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Master Planners Return to Dispel "Sea of Whiteness"



The Florida-based city planning firm hired to help redraft Richmond's downtown master plan will return to hold a meeting at the Renaissance Conference Center on Broad Street for an update on Sept. 27. Organizers are hoping a more diverse group of participants will be in the audience.

When the firm, Dover Kohl & Partners, presented their findings after a week of citizen input in late July, one recommendation stood out. Head planner Victor Dover flashed an image of a front-page story from that week's Richmond Free Press. The headline called the citizen input process a "Sea of Whiteness."

Dorothy Chamberlayne lives in the East End and attended the closing meeting, but was dismayed she had not heard about the event in time to participate in the full week's worth of meetings and activities.

"I'm not angry," Chamberlayne says. "It's not worth getting angry over, but I do have some concerns."

This time around, the city says it has absorbed the criticism and has made efforts to broaden citizen participation. Richmond's Director of Community Development Rachel Flynn says her office has "done tons of outreach to African-American churches and organizations like the NAACP," as well as taken out ads in the Free Press and the Richmond Voice, papers with large African-American audiences.

Still, some civic groups have mixed feelings coming into the second round of public input. Mary White Thompson has been president of the New Vision Civic League since it formed in 1993. She says her group sees pluses and minuses.

"We are in support of it, even though we feel that we are not included per se," Thompson says.

The six major tenets of the plan call for changes that emphasize the city's urban architecture, the river, history and green spaces. It also encourages alternative modes of transportation and mixed-use and mixed-income commercial and residential developments.

Thompson says New Vision is concerned that new developments downtown are geared toward attracting tourists, not people who live in the community.

"It should be shops where people can get ordinary things -- stockings — like we used to have. The five and dime, Woolworth's, where you could just get little personal things," Thompson says. "Some would go and pay $100 to $200 for a dress. There are some people who can't afford that."

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