News & Features » Cover Story

In Like Flynn

by

comment
stywk011608.jpg

In her fifth-floor office at City Hall, Rachel Flynn keeps a file of all the spiteful comments the late Rev. Jerry Falwell made about her in public.

"This is Lynchburg, Virginia. This is not Moscow, Russia or Beijing, China or Havana, Cuba," Falwell blustered from his pulpit in a nationally televised sermon four years ago. "And Rachel, if you wanna live there, go on and live there, but leave us alone in Lynchburg."

At the time, Flynn was Lynchburg's community development director, and Falwell, the city's pre-eminent religious and business leader. Their feud started after Flynn insisted that Falwell build two exit ramps to accommodate emergency vehicles at his ever-expanding Liberty University. Falwell lagged. They clashed again about a Cracker Barrel restaurant he wanted to develop on a wooded lot. Flynn asked him to leave trees in one corner to protect a stream running through the property. He declined, and then denounced her from the pulpit.

Flynn never left for Siberia, and in March 2006 found her way to Richmond at the request of another sizable egotist -- Mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

In a city under siege from heavy politics and, well, Wilder, Flynn has largely flown under the radar since taking over as director of the city's community development department. But lately Richmond's been getting acquainted with Flynn.

Tall and slender with short brown hair and cheeks her 48 years are gently making fuller, the Harvard-trained Flynn envisions a buzzing downtown filled with residents and retail shops with a focus on public amenities and green space, which she believes ultimately add economic value to private enterprise.

"We're really the only country that's abandoned our cities. If your core is not healthy and vibrant, it reflects the city at large," Flynn says.

Richmond, like many American cities, has been devastated by middle-class flight to the suburbs. In the 1990s the city began offering bargain-basement tax breaks and incentives to just about any developer or homeowner willing to take a risk on Richmond. Then came the downtown condo boom, which started in earnest about five years ago.

Something happened along the way. The incentives actually worked. Richmond voted in a new government and a new mayor who saw a city giving away too much of itself when it was no longer necessary. Richmond now must make itself more livable for those who have returned, invested, took the risk.

That's where Flynn comes in. Flynn's brand of urban planning has answers for how to create dense, diverse downtowns, but it requires strict adherence to certain regulations. That's creating tension among Richmond's power players, who've gotten used to doing things their way — who don't want the city to tell them they can't pull down buildings, close streets or build high-rises on the riverfront.

One frustrated developer says of Flynn, "She's painted everything green."

Few people are questioning Flynn's intelligence or capabilities. They might, however, find Falwell's suggestion that she has communist leanings not too far off the mark.

She has public support and the mayor's ear, but when it comes to the proposed master plan, things aren't so easy.

A master plan is an ideal map of the city's future meant to guide planners, developers and city government while new structures are built and renovated. Richmond's proposed plan, unveiled in November, calls for more parks and nuts-and-bolts amenities and fewer big, bold developments.

Flynn has a vision for a livable city, but the city's power players and members of the planning commission and City Council want to rein in the plan. And Richmond is a town run by old money and influential businessmen.

But this may be a battle the oddsmakers would shy away from. Flynn has beaten giants before.



"Real cities" have certain common characteristics, and a new wave of city planners across the country has embraced similar principles:

● Encourage building structures up to the curb, with windows on the street for a more vibrant feel and better citizen vigilance.

● Make the city pedestrian-friendly so people can drop into stores without having to plan ahead or park.

● Allow for flexible zoning so that if a location doesn't work for retail, it still can be used for residential.

● Mix businesses and residences so people can stroll to a coffee shop or dry cleaner and blocks aren't gummed up with parking garages.

Flynn says such urban planning principles are proven. Used here, she believes, they could bring such benefits as drawing people to the James River and reanimating dead zones on Broad and Grace streets.

After a year of getting to know Richmond, Flynn garnered huge public support in the summer when she convened a series of public meetings, or charrettes, and invited citizens to sketch out their hopes for the new downtown master plan. As the public weighed in, one thing became clear: People wanted a more accessible city, not an overdeveloped one.

Planners from Dover, Kohl & Partners, a Florida-based consulting firm Flynn hired, sprinkled in general planning principles: Two-way streets provide more options; Richmond could be a more walkable city if we move the focus off the car; windows and doors should face streets and come up to the edge of the sidewalk; and stop the proliferation of parking garages, which creates massive dead zones.

The resulting plan imagined a bustling downtown with shops of mixed sizes and price points, with tree-lined streets, a trolley and, above all else, easy access to the river.

The draft master plan was well-received, gaining traction with the increasingly influential blogging community and longtime residents and artists. Preservationists, local activists and neighborhood associations loved the vision Flynn helped birth, a green city that appreciates its history and sees the James as its centerpiece. In a city infatuated with big projects for the upper classes — think performing arts centers — Flynn wants the city to be usable to everyone.

But the proposed plan has been a cold shower for some city power players used to doing what they like and being thanked for it. In the quiet Richmond way of doing things, a powerful set of riverfront developers and officials responsible for Virginia Commonwealth University and state government buildings have discreetly aired their grievances about the plan — still in draft form — in boardrooms around town.

"Rachel immediately inspired and alarmed people when she arrived in Lynchburg," says L. Preston Bryant Jr., Virginia's secretary of natural resources, who worked with Flynn on policy when he represented Lynchburg in the House of Delegates and dealt with her professionally as an engineer. "She inspired those who were most open to being inspired and she alarmed those set in their old conventional ways, but she also won over many who clearly early on had reservations."

One of those who haven't warmed to Richmond's proposed master plan is Jim Theobald, an attorney for developers on the eastern edge of the city's riverfront. He was dismayed to find his client's property designated as a public park instead of the planned condo high-rise called Echo Harbour.

"Usually, when you bring a $160 million project to a jurisdiction, they throw a parade and name the Landmark after you," Theobald says. "It's always easy to make someone else's property a park."

Flynn sees the property as necessary for riverfront access and a boon to economic development — in the long run. "You can increase the value of real estate by providing green space and open space, so it's completely inaccurate to say that the only way to have economic gain is to build on every available parcel," she says. "Central Park in New York City is the most valuable real estate in the world, and look what it's done for the real estate in the rest of that city."

Flynn versus Theobald conjures up a classic zoning battle. But the difference is the unsteady politics. Although Richmond has typically begged for such developments, there may be a sea change. Just last week Chief Administrative Officer Sheila Hill-Christian fired off a letter announcing the city's disapproval of the Echo Harbour project.

Echo Harbour doesn't make sense for a variety of reasons, Flynn says: The property lies in the floodplain, and there's a sewage pipe running under it that the city estimates would cost $15 million to move.

Riverfront developers may view the plan as a land grab by the city, but developers in other parts of Richmond are largely supportive of Flynn.

"I haven't seen anything from Rachel other than to suggest that her agenda is the betterment of the community," says Bob Englander, who owns property along Broad Street and throughout downtown. "I think it's the job of the city planner to be tough. He or she ought to be open to new development, and I have not seen her to be closed-minded about that."

Ronald Stallings owns chunks of Jackson Ward, which Flynn suggested as an alternative site for the Echo Harbour developers. "She's dead-on," he says. "She's good."



A few feet from the Falwell file in her office, Flynn keeps a painting by an admiring Lynchburg artist who was so inspired by zoning codes that he memorialized them in a grid of interpretive panels. (In the painting, R-C, a Lynchburg zoning code for recreational space, appears as bucolic hay bales, and an image of Flynn's downtown apartment building illustrates B-6, the symbol for mixed-use zoning.)

On a recent Wednesday, at a table between the painting and the Falwell clippings, Flynn mulls over the state of Richmond's street trees with staffer Tyler Potterfield.

She listens to Potterfield, a planner who has been exploring what to do about city trees. There's a problem: The city cuts down at least five times as many trees as it plants annually. While Potterfield talks, Flynn cups her chin in her hands, lacing her fingers around her eyes. She truncates his points with "mmm-hmms" and nudges him along with quiet questions.

While he outlines the tree-related portion of the public works bureaucracy, Flynn takes notes in the form of an organizational chart with an alphanumeric sidebar.

"This is sort of like making a master plan for trees," Flynn says. "You have to have the vision and then the data, and then you ask how much money to ask for, and then it's a public policy decision."

This is the core of Flynn's ideology: Have a big vision rooted in the appropriate philosophy, then move from the principles to the pragmatic. Public policy decisions are what happen afterward, after she's given her best advice, which the politicians can take or leave.

Fussing over trees may seem mundane; it's anything but to Flynn. Research shows a mature shade tree in front of a home adds about $35,000 to the house's value. Trees also reflect the beam of streetlights onto the street instead of into the sky, where it adds to light pollution. A canopy of trees along the street helps create a sense of place, calms traffic, forestalls erosion and cleans the air.

Flynn and Potterfield begin planning a tree audit, but she is still worried about one thing. What if two neighbors have a dispute about whether a tree needs to come down? Potterfield assures her there's a process to negotiate such disputes.

"So neighbors could potentially protest?" Flynn asks.

"Yes," Potterfield says.

"Good."



Flynn likes protest and citizen participation and all things democratic, upper- and lowercase. She grew up outside Washington, D.C., in an extraordinary family. Her father, Jack Flynn, was Hubert Humphrey's legislative aide in the Senate and was involved in Humphrey's campaign for president.

As a young woman, Flynn's mother, Mary O'Dwyer Flynn, was set to become a nun. She married Jack instead and raised Rachel and her five siblings while becoming a psychotherapist, professor and associate dean at The Catholic University of America.

Among Flynn's five siblings: an attorney who runs a battered women's shelter; an economist who heads a women's college in Saudi Arabia; a twin brother who is a sculptor; and a younger brother who owns an architectural services firm that was commissioned to repair the top of the Washington Monument (no easy task because the cap must repel lightning).

The family didn't attend a traditional Roman Catholic church, but joined a group called the New Community, led by priests and nuns who had left the church to get married. The congregation met in the homes of various Washington intellectuals.

"We grew up in that setting understanding that you can challenge the status quo and have a spiritual life through other means," Flynn says. "More through intellectual discussions and service to others."

Flynn doesn't attend church anymore, but still admires them as buildings. "They're so sensual — the light, the space, the smell of the incense," she says. "I still have a very good feeling when I go into a church."

Flynn started college as a music major, but eventually switched to architecture. She earned her license and worked as an architect for 12 years in New York, Boston, Toronto and Washington, D.C., before enrolling in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where she earned a master's in public administration.

After graduation, she took the planning job in Lynchburg and moved into an apartment downtown. Flynn's first task in Lynchburg turned out to be a much higher-profile affair than she'd expected. GE Financial Assurance had acquired in a business deal a row of historic buildings the company planned to tear down. Flynn persuaded GE to sell the buildings to the city instead and eventually found private buyers for each one.

Hal Craddock, an architect who practices in Lynchburg and worked with Flynn on the master planning process there, says her architectural training took her planning prowess to the next level.

"She changed the entire city pretty single-handedly," Craddock says. As she's done in Richmond, Flynn brought in an outside planning firm, conducted public meetings and came up with a new master plan. She convinced Lynchburg's City Council to commit $20 million for the recommended improvements — $1 million a year for 20 years. She walked away with an armload of planning and preservation awards.

Falwell's red scare and name-calling was a spectacle, but Flynn managed to gain the respect of many of the people she disagreed with.

Bryant, the civil engineer who now serves as Virginia's secretary of natural resources, went a few rounds with Flynn over a large a roadway project that in his view would have facilitated the traffic across town. She said she didn't want a "raceway" through the city.

"That was a legitimate debate, and it was not unlike any other that engineering and construction firms have," Bryant says. "Suffice it to say that Rachel won and that road has not been widened."



Similar battle lines are being drawn in Richmond. The proposed plan has been giving heartburn to Bruce Hazelgrove — vice president of corporate resources for NewMarket Corp., a subsidiary of Ethyl Corp. — ever since the draft master plan painted green the field beneath Ethyl's white mansion, the grassy expanse above Tredegar Iron Works where the National Folk Festival was held. The company has been planning to develop the property for years, but Flynn designated the field as a park.

In an attempt to regain control, Hazelgrove shot off a series of e-mails and met with planning staff to try to get his company's field back. The night before Hazelgrove was supposed to go in for another planning meeting, Flynn called him to say the meeting would be on the second floor of City Hall — the mayor's office — instead of her fifth-floor planning office.

"Shit," Hazlegrove said after hanging up the phone. Wilder would be there. Flynn says the meeting was cordial, although Hazelgrove recalls a winding round of he-said, she-said, culminating in the mayor asking him to put what he wanted in writing and assuring him they'd "find a consensus" — an ominous pronouncement.

Which brings us to the $64,000 question: Where does the mayor stand on all of this? Flynn takes a politic line. "I think the mayor sees the plan as the people's plan," she says. "He's been very good to let me do my job."

Although it's become something of a parlor game to guess where the mayor stands on anything, many developers believe Flynn has the mayor's ear. But the relationship has yet to be truly tested. That should soon change. VCU President Eugene Trani, who has close ties to Wilder, just so happens to be one of the major players whose feathers have been ruffled by Flynn's master plan.

For years now, the university has announced its intentions to demolish the West Hospital on 12th and Broad streets, much to the dismay of local historic preservationists. In enlarged font, bolded and italicized in the draft master plan, is the single incendiary sentence: "The West Hospital should remain a focal building in downtown Richmond and should be preserved."

That kind of language troubles Bob Mills, an architect and chair of the planning commission, the body that must approve the plan before sending it to City Council.

"I have been getting my ears chewed on this thing," he says. The plan is good, he says, but visionary to the point of being unrealistic. "This is not Rachel Flynn's master plan. This is the planning commission and the city of Richmond's plan. She's the staff. It won't go anywhere unless the planning commission votes on it."

Part of the problem, Mills says, is that not all of the voices in the community were heard in the planning sessions.

"Clearly the people who have participated are the standard 200 or 300 people interested in this stuff," Mills says. He says the city's plan "doesn't have a place getting into the business of VCU and [the state]," whose buildings are within the city, but not controlled by city government.

Council members take a somewhat softer line, but touch on similar themes. How much will all this riverfront property cost? What about the property rights issues?

"You make a Christmas list and then you become realistic," says Councilwoman Kathy Graziano, who also sits on the planning commission.

Flynn is unfazed. "Ultimately, if the elected officials don't agree, that's fine. My job is to get the public involved and other experts," she says. "I've done that. I've delivered that. It is a political process from here on out." S



  • Click here for more Cover Stories
  • Add a comment