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A Rocky Road Ahead? 

Shockoe Bottom merchants fear they've lost their say in the area's future.

The choice of committee members seems deliberately exclusive to Dirk Graham, who's rebuilding his landmark Bottoms Up Pizza.

Not only that, Graham says, but several of the committee members are avowed opponents of the proposed Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium. "They're opposing anything down there," Graham says. "They like it the way it is."

Graham believes the stadium and accompanying development could be a huge boon for the Bottom, as long as it's done well.

Levinson says she doesn't know who the other committee members are, nor would she share her feelings on the baseball stadium and other proposals for the Bottom.

Bill Chapman, owner of the Bottom nightclub Tonic and a developer with Hamilton Development Group, says he dropped by city offices and called City Administrator William E. Harrell four times to talk about the makeup of the advisory committee, but his calls were never returned. Wilder didn't want "anybody who came into it with an agenda," Chapman says.

To the contrary, says the mayor's spokesman, Bill Farrar. Many of the committee members were recommended to Wilder by people who had worked on Bottom issues before, Farrar says, and Wilder sought people with "a wide range of experience who would be able to approach the task in an objective fashion." In addition, he says, "He wanted some fresh blood."

The members include Lee Buffington, co-founder of the local Citizens Organized for Responsible Development (CORD), a group that adamantly opposes the demolition of historic properties for a ballpark. Another appointee is architectural historian Kim Chen, a member of CORD and a supporter of ACORN, which seeks to preserve historic properties.

Wilder also tapped Travis B. Weisleder, co-founder, president and chief operating officer of Slip-based InterActive Financial Marketing Group; businessman and investor Charles McFarlane, who lives in the Bottom; Lila Kerns, program manager for the 17th Street Farmers' Market; and retired postal worker Othel Sparks Jr. Sparks' connection to the Bottom seems somewhat tenuous — he lives in the city's 6th District, Farrar says, "which is the district in question."

Then again, Farrar says, it's not necessary for committee members to have direct ties to the Bottom. The committee's work, he says, "is not strictly limited to the Bottom."

Wilder says in a statement that the group "will be asked to look at all the possibilities of developing Shockoe Bottom, which may or may not include the building of a baseball stadium." Members will meet with experts in economic development, engineering and historic preservation to advise the mayor.

Committee chairman and Virginia Commonwealth University professor Michael Pratt would not comment about the makeup of the committee. Wilder assembled the members "with purpose," Pratt says. "No one asked me who to be on the committee."

Pratt teaches at VCU's School of Business and the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs and is head of VCU's Virginia Center for Urban Development.

So what does the Bottom need to help spur growth? "It needs a good hearing" on possible development options, Pratt says. He can't offer more, he says, until the committee begins meeting this month.

What the area doesn't need, says Graham of Bottoms Up, is people who are focused on preserving the status quo in Shockoe Bottom: "Preserving what? Some empty parking lots that are collecting wine bottles and rats.

"Richmond needs reasons to come down and stay down in the city," Graham says. S



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