Outlining his vision for an “equity agenda” for this year, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney on Thursday announced the creation of a public engagement office and an economic development scorecard system in his annual State of the City address.
While acknowledging the constraints and challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impose on the city, Stoney said his administration remains committed to its goals of affordable housing, improving public safety and police accountability, reopening public schools, and fostering economic development.
Stoney’s address originally was scheduled for last month but was delayed until Thursday after the mayor tested positive for the coronavirus on Jan. 27. Stoney, who experienced flu-like symptoms, has since recovered.
City budget officials last month projected a $37.5 million revenue shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1. Stoney did not discuss specifics about his budget proposal, which is due next month, but stressed that the city must meet the needs of the city’s most vulnerable residents and address historical injustices.
“This struggle has tested our patience, our selflessness, our compassion and our strength to carry on. ... Until we ensure that every Richmonder has access to the vaccine, the test will not be over,” he said. “But the past year has made it clear we can’t simply survive this pandemic. We have the responsibility to address the injustices the pandemic has illuminated. We must learn from this crisis.”
He said one of the key elements of improving equity will be building on the city’s public engagement efforts.
Stoney spokesperson Jim Nolan said the new Office of Public Engagement will feature new and existing city employees. Stoney said the office will work across all city departments to implement “creative engagement techniques” to share information about the city’s programs and policies.
Here are some of the other initiatives and issues Stoney discussed in his 41-minute, pre-recorded address.
In anticipation of further development in areas like Scott’s Addition and the downtown corridor, Stoney announced that his administration is developing an “Equitable Economic Development Scorecard.”
The evaluation system is intended to reflect standard expectations based on community input and industry best practices.
“By developing a scorecard, we’ll create a transparent process by which to evaluate economic development projects to ensure they will bring greater equity for Black and brown businesses and families,” he said.
The administration recently announced plans to sell the city’s Public Safety Building downtown for a $325 million redevelopment project. The city also is preparing to receive proposals for a new casino resort later this month; city voters are expected to decide on the project in a referendum in November.
After ordering the removal of Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, Stoney said his administration is developing an ordinance to ban the city from displaying symbols of white supremacy, neo-Nazi ideology or the Confederate battle flag on public property.
He said the city also will continue to work toward removing “hate symbols” and changing the names of streets and bridges named after white supremacists.
The city is still working on plans to remove the A.P. Hill monument on Laburnum Avenue, and lawyers for the city are preparing a request for a court order to move Hill’s burial remains from underneath the statue. A Stoney spokesperson said officials are consulting with Hill descendants to make arrangements.
As local housing experts estimate a need for 1,000 new affordable housing units annually to meet demand by 2040, Stoney reiterated his commitment to building 10,000 affordable housing units by 2030. He said the city intends to work with housing nonprofits and organizations like the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust.
The City Council recently approved an ordinance that directs revenue from expiring real estate tax abatements to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
Last year, council members called on the mayor to increase the city’s $2.9 million annual contribution to the fund to $10 million. Stoney rebuffed the request, but his administration projects that the requested funding level will be reached by 2025, thanks to the new tax revenue measure.
Nearly three years after the opening of the GRTC Transit System’s Pulse bus rapid transit line, the city is now planning to paint the bus-only lanes red. Stoney said his administration will introduce an ordinance later this month to accept state transportation funding for the initiative.
Transit advocates called on the city to paint the lanes after a Pulse bus fatally struck a pedestrian in October 2019.
Stoney said the city also is planning to create a new bike-share program that will focus on placing stations near the city’s largest public housing communities.
Toward the end of his speech, Stoney called on Gov. Ralph Northam and state lawmakers to prohibit the open carry of firearms in all public spaces, noting the recent Lobby Day gun rights demonstrations in the city the past two years.
The mayor said that the Richmond Police Department recently created an Office of Professional Accountability to guide professional development for officers and is working to implement recommendations of a task force he convened last year in the wake of protests after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police.
“RPD is re-evaluating its training practices, implementing a community-based training model that encourages civilian feedback on language, demeanor and cultural awareness,” Stoney said. “Officers will go into the job with an understanding of and respect for the communities they’ll serve.”
Stoney also called on the City Council to finalize the establishment of a Civilian Review Board for the city’s police department.
Last week, the council finalized appointments to a task force that will determine the panel’s framework.