After 14 months and endless public meetings, community workshops, presentations and even public lessons on urban design that drew record involvement from common residents, Richmond's revised comprehensive plan — passed unanimously by City Council at its Oct. 13 meeting — represents a shared vision of Richmond's future.
City Councilman Bruce Tyler does not share that vision.
In a memo circulated to fellow members shortly after the meeting, Tyler gives his line-by-line review of 26 proposed revisions to the comprehensive plan, better known as the city's master plan, identifying proposed edits and his reasons for each of those changes.
Among proposed changes: excising any attempt to interject design requirements on development at Virginia Commonwealth University, or to limit the school's ability to close roads or alleys. Also heavily amended would be measures in the plan to preserve views of the James River or public access to the river, which the plan weighted in favor of residents rather than developers.
The developer of the Echo Harbor project, a controversial condominium project that would substantially alter the view from Libby Hill, employed Tyler's architectural firm for the past few years, but Tyler's objections to that portion of the master plan are stated generally.
Tyler also seeks the removal of a proposal to create an architect of the city job to consult with developers to maintain design continuity, as well as some parts of the plan related to construction quality, which Tyler says exceed the statewide building code.
The proposals, Tyler says, are his prerogative because City Council adopted an ordinance allowing such revisions. And it's his duty, Tyler says, because his constituents asked for the changes he proposed. The Oct. 13 vote, he says, was too quick to allow council to consider the plan properly.
“I'm sure there's going to be some people that are concerned about this,” Tyler says, calling his proposals simply part of the process. “I'm not going to try to ram this down anybody's throat. I'm trying to have open dialogue about it because this document is going to have profound impact on our city.”
But those proposals come late in the game, suggests Jon Sarvay, a local blogger who took an active role in the plan's development, chronicling it in excruciating detail on his Web site, Buttermilk & Molasses, and helping generate broader public interest in the process. He questions Tyler's motives, calling an 11th-hour move “gaming the system.”
“This public process has been in play for 15 months. None of these issues were raised until the last four months,” Sarvay says, suggesting that even then objections similar to those raised by Tyler — largely coming from the developers and large corporations with riverfront presences like Dominion Resources and Ethyl Corp. — were made in private. “Tyler seems to err almost universally on the side of rights of developers. That's his prerogative as a developer and an architect — I don't think that's his prerogative as a representative of the public.”
Rachel Flynn, the city's director of community development, credited Tyler for seeking further involvement, and acknowledged that the process may not have allowed council proper time to consider the measure: “I think that Bruce always wanted to have more time to discuss it and vet it, and he never really had time for that. But I think it would have been helpful if he had come to some of the planning commission meetings.”
She dismissed a number of his proposals, noting VCU's consent to the plan's language. Some of his concerns — including provisions that he says exceed the state building code — were included in the master plan by the city's Planning Commission.
As to Tyler's objections to the restrictions on blocking river views, Flynn says, it may be inappropriate for him to question.
“One has to wonder why he's even commenting on that — why is that not a conflict of interest?” she asks. “It might not meet the legal test. … but there's the smell test. They're being paid by the Echo Harbor guys and have been for a few years.”
She says Tyler's proposals, if adopted in their entirety, would fundamentally alter the master plan that the public was involved in.
“This document needs to be a document that reflects the values of all Richmonders and is not biased one way or another,” he says. He says his proposed changes to the master plan “isn't going to change it radically.” S