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Dominion Resources' selfish plan offers its employees a riverfront view but does little for downtown's economy. 

False Stimulus

The headline of a full-page Dominion Resources ad recently called the company's plans "a $95 million a year stimulus package for the Richmond economy."

During a Nov. 1 meeting of the city planning commission, Gregory Wingfield, president of the Greater Richmond Partnership said, "If you turn down this rezoning request, you have effectively said the city of Richmond is closed for business."

"The City of Richmond is open for business after all," crowed the Richmond Times-Dispatch in an editorial printed soon after the commission endorsed a special-use permit for Dominion's corporate expansion plans on Tredegar Street.

They're all wrong.

A real stimulus package to bolster business downtown would use urban design and architectural principles that would tighten, intensify and serve to repopulate the central downtown district, not pull in a westward direction beyond the Lee Bridge.

Stimulus would mean building the corporate headquarters on one of the disfiguring chunks of open real estate that create major disconnects throughout downtown. These asphalt parking lots keep Richmond from having the physical and visual continuity of other evocative East Coast cities such as Charleston and Savannah.

A real stimulus package would mean harnessing the considerable vitality — and buying power — of more than 1,000 Dominion employees, weaving them into the daily rubric of what constitutes downtown: shops, services, tourists, convention-goers, restaurants, public transit, cultural attractions and racial and social diversity.

But Dominion doesn't give a hoot about "a stimulus" for the downtown economy. It really doesn't want to be a part of things. It wants its river view. It wants a gated office park.

If Dominion wants to be hailed as hero — savior, even — of downtown, why did it desert downtown in the first place and move its headquarters to suburban Innsbrook? We should trust its wisdom now?

The utility company, the chamber of commerce and the Times-Dispatch editorial page have tried to paint the citizens and community and environmental groups who argue against putting so intense a development in the flood plain — and in a historically and environmentally fragile site — as obstructionists. Truth to tell, it's Dominion that's obstructionist. Downtown economic development will be considerably set back by placing this expansion in a location that has few economic spinoff effects.

Although opponents have been painted as being anti-business, they're not. Far from it. Concerned citizens and community groups from across the region are asking for common sense. They're asking that we examine the site from all vantage points — from atop Oregon Hill, Hollywood Cemetery, from Belle Isle, the Lee Bridge and from various points on the south side of the river. They wisely oppose anything that would encroach further on horizon lines and historic views. They recognize that this precious, historic, urban landscape is worth more to the city's development and downtown's long-term appeal than a piece of office-park architecture that would rise above the hillsides or treetops.

Just because buildings currently are on the site is no reason additional construction should go there. The former James River Corp. plant evolved from the 19th century, a time when rivers were chief sources of power. Scores of American cities blighted their riverfronts during the industrial age — Wilmington, Newark and Brooklyn. Others, such as Boston and Philadelphia, defaced their waterways with highways. Somehow, miraculously, Richmond largely escaped such catastrophic development and the James remains a wild river.

So now, in the 21st century, having come this distance, we're going to infringe on this precious resource?

Dominion is not alone in potentially hurting downtown by its current and unfortunate site choice. Other downtown corporate complexes do damage daily by sending similar signals — the twin-towered Riverfront Plaza, the James Center, the SunTrust operations center in Manchester and the Federal Reserve Bank all architecturally project the same psychology: We're sort of part of downtown — as long as our employees can pull off the expressway, drive into a garage, take an elevator to their desks and eat on-site.

Dominion, like these, is signaling that it is reluctant to rub elbows with the larger downtown. What message does this send its employees? It reinforces old prejudices.

"I go downtown to Shockoe Slip for lunch," a Dominion Resources executive who currently works on Tredegar Street said recently. "It's only a six-minute drive."

Bingo. He makes my point.

Imagine 1,000 Dominion employees exiting their parking deck at lunch hour, driving downtown and finding a parking space. I don't think so.

Instead, they will eat in the company cafeteria and enjoy their gated, riverfront vistas. Who needs
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