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Building a Compromise

Opinion: For more than 150 years Richmond’s leaders have been guarding the city’s most famous view. Surely we can’t let it be destroyed on our watch.

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The Richmond City Council purchased Libby Hill Park in 1851 for the then-unusually large sum of $5,000. The land was set aside by the city leaders specifically for its views of the entire city, "because it affords a commanding and picturesque view of the lower portions of the City, the river, the falls, the railroad bridges."

It seems like a miracle that we can still enjoy that extraordinary view today, but it's not. For more than 150 years Richmond's leaders have been guarding the city's birthright. Surely we can't let it be destroyed on our watch.

Of course developers see the profit potential of building in this historic view shed. The high-rise condo being proposed by Louis Salomonsky and David White would take this spectacular view from the people and sell it to wealthy residents. All they need to do is convince City Council to ignore the Downtown Master Plan, to ignore the will of the people, and to ignore inherent responsibility. Then they could have it all to themselves.

But City Council members know that tourism, second only to agriculture, is the industry in Virginia that brings in more money than any other business. Libby Hill Park and its famous view of the James River is the top visual destination in our city. The trolley and Segway tours, large bus groups, wedding parties, romantic dates, family reunions, birthdays and traditions for large gatherings at the Libby Hill view all reflect the value people place on the park and its panoramic views. And they all bring money to the city.

In early May, Edwin Slipek wrote an insightful article in Style exposing this proposed structure as a massive intrusion on the park and on Tobacco Row, and advancing the idea that this land should be left open to facilitate the flow of nature from the river to the park above. That vision is reminiscent of urban park connectivity as pioneered by Frederick Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park, and is shared by many who want it to remain in its natural state.

The Downtown Master Plan, adopted in 2008 by City Council after two years of research, planning and extensive public involvement, a process that cost close to half a million dollars in taxpayer money, reflected many compromises. It identified the parcel in question not for a park, but for building as tall as five stories in keeping with its historic surroundings.

Salomonsky and White want more. They are asking for a Special Use Permit to allow them to construct a 16-story building, and to change the zoning from light industrial to residential, and for the city to sell them a right-of-way at what appears to be a discounted price.

Voting on this decision has been postponed twice by City Council member Cynthia Newbille, who has been meeting one-on-one with the developers. The result is a false compromise. The developers are willing to drop the penthouse one and a half stories down. Unfortunately, shaving off a bit more than a floor solves nothing. And presenting it to the public as a solution is disingenuous.

Our elected representatives on City Council are smarter than that. They understand the economic value of this public asset. They hear their constituents and they see the growing strength of the asset's supporters. Just within the last few months, more than 1,600 residents have signed a petition supporting the Downtown Master Plan's vision for this property, which is the true compromise. It is a waste of time and money to revisit a decision that already has an overwhelming public stamp of approval.

So this is the compromise: It's a five-story building. All of the units would have wonderful views - for some the river, for others historic Tobacco Row, and for others, beautiful Libby Hill Park. To further this compromise, it should include the city's sale of the Cary Street right-of-way needed to develop the land, but at an assessed market price.

A park would be lovely, but that's not in the Downtown Master Plan. The plan is a structure as tall as five stories that would protect the view, while allowing the builders to profit.

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Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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