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Clearing Conscience

Why the mayor’s office should carry more blame in the Redskins’ tree fiasco.

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After dozens of trees came down behind the Science Museum, the mayor deflects. - BY SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • by Scott Elmquist
  • After dozens of trees came down behind the Science Museum, the mayor deflects.

Perhaps Mayor Dwight Jones is still in a state of shock over the loss of dozens of trees behind the Science Museum of Virginia.

He shouldn’t be.

In the wake of the latest political dust-up over the Washington Redskins new $10 million training camp behind the museum, Jones has blamed a communication breakdown between “my office and the development group that has been moving this project forward.” The only problem: They are one and the same.

First, a little clarity on who said what. Mayor Jones, in a statement released Jan. 15, doesn’t exactly skirt the blame. He admits that his office needs to do a better job of communicating. “Clearly what was missing was clarity on the commitments and sensitivities related to this project that my office has been managing,” he says. “Communication needs to be seamless and it has not been.”

In The Richmond Times-Dispatch on Wednesday, the newspaper reported that “a ‘shift in plans’ approved by two city bodies but not communicated to his administration” was to blame for the unexpected tree loss. In an editorial on Thursday, the Times-Dispatch lamented the lack of communication with the Jones administration, calling it a “pathetic situation.”

But here’s the rub: The Jones administration apparently wasn’t talking to itself. The shifting site plans that led to the demolition of so many trees was submitted to the Planning Commission and the Urban Design Committee by Jane Ferrara, deputy director of economic and community development. The mayor’s chief of staff, Suzette Denslow, the very person Jones says will now attend “weekly meetings” with the development team to ensure no further communication lapses, was in attendance at the Dec. 10 Planning Commission meeting when the plans were presented.

Now, it’s unclear from those shifting plans that most of the trees would need to be removed. But it is clear that additional trees would likely have to come down to accommodate the shift.

Why did almost all of the trees come down? Apparently because the Science Museum is planning to construct an $8 million events pavilion that will sit directly behind it. This fairly large pavilion juts out into the northern edge of the property, which pushed the training camp facilities westward about 100 feet.

The issue, however, was visibility. If the trees remained on the western edge, there would be limited visibility of the new events pavilion -- and a new exhibit called “Speed” in an existing building, which would adjoin the pavilion.

Nancy Tait, a spokeswoman for the Science Museum, says the plans were reiterated to the mayor’s training-camp steering committee earlier this year.

“The special event center has been designed to operate independently from the Science Museum. It is a mixed use facility that will also accommodate national caliber traveling exhibitions,” Tait says in an email. “The vehicular and visual connection of the center to Leigh Street is a critical aspect of the center’s location and design. This was shared with the site-selection committee when this site was originally considered and whenever the Museum was consulted on the project.”

To call the tree fiasco a problem with communication may be a bit misleading. It may be more accurate to say that the mayor’s office was well aware of the shifting plans -- they just weren’t paying attention to the details.

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