The Voter Detour 

Opinion: Whether you’re for or against the ballpark proposal, it’s worth heeding the lessons of the past.

click to enlarge back52_voter_detour.jpg

On Dec. 8, 1946, The Richmond Times-Dispatch buried an article at the bottom of page 28, entitled "Meeting Set to Discuss New Highway." Few readers could have guessed that this meeting was a subtle prelude to Richmond's first major highway battle.

The Planning Commission already had worked with a St. Louis firm to assess the needs in Richmond. In 1946, the results were presented to the mayor and City Council as a 302-page document, "A Master Plan for the Physical Development of the City."

Among the dizzying layers of research and analysis lay a noteworthy suggestion: Richmond should construct two "interregional highways" straight through the city's heart.

This plan lay dormant until 1949, when a newly elected City Council appropriated nearly $1.4 million toward construction costs of one highway and the salary of a new planner, Ladislas Segoe.

Richmond residents were given their first chance to vote on the highway in a citywide referendum June 13, 1950. Residents organized in opposition, with thousands voting to soundly defeat the plan. Only eight of 55 precincts voted in support of the highway.

City Council responded by appropriating more money for the highway without making significant changes to its plan. In 1951, former Richmond Mayor J. Fulmer Bright successfully filed a petition to force a second referendum. Again, the measure was rejected by a margin of almost 2-1. The front page of the Times-Dispatch bore a photo of Bright at a celebration party with the headline, "Expressway Proposal Is Defeated by 6,002 Votes." The plan was declared officially "dead."

With so much opposition at the local level, the highway plan eventually was passed to the General Assembly for consideration. The legislature voted April 8, 1954, to create the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike Authority to carry out the highway plan. This highway authority couldn't be stopped by local referendum and, so freed, it began to seize miles of property along the path of the new road between Richmond and Petersburg. Two years later, the project was complete.

Richmonders mostly forgot about the destruction and upheaval caused by the highway project. They forgot that the city overwhelmingly rejected the project twice. Popular history of the highway was reduced to a story of American progress. Many locals gradually came to believe "it has always been so."

But the expressway proposal was "the most divisive political issue of the decade," wrote Christopher Silver, a notable historian of this era in Richmond. Four critical questions drove the debate surrounding the highway and they are as relevant today as they were more than 50 years ago:

1. Is the plan valid?

2. Whose opinion matters?

3. Is this for Richmond?

4. Is it worth the cost?

Highway advocates argued that the plan was valid because other American cities already had urban highways. They printed advertisements such as this one: "34 Other Progressive American Cities Find Expressways to be the Solution to Traffic Woes!"

These highway boosters commonly cited experts, politicians and large companies as voices with more validity than the general public. For every reasonable argument against the highway plan, proponents found a technical argument in favor of its completion.

Opponents of the highway believed that the city already was valuable and therefore didn't need to be fixed. They were outraged by the magnitude of the cost. Proponents of the highway had to demonstrate to the public that the highway's future benefits would outweigh the immediate urban destruction and displacement caused by its construction. The argument basically went this way: "The plan is valid because experts have proven that it will provide more benefit to Richmond in the future than the current neighborhoods and businesses we will need to destroy."

To win that argument, advocates attempted to make opponents of the plan look like a scattered bunch of emotional, nostalgic and self-interested fools.

This story should sound familiar.

The debate surrounding Mayor Dwight Jones' proposal to build a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom has been accompanied by strikingly similar rhetoric. Proponents of the plan argue that the ballpark eventually will be worth the estimated public cost of $79 million. They have reports and experts to prove it. Also, other cities are doing it! Proponents point to urban ballparks in Indianapolis, Louisville, Durham, N.C., and Toledo, Ohio. This is the only option, they claim, and our only chance for a vibrant future.

The Jones administration is soliciting feedback on this massive redevelopment plan that the mayor insists cannot be "cherry-picked" apart. Opponents have been left with one option: to debate the plan on the table. If you oppose it, you're seen as regressive and anti-development.

But many people are asking, "Isn't there another option?"

Whether you're for or against the ballpark proposal, it's worth heeding the lessons of the past. Honest and open community engagement is critical. The nature of the thing is determined by the manner in which it was built.

History, by the way, has proven the highway advocates and their experts wrong. Every contemporary report has determined that urban highways result in net losses for the cities in which they're built: loss of community, tax revenue and cohesive urban fabric. If local leaders had involved communities in their planning process, the highway — if it were built at all — never would have been accepted at such a high cost and could have been designed to truly serve the people of Richmond. S

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Michael Rogers is the VISTA mentor program coordinator at the University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

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

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