A Bigger Picture 

Leading a district long seen as independent, Councilwoman Kathy Graziano is out to prove a healthy city is a sum of its parts.

It's a bold move for Graziano — perhaps the first of many — in a district that residents and outsiders often view as independent of the city. Her push comes amid widespread administrative changes at City Hall, real-estate assessment challenges and across-the-board scrutiny and belt-tightening in all municipal matters.

Timing her election with that of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's meant more than jumping on the political bandwagon. When Graziano won her City Council seat in November, she did so in the meet-and-greet grassroots fashion of a rookie politician stumping for votes. But Graziano is neither rookie nor politician. She's an Italian-Catholic New York transplant, albeit one who has spent 36 years in the same Richmond neighborhood. She's also a strikingly tall and trim silver-haired grandmother who runs miles when she can, won't give up her Sundays with family, and happens to be both well-connected and scrappy.

Graziano makes friends with would-be adversaries, many across the political aisle. Take Pantele, a Democrat. When asked whether she's become more liberal with age, Graziano insists that the Republican Party has become more conservative. Pantele describes Graziano as an "old-fashioned curbs-and-gutters politician" — not unlike himself — with whom he "hit it off, right off the bat." For starters, the two initiated the new committee-based legislative structure for City Council proceedings, intended to make meetings more streamlined and effective.

In just three months, Graziano's visibility already exceeds that of her predecessors. Likewise, the usually low-profile, news-eschewing riverside district, which comprises Westover Hills and Stratford Hills, has been the focus of public attention because of undulating economic development. There was the much-anticipated opening of Target — the first in the city — in early March at Forest Hill Avenue and Chippenham Parkway. A gleaming Ukrop's is due to open next, a superstar compared to the homey original that once anchored Chippenham North Shopping Center. Myriad stores and restaurants such as O'Charley's will follow. A complex of 342 upscale apartments and single-family homes is slated for the now-green acres behind Stony Point Fashion Park. And the once-controversial Snake Hill residential project along Cherokee Road has been scaled back to include 15 or so high-dollar homes.

"There have been at least four significant projects in the last four years in a district otherwise outside the fray and the spotlight," says John Woodward, economic development director for the city. "Whereas development elsewhere in places like Manchester tends to be localized, this development is not just for the district but for the region." Although some of the projects predate Graziano's post on Council, Woodward credits her pledge to see them continue as a reason for the area's growing appeal, as well as its voice in city matters.

"The catalyst for me was the building of the mall," says developer Steve Middleton. His business, Commonwealth Properties, is developing the Park at Stony Point Apartments near the mall, along with a yet-to-be-named townhouse complex. It's rare to find 100 acres of available land in the city, Middleton says, and it allows the opportunity to provide suburban convenience with urban feel and proximity.

Yet the greatest change taking place in Graziano's district is sparked not by development but by a readiness to see the whole as a sum of its parts, she says. It's an attitude that balances old with new and recognizes the need for the two to coexist. It's visible in such mainstays as O'Toole's and Liberty Valance and the district's James River and Forest Hill parks. And from there, she says, it's spilling into town-hall-style meetings such as the one held in March at Thompson Middle School, during which the city assessor addressed citizens' concerns.

Drawing a bigger picture, one that highlights regionalism, includes diverse hands. Likewise, Graziano's campaign contribution list is a who's who of local bigwigs, many of whom don't live in the 4th: Armstrong, Bliley, Binswanger, Carreras, Goodwin, Gottwald, Massey, Sauer, Strauss, Watkins and Ukrop, to name a few. But whether far-flung or close to home, Graziano's support appears to underscore growing opinion that what happens in the 4th District happens citywide.

Graziano won her seat with a platform emphasizing public safety and education to voters whose pressing concerns tend to involve ditches and drainage. Nearly 20 percent of her constituents are older than 65; half the households in the 4th earn less than $55,000 a year. Since 2003, five homicides have occurred in the district, three of them in James River Park. Graziano has no public housing projects to contend with. She does have the largest stock of developable land in the city. Considering these things, she hopes to fold neighborhood politics into a more comprehensive plan for public policy.

"They want their city to be whole," Graziano says of her South Side residents, who seem to see the forest for the trees. "If the city doesn't work, if it's not healthy as a whole, the 4th District won't be healthy."

Despite the district's health, independence and history of reticence, trouble spots have cropped up in the 4th. Natural disasters, neglect and abuse have degraded James River and Forest Hill parks. Graziano recently pledged $500,000 from the city's capital budget as well as her first allotment of discretionary funds — $15,000 — for improvements to the parks.

Ever since a 23-mile swath of South Side was annexed from Chesterfield County by the city in 1970, residents there have existed collectively as a quiet counterpart to angry or outspoken districts. Apart from the perennial question about whether a stop light is needed at Huguenot and Cherokee roads and complaints that drivers are using Bliley Road as a cut-through, grievances in the district have been relatively minor and few.

However, in recent years, a concerned group has formed among neighbors who don't agree on everything but do agree that the 4th District needs to protect its interests and take a more prominent seat at City Hall.

For Graziano, that translates into a call for action. District-wise, her short-term plans include building nature trails in the city's little-known 100-acre Larus Park. She's also seeking routine police patrol. More broadly, she's working to have city schools stay open later with their own programs, not those sponsored by other groups. In response to the often "cumbersome" practice, as she puts it, of doing business with the city, Graziano hopes to create a small business advocacy center that will, among other things, provide tax-abatement incentives.

From her district office, she kicks her feet up on a table and talks about how the middle class abandoned her hometown in New York. Not long after she and her husband were transferred to what was then Chesterfield County, it was annexed, and a similar scene occurred here. "We made a very firm commitment to stay," she says. Thirty-six years later, her Council seat is her proof and her paintbrush: "It's a chance I have to help make the city whole." S

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