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Updated: Planning Chair's Firm Received $22 Million in State Contracts

Corrections: Due to editing mistakes, we incorrectly reported the size of the nursing school building and it's relation to Commonwealth Architects. Commonwealth Architects was hired to do architectural consulting on the school's Medical Sciences Building II. We regret the errors.

So just how much has the architecture firm of Robert S. Mills, chairman of the Richmond Planning Commission, received in contracts from Virginia Commonwealth University and the state of Virginia?

About $22 million, according to documents obtained by Style Weekly.

Mills, under fire for his recent comments that the city's draft master plan was "inflammatory" and shouldn't be "sticking its nose" into VCU's business, has maintained that serving two masters -- his own firm, Commonwealth Architects, as well as the city of Richmond — presents no conflict of interest.

Until now, however, it's been unclear to what extent his firm has worked for VCU and the state. The $22 million includes projects Mills' firm completed for VCU Health System's new medical school and the state's new office between Eighth and Ninth streets on Broad Street.

Both projects required the demolition of historically significant buildings, something that has rankled local preservationists.

"Having the Planning Commission chaired by someone who may or may not be unduly influenced is not a good idea," says Selden Richardson, board president for the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods. "I have no idea if Mills is unduly influenced — it just plain looks bad."

At the request of Mills, city attorney Jan T. Reid penned a legal opinion last week that Richmond's master plan, while it makes recommendations, has no legal authority over property owned by the state, including VCU. Therefore, there is no legal conflict of interest, Reid concludes.

"No one was surprised that the city attorney blessed this arrangement," Richardson says. "I just keep coming back to the smell test."

First District Councilman Bruce Tyler, an architect with Baskervill, says the debate has gone on too long. "I feel very strongly that it's good to have open dialogue about the master plan process," Tyler says, "but it's inappropriate to have comments about individuals and personalities. It's diverting our attention [from]the master plan and that is what this is about."

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