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Richmond City Council Rejects Coliseum Redevelopment Deal

Hundreds of protestors, both for and against the Navy Hill redevelopment project, showed up to Richmond City Council Monday night.
Hundreds of protestors, both for and against the Navy Hill redevelopment project, showed up to Richmond City Council Monday night. (Photo: Roberto Roldan/VPM)

A proposal to redevelop the Richmond Coliseum and the surrounding Navy Hill neighborhood is dead. 

Richmond City Council voted to reject the project at a meeting Monday night. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and the development group, NH District Corp., had negotiated a $1.5 billion redevelopment deal that would create a new, publicly funded arena and more than $1 billion in private apartments, offices and retail space. The deal failed to gain enough support from the City Council to be approved, with a majority of members expressing skepticism over the need for a new arena and lofty revenue projections.

Second District City Councilwoman Kim Gray, who opposed the deal, said she wants to start the process over and have a transparent, public process to decide what to do with the arena and surrounding neighborhood.

"The public trust is at an all time low and we need to rebuild that," Gray said. "We need to work together to come forward with a small area development plan and determine how we are going to pay for these assets without jeopardizing our schools."

Council members Chris Hilbert, Kristen Larson, Stephanie Lynch and Reva Trammell also voted against the project.

Hundreds of people both for and against Navy Hill flooded City Council chambers Monday night. Richmond City Council suspended its normal rules to allow people to be heard shortly before the deal was voted down. A common theme from anti-Navy Hill residents were the dire need for better school facilities and affordable housing, rather than subsidizing a new arena. Those in favor touted the $300 million in minority construction contracts and new tax revenue as reasons to move forward with the project.

Jeff Kelley, a spokesperson for NH District Corp., said in a statement Monday night that the project would have "offered a transformative opportunity for our City and for the Central Virginia region."

"As you can see from the outpouring of support tonight, this was a missed opportunity to address many of the issues we have heard about through countless hours of community engagement," Kelley said. "We remain grateful to the four members of Council who carefully studied the project and collaborated to make it even better."

The vote to kill the deal capped off a two-year process of negotiation and public scrutiny. Stoney put out a request for a proposal outlining the redevelopment project in late 2017. After accepting bids for 92 days, NH District Corp. was the only respondent. The development group had powerful people at its helm, including Dominion CEO Tom Farrell and former Altria CEO Marty Barrington.

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Stoney’s administration then spent a year in closed-door negotiations with the developers before submitting the project to Richmond City Council in August of 2019. He proposed to fund the redevelopment of the Coliseum by creating an 80-block special taxing district over Downtown. New taxes from that area would have gone to pay back a loan on the arena. 

The project almost immediately attracted pushback from grassroots activists who saw it as another “shiny object” that would be a burden on Richmond taxpayers. They evoked past projects, like the Washington Redskins training facility and the Sixth Street Marketplace. 

Justin Griffin, a local small business lawyer, detailed his problems with the project and the financial analyses on his website called NoColiseum.com. He said the deal hasn’t made financial sense from the start. 

“As soon as you scratch the surface on any of the talking points or any of the sales pitches, it all falls apart,” Griffin said. 

Many local activists also raised concerns about the potential effects on state education funding and affordable housing. 

NH District Corp. promised the deal would include 280 income-restricted apartments onsite with money for 200 additional units off-site. But the developer told VPM News in August 2019 that a one-bedroom “affordable” apartment would cost as much as $1,500 per month. Activists questioned whether the “affordable housing” in the deal was truly affordable. 

“It’s a marketing tactic,” housing activist Omari Al-Qadaffi said at the time. “When they say ‘affordable housing’ all they really mean is that it’s income-restricted. They keep using the term ‘affordable housing’, but what does it really mean?”

Two efforts to hold a public referendum on the deal - one led by City Council members and one led by local lawyer Paul Goldman - both failed to gain enough support. 

A citizen commission was seated late last year to review the project. The Navy Hill Development Advisory Commission conducted three months of work sessions and public input meetings. The commission concluded that a publicly funded arena was not a “reasonable and sound public investment.”

Activists opposed to the project celebrated Monday’s vote as a win for taxpayers.

Kristen Reed, a co-founder of Richmond For All, said activists have been criticized for being anti-progress or anti-development, but that’s simply not the case. Reed said they want to see a new model of “people-first development” moving forward.

“We think that there is a model of economic development that can be led by the communities that are already here and include them in the that we would see,” Reed said. “As we move forward we’re just excited to see all of our communities engaged.”

Reed pointed to a resolution, signed off by a majority of Richmond City Council members, as offering a way to move forward. The resolution calls for a transparent request for proposal process, an estimate on the market value of the city land to be sold and a more comprehensive public engagement process. 

Mayor Stoney said in a statement that he was saddened by the council vote against his proposal.

"“It saddens me that Richmonders won’t benefit from the housing, jobs and economic empowerment this project would bring — and I’m disappointed that council did not follow through on the process they laid out to review and evaluate this transformative project for our city — but I’m resolved to wake up tomorrow and keep working to move our city forward," Stoney said.

It’s unclear if or when another plan to redevelop the now-defunct Richmond Coliseum will come forward.