Stewart Schwartz column: Transparency matters in the Coliseum deal

We all share a passion for this city and we want it to succeed for everyone’s benefit. In fact, our organization, the Partnership for Smarter Growth, fully supports the revitalization of the 10-block area north of Broad, relative to the old Coliseum, into a walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood, with restored street connections. We also support tax increment financing (TIF) districts in principle.

If we want to make smart choices, the best way is through an inclusive and transparent public process. Top business leaders and city staff don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. In fact, the closed-door approach to city public land deals — with a rushed public process after the deal is cooked — doesn’t exactly have a great track record in Richmond.

Our city is blessed with a diverse, smart, and creative population that has spearheaded so much positive change. Why not tap all this talent when making decisions about 10-plus blocks in the heart of our downtown?

We credit Mayor Levar Stoney for insisting that a Request for Proposal (RFP) be issued, that affordable housing be a part of the project, and for saying he won’t take a deal that’s not good for the city. However, a number of things are troubling about the process to date.

In many jurisdictions, the city engages the public and private sectors ahead of time to create a small area plan for such an important part of the community — capturing the vision, ideas, and needs of the community, while also accounting for market-related financing. This didn’t happen in this case, and we are still waiting for such a process for Shockoe Bottom and the Boulevard. With the plan in place, a streamlined rezoning process could be used for private proposals designed in accordance with the community plan.

The city could have consulted with the public prior to drafting the RFP. Subsequently, the city outsourced public outreach entirely to the developer without any involvement or public briefings by city staff. This is very unusual, and particularly so when talking about disposition of publicly owned land.

The Partnership shared the city’s RFP with some of the most successful mixed-use development firms working in Washington, D.C. All declined to bid, citing their assessment that there wasn’t enough economic value in the 10-block area to fund the new Coliseum and other public benefits sought by the city. Not being local, they also may have felt that the odds were against them with such a connected set of local business leaders out of the gate first.

The D.C. firms may also not have known that the city would consider throwing two more very valuable parcels into the mix — the blocks between 6th and 7th at Grace and Franklin, and at Broad. Or that the TIF district might be extended to encompass such a vast area, including Dominion’s two office towers. This calls into question whether there has been a level playing field.

Then of course there are the important questions being raised about the TIF district. In earmarking the increment in tax revenues over today’s baseline, the city will be diverting revenues to this project that would otherwise go to the general fund for schools, public safety, transit, and other infrastructure. This is a pivotal choice and the cost-benefit analysis must be rigorous and transparent. What is the net value of directing Richmond’s tax dollars to the Coliseum versus other investments we could make?

It’s hard to have a public discussion when most of the critical information isn’t public. If it weren’t for the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s intrepid reporter Mark Robinson filing a Freedom of Information Act request, we’d be even more in the dark.

Looking ahead, if we have just one public hearing before the Planning Commission and one before City Council following release of a fully-baked agreement, this won’t cut it. Fortunately, the council is calling for the time it needs and may commission its own consultants. But in the interim, we need public briefings and community input sessions hosted by the city, not the developer, to include review of the financials, the design, the affordable-housing commitments, and alternative approaches to the redevelopment of downtown.

Let’s keep in mind that today’s most successful cities fully engage their residents in planning for the future of their communities, and no longer plan behind closed doors with a small group of business people.

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