After years of discussion following an ill-fated attempt to build a baseball stadium downtown, Richmond officials are once again eyeing Shockoe Bottom for redevelopment.
A draft plan released by the city on Monday centers on a proposed memorial campus and museum dedicated to enslaved laborers in what used to be the nation’s second-largest slave trading market for decades before the Civil War.
City officials say the 212-page draft plan invests in historic justice and strives to promote redevelopment of surface parking lots and other underused properties around the proposed heritage site and museum, hoping to catalyze economic activity. The goal, according to the plan, is to turn the area into an international destination.
“The primary theme is that this planning document centers the significance of the area’s African and African American history into the structural planning for the area’s development,” said Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, a grassroots organization that has been advocating for the creation of a 9-acre memorial campus over the past decade. “This is a good thing and the result of years of community advocacy and involvement. We encourage everyone to take advantage of every opportunity to look over the plan and add your thoughts.”
The new Shockoe Bottom small area plan was formed in part from recommendations of the Shockoe Alliance, a collective of historic preservationists, community advocates, business leaders and politicians that the city formed in 2019 to help guide the creation of the area’s new planning blueprint.
The Sacred Ground Project — an extension of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality, a social justice organization based in Richmond — is a member of the alliance.
Richmond officials have considered plans for a museum to enslaved African Americans in Shockoe Bottom for at least 10 years. Contemporary city leaders cite renewed urgency after last year’s civil unrest over the police killing of George Floyd and the city’s toppling of its Confederate monuments.
“In light of these many changes, now is the time to honestly and accurately tell Richmond’s true and complete history and Shockoe stands in a unique space to convey the full story,” the plan’s executive summary states. “This plan for Shockoe is an integral part in bringing this vision to fruition.”
The new small area plan covers most of the Shockoe Bottom area, which is generally bounded by the James River to East Leigh Street and from 14th Street to 25th Street.
Lumpkin’s Jail, also known as the Devil’s Half Acre, is located next to Interstate 95 and Main Street Station in Shockoe Bottom, a neighborhood now filled with warehouse apartments and restaurants that once held the nation’s largest concentration of slave jails and holding pens, second only to New Orleans.
The tentative plans for the campus would include the Lumpkin’s slave jail and the historic site of the so-called African Burial Ground, which historians say was the city’s first public burial space for freed and enslaved Black people, founded in the late 18th century.
While Edwards said she was generally pleased with the plan, she noted it says nothing about who will own and manage the campus and museum.
“This matters because such governance translates into determining how the history of Shockoe Bottom will be told,” Edwards said. “Going forward, the Defenders will be focused on making sure that the descendant community has a prioritized voice in both the administration of the campus and in how the story of Shockoe Bottom is told.”
Sam Schwartzkopf, a spokesperson for Mayor Levar Stoney, said the Detroit-based design firm Smith Group, which was involved in the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, is conducting a site feasibility analysis for the museum. Schwartzkopf said the city is paying the firm about $333,000 for the study, which includes a topographic survey.
Stoney announced last summer that the city over the next five years would invest between $25 million and $50 million to build the Shockoe memorial park, which would include a museum.
The city’s 2022-2026 capital improvement plan tentatively sets aside nearly $28 million for the project over the next five years. The capital spending plan, however, notes that an additional $25 million is needed for both the heritage campus and museum next to the Lumpkin’s Jail archaeological site.
In December, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that he would seek approximately $9 million from the state budget to support the development of the museum. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., also expressed interest in marshaling federal support for the project as he toured the site in February.
Former Mayor Dwight C. Jones in 2013 proposed a Shockoe Bottom redevelopment plan anchored by a new stadium for the Richmond Flying Squirrels baseball team. In addition to a slave memorial site, the plans called for more than $200 million in public and private investment to build a grocery store, a Hyatt hotel, 750 apartments and a parking deck in the area.
Jones withdrew the plans for the baseball stadium the following year after the project came under scrutiny for historical appropriateness and financing. But discussions about the heritage campus continued.
The draft plan says the city’s top four priorities, to begin within 12 to 18 months of the plan’s formal adoption by the City Council, would be:
Before plans for the heritage site and museum are finalized, the city will need to determine how large the campus will be and who will manage it.
The City Council earlier this year authorized the mayor’s administration to acquire and assemble several privately owned parcels to create the heritage campus. The administration, however, met some resistance from the property owners, according to reporting by Richmond BizSense.
Schwartzkopf said Monday that the campus can be created without buying additional parcels it sought to obtain earlier this year, and that the city is not currently engaged in any “formal or informal conversations” with the property owners.
The city will hold an open public comment period on the plan until Aug. 27.
The Department of Planning and Development Review, along with City Council President Cynthia Newbille, will hold a information session about the plan in the lower level of Main Street Station at 6:30 p.m. on Aug. 3. PDR will also hold an online information session at noon on Aug. 4.
Civic groups and organizations may also arrange special presentations from the city by contacting city planner Kimberly Chen at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling (804) 646-6364.
Community members may review the draft plan and leave comment at rva.gov/planning-development-review/shockoe-small-area-plan.
Get out and stay out.
That’s the message Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration sent Monday to homeless people staying outside of the shuttered Richmond Coliseum. Police posted notices on tents around the arena as workers began erecting a fence that will bar access to the area where at least a dozen people sleep on a nightly basis.
“These people still don’t have anywhere to go,” said Rhonda Sneed of Blessing Warriors RVA, a faith-based outreach group that has aided people staying there. She said some were offered short hotel stays, but those would only keep people off the streets temporarily.
It’s the city’s latest attempt to clear an encampment of unsheltered people who have few, if any, other options for permanent shelter. This time, city officials cited plans to demolish the Coliseum and redevelop the area.
Earlier this year, city workers trashed tents, sleeping bags and other belongings in what advocates at the time said was an affront that came without warning. Those affected Monday said they were either distrustful of the region’s homeless services system, or frustrated by past experiences with it.
The notices visible on some tents Monday afternoon listed a city code that prohibits people from camping on public property. It said belongings that remained there would be considered abandoned and thrown away.
“They say it’s unlawful for us to be here. How is it unlawful? Nobody uses this coliseum,” said Talisha Braxton, 28. “Everything’s boarded up. We’re not bothering anybody here.”
In a release issued Monday, the Stoney administration said it was readying the property for demolition and eventual redevelopment, in preparation for a City Council vote on a small area plan scheduled for later this year.
“The city will take the appropriate steps to keep the work site safe and secure during the salvage process by installing construction fencing around the site, posting signage, and requiring hard hats and safety shoes on the site during active operations,” the release stated.
The notices also listed the crisis line for homeless services. Calling the number has been futile, said William McElhannon, 49, and Brittney Sisler, 32.
The pair became homeless last year when Sisler lost her housing in Missouri and McElhannon lost his truck driving job a few months later. Stops in Kansas and Georgia led them to Richmond late last year. The couple spent two months in a South Richmond hotel that was a part of Homeward’s non-congregate shelter program, a pandemic-era initiative that sheltered the homeless in hotel rooms around the region as housing insecurity spiked.
In the spring, the nonprofit ended the couple’s hotel stay without explanation, McElhannon said. The couple say they want to remain together if they are placed in shelter, but they’ve not been offered an option that would accommodate that wish. Sisler, who has a disability and uses a wheelchair, has health issues that require assistance; McElhannon is her caregiver.
They arrived at the arena earlier this month, frustrated with a system they say has not provided the help they need to get into stable housing and back on their feet.
The couple had stuffed their clothes, bedding and other possessions into tote bags and backpacks, but they were unsure as of Monday afternoon where they would end up.
“We don’t want to be here. We didn’t want to be here the day we were dropped off, and we didn’t want to leave because we would end up in the woods somewhere,” McElhannon said. “It’s not safe for her.”
The Richmond region registered its largest single-year surge in homelessness in January, according to a biannual count of the homeless conducted by the Greater Richmond Continuum of Care. The count rose from 549 to 838, a 53% uptick.
The end of some state protections and a soon-to-expire federal eviction freeze have fueled fears that a new wave of families could lose their homes before a billion-dollar pot of rental assistance is distributed.
Jason Aroudan, an immigrant from Northern Africa who became homeless about two years ago, said he has spent most nights outside the Coliseum during that time. He said he’s noticed the number of people regularly staying around the Coliseum grow in the past six months.
Aroudan said he was married to an American woman he met in his home country and moved here about five years ago. He said issues with alcohol led to a divorce, losing his job, a jail sentence and homelessness.
His situation worsened last year when a backpack that had his passport, his ID and other documents was stolen. He said that experience made him distrustful of being paired with strangers in shelters or temporary housing, so he prefers staying near the Coliseum, knowing that there are churches and charitable organizations in the area looking out for him.
With few options left, he said he expects he will soon be camping elsewhere downtown, possibly by the Department of Social Services building less than three blocks away.
“I have nowhere else to go,” he said.
Patrice Ismael-Gantt knew she always wanted to foster kids. When she was a special education teacher and intensive in-home therapist, she spent a lot of time with children in dire home situations.
“You see so many cases where you’re in these situations where you can’t help because you’re not their legal guardian,” Ismael-Gantt said. “And that you wish that ... you can make a difference. Or even if it’s just in your head, you’re thinking, ‘Oh wow, I can really help this person,’ but you can’t because you can’t take them home.”
Young people in child welfare systems have long faced challenges: a sense of housing and job instability. Emotional trauma. Uncertainty about the future. The COVID-19 pandemic has added further unpredictability to their lives.
For LGBTQ youths, those challenges may be further exacerbated. The pandemic has negatively impacted the mental health of millions of Americans, but has overwhelmingly affected LGBTQ children and young adults.
Roughly 70% of LGBTQ youths said the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health, according to a study conducted by the Trevor Project. That number jumped to 85% when focusing on transgender and nonbinary youth.
LGBTQ children and young adults in foster care were experiencing unique challenges even before the pandemic. Oftentimes, LGBTQ youths are placed in foster care after their families of origin reject them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a report from Children’s Rights, a children advocacy organization.
It then becomes a cycle of young people struggling to find permanency, which Alex Wagaman, associate professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work, attributes partly to barriers in local policies.
Equality Virginia, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ equality in Virginia, has worked to reduce barriers faced by the LGBTQ community within child welfare agencies.
“What we’ve tried to do legislatively is increase the pool of qualified prospective parents so that more LGBTQ families are able to foster and adopt,” said Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia.
A law went into effect July 1 that expanded stepparent adoption to people who are not married to a parent of a child, establishing a legal pathway to parenthood for unmarried LGBTQ couples.
Virginia’s adoption laws contain a “conscience clause” that allows religious adoption and foster care agencies the right to refuse placement that would “violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”
“We have barriers for LGBTQ adults to become foster parents and adoptive parents in the commonwealth, and then there’s also stigma” about LGBTQ people’s ability to parent, Wagaman said.
That stigma, she said, may be internalized by the LGBTQ community, which creates hesitancy for many to adopt. Roughly 26% of Virginians raising children identified as LGBTQ, according to Movement Advancement Project, an equality-oriented independent think tank.
Child welfare agencies can help break that stigma, Wagaman said, by creating safe, affirming spaces for LGBTQ parents and young people by doing small, yet impactful, things like respecting one’s preferred name and pronouns. But she said it shouldn’t end there.
“This for me is about more than just turning on a light switch — ‘OK, now we will accept all parents and families,’” she said. “I think in institutions where there has been systematically consistent experiences of discrimination and exclusion, agencies have to go over and above to actively reach out to communities.”
Agencies should have fully trained staff with a level of cultural humility around the LGBTQ community, Wagaman said, and establish support networks with LGBTQ organizations to help children foster connections with the LGBTQ community and have a space for kids to explore their identities.
Referrals to Child Protective Services in Virginia have gone down during the pandemic, said Allison Gilbreath, policy and programs director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, a children’s policy research and advocacy organization. But the decrease could be for a number of complex reasons, she said.
Experts say that as children have fewer options to get out of their homes during the pandemic, there are fewer eyes on children, including from counselors and teachers. Reunifications or permanent placements became more challenging as well, Gilbreath said.
In the past year, the pandemic has led to a halt to in-person activities, including visitations. Older teenagers and young adults in the foster care system have a harder time reaching permanency, but studies show it’s even more difficult for young LGBTQ people of color.
“Simply being in foster care is traumatic in itself,” said Gilbreath, noting that LGBTQ youths also are less likely to return home or be adopted. “All of those things become compounding factors that make their trauma even greater than when they first enter the foster care system.”
There are nearly 5,400 children in Virginia’s foster care system, according to the state Department of Social Services’ website. According to a spokesperson, the department does not keep data on the number of young LGBTQ people in the foster care system, but experts say statewide numbers are reflective of national data.
Research shows that LGBTQ youths are over-represented in foster care and unstable housing; 30% of young people in foster care identified as LGBTQ, yet only 11% of youths in the U.S. identified as LGBTQ, according to a 2019 study.
Virginia law permits either a single unmarried individual or a married couple to adopt. When same-sex marriage became federally recognized in 2014, Ismael-Gantt and her wife, Jessica Ismael-Gantt, began to explore fostering options. The Hampton couple settled with United Methodist Family Services.
“We really wanted to get to a place where we had our own little person that we could take home and be there for and help out,” Patrice Ismael-Gantt said.
In August 2016, about a month after their wedding, the Ismael-Gantts were placed with then-8-year-old Zane Ismael-Gantt. Two years later, they were able to adopt him.
Patrice Ismael-Gantt said that time in their life was a “transitional period” for Zane as well as for her and Jessica. Zane was trying to process his new environment as the couple tried to have him understand the love and attention they have for him.
“A lot of kids, they don’t realize permanency, they don’t understand forever because their life has been non-permanent,” Patrice Ismael-Gantt said. “And so I think after adoption, everything changed for us because he really realized, ‘Wow, these people love me and they care about me.’”
It was a learning process for the couple that they say was made easier with the resources and tools UMFS provided them, including trauma-based training.
“I don’t even think we could have done it without that backbone support,” said Patrice Ismael-Gantt.
UMFS, a nonprofit family service organization, offers more than 20 programs, including foster care and adoption.
Emily Clark, regional director of the central region for UMFS, said the agency is dedicated to providing resources and assistance not only for LGBTQ foster parents but also for LGBTQ foster children.
“They are at higher risk for abuse and neglect, but also for things like substance abuse, depression and a whole host of extra challenges,” Clark said, “and so having an affirming foster home can be extremely healing.”
UMFS works alongside Side by Side, an LGBTQ youth organization, to provide support groups and other resources for LGBTQ foster kids in the agency.
Clark said there are many LGBTQ parents who foster through UMFS and that the organization does its best “to make sure that they are feeling really affirmed and supported in their journey” through information sessions, training and other programs.
Patrice Ismael-Gantt remembers the moment when she could see that Zane, who is now 12, fully embraced his foster parents.
“It was that small moment that I realized that, wow, this kid is just taking pieces of us and actually making it a part of his life,” Patrice Ismael-Gantt said. “And it was a freedom for me, for him, to be able to just be that comfortable with us to be able to just be a part of us.”
Desmond and Stacey Pagan had always wanted a family of their own. Having been together for 16 years and married for 11, the Henrico County couple were exploring options to extend their family and landed on fostering through UMFS in 2018.
Right off the bat, Desmond said, the couple felt comfortable at the agency and, as a gay couple, they were not treated any differently from the other foster couples. They adopted then-16-year-old Michael in 2019 and are currently fostering a child.
“We are human beings as well, and if we want a family, then that’s perfectly fine,” Desmond Pagan said. “There shouldn’t be a reason as to why we shouldn’t be able to have that family.”
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The Richmond School Board on Monday sidestepped Mayor Levar Stoney’s bid to collaborate on rebuilding George Wythe High School.
In a 5-4 vote, board members opted instead to solicit their own designs for replacing the aging building in Richmond’s South Side while inviting city officials to the table in hopes of expediting the work.
The same five-member majority that voted in April to wrest authority for building schools back from the city supported the plan from board Vice Chair Jonathan Young, after hours of discussion during which Superintendent Jason Kamras implored the board to act.
Kamras noted the ensuing months of public back-and-forth over the issue, which put board members at odds with one another and with Stoney, had scared away prospective job candidates the school system would need to actually build schools.
“I’m tired of talking about George Wythe,” Kamras said. “It is extremely important. But there are many other important things that we need to address. We deferred our discussion of a [$60 million-plus] literacy initiative ... I beg of you. Find a resolution ... that is reasonable that recognizes the reality of what we can do and cannot do.”
In a statement Monday night, Stoney said: “Tonight’s vote doesn’t give students and their families any more reason to hope that a new school will be built one day sooner than the 2027 timeline outlined by the superintendent. Our students and families deserve better.”
The board opted to move forward with establishing an evaluation panel made up of at least three city employees and four school system employees, the RPS facilities planner and director of facilities. At the direction of the board, Kamras must release procurement documents for a design of Wythe by the end of August.
Members of the school community demanded action after Kamras said the schools’ takeover would push back a timetable for replacing the school. Stoney last month challenged the board by directing his administration to issue design proposals in what he said was an effort to rebuild sooner.
When the initial resolution introduced by 3rd District board member Kenya Gibson passed, Kamras and detractors of the move claimed that since the district does not have expertise to build new schools, Wythe would not see a rebuild until 2027. Stoney has claimed his administration could build it by 2024.
Stoney’s proposal calls for a school that holds 2,000 students. Young’s projects no more than 1,600 students. Kamras said Monday that it’s reasonable to expect Wythe’s enrollment to reach 1,500 in the next couple of years and advised against limiting the school’s capacity.
Kamras also said the board’s direction to release a proposal by the end of next month is impossible. He does not expect to have the three hires he said must be in place to conduct that work until October.
The board directed his administration to prepare a request for proposals to rebuild Woodville Elementary and the Career and Technical High School by October.
Liz Doerr of the 1st District brought forward a competing proposal Monday alongside Nicole Jones, who represents the 9th District. Their colleagues voted it down.
“While I believe that Mr. Young’s proposal is introduced with good intention, it does not do anything to change where we are today,” Doerr said during the meeting. “If we do not join this evaluation committee, George Wythe will be delayed.”
Doerr and Jones’ motion sought to achieve compromise and speed up the process by authorizing RPS to allow someone from Kamras’ staff on the evaluation panel for the city’s request for proposals.
Sixth District representative Shonda Harris-Muhammed dissented on the grounds that the proposal did not explicitly state the school district would retain control of Wythe’s construction. She also said it did not acknowledge certain challenges with the city being in charge of school construction.
Stephanie Rizzi of the 5th District and Mariah White of the 2nd District agreed with Harris-Muhammed. Doerr added language specifying that schools will build schools, but five members still voted “no.”
A Petersburg man indicted in the burglary of an Ettrick business is the first person in Virginia to be charged with a crime based on the use of a liquid nanotechnology known as SmartWater CSI — a substance residents or merchants can use to mark property that could be stolen.
A Chesterfield County grand jury handed down indictments Monday charging Christopher S. Gaines, 52, with burglary, felony petit larceny third offense and wearing a mask to hide his identity in connection with an April 11 break-in at the Ettrick Deli at 3608 E. River Road.
Gaines was confirmed as a suspect after police, using a special ultraviolet light, observed that his clothing was covered with smears of a colorless and odorless liquid that he had come in contact with when he allegedly entered the business.
The substance, known as SmartWater, is a traceable liquid that is coded with a forensic technology that contains a unique signature for each user. When brushed or sprayed on, it is undetectable except by ultraviolet light, where it glows yellow-green.
Every person arrested in Chesterfield is now scanned for traces of SmartWater on their person, clothing or belongings, as the county — through the police and sheriff’s departments — has expanded use of the technology.
The Sheriff’s Office, which operates the Chesterfield Jail, installed a SmartWater detection camera in a small vestibule where all new prisoners pass through before they are booked on charges.
“Once in that small area, the arresting officer will activate the detection lamp which takes seconds and looks for the telltale signs,” said Sheriff Karl Leonard.
In the Gaines case, police responded about 11 p.m. on April 11 to an alarm at the Ettrick Deli, which had been burglarized several times in previous months. After the earlier break-ins, Chesterfield police equipped the business with SmartWater, along with a “delivery system” that can invisibly mark suspects.
Chesterfield police declined to identify the delivery system, but said they have several types that include spray devices and “contact” systems. They can be used in commercial businesses in conjunction with alarm systems, or on the street in response to such crimes as property thefts from vehicles.
When officers arrived at the business, they located a man who police said ignored verbal commands and fled on foot. After a brief pursuit, the man — later identified as Gaines — was apprehended. Using the special ultraviolet light on the street, officers discovered that the man’s clothing and other items were pocked with SmartWater.
The SmartWater liquid stays on property for a minimum of five years. More than 200 households throughout Chesterfield — primarily in the Bensley, Bayhill Pointe and Mason Woods communities — have used the liquid to mark their various belongings, police said. Police typically seek to have residents use the substance in neighborhoods where burglaries have been a problem.
When applied, the liquid provides information to police about that item’s place of origin. Law enforcement can then use this provenance information in court when an arrest is made.
So far, the Chesterfield Police Department is the only law enforcement agency in Virginia to use the technology with SmartWater CSI, a company that originated in England 25 years ago.
The company came to the U.S. in 2013 and initially focused on the Miami-Dade County, Broward County and Palm Beach County areas in Florida to “prove that the technology would work just as well in the U.S. as it did over in Europe,” said Randy Butschillinger, the company’s law enforcement sales and training manager.
SmartWater is used by 40 to 50 localities in that section of Florida, including in Boynton Beach, where Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz served as chief before coming to Chesterfield in January 2018.
“We’re in over 70 neighborhoods in Boynton Beach, and that was when he was down there as the police chief,” Butschillinger said. “And they averaged 38% reductions in burglaries.”
When Katz was hired by Chesterfield, Butschillinger urged him to begin a SmartWater program in the county — and the chief did so within six months. The department invested $10,000 in start-up costs for a five-year contract, which includes signs and kits for homeowners in targeted neighborhoods to mark 60 to 80 items; officer training; products for police covert operations; and analysis of recovered property marked by the liquid.
The company is now working to expand in other Southern states; Butschillinger will make a presentation later this summer to the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
“When you’re the new kid on the block, so to speak, it takes a little bit of time to get people to understand what the technology and the programs can do for them — but also accepted enough to invest in a program,” Butschillinger said.
SmartWater has had some notable successes in other parts of the country.
In September 2018, SmartWater played a role in the arrest of a Tulare County [California] Superior Court employee who was charged with stealing money from her co-workers.
After employees began to notice money missing from their purses and wallets, investigators applied the liquid to $1,000 in “bait cash” that was left out for the suspect to steal. The thief was then observed taking the money while under surveillance, and she deposited it into an ATM.
The employee was scanned and traces of SmartWater were found on her body. Subsequent analysis found that the forensic code, unique to each bottle of the liquid, was a match for the water applied to the cash.
In addition to that case, SmartWater was used to mark hundreds of pieces of agricultural equipment in 11 California counties, which led to the arrest of several agricultural thieves.