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Suburban Subjugation



A suburb, by definition, is birthed by a city. After all, had it not been for the city of Richmond, the suburban counties with their ever-growing populations, shopping malls, town centers, corporate offices and business parks would never have grown as they have. It's a fact we need to be reminded of as the counties increasingly assert their political independence from the center city and the notion of regional cooperation gets lost among feuding siblings.

Richmond is not unlike a dysfunctional family. The most recent example is the failure by the city to pay its dues on time to the Greater Richmond Partnership. Eight months passed with no dues from Richmond, amounting to almost $300,000. To add insult to injury, at a press conference announcing a new manufacturing plant in Richmond two weeks ago, Mayor Doug Wilder spoke glowingly that the new development was a sign the city was "ready to do business again." Ironically, the mayor failed to acknowledge one of the most important players in luring the plant to Richmond -- the Greater Richmond Partnership.

Dysfunction, however, is a two-way street. Take the recent effort by state Delegate Samuel Nixon Jr., R-Chesterfield, to change the composition of the governing board of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, a special division created by the state. The RMA owns and operates the Downtown Expressway, the Expressway Parking Deck at Ninth and 10th streets, the Powhite Parkway, The Diamond, two parking decks in Carytown, the Boulevard Bridge, the Second Street parking deck and Main Street Station.

Nixon's bill passed the House of Delegates, but was killed in the Senate. That it passed the House, however, is significant. The legislation clearly resonated with other lawmakers representing suburban constituencies.

The RMA's board is composed of 11 representatives — six from the city, two each from Chesterfield and Henrico, and an ex-officio member appointed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. The bill called for reducing the city's representation on the RMA board from six to three and increasing Chesterfield and Henrico's representation to three each. In addition, Hanover would become a member with one vote.

The last time I checked, the expressway system didn't extend to Hanover, but maybe there are unannounced plans to do so and also to make the Richmond Metropolitan Authority more metropolitan. If the latter is the case, then Nixon's bill didn't go far enough. If one defines "metropolitan" as the area encompassed by the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, then not just Hanover, but also four other counties, should become members of the RMA. For the RMA to mirror the metropolis as officially defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, it would require, in addition to Hanover, the inclusion of 13 more counties and three more cities.

Back to the attempt to reduce the city's representation on the RMA: If each jurisdiction had equal investment in the RMA, then realigning the board's composition makes sense. But that's not the case. After the General Assembly created the RMA in 1966, the legislation required Richmond to guarantee $20 million to cover the cost of planning, designing and acquiring the right of way for an expressway. That requirement was the basis for the city having more representatives on the RMA board.

Through the years, the city donated land and provided funds to secure RMA bonds. Though some city funds underwriting the RMA have been repaid, the outstanding debt to the city exceeds $47 million. Chesterfield and Henrico counties, quoting directly from the RMA Web site, "have not provided any financial assistance or subsidies to the expressway system."

The city not only gave property to the RMA — with city property and business taxes providing funds — but the city's residents bore all of the social and political costs associated with the expressway system. The construction of the Downtown Expressway displaced more than 900 residents and businesses, all of which were in the city. The relocation effort was carried out by a partnership involving the RMA, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (whose jurisdiction does not extend beyond the city), plus the housing committee of the Richmond City Council. In other words, the city underwrote both the displacement and the relocation costs.

The city also shouldered the major political costs. When the construction got under way in the early 1970s, I was a young political scientist teaching urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. In fact, my wife and I lived only a few blocks away from the big ditch, i.e., the excavated roadway that was to become the Downtown Expressway. Neighboring residents resisted routes scheduled to mow through neighborhoods. Environmentalists opposed routes that would destroy the north bank of the James River. Preservationists decried the demolition of historic structures regardless of route. These interests, however, were up against the region's most powerful business and political elites. In the end, the elites won and the people lost.

The irony is that the city funded its own decline. Instead of spurring downtown development as the city elite promised, the expressway contributed to its demise. The rhetoric that day when the ribbon was cut would have done P.T. Barnum proud. Sadly, it was just another example of a bad habit we have in this region of papering over serious conflict by resorting to bravado and insipid slogans. "Easy to Love" is the latest one.

Will we ever get to the point when what we say in this region comports with what we do? We say we have regional cooperation, but our actions belie our rhetoric. I agree that we do have regional cooperation of sorts, the kind that doesn't lead to any fuss or controversy. Localities cooperated to expand the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Then there's the airport, the Greater Richmond Partnership, the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, the MathScience Innovation Center, the Henrico-New Kent-Goochland regional jail. The list is longer. No one would argue that each of these creations does good work and is important to the region as a whole.

The question, however, is whether their good work makes any difference. Does this kind of timid regionalism address the most serious issues of the region? Does it have any impact on transportation, affordable housing, land use, fiscal inequities, public education or the concentration of poverty?

If one were to believe what we say about ourselves, we would be a model for the nation. Watch what we do, however, and you'll find something completely different. While we all claim to be Richmonders, our strongest adversaries are each other — our own kin. S

John Moeser is professor emeritus of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University and visiting fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, University of Richmond. A version of this article first appeared on www.richmondleaders.com.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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