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Navy Hill: From thriving black community to hotly-debated redevelopment

Before it was the name of a $1.5 billion downtown redevelopment project, Navy Hill was a neighborhood many Richmonders later displaced by the construction of Interstates 64 and 95 called home. Now, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has big plans for the neighborhood, though many city residents and council members oppose the project.

Capital News Service



By Jimmy O’Keefe

Before it was the name of a downtown development plan, Navy Hill was the neighborhood Faithe Norrell called home.

“I just remember it as a really warm community, where everyone wanted to know your accomplishments,” said Norrell, a retired educator who worked with Richmond Public Schools for 28 years. “A very nurturing community.”

Situated north of Broad Street between Third and 13th streets, Navy Hill got its name after plans were made to erect a memorial in the area for those who fought in the War of 1812, which was primarily a naval war. At first, Navy Hill was largely populated by German immigrants, but by the turn of the 20th century, it was one of Richmond’s most prominent black neighborhoods, along with nearby Jackson Ward and Carver.

Norrell remembers Navy Hill as a neighborhood with a strong sense of community and equality. She recalls going for walks every morning with her “auntie” and stopping by to see friends.

“There were professional people living there and people that were housekeepers, like my sisters … it was a financially diverse group of people, but everybody was treated equally,” Norrell continued. “You were as respectful to a custodian as you were to the doctor. You were raised to do that.”

An interstate runs through it

Many of those who owned businesses in Jackson Ward would return home to Navy Hill at night. In fact, Navy Hill was significant in that many leaders of Richmond’s black community made their homes in the neighborhood. Maggie Walker, the first black woman to charter a bank in the U.S., lived in Navy Hill before she relocated to Jackson Ward. In the era of Jim Crow, Walker helped to foster entrepreneurship in Richmond’s black community. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, famous for tap dancing alongside Shirley Temple in four 1930s films, had a home in Navy Hill. A Bojangles statue perches at a busy intersection in nearby Jackson Ward where he is credited with putting up the funds to install a stoplight.

Norrell’s grandfather, Albert V. Norrell, was a longtime resident of Navy Hill. His Navy Hill home was located at 1015 N. Seventh St., where her aunts also lived.

Originally born enslaved, Albert V. Norrell taught in Richmond for 66 years, including at Navy Hill School, which for many years was the only school in Richmond with black faculty. A school in Richmond’s Northside was renamed Albert V. Norrell School.

“One of his direct descendants taught in Richmond Public Schools until I retired in 2017,” Faithe Norrell said. “For 133 years, he had a direct descendant teaching or administrating in Richmond … we say it was our family business.”

Though Faithe Norrell left Navy Hill in 1951, her connections to the neighborhood were strong throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She would visit with her aunts, who babysat her.

“I just remembered the joy of being there,” Faithe Norrell said. “My family actually owned about four houses on that street, so we would just go from house to house.”

A walk through Navy Hill today reveals a different neighborhood than the one Norrell remembers. In the remaining part of Navy Hill where homes, churches and an elementary school once stood, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Medical Center and Reynolds Community College campuses now dominate the landscape. The Richmond Coliseum — which was closed in 2018 — and the historic Blues Armory stand unused. 1015 N. Seventh St. has been replaced with a small parking lot.

“Individual citizens must be inconvenienced for the good of the community.”

Construction of Interstates 64 and 95 destroyed Navy Hill in the 1950s and 1960s. An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch from Aug. 2, 1955, details how the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike — now a portion of I-95 — would help people outside of Richmond make it into the city faster, and those living in the city would benefit from reduced traffic. But the story also noted that those living in the path of the road would be displaced.

“Unfortunately, the demolition of scores of dwellings and business places will create difficult problems for some of the persons involved,” the article read. “This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, when individual citizens must be inconvenienced for the good of the community.”

Another RT-D article later that month reported that 726 buildings, 526 of which were homes, were to be torn down to make way for the interstate.

Then on Oct. 29 of the same year, a RT-D report noted that about 1,000 families in the Navy Hill area would be displaced by the construction of the interstate.

Navy Hill School was demolished in the 1960s.

“Because of gradual disappearance of residences in the section, what with the highway construction, there appears to be no other reason for the erection of another school,” an article appearing in the Sept. 14, 1965, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. The next week, another story in the RT-D noted that Navy Hill School would be demolished “to make way for an interchange of Interstate Rt. 64.”

In 1966, Norrell’s family was displaced from Navy Hill. She said her family was so rooted in the community that many of them died within a year or two after being forced to move to another part of the city.

“You can’t kill a whole segment of people’s culture,” she said. “I’m sure when you’re planning things you can find a different route or a different way to build without having to destroy a neighborhood.”

Development on the horizon

In November 2018, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney proposed a $1.5 billion project to redevelop the Navy Hill neighborhood. A new hotel, a GRTC transit center, and a $325 million, 17,500-seat arena to replace the Coliseum are all part of the Navy Hill Development Project. According to the Navy Hill website, no taxes will be raised to fund the project. Private investors will pay for the development.

The city will borrow money to pay for an arena to replace the Coliseum, and tax increment financing, called a TIF, will be used to pay back the loans. The city has created an 80-block TIF district where incoming tax revenue would be frozen at current levels and any additional tax revenue go toward paying back the arena loan.

Jim Nolan, press secretary to Stoney, said in a statement to Capital News Service that the Navy Hill Development Project will “rejuvenate” the downtown neighborhood while also bringing in a projected $1 billion in surplus revenue that will go toward funding schools, housing, and infrastructure.

“We believe the project will greatly benefit the city because it will create thousands of jobs, build hundreds of units of affordable housing and a new transit center, include a goal of $300 million in minority business participation, and produce a new publicly-owned arena to replace the 1970s era Richmond Coliseum, once a public asset, now a public liability,” Nolan stated.

Plans to redevelop Navy Hill have been controversial. Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder wrote on Facebook last month: “when I now read of the ‘rehabilitation of Navy Hill,’ I ask how can you rehabilitate that which has been destroyed?”

Justin Griffin, an attorney in Richmond with a background in accounting and economics, said he started the website called to bring attention to problems he sees with the proposed development.

“It’s pretty obvious from reading these financial projections — they’re just absurd and overstated,” Griffin said.

“If we were having an honest conversation … I think we would have a vast majority say, ‘No, you can’t afford that right now, we should put our focus and our money into schools and roads and the other city services that need to be caught up on here in Richmond.’”

At least two members of the Richmond City Council — Kim Gray, 2nd District, and Reva Trammell, 8th District — have voiced clear opposition to the project. Councilmember Stephanie Lynch, who won a special election in November to replace Parker Agelasto in the 5th District, said previously that she doesn’t support the project in its current form.

Griffin said the new arena and the Navy Hill Development Project are technically two separate projects, but are inextricably linked.

“They will not consider anything without an arena … it’s the arena which taxpayers are going to pay for, that is going to drive people and dollars into the private developments,” Griffin said. “The people are going to own the thing that is most likely a liability.”

Griffin said that projects like this do not typically work, citing the Kansas City Power and Light District in Kansas City, Missouri.

“If you actually look into the Power and Light District, it might appear successful,” Griffin said, noting that people do visit the district. “But from a standpoint that it actually makes a profit for the city and has benefited the people of Kansas City, it has not.”

City financial advisors Davenport and Company state that TIFs have been used across Virginia, including for development of Short Pump Town Center in Henrico County and Stone Bridge in Chesterfield County, a new development in the former Cloverleaf Mall. They say the funding approach has been used several thousand times, which “underscores the relative success of this structure.”

As part of the arrangement with the city, NH District Corp. developers said the project will include 480 affordable housing units, with projected rents ranging from $1,001 for a studio apartment to $1,717 for a two-bedroom apartment in 2023.

Stoney has called the project “the largest economic empowerment project in our history.”

Meanwhile, Norrell said she would like to see Navy Hill become a neighborhood again. She also said she’d like to see any revenue that comes from a redeveloped Navy Hill be earmarked to improve public schools.

“So many people are being displaced in Jackson Ward because of gentrification … it’d be very rewarding for me to be able to see people move back into Navy Hill and make it a community again, because that’s what it was — a community of friends and neighbors.”



The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Gird Your Loins it’s Time to Shiver in the River

The event isn’t limited to jumping in the James, there’s a clean-up, a 5K, music, beer, music and more.




The 6th Annual Shiver in the River 5k is hitting the James River this weekend, Saturday, February 29th at Tredegar. You can clean up, walk/run, or jump in the James River — or do all three. There is a lot going on and you can pick and choose what you’d like to do. All these events are to benefit Keep Virginia Beautiful.

It kicks off, picks off?, at 10:00 a.m. with a Community Cleanup along the banks of the James River.

A couple of hours later at noon the 5k walk/run runs a loop that starts and ends at Historic Tredegar, taking in the beauty of the James River.

The main event dips in at 1:30, The James River Leap. This fundraising Leap will take place along the chilly banks of the James near Historic Tredegar.  A minimum of $75 must be raised to participate in the Leap and to receive a commemorative long-sleeve T-shirt.  Must be 13 years or older to participate in the Leap.

Image: Dave Parrish

Don’t feel like getting wet? Well, join your fellow sane folks at the Winter Festival from 11 AM to 4 PM for a free event that offers music, beverages, food, heated tents, and, more.

Register Here



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Bill allows renters to make certain repairs if landlord doesn’t respond

A bill that gives tenants the power to make repairs on their property and deduct the costs from their rent, with conditions, recently passed the Virginia state Senate and is expected to advance in the House.

Capital News Service



By Will Gonzalez

A bill that gives tenants the power to make repairs on their property and deduct the costs from their rent, with conditions, recently passed the Virginia Senate and is expected to advance in the House.

Senators voted unanimously in committee and on the floor to pass Senate Bill 905, introduced by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, which gives a tenant the right to seek repairs that constitute a fire hazard or serious threat to the life, health or safety of occupants. Such conditions include the infestation of rodents and lack of heat, hot or cold running water, light, electricity, or adequate sewage disposal facilities.

Tenants would have the right to secure a contractor to fix the issues and deduct the cost from their rent.

First, the tenant would submit a written complaint to their landlord and allow them 14 days to fix the issue before the tenant secures a licensed contractor to complete the repairs. The tenant must provide documentation and itemized receipts of the repair to the landlord. The tenant would be allowed to deduct the costs of the repairs, not exceeding one month’s rent, from subsequent rent payments.

Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, proposed an amendment that was rejected during the Senate committee hearing, requiring the tenant to obtain two repair estimates.

Currently, state law allows the landlord more time to fix issues that compromise the health and safety of the tenant. The tenant can file a detailed, written complaint and give notice that the rental agreement will terminate on or after 30 days, if the landlord hasn’t fixed the issue within 21 days. If the problem is fixed, the tenant can’t break the lease.

A tenant, though legally empowered under current law to terminate the rental agreement would still, in most cases, need to have a deposit plus first month’s rent to secure a new place, which can present a roadblock for renters.

The Virginia Poverty Law Center noted its support of the bill and stated that in addition to speeding up the repair process, the proposed bill would reduce the number of cases in Virginia’s courts because tenants are given the opportunity to handle issues themselves instead of having to take landlords to court. Christine Marra, the group’s director of housing advocacy, said that the bill benefits tenants by allowing them to deduct the cost of donated repairs.

“There are a number of nonprofits across the commonwealth that do home repair for homeowners, but will not do them for renters because they don’t want to unjustly or unduly enrich the landlord,” Marra said. “I hope this will encourage them to start doing repairs for tenants.”

According to Elizabeth Godwin-Jones, a Richmond attorney who represents landlords, the original bill was too vague about what would constitute an emergency condition and how the tenant was allowed to go about getting the work done.

Now that the tenant is required to hire a licensed contractor and provide the necessary documentation, she said there’s little a negligent landlord could do to challenge their tenant in court and force them to pay their rent in full.

 “To me, the landlord already has a bit of a black eye, if it was something really serious and they didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” Godwin-Jones said.

Stanley patroned another renter’s rights bill, one which didn’t advance. The bill would have given tenants the right to use their landlord’s failure to maintain the property as a defense if they were taken to court for failure to pay rent.

Virginia’s eviction rates are among the highest in the country. Princeton University’s 2016 Eviction Lab study showed that five of the 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the U.S. are in Virginia, and Godwin-Jones believes the problem is rooted in poverty more than it is in landlord-tenant legislation.

“To me, the biggest thing to help the eviction problem would be to raise the minimum wage and have more affordable housing options, but that’s terribly underfunded, and the funding hasn’t kept up with the increase in the rent,” Godwin-Jones said.

After making it to the House of Delegates, the bill was assigned to a General Laws subcommittee, which recommended advancing it. A committee on Thursday postponed hearing the bill because Stanley was still in the Senate and could not speak to the bill.



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Bills advance to expand in-state tuition regardless of citizenship status

The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition.

Capital News Service



The state Senate and the House have advanced bills to make students living in the U.S. without documentation eligible for in-state tuition.

SB 935, introduced by Democratic Sens. Jennifer Boysko and Ghazala Hashmi, would require a student to provide proof of filed taxes to be eligible for in-state tuition. A student also must have attended high school in Virginia for at least two years, been homeschooled in the state or have passed a high school equivalency exam prior to enrolling in a college. The bill reported out of the House appropriations committee Wednesday and heads to the floor for a vote.

Submitting income tax returns would be a challenge for students straight out of high school who have not worked or filed taxes before, according to Jorge Figueredo, executive director of Edu-Futuro, a nonprofit that seeks to empower immigrant youth and their families.

HB 1547, introduced by Del. Alfonso Lopez, applies the same provisions as SB 935, except the requirement to file proof of filed taxes. The bill is currently in the Senate Health and Education committee.

Immigrant rights advocates have openly supported these two bills. Figueredo said he is “thrilled” to see the bill advance.

“This is something that makes a lot of sense. It’s something where we don’t want to have a group of people to get to a point that they cannot reach their highest potential,” Figueredo said.

Attorney General Mark Herring announced in 2014 that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students would be eligible for in-state tuition. He said Maryland saw an increase in graduation rates after allowing students without documentation to access in-state tuition rates. Maryland officials believe this led less students to drop out of high school because they saw realistic options for continuing education, according to Herring.

There is uncertainty about the future of the DACA program. A study by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis stated that uncertainty creates a risk for students enrolled in Virginia colleges and universities, who fear they could lose DACA status and access to in-state tuition rates. The institute, which studies issues affecting low-to-moderate income residents, recommended that lawmakers could mitigate the potential impact of that loss by expanding in-state tuition access to Virginia residents regardless of immigration status. The institute said that by doing so the state would also provide more affordable access to colleges for residents whose immigration status does not otherwise fall into the categories currently required for in-state tuition.

Figueredo said that allowing these students to apply for in-state tuition would create more opportunities for undocumented students to become professionals, something that would benefit all of Virginia.

High school graduates in Virginia earn about $35,000 on average compared to people with a bachelor’s degree who earn about $65,000 a year, according to The Commonwealth Institute.

“A person that has a higher level of education in comparison to a person that has only a high school diploma, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars that are not captured in the form of taxes, so that’s a direct benefit right there,” Figueredo said.

Katherine Amaya is a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College. Her family emigrated from El Salvador when she was 8 years old. Amaya said she pays out-of-state tuition rates as an undocumented student, about $6,000 per semester, compared to classmates who pay about $2,000 for in-state tuition per semester.

Amaya said she was on the honor roll throughout high school and her first semester in college. She said she was able to apply for scholarships for undocumented students but it was a competitive process. She was awarded a few scholarships and said she was able to use that money for her first semester of college but is afraid she won’t get as much help in the future.

Amaya said she had many friends in high school that were also having a hard time paying for college or university because they were also undocumented and did not qualify for in-state tuition.

“A lot of them, they couldn’t even afford going to community college, so they just dropped out and started working,” Amaya said. “It’s sad, you know, that they don’t have the money or the help to keep going to school.”



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