Last week’s vote by a divided Richmond City Council to kill the arena-anchored Navy Hill project marked an end to a years-long, multimillion-dollar effort that had become the signature economic development priority for Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration.
The vote also raised a lot of questions – about the fate of the project area and the city-owned land within it, what’s to come of a major employer that planned to fill one of its buildings with thousands of new jobs, and what, if anything, the project’s failure conveys to those who may be considering doing business in the city.
Three days after the vote, Stoney sat down with Richmond BizSense to ponder those questions, provide answers to some, and reflect on what happened – and what still needs to happen – post-Navy Hill. Below is an edited transcript:
Richmond BizSense: What went wrong? How did Navy Hill not come together the way you were hoping?
Levar Stoney: I think we, as an administration, truly gave it the college try. This is roughly 2 1/2 years of work that we put into this, from the construction of the request for proposals, to the review of the project, to the negotiation of the project, down to introduction back in August.
Since August, we’ve been even more diligent in sitting down, trying to listen to the concerns of not only members of the City Council but also of the community. … Once we heard from a number of stakeholders and citizens, we did our best to address their concerns.
… But in order to make something happen in this city you also need a partner across the table, and in this government, it’s the executive branch – this administration – and the legislative branch (City Council). And after a number of attempts, we had some City Council people who just withdrew from the conversation. You can’t really get to a win if the other side is not going to participate in the process.
RBS: There seemed to be a perception that, when you finished the negotiations and formally introduced the ordinances, optically it looked like: Pass off to council, now it’s in their court. Was that the case, or were you still trying to have those conversations?
LS: After we introduced the papers back in August, my role was facilitator, to facilitate the discussion and the conversation: What does the City Council need, what do they want. … But at the end of the day, you need City Council members who actually articulate what their problems and their concerns are, because if we don’t hear what your concerns are, you’re unable to articulate them, then how do we know how to address them?
Our job was to play the middle man between the developer (NH District Corp.) and (council), and NHDC went directly to members of the council as well and tried to have these conversations. Some were productive and some were not. …
RBS: Would you have done anything differently? Some council members were saying they felt like they weren’t involved as early as they could have been, for example.
LS: When we say that we were facilitating these discussions, they have been involved from the beginning. When I was constructing the vision for the RFP, I sat down with all nine members and said, “This is on my agenda, this is the first large economic development project I’m going to move forward with, what are your thoughts?” Some people said we should have homeownership in the project plan. We listened to the people who brought that. And then some people, they did what they did in the 11th hour as well, and that was to push away from the table.
RBS: So how do you move forward? The council majority asked for some specific steps to “reset” the process. Do you plan to work with them on those?
LS: I’m always willing to listen to (council’s) ideas. But I also need a commitment from City Council to act in good faith if we’re going to do large-scale, ambitious projects like this.
I’m always thinking about moving (forward)… so I’m brushing myself off, getting back at it, because there are a number of people in this city who are dependent upon us to provide opportunities for them.
RBS: Should the city be doing large-scale, ambitious projects? Should they be broken up, as some council members suggested?
LS: I don’t think you stay competitive with simply and only incremental steps. I think you’ve got to have a bold vision to take the city to the next level, because guess what, there are other cities up and down the East Coast, in the Mid-Atlantic and in the South, who are doing these sized projects. … I’m thinking about tomorrow, and how do we insulate ourselves through a recession, and how do we compete on another plane in the future.
Although this town is booming – you see cranes in the sky here and downtown, you see them in Manchester and Scott’s Addition – this part of downtown is growing at an anemic 2 percent. And today, after that vote on Monday, there are still non-tax-generating parcels of land that could be used to create new revenue and new opportunities for all Richmonders. And we missed that opportunity.
RBS: When you’re talking about competing with other cities, are you concerned about what message this process put out there?
LS: That’s always been my fear, that this would send a chilling message to investors, to the business community, to developers, that this is not a place that they should spend their time or their money. How do you ignore what happened?
The business community wants certainty. They want the ability for us to hear them out, for us to do our job and due diligence. We did that, this administration did that. But there’s also an expectation that they’re going to get a fair say in the City Council chambers as well, and what this showed was, at the 11th hour, we could potentially pull the rug out underneath everything. Forget your process that you laid out for the public, forget all of that.
To think that those in New York aren’t watching this, those in the Washington metro area aren’t watching what’s going on here, folks across this country are, it does send a chilling message.
RBS: Is there also a concern of some damage control needing to be done with the local business community that was offering this project in the first place?
LS: I will say this: I’m going to do everything in my power to retain the roughly 1,000 jobs we have at CoStar, and to speak to (CEO) Andy Florance and say Richmond has to still be an option. I want those 2,000 jobs. Navy Hill would have been a special place for them, but it’s my job, it’s my responsibility, to go to the mat and see if we can get those 2,000 jobs located right here in the city.
RBS: But the opportunity that brought on that CoStar opportunity – a private investment of $900 million from Tom Farrell and company – is that something that can be salvaged in some way?
LS: I will try my best to convince them that this is a great place for investment. But I think they’re going to require what I require in my position, and that is a council that’s going to act in good faith.
RBS: There’s a process underway that could culminate later this year in an RFP for the Boulevard-Diamond site. Is that going to be your priority now? Is there concern of that distracting from Navy Hill?
LS: Navy Hill and the property along Arthur Ashe Boulevard are both tremendous opportunities for economic empowerment in this city. What happened on Monday, I think, destabilizes both projects. We have a process we’re going to fulfill for the properties on Arthur Ashe, because I think they could be a boon for the city, but we don’t want the same result that came to the end of Navy Hill to come (for the Boulevard site). That’s the fear. You still need seven (council) votes.
RBS: It’s been suggested this project was maybe too complex or too big for Richmond, that it was maybe too major-league of an idea for a minor-league town. What is your take on that?
LS: This might be the personality conflict that I have with maybe some members of the City Council, is that I think for far too long we’ve sold ourselves short here in the city. If you have a minor-league mentality, then you’re going to be minor league, and I think that the bar should be high for this city.
If they think that what happened on Monday night is going to diminish my belief and love in this city, wrong. I’m going to continue to swing for the fences. Why? Because these are the sort of projects that do close the gap in the city between the haves and the have-nots, and doing nothing, simply the status quo, basically is us giving approval to where things are today.
RBS: It seemed like this project hit a brick wall in the form of the history of this city and everything that came before: racial divide and controversial past economic development projects. How do you help the city get past that?
LS: My message to residents is to not despair over this, because we will continue to advance the ball towards more equity and more opportunity for people across this city. That’s our commitment.
Currently, Navy Hill is dead, but we still have a responsibility to provide opportunity, and we’re going to obviously work on the blocking and tackling, the basic services that our taxpayers paid for. We’re going to continue to ensure that they get the best services in the city, but also, we have to be committed to economic empowerment. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t change the fact that there’s a hole in the middle of downtown Richmond right now.