Rodney Gaines didn’t expect much when he went to a community meeting a few years ago. He was surprised when, for the first time he can remember in his 40 years of living in South Richmond, community organizers asked what he and his neighbors wanted for their community.
Nearly everyone’s hand shot up. They had been thinking about this for a long time.
A more beautiful, safer place to live. A grocery store where the Gene’s supermarket used to be. A pharmacy or bank in the vacant strip mall at the intersection of Walmsley Boulevard and Richmond Highway. More trees. Better sidewalks.
“I want to leave a legacy for my kids and grandkids,” Gaines said in an interview. “We’re a South Side family. The legacy I want for them is a cleaner, more productive South Side.”
As the city considers six proposals for a casino resort, all but one of which would be located in South Richmond, Gaines and other organizers with the advocacy group Virginia Community Voice are working to elevate the opinions of residents in Richmond’s marginalized communities and neighborhoods.
The group expanded from the work of RVA Thrives, a community program that fostered leadership and self-advocacy in neighborhoods along the Richmond Highway corridor.
Rechristening Jefferson Davis Highway in the name of racial justice doesn’t change the quality of life in a place where responsible, supportive development is needed, said Gaines, a 55-year-old barber and entrepreneur.
Virginia Community Voice currently works with city departments and several community organizations, collectively known as the city’s Green Team, to shape environmental policy and park development plans.
It also is exploring the creation of an “equitable development scorecard,” a system that scores development projects based on how they will impact the surrounding community.
Other cities around the country have adopted similar programs in recent years.
St. Paul, Minn., for example, last year adopted the concept after working with a community group in the city’s West Side. It scores projects based on how developers engage the public before official plans are submitted to the city and whether they will provide deeply affordable housing and job and investment opportunities for local residents, particularly people of color and women. It also rates them on their transportation plans, environmental impact and proximity to public transit.
Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration has included the concept as an element of his proposed “equity agenda,” a 10-point plan that includes strengthening public engagement and using economic development to create “economic justice.”
The mayor said he wants the agenda to be a “foundational guide” for his new four-year term and beyond. His administration is still soliciting public input on the agenda.
Sharon Ebert, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for economic and community development, said the city is hoping to shift its attention to South Richmond after focusing on revitalizing older neighborhoods north of downtown in more recent years.
“I think our big challenge is showing communities in South Side that we’re serious,” Ebert said in an interview.
In the seven census tracts closest to the Richmond Highway corridor, the yearly average median income is approximately $33,300, which is about two-thirds of the city’s median household income of $51,285, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates. About 75% of the residents in the area are Black or Hispanic.
Amelia Lightner, who has lived in South Richmond for more than 40 years and is a member of Voice’s board of directors, said people in the community have little trust in the city.
“We’ve been promised so much,” said Lightner, 85. “People are not seeing it materialize.”
Ebert said the city has been trying to improve community engagement and trust in recent years, particularly as city planners and consultants were drafting the Richmond 300 plan, a 256-page manual governing how new development should occur throughout the city over the next two decades.
“In a perfect world as we implement the Richmond 300 plan, we’d be using these scorecards to make a more fine-grained map for how we move forward,” she said. “We have to show the communities where we’re going to do this. That’s the only way I can see trust being built.”
While the city continues to develop its scorecard, Ebert expects the city will also work with Virginia Community Voice to train city planners and other officials to improve engagement.
Meanwhile, in the Manchester area, developers are rehabbing old buildings or constructing new homes.
Sean Crippen, a 37-year-old organizer with Community Voice who has lived in the Manchester area since 2012, cited the recent construction of a new storage unit facility as something that adds little value or support for residents.
“If they’re going to bring something here, bring something that’s going to help us out,” he said, adding that the city could be doing more to help attract development. “They know who wants to develop here. They could be saying, ‘Hey, we don’t need another grocery store in Carytown. Why don’t you look at this area?’”
Gaines said he’s hoping to see more affordable housing and commercial development shift south of Hull Street and farther down Richmond Highway. But there’s also concern about gentrification.
North of Decatur Street, residential properties, including multifamily properties, have recently been sold at prices between $250,000 and $805,000, according to data from the Richmond Association of Realtors.
Meanwhile, annual sales of homes farther down the Route 1 corridor, which frequently sold for less than $100,000 over the past five years, have increased by 40% since 2016 with recent sales averaging more than $130,000 in five of the last six months.
Laura Lafayette, CEO of the realtors association, said “stale” zoning in the area south of Manchester impedes growth, but that it has made some of the housing there affordable, which should be preserved to help mitigate the Richmond area’s housing affordability problems as development interests rise.
“It’s very smart for the administration to be thinking about how does present and future development affect equity issues such as affordable land, affordable homeownership, economic/cultural displacement, amenities and green spaces,” she said.
Then there’s the looming possibility of a casino resort rising near their homes.
While two of the applicants are looking to build in the northeast quadrant of the intersection between the Powhite and Chippenham parkways, three others want to build either in Manchester or near the Philip Morris industrial campus between Interstate 95 and Richmond Highway.
“It doesn’t help us. If someone came to you and said, ‘Hey, what does your community need?’ A casino would be at the very bottom. You wouldn’t even think about it,” Crippen said. “It makes no sense. But if you’re going to do it, at least provide jobs, let us help.”
Many of the applicants mentioned plans to donate funds to the city and its school division and collaborate with local Black-owned businesses and institutions, such as Virginia Union University. Stoney and other city officials say they want to select the project that will provide the most benefit to the community, as voters will have the final say in a referendum this November.
Ebert said the project could result in approximately $30 million in new annual revenue for the city. She said the revenue can be used for infrastructure improvements as zoning changes are considered, which could make the area more appealing to businesses and developers.
Lightner said residents have been working together and have made things better however they can.
Now that developers are showing up and the city says it’s ready to help, she hopes they’ll listen.
“We can’t do this alone,” she said.
Staff writer John Ramsey contributed to this report.