Note: This story has been updated from its original version.
An accelerated effort to let voters weigh in on the public funding portion of the proposed Navy Hill development was struck down Wednesday by a divided Richmond City Council.
At the second of two back-to-back special meetings called this week in an attempt to beat a Friday deadline, council voted 5-3, with one abstention, against putting an advisory referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot that would have asked voters’ opinion on whether city revenues should be used to pay off bonds that would fund the arena portion of the $1.5 billion project.
Vice President Chris Hilbert, who the day before voted in favor of considering an expedited vote on the referendum but spoke against the concept, joined Andreas Addison, Michael Jones, Ellen Robertson and President Cynthia Newbille in voting down the referendum at Wednesday’s meeting.
Kim Gray and Reva Trammel, who introduced the resolution, voted in favor along with Kristen Larsen, while Parker Agelasto abstained from voting.
Hilbert and Larsen, while on opposite sides of the vote, both stressed in remarks preceding the vote that support or opposition for the referendum shouldn’t be translated as being for or against the project.
“I think you elected me to do a job,” Hilbert told the audience. “It’s unlikely at this point that I’m going to support this development project, because I just see way too many holes in it right out of the gate… But I think it’s my job to do these things instead of putting it back in the voters’ lap.””
“I think there might be an assumption that if we as City Council support the referendum, that we are not in support of the project,” Larsen said. “”Me personally, I have not made a decision about the project…. I feel like at this point that the more information we can get, the better.”
Newbille, who noted council’s other plans to have an advisory commission and a third-party consultant review the proposal, contended that a referendum on top of that was not needed. She said a request for proposals for the consultant went out this week, while chairpersons for the commission are to be sworn in Friday.
“Colleagues have mentioned some of those past projects that we’ve looked hindsight and said we might have done differently if we had other information, but we are addressing those in this instance,” Newbille said.
“I am looking forward to receiving the information from the independent consultant; I am looking forward to receiving the set of recommendations from the commission,” she said. “…This one component of a megaproject, it would be a disservice – an absolute disservice – to say, yeah, let’s do a referendum without having you have all the information as well.”
The vote followed a roughly 90-minute public hearing at which more than 30 speakers voiced opposition to the measure while about 10 spoke in support of a referendum. Among those who spoke in opposition were dermatologist Pamela Royal, who is among several business leaders who make up NH District Corp., the local group pushing the project.
Urging council to give the group time to work with them on the project, Royal said: “There’s a process in place that I believe will allow you the time to have all the expertise you need” to consider the proposal.
Earlier in the day, emails from NavyHillRVA.com and ChamberRVA urged supporters to attend the hearing and voice their support for the project. Outside the meeting room at the Richmond Police Training Academy building – a change in venue from council chambers, which are undergoing renovations – several people offered pins and leaflets promoting the project to attendees as they arrived.
During the hearing, Gray questioned the source of the fliers, clarifying that they did not come from City Council.
Described as the biggest economic development project in city history, the public portion of Navy Hill would be funded in large part through a proposed tax-increment funding (TIF) district, in which real estate tax revenue solely from new development and increased assessments would be put toward paying off the bonds for the arena.
Initially proposed for the project’s 10-block area, the district has been enlarged to span much of downtown, bordered to the west and east by First and 10th streets, and to the north and south by Interstate 64-95 and the Downtown Expressway. Mayor Levar Stoney has said the district needed to be enlarged because 60 percent of the properties in the project area are state-owned or otherwise tax-exempt.
The arena, projected to cost $235 million and planned to be the largest in Virginia, is proposed to be funded through nonrecourse revenue bonds, which Stoney has said would put the financial risk on bondholders and keep city taxpayers from being on the hook for the venue in the event of a project default.
The rest of the development would be funded by NH District Corp., which would be required to show that $900 million in private investment has been secured for the project before the city can pursue a bond sale to finance the new arena. The project calls for more than 2,000 market-rate apartments, 480 income-based housing units, a 541-room hotel, a renovated Blues Armory building, a new GRTC transfer center, and new retail and office spaces.