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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

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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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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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VDH launches first of its kind contact tracing app to help stop the spread of COVID-19

Virginia is the first state in the country to design a COVID-19 app using Bluetooth Low Energy technology developed by Apple and Google, which does not rely on personal information or location data. Users opt-in to download and utilize the free app.

RVAHub Staff

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Governor Ralph Northam on Wednesday announced the launch of COVIDWISE, an innovative exposure notification app that will alert users if they have been in close contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19. Virginia is the first state in the country to design a COVID-19 app using Bluetooth Low Energy technology developed by Apple and Google, which does not rely on personal information or location data. Users opt-in to download and utilize the free app.

“We must continue to fight COVID-19 from every possible angle,” Governor Northam said in a news release. “The COVIDWISE exposure notification app gives you an additional tool to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your community while maintaining your personal privacy. I encourage all Virginians to download and use this app, so we can work together to contain this virus.”

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) developed COVIDWISE in partnership with Spring ML using funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The free app is available to download through the App Store and the Google Play Store. COVIDWISE is the only app in Virginia allowed to use the exposure notifications system (ENS) application programming interface (API) jointly created by Apple and Google. Other countries, including Ireland and Germany, have successfully used this technology in similar apps.

“As COVID-19 cases continue to be identified across the Commonwealth, it is important for people to know whether they have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the disease,” said State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, MD, MA. “COVIDWISE will notify you if you’ve likely been exposed to another app user who anonymously shared a positive COVID-19 test result. Knowing your exposure history allows you to self-quarantine effectively, seek timely medical attention, and reduce potential exposure risk. The more Virginians use COVIDWISE, the greater the likelihood that you will receive timely exposure notifications that lead to effective disease prevention.”

COVIDWISE works by using random Bluetooth keys that change every 10 to 20 minutes. iOS and Android devices that have the app installed will anonymously share these random keys if they are within close proximity for at least 15 minutes. Each day, the device downloads a list of all random keys associated with positive COVID-19 results submitted by other app users and checks them against the list of random keys it has encountered in the last 14 days. If there is a match, COVIDWISE may notify the individual, taking into account the date and duration of exposure, and the Bluetooth signal strength which is used to estimate proximity.

Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 will be notified by a VDH case investigator and will be given a unique numeric code. This code is entered into the app by the user and serves as verification of a positive report. Others who have downloaded COVIDWISE and have been in close proximity to the individual who reported as being positive will receive a notice which reads, “You have likely been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.” This is your alert to get tested.

The notice includes the estimated number of days since the exposure and provides several options for taking further action, including contacting a primary care physician or local health department, monitoring symptoms, and finding nearby test locations. The Virtual VDH tab within the app also provides links to online resources and relevant phone numbers.

Anyone who downloads the app has the option to choose to receive exposure notifications, and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to share their result anonymously through COVIDWISE. No location data or personal information is ever collected, stored, tracked, or transmitted to VDH as part of the app. Users have the ability to delete the app or turn off exposure notifications at any time.

Officials say widespread use is critical to the success of this effort, and VDH is launching a robust, statewide public information campaign to make sure Virginians are aware of the COVIDWISE app, its privacy protection features, and how it can be used to support public health and help reduce the spread of the virus.

To learn more about COVIDWISE and download the app, visit www.covidwise.org.

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Step into the past with Wickham House Virtual Tour

The Wickham House is currently closed due to the pandemic but you can still get a peek inside.

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The Valentine knows that getting out and about in the current situation isn’t ideal and in some cases completely impossible. To help the learning continue they’ve just launched a virtual tour of the Wickham House.

The Wickham House from the courtyard

The Wickham House sits at 1015 E. Clay Street and was completed in 1812. The Wickham House property once took up a whole city block. In 1882 it was purchased by Mann Valentine II, who filled the house with artifacts and then bequeathed them and the house for the establishment of a museum.

Welcome to the Wickham House, a National Historic Landmark and the Valentine museum’s largest object. This historic home allows us to tell the complicated story of the Wickham family, the home’s enslaved occupants, sharing spaces, the realities of urban slavery and more. While the Wickham House is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we hope you will enjoy this sneak peek virtual tour of the historic home.

The tour focuses on the Wickham family, the home’s enslaves inhabitants, the realities of urban slavery, sharing these spaces and more.

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City of Richmond government offices closed Tuesday due to impacts from Isaias

Due to the impact of Tropical Storm Isaias in the Central Virginia region, City of Richmond government offices will be closed Tuesday, August 4th, with only essential employees reporting, the city announced late Monday night.

RVAHub Staff

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Due to the impact of Tropical Storm Isaias in the Central Virginia region, City of Richmond government offices will be closed Tuesday, August 4th, with only essential employees reporting, the city announced late Monday night.

Essential city services will continue.

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