A plan to enhance a stretch of Leigh Street downtown with a bike path, sidewalks and other streetscape improvements recently was awarded funding priority by the state. But the award could end up being moot if the much bigger plan to redevelop the area around the street and the Richmond Coliseum comes to fruition.
In May, the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board adopted its latest round of funding recommendations through VDOT’s Smart Scale prioritization program for projects to be funded over the next six years. Among local projects awarded priority is a streetscape enhancement for a section of East Leigh Street, part of which is planned to be modified as part of the proposed Navy Hill project.
The $6.6 million streetscape project, which would add a shared-use path, sidewalks and street improvements to better control traffic flow, stretches the length of Leigh Street between Fourth Street and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge. The section includes the valleyed four-block stretch between Fourth and Eighth streets that provides below-grade access to the now-shuttered Coliseum.
NH District Corp., the local group behind Navy Hill, includes in its proposal modifications to the same part of Leigh Street, which lines the northern border of the Coliseum-anchored, 10-block area that’s proposed for redevelopment. The group’s plan calls for using debris from demolishing the half-century-old arena to fill that section of Leigh Street to bring it back to grade.
While ongoing negotiations between the group and the City of Richmond about the project and its proposed tax-increment financing structure make a potential timeline for Navy Hill unclear, the redevelopment that hinges on replacing the Coliseum would likely precede the Leigh Street enhancements, which are projected at least four years out.
VDOT’s Smart Scale website lists the streetscape project as scheduled to start in 2023, with surveying and design completed in 2025, right-of-way acquisition in 2026 and construction concluding in 2028.
Navy Hill – discussed for years but presented publicly last fall – has been planned to start as early as this year, according to documents provided after Mayor Levar Stoney endorsed the project in November. A briefing prepared by Davenport & Co. refers to the first five years of the project’s revenue projections as 2019-2023.
Project’s ties to Navy Hill unclear
Plans submitted to the state for the Smart Scale program show the streetscape improvements would include a pedestrian and bike path along the north side of Leigh Street, a sidewalk along the south side, and a “connection to downtown redevelopment” via North Seventh Street along the east side of the Coliseum.
Other improvements include signal modifications and safety upgrades, additional crosswalks and curb ramps, and landscaping and a pedestrian-oriented median toward the MLK Bridge.
The improvements appear tied to replacing the Coliseum, as a description included in a list of candidate projects that the city submitted for this latest round of Smart Scale funding refers to the arena redevelopment specifically.
The description, included in a resolution that City Council adopted in June 2018, states: “This project creates a complete streetscape with sidewalk, bike infrastructure as appropriate, access management, access to transit stops and pedestrian crossings to support VCU Health Campus and Arena RFP.”
The last part of the line refers to the city’s request for proposals, for which the Navy Hill pitch was the lone respondent, and planned additions to VCU Health’s MCV Campus, such as the recently completed College of Health Professions building.
While the streetscape project includes the same section of Leigh Street that NH District Corp. plans to fill and bring back to grade, it would not be dependent on or coordinated with the regrade proposal, said Sharon North, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW).
North, whose department compiled the projects submitted for Smart Scale funding, said the streetscape improvements would go forward regardless of an arena redevelopment, which she noted has yet to be formally proposed or approved. She said the streetscape project was identified as a priority in early 2017, months before the city issued its RFP.
In an email to BizSense, North said: “In December 2016, VCU Police and the DPW requested a joint Roadway Safety Audit (RSA) on Leigh Street due to VCU Health System’s ongoing construction and proposed future building plans. The RSA was held on February 17, 2017 and formed the basis for the Smart Scale application.”
Noting that the Navy Hill proposal has yet to be submitted to or approved by City Council, North added: “At the present time there is no approved Navy Hill project. Any (Leigh Street) project planned is independent from any proposal the city has received.”
A spokesman for NH District Corp. said the group would not comment on the Smart Scale funding because it was not familiar enough with the award to do so. The group did acknowledge the Leigh Street regrade is included in its plan but did not say how it would relate to the streetscape improvements. It has previously said the regrade could cost between $20 million and $24 million.
Meanwhile, negotiations between the group and the city continue. Grant Neely, an NH District Corp. representative, has said the talks could wrap up this summer, setting the stage for the project to be formally proposed via city ordinance.
The streetscape enhancements would contribute to a long-term goal of making Leigh Street a connection between VCU’s MCV and Monroe Park campuses. The university’s master plan describes the street’s potential development as a pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban boulevard.
Other Richmond-area projects awarded funding priority over the next six years through Smart Scale Round 3 include:
+ Pedestrian access improvements for Shockoe Bottom GRTC Pulse stations, $4.9 million, 2023-2029
+ Pedestrian access improvements for Fulton- and Rocketts Landing-area Pulse stations, $2.05 million, 2023-2029
+ East Maury Street safety improvements and Interstate 95 roundabout interchange project, $4.6 million, 2023-2028
+ Lombardy Street bike and pedestrian connections between Leigh Street and VUU, $13.6 million ($5.7 million awarded), 2018-2025
+ Boulevard shared-use path from Scott’s Addition to Science Museum, $2.9 million, 2023-2028
+ Pedestrian access improvements in Scott’s Addition for nearby Pulse stations, $1.6 million, 2023-2027