Venture Richmond can move ahead with a scaled-back version of its planned Tredegar Green amphitheater after the Richmond Planning Commission voted Monday to approve the riverfront project.
The 6-2 vote came after a vigorous debate that touched on the need to have the amphitheater ready as the main stage for the Richmond Folk Festival this fall as well as the somewhat chaotic process that preceded Monday’s meeting.
In new designs submitted to City Hall on Friday, Venture Richmond agreed to leave the canal towpath undisturbed on the city-owned portion of the site and refrain from festival use on city property north of the brick wall that runs along the towpath. Essentially, the change eliminates a corner of the seating area above the canal.
Monday’s approval brings a temporary resolution to an issue that’s been simmering since last summer.
As originally envisioned, the amphitheater would span almost 5 acres, some owned by the city and some owned by Venture Richmond, between Tredegar and South Second streets. The Planning Commission only has authority over the city-owned property, officials said.
The height of the towpath and its impact on water levels were major sticking points. Several critics suggested that a planned lowering of the towpath and the water level could threaten future efforts to refill the canal with water and allow boat travel to Maymont. Residents of the nearby Oregon Hill neighborhood have also objected to the potential noise and traffic impact.
Officials from Venture Richmond, a nonprofit organization that promotes downtown, said the amphitheater is essential to the future of one of Richmond’s most high-profile events. They also maintained that the plan would not make the canal impassable.
“We just thought, let’s resolve the issue that seems to be a problem,” said Venture Richmond Executive Director Jack Berry. “Let’s see if we can get 90 percent of what we want approved so that we can move forward.”
After the meeting, Berry said Venture Richmond doesn’t need anymore official approvals. He said work will likely begin in May, but he could not offer a firm estimate of when it might be completed.
The commission members who voted against the plan, Doug Cole and Amy L. Howard, raised concerns about the process and the revised plans being submitted on a Friday before a Monday meeting. They suggested sending the matter back to the city’s Urban Design Committee for more review.
The commission postponed a vote on the amphitheater plan in late January to allow the City Council to amend Venture Richmond’s lease to require the organization to raise the height of the canal towpath if the water level proves insufficient for boats, which Berry said he did not oppose.
Berry said at Monday’s meeting that Venture Richmond could not reach agreement with the city attorney’s office on the amendment language.
“That to me should be eight red flags,” Cole said to his colleagues.
“It feels incomplete and that this is very rushed,” Howard said.
Berry said the legal disagreement centered on the scope of the work Venture Richmond would be required to perform, and rather than undertaking a lengthy process to hash things out and get the council to vote on changing the lease, it made more sense to separate the issues.
“We are desperate to get started with this project,” Berry said, adding that work needs to start soon to have grass grown at the amphitheater site in time for the Richmond Folk Festival in October.
He said Venture Richmond first proposed the changes as added conditions on the plan, but city planners asked the organization to provide drawings showing what would be omitted.
A majority of the commission members seemed convinced that because the modifications to the plan merely removed issues that proved controversial with the public, no further review was needed.
Some suggested that the lease issue could be handled at a future date if the need arises.
“Right now, it’s not germane to what’s before us,” said City Councilwoman Kathy C. Graziano, 4th District, the council’s representative on the Planning Commission.
Councilman Parker C. Agelasto, whose 5th District includes Oregon Hill, spoke against the plan, saying it was only “a third of a plan” and decrying a “piecemeal” approach as an inefficient use of city time and resources.
“I don’t think you’re really being asked to consider the larger plan,” Agelasto said.
Several residents also spoke in opposition.
Oregon Hill resident Charles Pool suggested the scaled-down plan was an attempt to evade a review by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which would have been required because of the project’s wetlands impact. Pool also said the lease change that commissioners asked for is now “out the window.”
“This is protection that the Planning Commission has asked for to have some basic assurance that the canal is not damaged,” Pool said.
Berry said future changes to the towpath on city-owned property will require Venture Richmond to return to the Planning Commission. The revisions submitted Friday should not be viewed as a new plan, he said.
“I believe it’s just a documentation of the conditions so that everyone is clear about what will be left alone,” Berry said.
Venture Richmond is also seeking a tax exemption for its Tredegar property. The council opted last month to defer that issue until mid-April.
Commissioner Lynn McAteer was absent from the meeting.
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