Rachel Flynn Departs, Says City Lags 

City Hall's recent brain drain was punctuated last week with the resignation of the city's most progressive bureaucrat, Director of Community Planning Rachel Flynn.

click to enlarge Rachel Flynn - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE

After five years in Richmond, Flynn — behind the city's much-praised downtown master plan — and her top lieutenant, Brooke Hardin, announced their resignations with several high-profile development projects on the front burner.

Flynn and Peter Chapman, the deputy chief administrative officer for economic and community development, often didn't see eye to eye, sources say. In 2009, Flynn's department was rolled into economic development at Chapman's urging.

Flynn, who pushed green spaces, street improvements and purposeful urban design, often clashed with developers and city politicians. She was vehemently against allowing high-rises along the James River below Church Hill, angering the developers behind the Echo Harbour condo project. She clashed with City Council — most notably Councilman Bruce Tyler, who attempted to amend the downtown master plan to make it friendlier to developers.

The debate, however, always was central to Flynn's modus operandi. "That's what makes the work so rewarding," she says. "If everyone agreed and nothing was challenging and everything was a given — then why would I be here?"

Flynn will leave at the end of April, and begin working as a private planning consultant. She's the latest high-profile departure from the city, including John Lewis, former chief executive of the GRTC Transit System, who left for Orlando late last year; former Richmond Finance Director Marcus Jones, who took a job as Norfolk's city manager in November; and Richmond Human Resources Director Tyrone Jackson, who resigned in early March.

Thad Williamson, professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, says that Flynn's lasting imprint will be leading a large-scale public debate about how best to use the city's remaining open spaces.

"She is very clear all along that the best locations of the city should be the domain of the public," Williamson says, adding that Flynn's approach also threatened some in the business and development community. "I think it's clear that probably there are some people that are happy to see Rachel Flynn is gone. Rachel made a big impact, and the question will be, will the mayor and the administration think in terms of finding someone who will continue that legacy, or adrift back to the status quo."

Flynn says she often was frustrated by the lack of healthy dialogue about things such as public transportation and riverfront development.

"I think there are some cities that are a little further along," she says, such as Charleston, S.C., or Chicago. "Maybe if I was in a city where things were moving along a little faster, then maybe I would stay a little longer." — Scott Bass


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