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Master Plan Sessions Confront Race, Push Details


It was a rare occurrence. Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder was sounding conciliatory, abandoning his popular rail against the "cesspool of corruption and inefficiency" left by previous administrations.

"Today the burden is on our shoulders," Wilder told a standing-room-only crowd at Plant Zero July 27, the final meeting in a week of downtown planning sessions. It was a turning point in a process that caught criticism for not including enough of the city's majority black population.

Richmond's "master plan" -- a street-by-street, lot-by-lot map of the city's current and future development — needs to be updated. The city planning department enlisted the help of private consultants, the Florida-based firm Dover, Kohl & Partners. Nonprofit downtown boosters Venture Richmond helped foot the bill.

Wilder's comments came at the firm's "work in progress" report at Plant Zero in Manchester. It was the culmination of workshops and presentations reviewing the city's overall character, ranging in topics from zoning to sidewalk width to economic development.

Overall, there seemed to be agreement that the city should get back to basics — to focus on the details that make the city accessible, such as parking and sidewalks, and less on the big-bang projects such as the performing arts center or the failed 6th Street Marketplace. Walk before running.

The event's planners were criticized for not reflecting the makeup of the city's majority African-American population. The Richmond Free Press ran a front-page story July 26 headlined "Sea of Whiteness." Consultant Victor Dover included an image of the page as part of his presentation.

"Before the ink is dried" on this draft of the plan, he said, "everyone here should redouble their efforts to reach new populations." The crowd's ethnic makeup had diversified slightly since the event's kickoff a week earlier.

By the city's admission, advertising for the meetings was not ideal. Although the planning department e-mailed civic groups, sent mailings, hung posters and blasted an announcement through Venture Richmond's extensive e-mail list, publicity hit the streets only two weeks before the planning sessions were scheduled. The mayor referenced it only once during a 60-second noontime WRIR radio address July 19, the day of the first meeting.

Frustrated by what he saw as the intentional exclusion of minorities, former Assistant City Attorney Michael Sarahan worked to get the word out in the black community, making calls and hand-delivering invitations to business leagues and civic associations. He also planned a protest for the final meeting.

"My protest wiped out completely," Sarahan says, "but I felt good that there were more people in the room from a different perspective than there would have been otherwise." Several minority participants said Sarahan's contentious comments before a July 23 City Council meeting were the first they'd heard of the event.

Dover, Kohl & Partners plans to present its next draft of the city's master plan in about two months. The exact date has not been set. Community Development Director Rachel Flynn hopes to have the final plan approved by City Council by year's end. S

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