With a new report praising the $1.5 billion Navy Hill plan in hand, a majority of the Richmond City Council doubled down on its opposition to the downtown redevelopment proposal on Monday.
In a signal that the economic development deal may officially die next week, a panel of the nine-member council recommended striking the project from its docket. The decision, on a 5-4 vote, came amid calls from opponents to scrap the deal and from supporters to salvage it.
“This is about faith in the people over the fear of what we have been put through for not rubber-stamping this deal,” said Kimberly Gray, the 2nd District councilwoman who joined four others on the council panel who recommended striking the ordinances. All members of the council sit on the panel, the organizational development standing committee.
Council President Cynthia Newbille of the 7th District shot back: “At no time have I been a part of rubber-stamping anything.”
Supporting the recommendation were Gray, 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.
Opposing it were Councilman Andreas Addison of the 1st District, Councilwoman Ellen Robertson of the 6th District, Newbille and Councilman Michael Jones of the 9th District.
Council members who voted against the recommendation said it was a deviation from the council’s process that would stifle public input as the council works to amend the deal before a final vote later this month.
The recommendation gives the council the option of quashing the project when it meets next Monday instead of conducting a final vote on Feb. 24, as it originally planned.
The vote came hours after the council received a favorable review of the project from a consultant it hired.
A Chicago-based consultant laid out strengths and weaknesses of the plan. Its preliminary report praised the arena-centered development that would bring a 500-room hotel without a subsidy and replace public infrastructure in the area on the developer’s dime.
“I think this can be, and would be, a world-class type of project,” said Charlie Johnson, president and CEO of C.H. Johnson Consulting Inc., which the council paid $215,000 to review the proposal. “A lot of work has gone into this [project] by a lot of competent, professional people.”
The firm’s report did not soften the stance of the majority of the council or opponents of the project who spoke during a public hearing held Monday. They asked the council panel to strike the ordinances from its docket.
NH District Corp., the development group led by Dominion Energy CEO Thomas F. Farrell II, said the report made clear the council bloc should drop its opposition and return to the negotiating table.
“While we are still carefully studying this report, today’s presentation further demonstrates that the proposal is based on good principles and consistent with best practices, addresses significant deficiencies in the Richmond market today, and that the financing structure has been thoroughly vetted and is standard for a project of this nature,” said Jeff Kelley, a spokesman for Farrell’s group.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney echoed the developers in a statement.
“It’s time that council members come to the table and make this work,” he said.
The council recommendation came before an anticipated vote on a request for Stoney to scrap his signature proposal before a final vote slated in three weeks. Stoney has said he will not acquiesce. The resolution, while nonbinding, makes clear the plan lacks the seven votes required to win approval. The vote was set to take place late Monday night, after press time.
That resolution requests that the administration complete a small area plan, an appraisal of the city-owned land in the vicinity, and an assessment of the infrastructure. It requests that after taking those steps, Stoney issue a new solicitation for redevelopment of the area.
The resolution was introduced by the same five-member council bloc a week earlier.
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.
C.H. Johnson’s report stated the public-private proposal was structured similarly to others the group has studied around the country. That structure would insulate the city from negative effects if the deal founders, Johnson said.
The financial assumptions that underpin the commercial development planned for the project are reasonable, the report stated. So are the assumptions for the proposed arena, though the consultant noted a major caveat: The developers estimated the new facility would host 181 events annually, between 40 and 54 more than comparable facilities.
The consultant did list several weaknesses of the plan, including an 80-block special tax zone that is integral to the project’s proposed financing. A Richmond delegate’s bill aimed at shrinking that zone by using state sales tax revenue for the project died Monday at the Virginia General Assembly for a second time.
Other weaknesses the consultant cited: the absence of an appraisal of the city-owned land that would change hands under the deal; and the lack of specific plans for the relocation of the Department of Social Services from Marshall Plaza, which would be demolished under the proposal, as well as the GRTC transfer center.
The consultant also questioned whether the city has the capacity to oversee a development of Navy Hill’s scope.
Said Johnson, “We’d like to see that sharpened and improved.”