Mayor Levar Stoney’s third State of the City address, held Tuesday evening at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, was his most intimate to date. He presented the administration’s annual glance-back and look-forward regarding the River City’s trajectory, this coming on the heels of the city being listed by the New York Times as number 39 of 52 of the top places to visit in the world.
Here are five takeaways:
1.The personal is political
Only moments after the mayor took to the podium, a photo of young Levar alongside Luther Stoney, his deceased father, flashed on the screen.
“As you may know, I am a product of kids having kids,” he began. “Like many of our children in this city, I know what it feels like to grow up on free and reduced lunch. I know what it feels like to not be able to afford field trips or even the book fees to be able to take textbooks home from school so I could study. I know what it feels like to not have a mom around.”
Stoney, who was raised by his grandmother and father, a returning citizen, in Hampton Roads, said it was through the encouragement, perseverance and values instilled in him by his family that he emerged through challenges to “talk to you as the mayor of one of the greatest cities in the nation.”
Stoney, who was elected at age 35 as the youngest mayor of the city in 2016, is seeking reelection in November and has steadily fulfilled ambitious campaign promises spanning schools and housing in the city, despite much of his term being overshadowed by controversy surrounding the proposed Navy Hill development downtown -- first announced with a request for proposals returning one bid in 2017.
“I know that there are kids and families in Richmond, who, just like me, have experienced the same hardships,” Stoney said. “I was fortunate to find a community that cared for and empowered me when I was a kid -- and that memory, that experience -- is what guides me as your mayor. [...] This is how we build One Richmond.”
2.Navy Hill has not been tabled
Following a contentious last-minute press briefing in the basement of city hall Monday, Stoney emphasized his commitment to the Navy Hill papers introduced to Council in August.
Over the course of 21 months of negotiations, the mayor said the administration has listened to the community’s concerns and successfully pivoted to implement changes to the proposal accordingly.
“Now we stand at the crossroads of a tremendous moment to revitalize the Navy Hill neighborhood and accelerate the already ascendant trajectory of our city,” he said. “My friends, we either go boldly into this new decade or become keepers of the status quo.”
The latter, he said, touches on the juxtaposition between faith and fear -- a concept he has pondered since 49 ministers put their names to a letter endorsing the project at the historic Third Street Bethel A.M.E. Church.
“Yes, we’ve taken some swings in the past and missed,” he said referring to the failed Sixth Street Marketplace project nearly two decades ago, “But [...] it is time that we have faith, not fear, and move our city forward in a way that benefits all Richmonders. And that is why I will not withdraw the ordinances I introduced last August.”
The route of fear, he said, continues in the direction of an “underutilized neighborhood” downtown that has grown at an “anemic” 2% compared to the rest of the city’s “robust” 8% growth, while the hand of "faith" offers hundreds of units of affordable housing, an unprecedented $300 million in contracting for black and brown businesses, renovated and restored Blues Armory, new convention center hotel and an arena hosting “as of yesterday, even a hockey team” as well as a projected $1 billion in revenues for schools, housing and roads.
“There have been countless community forums and public hearings and citizen commission meetings,” he said, each of which the administration and Navy Hill District Corporation members attended, “and we listened.”
Pointing to myriad concerns, Stoney outlined a number of solutions to the latter qualms, including working with Delegate Jeff Bourne to introduce House Bill 1345, which if passed would allow the city to receive a rebate of sales tax revenue and shrink the 80-block TIF district to 11 blocks. Also, the administration’s announcement that it has committed to holding school funding harmless.
“Specifically, after a historic investment in fiscal year 2020, we will continue to allocate more than 57 percent of real estate taxes to RPS,” Stoney said. “Legitimate concerns have been addressed and thanks to community input we've made a good project even better for our residents.”
3.It’s still about where the rubber meets the road -- and addressing gun violence
Next Stoney addressed the “blocking and tackling” of city governance: providing basic services in a timely and effective fashion, making the city a destination place to visit but also to live.
Pointing to a $16.2 million investment in last year’s budget, the Department of Public Works -- headed by Director Bobby Vincent who has long advocated for increased funding for his team’s work -- has paved 188 lane miles in the past 10 months and filled 34,000 potholes in the last year, contributing significantly to the 84,000 potholes and more than 355 lane miles of repaving since 2017.
Additionally, the department has repaired 4,700 alleys and 30 miles of new sidewalks.
On the more mundane flip-side of the city coin, the annual Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) has not only been on time, but early, for the last three years of the administration -- a sharp juxtaposition to the consistently late reports of years and administration-past, in addition to the highest tax-collection rate, a whopping 97 percent, in a quarter century.
And through fiscal maneuvering, the city side-stepped a looming $40 million in additional interest payments over the next 20 years as well as pay step-increases to first responders and teachers as well as funding the first cost of living increase in 11 years for retirees.
Taking a more somber tone, the mayor turned to describe the most difficult day of his leadership: Revisiting the hot summer day in May that he received a call from Richmond Police Chief Will Smith stating nine-year-old Markiya Dickson lost her life to gun violence in Carter Jones Park at a community-wide cookout on Memorial Day.
“One lost life is one too many, and one lost child is not just a crime against her family, it is a crime against our city,” Stoney said. “The bottom line is we must do better -- we owe it to Markiya and we owe it to her family.”
The loss of Dickson’s life was just one of five dozen tragedies due to gun violence in the city last year -- a 3% decrease from 2018. Which is why, Stoney said, he introduced and City Council approved an ordinance requiring lost or stolen firearms to be reported to the Richmond Police Department within 24 hours, an initiative advocated for by former RPD Chief Al Durham but met with consistent resistance at the Republican-led General Assembly, which has since flipped to a Democratic majority.
“We will be the first city to do so once our friends in the Virginia General Assembly pass common sense gun safety reforms this year [...] I would like to thank the members of City Council for working with the administration to approve these common sense measures to enable us to better keep our communities safe.”
In the same vein, the mayor extended gratitude to Chief Smith and his department as well as federal and regional law enforcement including the FBI, State and Capitol Police and surrounding jurisdictions for “their planning and professionalism last week” as 22,000 second-amendment supporters “descended on the streets of our Capitol in an attempt to intimidate our lawmakers.” The rally stemmed from resistance to the Common Sense legislation Stoney and the Council symbolically advocated for prior to the demonstration on the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday.
4.An intersectional approach to “families-first”
“As we have progressed in this administration we have also come to the conclusion that looking out for our families requires a holistic approach,” Stoney said. “Currently, Richmond lacks a clear, cohesive vision for children and families.”
To address this, the mayor announced Tuesday the creation of the city’s first-ever Office of Children and Families and the creation of a Maternal and Child Health Regional Task Force to build upon successful efforts thus far including a more robust paid parental leave policy of eight-weeks to new parents including those who have adopted or are fostering a child.
Additionally, Stoney announced Tuesday that as of this week, all elementary and middle school RPS students have access to a quality after-school program -- an announcement met with big applause from the audience, which included Superintendent Jason Kamras and members of the School Board.
“And this fall, more than 3,000 students will walk into three brand new schools to replace the over 100-year-old George Mason, the overcrowded Green Elementary on the Southside and the long overdue Elkhardt-Thompson Middle school,” Stoney said.
Also in receipt of a shout-out was the Thomas Jefferson High School football team, which made it all the way to the state championship game last year.
“And they did it on a new field,” Stoney said. “One that activities director Bill Holt said had not been re-sodded since it was first put in back when Herbert Hoover was president.”
5.Blue skies ahead
In response to the Partnership for Affordable Housing unveiling a regional framework earlier this month, Stoney said the city will be unveiling a complementary Affordable and Equitable Housing Strategy in coming weeks.
The strategy would build upon successes to date, including an on-track record for eviction diversions and surpassing a goal set in 2018 to increase the number of housing units by 1,500 by 2023 with 1,628 units completed or under construction by the end of this year.
The mayor said he is also committed to working with the City Council and Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to “change the landscape of public housing in our city” in the coming year, whether through Section 8 vouchers, tax credits to developers of low income housing, zoning regulations “or a combination of all these factors.”
“Everything must be on the table as we seek to help public housing go from concentrated, segregated and dilapidated to dignified, healthy and accessible,” Stoney said.
This includes making construction investment easier across the city’s skyline as such investments have doubled in the last three years to roughly $1 billion in 2019.
“And while that is a good thing for our growth, the result has been that some have had difficulty in obtaining plan reviews, building permits and inspections,” Stoney said, adding that starting next month, the city's Bureau of Permits and Inspections will initiate a Third-Party Plan Review and Inspections Program allowing developers and property owners the ability to contract directly with qualified, third-party inspection agencies to perform building plan reviews and building inspections in a timely manner.
One of the biggest announcements of the night, however, pertained to green space.
More than 50,000 Richmonders don't live within a ten-minute walk of a park -- the city only uses 6% of land for parks and rec compared to 15% nationally. To combat this the city will identify up to 10 parcels of unoccupied, city-owned land to close this gap beginning with Phase One of the initiative in 2020 prioritizing the design of five parcels using heat island maps created by Chief Scientist at the Virginia Science Museum Jeremy Hoffman and data compiled by Richmond's Office of Sustainability to focus on areas “excessively vulnerable” to climate change, such as high temperatures or flooding.
Looping back to his days as a high school quarterback, Stoney mentioned several lessons he learned from the game of football that inform his approach to leadership of the city.
“Twenty years removed from my last pass, I want you to know that I will leave everything on the field,” Stoney said. “And I will not quit, I will not rest, until we have built the most welcoming, inclusive, equitable and competitive city in the entire country.”