Shaky Ground 

Opinion: In the face of public/private development, "Richmond’s neighborhoods owe each other respect that the city now seldom administers."

click to enlarge The Oregon Hill neighborhood overlooks the place where Venture Richmond seeks to build an amphitheater for its expanding annual Folk Festival.

Scott Elmquist

The Oregon Hill neighborhood overlooks the place where Venture Richmond seeks to build an amphitheater for its expanding annual Folk Festival.

While everyone's attention is focused on the proposal for a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom, one of the main boosters of that idea — Venture Richmond — is still grinding away on plans that will affect another of Richmond's oldest neighborhoods: Oregon Hill. Remember Tredegar Green? That's the proposed name of the amphitheater that Venture Richmond wants to build downtown below Second Street for its annual Richmond Folk Festival.

But don't be fooled into thinking that this poorly conceived plan is about the Folk Festival, as Venture Richmond insists. It's about neighbors, how they treat each other and how the city administration treats its taxpayers. It's about corporations potentially using city property to charge huge ticket prices for unlimited events. It's about development plans virtually impossible to fight because they've already gone through the Urban Design Committee and the Planning Commission with no direct neighborhood notification. It's about increasing the value of city property and how corporate power can make life unlivable for real human beings who've stayed in the city.

I live in Oregon Hill, the neighborhood west of the amphitheater. The neighborhood's civic associations, my immediate neighbors and I all have been raising concerns about the plan Venture Richmond has presented. But this it isn't just about Oregon Hill. Ask Maymont neighbors how they like their Eagle Amphitheater in Maymont Park. While some entity makes a killing on private rental fees in a public park, the Maymont neighborhood is trashed by events for which the city denies responsibility. Across the river from Maymont, some South Siders say their houses shake from high-decibel music and keep their children awake on school nights. If Forest Hill hears Maymont events, how will Springhill and Woodland Heights enjoy their unlimited amplified party serenades from Tredegar Green night after night?

The irony is that neighborhoods never even know it's coming. A little more than year ago, Venture Richmond's executive director, Jack Berry, came to Oregon Hill twice with an untenable plan. We told him we loved the Folk Festival so much that for years we'd put up with four days without parking. We'd loved it so much we were willing to stock up on food during the festival because we knew if we left our homes, we'd lose our parking places. We said of the proposed amphitheater: Come back to the table with better plans for the 10,000 people expected for the events you plan besides the Folk Festival. We asked him to limit the decibel level, number, and end times of these additional events so our children could sleep. We asked him to protect George Washington's historic canal, which runs right through the middle of the amphitheater project, so that one day it would flow again from Maymont. We told him that we wanted the Virginia War Memorial's solemnity protected from raucous partying and overflowing toilets in its public bathrooms from pay events closed to the public.

And we never heard back from Venture Richmond.

Imagine our surprise when the Urban Design Committee and Planning Commission had the amphitheater on their agendas. If our Councilman Parker Agelasto hadn't notified us the first time, we'd have been blindsided. An Urban Design Committee member expressed concern that we had so little input when our amphitheater had been in progress for three years. Imagine how we felt when the plan appeared again three weeks ago before the design commission without the Planning Commission's required design changes for final approval.

Crucial information to neighborhoods goes missing all the time. The city administrator's response to our Virginia Freedom of Information Act request for Venture Richmond's lease on city property was that there was no lease. Councilman Agelasto got that lease for us — two days before the Planning Commission held its first hearing. As for the Urban Design Commission reviews, no direct notice to neighborhoods is required even if requested. This can happen to any neighborhood.

But this isn't just about missing information. My neighbors and I were horrified last year when we discovered that part of the historic brick wall adjacent to the canal was illegally demolished. No one claimed responsibility for this destruction, and the Richmond Police Department refused to take our report of destruction of city property. This demolition cleared the sightlines for the amphitheater. As stewards of city property, why didn't Venture Richmond make sure the wall was protected?

Neighbors, ask yourselves: If you rented property, someone broke into it, tore walls down, and you didn't report it to the police, would you get even more rights and privileges from your landlord even when your next-door neighbors complained?

Richmond's neighborhoods owe each other respect that the city now seldom administers. Please let's help each other abide by laws and zoning regulations put in place to protect residents. Follow the lead of the Planning Commission, which last week refused to rubber-stamp Venture Richmond's plan until it assumes responsibility for whatever damage it does to the canal. Before you write that letter in support of the amphitheater Venture Richmond claims it needs to save the Folk Festival, realize that your own property — city property that you pay for with your taxes — has been defiled, your war veterans disrespected, your zoning ignored and your neighbors treated like second-class citizens. S


Caroline Cox is a former library associate for the city of Richmond and a member of OHHIC, formerly known as the Oregon Hill Home Improvement Council, and the Oregon Hill Neighborhood Association.

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


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