It permeates everything, yet most Richmonders don't even realize it. Economic development has become code for replacing the city's old historically black districts with businesses that attract white dollars.
The 6th Street Marketplace "failed" because it couldn't cater to mostly white suburbanites who prefer to do their shopping in the counties. Virginia Commonwealth University's progress has been measured by bringing suburban students downtown and pushing out renters in black Carver so kids can move in and frequent Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries and shop at the new Kroger. Chesterfield County officials didn't become interested in buying Cloverleaf Mall until after a black church tried to buy it. Richmond's much-lauded tax-abatement program, an "economic development" success that lures young homebuyers to the city, also gentrifies traditional black communities where homeowners without the resources are unable to keep up with the government-induced rise in home values.
Sure, it's no longer overt racism. But it lives and breathes in the name of economics. Ask yourself: Why did everyone assume East Broad Street was a failure, not to mention 6th Street, when on most days you could find people everywhere walking the streets, shopping at places like Rainbow and Willie's Records?
2. A regional approach to educating our youth.
Richmond Public Schools get a bad rap, and with a 45 percent graduation rate, some of it may be well-deserved. But they're dealing with 70 percent or more of students from families below the poverty line, so Richmond Public Schools could use a little help from its neighbors.
The idea's worked in other cities such as Raleigh, N.C., where a regional government calls the shots. Redistricting schools based on socioeconomic status, instead of geography, would be one way to ensure that all the poorest students aren't stuck in a handful of city schools. There are other ideas, too. But all of them hinge on the surrounding counties coming to the realization that poverty in the city is their problem, too. The concentration of poverty in the city is as bad as it's ever been. And it's already crossing the borders into Chesterfield and Henrico.
3. Midlothian Turnpike.
First there was the decline of Cloverleaf Mall and the eastern corridor, and now Chesterfield Towne Center. Officials in Chesterfield are desperate to compete with the thriving retail mecca at Short Pump, and they have their first chance at real competition at the old Watkins Nursery property on the county's western edge, at the intersection of Midlothian Turnpike and Route 288.
There, a giant shopping mall is in the works, and the big-box retail is sure to follow; this will inevitably siphon away retailers farther up the road at Chesterfield Towne Center, which is surrounded by every major big-box retailer in the country: Target, Kohl's, Home Depot, Lowe's, Circuit City, Best Buy, and so forth. Route 288's completion was celebrated, but it's creating a giant exurban bypass that will turn parts of Midlothian Turnpike into East Broad Street. Luckily, there's Big Lots.
4. Aging sewers.
The flooding in Battery Park last fall got everyone's attention. Sewage was everywhere, people were displaced from their apartments and homes, and it took months for the city to wrap the proverbial duct tape around the broken pipes. Meanwhile, it raised a bigger question: Just when was the last time the city took a hard look at the sewers and infrastructure underneath its feet?
The pipes are hundreds of years old -- in Church Hill, someone reported seeing "wooden pipes" extracted from the ground last spring and the city keeps scant records. A couple of years ago (for a story on the office toilets at the old Overnite Transportation headquarters), a Style reporter conducted a basic search for the sewage lines on Mayo Island, then leased to a marketing firm. That search led a Style reporter to the basement of a public utilities building, where giant maps dating to the early 1900s had to be dusted off because get this most of the computer files for the old sewage pipes had been "expunged." The city didn't even know the toilets on Mayo were still flushing into the river. What else don't we know about the city's old sewers? We'd better find out.
5. Shoddy vinyl-sided suburbs.
Lost your keys? A box cutter and a Bic lighter are all the tools many Richmond suburbanites need to bypass their front doors. But what they might save in calls to the locksmith they may well lose in resale value years down the line.
In the old days, homes were built with bricks and wood. Today they're built with petroleum products and PVC, pressboard and glue. And while it's true that those mounds of discarded Wal-Mart plastic bags will out-survive cockroaches as the earth cools and history ends, their construction-material brethren just don't have the same life span.
Look south to neighborhoods such as Brandermill, once bright beacons to wannabe suburbanites. Substandard construction techniques threaten long-term home values. And there's a bigger problem: Because people stay in their home an average of five years or fewer nowadays, eventually those suburban shacks will be filled with renters and suburban blight. We used to fret over broken windows. It's going to get worse.
6. Civic boosters who are all bark and no bite.
Civic boosters are actually the city's business leaders, and they've been setting the city's agenda for far too long. Mayor Doug Wilder promised to weed them out when he first took office, attacking their signature project, the performing arts center, and dissolving Richmond Renaissance. But he's since let them back in with unfettered access.
Not that they don't have the best intentions they truly want to see the city succeed. But what we have now is a bunch of massive egos who have filled the vacuum of leadership in the city yes, even post-Wilder and for some inexplicable reason they leave their biggest assets behind, i.e., unrelenting business acumen, when they start tinkering with the public kitty.
The costs: More than $170 million for a new convention center as the national convention market tanked; $100 million-plus for a new performing arts center without an independent economic study; millions in fees to the Miller & Rhoads hotel developer without a contract. Our boosters should shoulder at least some of the blame for the city's enormous debt load it's tied up in their projects and it's high time for us to broaden the public discourse.