Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Battle of Shockoe

This maven has said nothing about the ongoing dispute here in Richmond over Mayor Dwight Jones’ plan for the redevelopment of the Shockoe Bottom area of the city, which centers on a new minor league baseball stadium. I have been silent mainly because I am split on this issue, sort of like the population of Richmond. I think the vicinity of the existing stadium (the Diamond) would be a better place for a new stadium, but my preference is not that strong. I also have serious questions whether the taxpayers of Richmond should pay for a stadium for a privately-owned entity. But, we subsidize other businesses to keep them in Richmond so why is a new stadium that different? I am also strongly swayed by those of my African American friends who argue that placing a stadium so close to where so many thousands of African slaves were imprisoned and sold as property (and where many of them died and were buried) is a disgrace to their memory. However, although I know what these friends don’t want, I have not been able to figure out what they do want other than a slogan that calls for an “historic district”. I think that we in Richmond should be forever mindful of the outrageous activities that went on in Shockoe Bottom for so many decades. But I am not sure this necessarily means that the area must remain forever as it is. And, on my third “other hand,” I am aware that the City of Richmond badly needs to expand its tax base. So, with this internal ambiguity, what was a maven to say? 

For the world outside of Richmond (and for you Richmonders who have been hibernating for the last few months)—some time past (I am too lazy to do the research to give you exact dates but exact dates are not important) the mayor of our beloved city, Dwight Jones, revealed to all of us a plan for the total revitalization of Shockoe Bottom. His plan included a new baseball stadium, a hotel, a supermarket, apartment buildings and a structure memorializing the slave trade that went on in the area in the 18th and 19th centuries. The plan was complete with artist renderings and financial statements. The mayor described his plan as essential to the revitalization of the Shockoe area, as well as vital to the economic expansion of the city. The mayor’s Shockoe plan was strongly connected to a more vaguely described plan to develop the area along the Boulevard where the Diamond now stands into a major commercial and residential neighborhood. A close examination of the Shockoe plan showed that its financial success counted on revenue from the Boulevard development. The mayor’s plan met both with very strong support and very strong opposition.  

The mayor’s plan cannot be implemented without the approval of the Richmond City Council. In fact, because it requires the sale of city owned property, the plan needs a super-majority to pass. Like the residents of the city, members of the council are divided on the plan. The eventual outcome will depend on those council members who have not yet decided. Although the mayor and his supporters have called the Shockoe plan an all or nothing proposition and have called for quick approval by the council, the council has been very deliberate, asking questions and holding neighborhood meetings for public input. 

This week, probably out of frustration that his proposal has not gained quick approval by the City Council, Mayor Jones raised the stakes. As reported in the Richmond Free Press 1 and repeated in the Richmond Times Dispatch 2 at a prayer meeting commemorating the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the mayor said that the City of Richmond is “still 50% African-American” but there is now a majority on the City Council “that doesn’t look like us.” The mayor implied that those white members of the council who don’t back his plan do not care about creating jobs for African-Americans. The mayor’s attempt to turn this dispute into a racial issue is particularly strange because the most vocal opponents of his development plan come from the African-American community. If it turns out that the City Council does not approve Mayor Jones’ plan, he may regret that he suggested that some of them may be racists. 

The mayor may also regret the way that he has tried to implement this project. As I understand it, the mayor did not involve the City Council, as a body, in the formation of the plan. After being mayor for nearly five years, and having been reelected to a second term by a substantial majority, Mr. Jones seems to have forgotten that under the City’s charter it is the City Council, not the mayor, that is the governing body of the City of Richmond. Under the charter, the mayor is responsible “for the proper administration of city government.” He is also has several other specified responsibilities including preparing a proposed city budget for the council’s consideration. But, he is not the government. If I were a member of the City Council I would be jealous of the council’s governing authority and I just might be resentful when the mayor tells me that his plan is an all or nothing proposition and that my only options are to vote “yes” or “no.” Further, it would have made political sense to get council members involved in the planning for the Shockoe development. People who feel they have contributed to the formulation of a plan are not likely to oppose it when it comes up for a vote.

The Shockoe Bottom development plan will probably come onto the City Council’s agenda later this month. If the plan passes, the mayor needs to reach out to those who oppose a stadium in the former slave trading area by making sure that the structure commemorating this dark period in our history is one of the first to be built. He should also take the initiative in making sure that the entire area of the city from the old Manchester Docks along the slave trail up to Broad Street be designated a National Historic District. If the plan is defeated, the mayor and City Council need to get together quickly and create a new plan to redevelop the Shockoe Bottom area.

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