of Richmonders.