News & Features » Cover Story

Set Free

Amid a contentious push for a new jail, Richmond shows its ability to embrace public debate.

by

3 comments

Page 2 of 3

But once City Central's proposal leaked, and it became clear another bidder proposed building a jail off Bells Road, residents in the East End had to be sold on the prospect of building at the old location. So the mayor, with help from City Council Vice President Ellen Robertson, who represents the East End, also promised to redevelop the communities around the old jail, flanked to the east by the Mosby Court and Fairfield Court public housing projects. Those plans include a new family resource center off Cool Lane, with job training and social services.

In the end, the East End bought the pitch. During Thursday's council meeting, there were important neighborhood supporters of the new jail plans, including former Richmond mayor Walter T. Kenney and 2008 mayoral candidate Lawrence Williams, and Edward Shearn, president of the Eastview Civic League. Williams, who just a month earlier railed against building the jail at the current site because it would "lock in" low-income housing in the area for another 30 years — because property values likely wouldn't increase in and around a correctional facility — told council he now backed the project. "Basically, we are in favor of the jail being at its present location," he said, "the timing of when it is done ... is a separate issue."

Councilman Marty Jewell, who often was the mayor’s chief antagonist during the jail debate, calls for more time to study the proposal on Thursday. “The question has never been whether we are going to build a jail,” he says. “The question is if you are going to do it, do it right.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Councilman Marty Jewell, who often was the mayor’s chief antagonist during the jail debate, calls for more time to study the proposal on Thursday. “The question has never been whether we are going to build a jail,” he says. “The question is if you are going to do it, do it right.”

Obadiah B. White, 82, who lives a block and a half from the jail on Hildreth Street, seemed to encapsulate the political realities of the location debate. As a longtime resident of Eastview, White said he recalled the community trepidation when the city built the existing jail in 1964. But residents learned to accept it.

"We had this discussion about the jail and everything, but they built the jail and we learned to live with the jail," said the raspy, barely audible White. "That jail has not caused us any problem, and they've been good neighbors."

The city managed to get its own way. Location was one thing, but the biggest questions dogging the mayor's selection of Tompkins/Ballard — an announcement that came in early June — had to do with minority contracting, the height of the new jail and whether the city handled the bidding fairly.

These issues were significant for multiple reasons. In its request for proposals, the city outlined a process in which minority participation in the construction of the jail carried the most weight when selecting a winner. The four teams that were allowed to advance into the second phase of the bidding competition would be graded based on nine key areas during the review committee's evaluation, including technical design (worth 15 points), price (worth 10 points) and minority participation (worth 30 points).

That's why Councilman Tyler pressed Tompkins/Ballard for weeks to break out exactly how the minority contracts would be awarded. Also, unsettling to Tyler and Jewell was that the Tompkins team hadn't submitted an official minority business enterprise form, and signed it, guaranteeing the minority participation portion of the work.

The city didn't answer the question regarding the amount of minority contract work until Thursday night, when council voted on the project. It turns out $17 million of the $24 million in minority participation would come from concrete-casting suppliers that may or may not be minority owned.

"Did you also check with the other competitors ... and find out whether they did the same thing?" Tyler asked city officials during Thursday's meeting. "Are we in fact playing games here when we should really ... be about the business of creating minority businesses?"

Councilman Chris Hilbert, who moved to delay the vote on Monday, ultimately votes for the project. On Thursday, however, he calls for no more delays: “It would seem to me that if it isn’t now, then when?” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Councilman Chris Hilbert, who moved to delay the vote on Monday, ultimately votes for the project. On Thursday, however, he calls for no more delays: “It would seem to me that if it isn’t now, then when?”

Vicki Rivers, director of the office of minority business development, told Tyler that because T.K. Davis Construction, a minority-owned contractor, was purchasing the concrete supplies and doing the installation work, the $17 million could be included in the contract.

"You have tried to manipulate this to make a number look more than what it is," said Tyler, who'd pressed for the information for more than a month and a half. "It's clear to me that we shouldn't be counting this."

And then there was the issue of the building's height. The Tompkins/Ballard proposal went above the elevation of the eastern hill behind the jail property, something the city clearly prohibited in its request for proposals in December. In the week leading up to the council vote, the issue had turned into a major sticking point that threatened to derail the project.

The city said it was willing to forgo the height restriction -- it imposed a limit on the building height to ensure the new jail wouldn't block residents' views of the city skyline -- because it felt the overall design submitted by the Tompkins team was vastly superior to the plans submitted by the other three bidders.

But the height of the building was critical. Proposals that conformed to the height restrictions cost significantly more, requiring the construction to be completed in phases, and forcing the project to spread outward on the 6-acre site, consuming more of the existing jail facility. At least two of the teams designed their buildings not to breach the bluff, and their plans were several million dollars more expensive than jail design presented by the Tompkins team.

Jones, in an effort to diffuse the controversy, held a news conference July 25, telling reporters that all four of the proposals were taller than the bluff, with the smallest of the proposed buildings coming in at 157 feet tall. The bluff is 150 feet above sea level.

But the city miscalculated. And on Thursday night, Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall told council that two of the proposals actually were lower than the city calculated, one at 151 feet and the other at 153 feet. Those teams, he said, measured the bluff to be slightly higher than the city's estimates, but they were lower than what the city estimated and presented several days earlier.

During work sessions on the proposed contract, Councilman Bruce Tyler questions the minority participation on the contract. “My biggest question concern is ‘Did we follow procurement laws?’” Tyler tells Style. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • During work sessions on the proposed contract, Councilman Bruce Tyler questions the minority participation on the contract. “My biggest question concern is ‘Did we follow procurement laws?’” Tyler tells Style.

After the meeting, Marshall said the height issue was irrelevant. "The fact is, it doesn't make any difference because we didn't discard anybody or disqualify anybody because of the height of the building," he said.

But the issue wasn't that anyone was disqualified, but that at least two of the bidders designed their buildings based on the criteria set forth in the city's request for proposals. If they'd known the height issue wasn't a big deal, says a person close to the procurement process, they would have been able to present building designs that would have been significantly cheaper, which would have allowed the teams to meet or come close to the city's $134.6 million budget for the new jail.

"Any one of these teams could and would have been in the same price range as Tompkins given the same latitude not to comply with the performance criteria, such as the height restriction," this source says. "It absolutely changes everything."

And finally, a day after council approved the project, the city learned that it would have to go back to the Virginia Board of Corrections and gain approval for its jail plans. The city was unaware that state corrections officials had reviewed the Tompkins' plan and deemed it wasn't in accordance with the plans that were approved in October 2009.

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment
 

Add a comment