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Planning Chair Seeks Self Preservation?

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Bob Mills, chairman of the city's planning commission, caused a stir last week when he condemned the city's draft master plan for recommending the preservation of Virginia Commonwealth University's West Hospital on Broad Street.

He has reason to be offended. Mills, critics point out, counts VCU as a client. And the university plans to tear down West Hospital to make way for a long-planned expansion of its medical campus. Mills' architectural firm, Commonwealth Architects, also designed VCU's new medical-services building, which replaced the historic Nursing Education Building -- adjacent to West Hospital.

"Fundamentally, the City of Richmond's Downtown Master Plan has no business 'sticking its nose' in the business of the Commonwealth or VCU," he writes in his review comments of the plan, adding that the state and VCU "are the best friends the City could have ever asked for."

Good friends of Commonwealth Architects, too. In addition to work for VCU, Mills' firm is working on two state projects: a renovation of the Washington Building on the southeast corner of Capitol Square and the design for a new state office building between Eighth and Ninth streets on Broad Street -- the one that replaces the former Murphy Hotel, which came down against the wishes of preservationists.

Mills "is an architect who does business with the state," says David Herring, executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods. "I'm not going to say it's an out-and-out conflict, but how do you honestly recuse yourself from those kinds of decisions?"

Rachel Flynn, Richmond's director of community development who oversaw the drafting of the new downtown plan, raises similar questions.

"If I were in that position, I don't think I'd be commenting on the [state] and VCU piece, because it is hard to have two masters," she says.

Mills says it's easy: He leaves the room and refuses to vote on issues related to his clients.

For example, he says, "I used to be the corporate architect at Ethyl and I got laid off, and you think I shouldn't have some attitude about it? I have to rise above all that stuff."

He argues that his experience working with outside clients gives him a better perspective on building proposals presented to the commission.

"I work for the city of Richmond, the state of Virginia, VCU, I work for almost every developer in town and all those preservation people," he says. "I think because of the position I'm in, I'm probably a more fair judge because they're all my clients."

Kim Chen, an architectural historian and former planning staffer with the city, says she sees a conflict between Mills' regulatory position on the planning commission and his business contracts.

As for the master plan encroaching on VCU and state property, Chen says the city should be allowed to regulate buildings within its borders, no matter who owns them.

"We regulate what I can do with my house," says the Church Hill resident. "Why can't major buildings downtown be regulated that way?"

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