The same day project backers rolled out their latest endorsement with the promised return of minor-league hockey to Richmond, a majority of City Council called for Mayor Levar Stoney to withdraw his hotly debated Navy Hill plan, just weeks before an anticipated vote on the $1.5 billion development proposal.
At council’s regular meeting Monday, a resolution backed by five of its nine members was added to the agenda for introduction, formally requesting that Stoney withdraw his proposed Navy Hill ordinances and conduct a new process to request proposals for development of city-owned land beside and including the Richmond Coliseum.
The resolution, which goes to a council committee before it can be voted on, precedes an anticipated deciding vote in which seven council votes would be needed to approve the project. A draft of the resolution obtained Monday by BizSense listed four members as patrons: Kristen Larson, Kim Gray, Stephanie Lynch and Vice President Chris Hilbert.
A statement from Navy Hill developer NH District Corp., distributed just prior to the start of the 6 p.m. meeting, listed council member Reva Trammel among the resolution’s supporters. Trammel’s name was said to have been added to the resolution ahead of the meeting.
“It’s unfortunate that instead of looking for ways to improve the Navy Hill proposal, these Councilmembers are putting their heads in the sand and hoping that the City’s problems resolve themselves,” the statement read in part. “We proactively sought to sit down with each of these five members to ask them for their ideas, amendments and recommendations to make this the best possible deal for Richmond, to which they have offered nothing.”
A spokesman for Stoney did not respond to a request for comment.
RFP period ‘too short’
The resolution – posted before the meeting on Twitter by local freelance writer Jason Roop – lists several aspects of the project that the patrons take issue with, including that a version of the proposal was under development in the private sector and was known to the city prior to its formal request for proposals, or RFP, in 2017.
“…it is the sense of the Council that the 92-day period allowed for submission of responses to the Request for Proposals may have been too short for development of alternative proposals for such a large and complex project,” the document reads, adding that “…the uses identified in the (RFP) are modeled on the original private sector proposal…”
The resolution contends that a “recent planning process” specific to the area proposed for Navy Hill has yet to be completed, noting as well that the Richmond 300 master planning effort remains underway. It also says council never took a position on whether to demolish or rehab the now-shuttered Coliseum, which the project would replace with a newer, larger arena.
Other concerns include the project’s proposed tax-increment financing structure, in which real estate tax revenues from new development and increased assessments in a designated TIF district would be used to pay bonds for the new arena. The project previously called for an 80-block district covering much of downtown, but NHDC said the area could be reduced to 11 blocks with a proposed bill that would allow some state tax revenues to go toward the bonds.
The resolution notes that the city’s required minimum number of income-based housing units and a new GRTC transfer center were not included in the original proposal and were only added during negotiations with the city. It also notes that the city did not have an appraisal of the city-owned parcels completed prior to completing negotiations, among other points listed.
The resolution asks that Stoney’s administration complete a plan of the Navy Hill area, conduct an appraisal of the parcels, and assess existing and required infrastructure before initiating a new RFP process. It also calls for more transparency through “robust, citywide public input,” that the RFP process allow for the area to be developed by multiple developers, and for participation from other localities in the region if a new arena is pursued, among other points made.
‘Could discredit’ city’s business reputation
NHDC’s statement, which refers to the resolution as originating from council members Larson and Gray, contends that it “could discredit the City of Richmond’s business reputation for years to come – attempting to upturn a two-year long, public request-for-proposals (RFP) process even before a professional review of the plan is complete.”
“…Just as the Council’s Navy Hill Advisory Commission worked hard – it’s time for these Councilmembers to do the people’s work, because we are not going to withdraw this community benefit-driven proposal or start over,” the statement reads. “The project has been under unprecedented scrutiny for the past six months – and we have engaged residents in hundreds of civic meetings and briefings and dozens of Advisory Commission meetings, Council work sessions and public hearings. No City process has ever been this transparent.”
As currently proposed, Navy Hill would consist of a 17,500-seat arena, a 541-room Hyatt Regency hotel, 2,000 market-rate apartments, an initial 280 income-based housing units with potential for more, renovated Blues Armory building, GRTC transfer center, and additional retail, office and city-use buildings.
The project would be kickstarted with $900 million in private investment that is projected to total $1.3 billion upon completion of the project. The development agreement put forth by the mayor and now under review by City Council requires NHDC to show the $900 million has been secured before the city can pursue a bond sale to finance the arena, projected to cost $235 million and planned to be the largest in Virginia.
In recent weeks, NHDC has announced several endorsements and commitments to the project, including CoStar’s agreeing to fill one of the project’s office buildings.
Monday morning, it announced a new team with the AA East Coast Hockey League would play at the new arena – signaling a return of the sport to Richmond that local hockey fans have been lobbying for for years.
Fred Festa, a recently retired chemicals executive who owned ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits from 2012 to 2018, said at a press conference outside the Coliseum that he’s prepared to make a multimillion-dollar investment to start a Richmond team, which he said ECHL has endorsed. Local nonprofit Sports Backers also threw its support behind Navy Hill at the announcement.
In a statement put out at the close of Monday’s meeting, council member Larson said of the resolution, “We do not take this step lightly, however we believe that there are numerous substantial reasons for Council to take appropriate action in response to the many public concerns that have been expressed about this project.
“…We recognize and appreciate the hard work and substantial time that has been spent on the creation and review of the current ordinances,” Larson’s statement said. “However, for all of the reasons stated previously, we believe that now is the time to ‘hit the reset button,’ take a deep breath, and commit ourselves to a review process that is open, fair and equitable.”
Council has said it plans to vote to decide Navy Hill by the end of February.
BizSense reporter Mike Platania contributed to this report.