For Richmond, 2019 is shaping up to be one of the most important in the city's history.
This claim may sound like typical January hype. But Richmond truly appears to be at a crossroads. Signs of the city's recent renaissance are obvious, from rising neighborhoods like Scott's Addition to a thriving brewery and restaurant scene to increasing national prominence for cultural institutions like Virginia Commonwealth University's new Institute for Contemporary Art. But decisions made in 2019 will dramatically shape the scope and extent of the city's resurgence for years, if not decades, to come.
First and foremost on the city's agenda is the proposal to redevelop the downtown, particularly the plan to replace the aging Richmond Coliseum with a shiny new arena. Mayor Levar Stoney has called this plan "the biggest economic development project in our city's history," and he's not wrong. But he may be mistaken in whether the city can actually afford such a development.
Dominion Energy Chief Executive Tom Farrell is the driving force behind the development group working with the mayor on the downtown proposal. More often than not, Farrell gets what he wants from public officials, and Dominion will continue this year to be a major force in city and state politics, just like always. Just ask anyone opposed to the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Still, skeptical residents were cheered by City Council's December vote to form a commission to study the mayor's downtown proposal in detail.
What happens next is anyone's guess. But if Stoney and Farrell manage to get their plan through council, there is no doubt the resulting construction will transform Richmond's downtown over the next two decades. The real questions are these: at what cost? And who in the city will benefit?
The stakes are high, and not just for the city's young professionals who would undoubtedly populate new downtown apartments. One of the mayor's arguments for the development deal is that the city needs more taxes. Funds are desperately needed to address what is probably the biggest challenge facing the city: the state of its public schools.
As Jason Roop memorably reported in Style late last year, school facilities still are crumbling, with portions boarded off as unsafe. Three new school projects broke ground last year, thanks to the mayor pushing through a meals tax increase. Still, much more is needed, perhaps as much as a quarter of a billion dollars. That's just for facilities. Superintendent Jason Kamras, now heading into his second year on the job, has announced an ambitious strategic plan, but implementation requires millions of additional dollars. Where all this money comes from is, again, up in the air.
As a result, downtown is not the only major development project that may be in the works. Stoney's predecessor as mayor, Dwight Jones, spent much of his second term trying to replace the aging Diamond baseball stadium. While his proposal for a Shockoe Bottom location was eventually rejected, the city administration presumably still has plans for the Diamond's location on the Boulevard. Stoney even hinted late last year that these development plans may appear on the agenda again in 2019. In the meantime, the nonprofit BridgePark Foundation has plans to entirely reshape the city's green space while the city administration is working on a new riverfront plan. While the downtown development gets most of the city's attention, these other projects may surface in the coming year.
At the same time, resident-driven efforts to grapple with the city's difficult past continue to surface. While the Mayor's Commission on Monument Avenue ended in a largely ignored final report, the city's history of celebrating the Confederacy will continue to be evaluated. Richmonders can expect to hear more about such evaluation, as well as dual efforts to commemorate the city's history of slavery in Shockoe Bottom and to rename the Boulevard for hometown hero Arthur Ashe. All of these efforts are not without controversy or — unsurprisingly for a city with Richmond's past —resistance.
And as befits a state capital, all of these city-based developments might be affected by wider issues in the state. Every year is an election year in Virginia, and every seat in the General Assembly can be challenged this fall. The Democrats look to continue their blue wave, which could lead to sweeping changes in state laws, including drug legalization and gambling, and may enable or constrain city politics in many ways.
So much is going on this year, in fact, that it may seem impossible to keep track of it all. Yet the decisions made in 2019 about development, green space, and commemoration will affect the city for years to come. More importantly, they may affect Richmonders differently depending on where and how they live. How much should we celebrate the dramatic changes to Scott's Addition and Church Hill when almost a fourth of the city's residents still live below the poverty line? How much will our continued development disrupt or reinforce the city's racial divisions? What should we think of a city that might contain both a brand new arena and a statue of Jefferson Davis?
One thing is certain: By the end of this year, we will know where the city of Richmond is headed, for better or worse.
Rich Meagher is associate professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College. He blogs about state and local politics at rvapol.com.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.