Monday, December 28, 2015

Richmond Group Tackling Dilapidated Schools

City and school officials faced with $169 million plan to solve the problem.

Posted By on Mon, Dec 28, 2015 at 11:42 AM

City leaders haven’t figured out how to pay for their $169 million plan to fix the city’s crowded and crumbling schools. But a former Richmond teacher has pulled together an advocacy group to start offering suggestions.

Garet Prior, a senior planner for Ashland, served on the Richmond Public Schools facilities task force that studied maintenance needs in 2014. He also taught at Lee-Davis High School in Mechanicsville for five years.

A 15-year plan grew from that effort, which school officials say could cost $563 million. The price tag on the first, five-year phase of the plan is $169 million.

Budget talks are beginning between the city and schools about how to pay for the massive list of needs. Mayor Dwight Jones’ administration says it’s against tax increases as a funding source. And without tax increases, schools may have to get in line behind other capital needs, because Richmond has a debt capacity of only $50 million.

Prior says his grass-roots group of parents, service providers and others called Richmond Forward, could help.

“I really believe in the power of engagement and inclusion and a good planning process,” Prior says. “Maybe there is work we can do reaching out to state, local and private individuals to draw up plans for local officials to adopt.”

He says Richmond Forward wants to have solid ideas for how to pay for the first phase of funding by the spring.

But progress can’t be made unless changing the state of Richmond’s public schools is a high priority, Prior says, noting that Jones’ administration seemed to have put schools on the back burner.

He refers to a recent comment from Jones’ press secretary, Tammy Hawley, that the school system serves only 11 percent of Richmond’s population.

That isn’t in line with the mayor’s anti-poverty agenda, Prior says. In 2014, Jones started the office of Community and Wealth Building to tackle the city’s economic disparities.

“It’s a ridiculous comment. I’m a little conflicted because I really like what the mayor has done with his anti-poverty plan, but at the same time making the comment,” he says. “You are kind of making the comment that [families with children in public schools] have less bargaining power.”

Information on Richmond Forward and a schedule of community meetings on the plan to be held by the school division, is at RichmondForward.com.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

City Council's Surprise Vote Was Legal, City Attorney Says

Was public input unlikely to change the outcome?

Posted on Tue, Dec 15, 2015 at 5:07 PM

City Council's late-night, surprise vote on the mayor's Boulevard development proposal may scream of closed government, but City Attorney Allen Jackson says that any public objection probably wouldn't have changed the outcome.

Allen also says that he “has no concerns about the lawfulness” of the unadvertised vote.

For a recap, minutes before 11 p.m., Council squeezed in a 5-4 vote to approve a resolution that determines the shape that development will take on the roughly 60 acres of city-owned real estate on North Boulevard. This was after the agenda for last night’s meeting indicated that the item would be continued to Jan 11.

But during an afternoon meeting, a majority of Council members said that they planned to take a vote on the issue that night. Another change came during the regular meeting, when Council decided to amend the measure. But it continued as originally scheduled.

The shenanigans happened when Councilwoman Kathy Graziano moved to take the final vote on the measure instead of merely passing the amendments to it. With most people likely in bed at the late hour, there was nary a peep at the so-called public hearing.

Although Council is meant to represent the public, Jackson says, any dissent wouldn’t have been likely to stop that train. And that would have been the case even if there were more than crickets and a few stragglers left in the room to voice an objection.

“The Council seemed to have an idea of what direction it wanted to go, and I say that in the sense that a majority of members had an idea of what direction they wanted to go,” Jackson says. “So, I don’t think that if someone raised an objection it wouldn't have done anything. But the time for doing that has passed.”

Friday, December 11, 2015

At Richmond Speaks Forum, a Call to Expand Slave Trade Commemoration

Efforts should go beyond Lumpkin's Jail, speakers say.

Posted By on Fri, Dec 11, 2015 at 10:46 AM

A series of talks on how to memorialize Lumpkin's Jail came to an end Thursday night, with participants voicing concerns about including all viewpoints and more than one historic site.

Roughly 70 participants gathered at the University of Richmond to vote on six top priorities recommended in a draft report from the forum series.

But how construction would take shape at Lumpkin's is unclear. Many of the report's recommendations are general items that visitors would expect of a historic site -- such as being educational and economically sustainable.

The key finding is the desire for any memorial commemorating Lumpkin's to include the African Burial Ground and other sites in Shockoe Bottom, central to the slave trade. The report also indicates that respondents want areas that were significant to the history of slavery protected from inappropriate commercial development.

The viewpoint is consistently echoed by the Defenders of Freedom Justice and Equality, a group that advocates telling a story that goes beyond Lumpkin's with a 9-acre memorial park. The plan spans from the African Burial Ground and two blocks east of the CSX railroad tracks, between East Broad and East Grace streets to North 17th Street.

Earlier Thursday, Ana Edwards held a press conference at the Lumpkin's Jail site to advocate for an inclusive memorial plan. Edwards also attended the final Richmond Speaks Forum.

She said that while discussions center on a broad plan that goes beyond a museum, she didn't see any great efforts by the city to make sure it happens before the groundbreaking scheduled for 2016.

“At this point there is no indication that they have a mechanism for securing an expansive area,” she said.

Consultants plan to present a final report from Richmond Speaks to the General Assembly next month.

As far as funding for construction of a memorial site at Lumpkin’s Jail, the city has committed $8 million and the state has committed $5 million. The state also has set aside $5 million for the construction of a slavery museum.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Jackson Ward's Landmark Oak May Be Safe

With plans for the Maggie Walker statue moving forward, city appears open to saving tree.

Posted By on Mon, Dec 7, 2015 at 10:50 PM

The city seems to have changed its tune on sparing a tree that stands in a Jackson Ward intersection slated for the new Maggie Walker statue.

The life-sized statue of Walker is planned for the triangle where Adams and Broad streets intersect with Brook Road. It’s planned for completion next fall, with the surrounding area to become a plaza where viewers can interact with the memorial.

Designs aren't finalized, and city officials said a few weeks ago that they’re considering whether to remove the tree to make way for the changes or let it remain. The city’s director of planning and development review, Mark Olinger, said at the time that “the tree may go away given the constraints of the site.”

But during a planning commission meeting today, Olinger said that the tree may very well stay.

“We all believe that the oak and the memorial can coexist. I think that they are all compatible,” Olinger said. “I think that providing shade is something we would like to do in that dense urban environment.”

Olinger also noted that Mayor Dwight C. Jones was one of the signers of a petition in favor of saving the oak. The online “Woodman, Save That Tree” petition has more than 1,300 signatures.

The tree was part of a discussion that centered on a planning commission vote this evening to close vehicular traffic to the section of Brook Road that fronts the plaza. The street would be part of the plaza.

Commissioners considered the street closure as a separate item from the future of the tree. The vote in favor of closing the street was 5-4. Those against said that they wanted to see final design plans for the plaza before taking a vote.

But Olinger said that the city wanted to be sure that a street closure would be functional and would be approved before working on a design for the plaza.

If the road is closed, 6,400 square feet would be available for the plaza.

City Council is expected to consider the street closure Dec. 14, and the city plans to hold public hearings in January on a potential design. Then the commission will consider final approval on a design with the aim of having the statue in place by next fall.

More than a dozen speakers spoke on the future of the statue, plaza and tree. Many of them said the tree should stay, while Gary Flowers said that there wouldn’t be enough room for the tree and Walker in the plaza.

“Such a tree would diminish, and literally throw shade on Maggie Walker,” Flowers said.

Others spoke of the rarity of a Southern live oak in an urban environment.

Jennie Dotts, a local preservationist, spoke in favor of keeping the road open because of the unique architecture of buildings created to conform to the road’s diagonal line. She also said that because of Brook’s unique history as the city’s first toll road, the section should remain open.

Nicholas Smith of the Partnership for Smarter Growth spoke in favor of closing the road to help create a visually appealing space.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Key City Planner in Richmond Riverfront Revitalization Effort Resigns

Posted By on Wed, Dec 2, 2015 at 4:38 PM

A senior city planner who moved riverfront revitalization forward in Richmond resigned from his post last month.

James Hill was the “principal point of contact and spear-header of getting the riverfront done,” says Mark Olinger, Director of Planning and Development Review for the City of Richmond. Hill was a ranking city planner for nearly 14 years when he resigned on Nov. 19.

The city’s efforts to improve its riverfront as a major attraction are detailed in its Richmond Riverfront Plan, which was first drafted in 2012 and has been growing since. A large item in that plan left on Hill’s desk was the completion of the T. Tyler Potterfield Bridge, which is scheduled for completion in late summer 2016. Olinger says that the department is “picking up slack” in working with designers and contractors to make sure that the project gets done on time in Hill’s absence.

When completed, the bridge will link the former Brown’s Island Dam across the river to the Manchester Climbing Wall.

Olinger says that he hopes to get Hill's vacated position filled soon. Before leaving his post, Hill had an annual salary of $67,626.

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