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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.

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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 NoColiseum.com 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.”

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Downtown

Last Call for Storm Drain Art Submissions

Local artists you can make a difference in our watershed but your deadline for entries is February 2nd

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From RVAH2O

The deadline for submissions is fast approaching, and we’d love to see YOUR ideas for Richmond’s fifth annual Storm Drain Art Project. Local artists ages 18 and older are invited to submit storm drain designs between now and Sunday, February 2, 2020, at 11:59 p.m.

We’re looking for art that paints a picture of how important it is to keep our river – and our drinking water – clean. All four finalists will receive a $400 stipend and publicity for their artwork on drains in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom.

  • Submit your design using the template on the RVAH2O website.
  • Help promote the goals of the City of Richmond’s RVA Clean Water Plan – a five-year roadmap for reducing pollutant discharges into the James River, starting with wastewater, stormwater and the combined sewer system.

ENTER TODAY!

Don’t wait – visit RVAH2O.org or call 804.646.8131 for details and submission rules.

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Community

State of Emergency and Road Closures for this Holiday Weekend

Monday is Federal Holiday but the Capitol grounds are expected to be crowded with protestors and those hoping to discuss issues with their representatives for Lobby Day.

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Monday is Martin Luther King Day and it is also Lobby Day at the Capitol. Lobby Day is traditionally a day where citizens and organizations meet with elected officials and share their viewpoints. This Lobby Day will be a bit different. The Gun Rights lobby is calling on hundreds of activists to descend upon the Capitol grounds to protest any legislation related to gun ownership.

The situation is considered volatile. So volatile that Governor Northam has declared a State of Emergency for Richmond beginning tonight (Friday) through Tuesday evening.

Governor Ralph Northam today declared a state of emergency in advance of expected demonstrations on Capitol Square on Monday, January 20, 2020. Law enforcement intelligence analysts have identified credible threats of violence surrounding the event, along with white nationalist rhetoric and plans by out-of-state militia groups to attend.

The Governor’s declaration prohibits all weapons, including firearms, from Capitol grounds, and will provide joint law enforcement and public safety agencies the resources they need to keep demonstrators, policymakers, and all Virginians safe.

This emergency declaration is temporary, and extends from Friday, January 17 at 5:00 PM until Tuesday, January 21 at 5:00 PM.

These fears of violence were given more credence when the FBI arrested three suspected white-supremacists that were planning on attending Monday’s rally. From the article, the armed men “planned to travel to a pro-gun rally next week in Richmond in anticipation of a possible race war”.

In addition to the weapons ban access to the Capitol grounds will be limited and several roads around the Capitol grounds will be closed (see map above).

 

JJ McNabb is a Fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism and a contributor on anti-government extremism at Forbes. She has this excellent thread on Twitter on what has brought us to this point where a normal lobby day has turned into a State of Emergency and fears of violence.

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Hundreds trek to Capitol to support environmental bills

Hundreds of clean energy supporters trekked to the State Capitol this week demanding Virginia move away from reliance on carbon-based energy, invest in alternative energy supplies and lower rates for customers.

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By Jeffrey Knight

Hundreds of clean energy supporters trekked to the State Capitol this week demanding Virginia move away from reliance on carbon-based energy, invest in alternative energy supplies and lower rates for customers.

At the rally, hosted Tuesday by the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund and other environmental organizations, participants pushed for Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, an effort to cap and reduce carbon emissions from the power sector.

Gov. Ralph Northam supported the initiative in his 2020 budget proposal by including $733 million in new funding for the environment and clean energy.

“In Virginia, we are proving that a clean environment and a strong economy go hand-in-hand–and having both is what makes our Commonwealth such a great place to live, work and play,” Northam said in a press release.

Organizations lobbied for bills that seek to depart from a reliance on fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. One focus was House Bill 1526 and its counterpart Senate Bill 851 known as the Virginia Clean Economy Act.

These bills would develop mandatory standards, annual timelines and call for specific reductions of carbon emissions with the goal to hit 0% by 2050. The bills also push for offshore wind operations and solar energy generation.

“I’m 100% for environmental issues,” Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, and co-patron of SB 851, said to supporters of the bill during the rally. “If I have to stand alone for environmental issues, I will do it alone.”

After supporters met with legislators they reconvened at the nearby St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where they heard speakers champion environmental justice and steps to combat climate change.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, took to the podium during the rally to address coal ash, a by-product of burning coal in power plants that contains arsenic, mercury, and other metals.

“Most of our environmental impacts, not only of climate change but also with coal ash and pipelines, are in our most vulnerable communities,” Carroll Foy said to the audience.

Dominion is Virginia’s main energy supplier, with 2.6 million customers in Virginia and Eastern North Carolina, according to its website. The energy giant has been moving away from coal production, but environmental advocates worry that closure of Dominion’s coal ash ponds will affect nearby communities. They want Dominion to haul away the coal ash, versus cap it in place.

Advocates also said that the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Dominion and other utility companies want to build as they tap into alternative energy sources will compromise communities and deviate from a zero-carbon future.

“There will be 35 years of non-renewable energy if the pipeline continues,” said

Corrina Beall, legislative and political director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter.

The Environmental Justice Act (HB 704 and SB 406) patroned by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, respectively, would require state agencies to review proposed environmental policies with regard to the impact on low-income communities, communities of color and vulnerable populations and calls for “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people.”

Supporters at the rally also pushed for the Fair Energy Bills Act (HB 1132), patroned by Del. Jerrauld “Jay” Jones, D-Norfolk, and Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan. The bill calls for lower rates from energy suppliers like Dominion Energy, who reportedly overcharged Virginians $277 million more than they were allowed in 2018.

SB 966 restored the SCC’s ability to conduct earnings reviews to determine whether Dominion Energy had collected more money than required. If so, the extra revenue could be reinvested in electric distribution grid transformation as well as solar and offshore wind projects at no extra cost to the consumer.

“What makes more financial sense is for the money to be reinvested, which allows the customer to get the benefit of the project without any additional rates,” said Rayhan Daudani, manager of media relations for Dominion Energy.

He said that customers get a “great value” with rates 6.8% below the national average, along with increased investment in renewable energy and a transformed energy grid. Dominion said it plans to invest $750 million between offshore wind projects and smart meters that provide better grid service.

“Our mission is to keep those prices low, build the nation’s largest offshore wind project, continue to provide solar energy across the state and keep the lights on for our customers,” Daudani said.

The offshore wind project is set to be the largest in the U.S. with enough energy to power up to 650,000 Virginia homes, according to a recent Dominion Energy press release.

So far none of the bills supported by clean energy advocates have passed committee.

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