Navy Hill-Coliseum project: Subsidized gentrification?

12/21/2018, 6 a.m.
I applaud Richmond City Council for approving the creation of a committee to review the Navy Hill-Coliseum proposal. The project ...

Re “In limbo: City Councilman Parker C. Agelasto casts decisive vote in latest poll on Coliseum project despite looming questions over his qualifications to hold 5th District seat,” Free Press Dec. 6-8 edition:

I applaud Richmond City Council for approving the creation of a committee to review the Navy Hill-Coliseum proposal. The project has been hailed by the city administration as a game-changing economic empowerment project, one that is immune from the potential, yet familiar, negative consequences of costly development projects. But this is simply too good to be true.

According to navyhillrva.com, the website created to promote the redevelopment, “This is more than just another real estate project. It’s a progressive, thoughtful, inclusive way to bring back Navy Hill.”

While this assertion pays lip service to progressive ideals, and hints at Navy Hill’s impressive history as a center of African-American prosperity in the former capital of the Confederacy, I fail to see how the Navy Hill project will do so. Will this development provide substantive opportunities for increased African-American ownership in the neighborhood to restore it to the Navy Hill of yesteryear? Will the neighborhood serve as a model of African-American excellence and resilience as it once did?

The reality is that the Navy Hill that once was, is no more. The historic African-American community here was marred by the purposefully destructive building of Interstate 95, discriminatory home lending practices via redlining, and the establishment of substandard public housing.

The area sits in between the dominating forces of Virginia Commonweath University’s two campuses, which are planned to connect in the future. The areas around these campuses are populated by a growing body of students, most of whom are transplants to the city. While VCU’s student body is certainly diverse in many respects, it is not representative of Richmond’s historic African-American community. Therefore, it seems unlikely that this population, which was once the beating heart of Navy Hill, would be the prime beneficiaries of this development.

Even if this project is wholly successful, how can we guarantee it will not simply be a form of subsidized gentrification? Will affordable housing truly be available? Can it be guaranteed that landlords will not practice discrimination? Will opportunities for meaningful employment be created? Can it be guaranteed that employers will not discriminate in hiring? How will development affect already rising property taxes throughout the city?

Nearby areas such as Church Hill are rapidly gentrifying, and the future remains unclear for public housing in the East End, much of which is slated to be replaced with “mixed-income housing.”

The Virginia Defender has a running piece centered around the question “Is there a master plan to drive poor people out of Richmond?” I worry that the Navy Hill project is evidence that someone or some group of people may very well have such a plan. Even if no such conscious effort does exist, the fact of the matter is that the Navy Hill project will likely not bring “empowerment” to those who have been historically disempowered in this city.

The Navy Hill project is a trickle-down scheme whose completion might be appropriate in a future where the place of minoritized groups and those of lower economic means is more secure, but now is not the time.

Currently, it is of the utmost importance to ensure that all of Richmond’s citizens have access to the greatest source of power of all — education. The money invested in Navy Hill would be better spent ensuring all Richmond Public Schools students have access to an excellent education and are provided opportunities for self-empowerment.

Every day that we wait for the advertised salvation of development projects is another day in which students are not being reached within our schools. Every year that we wait is another class graduating with the knowledge that economic development projects took priority over their education.

This city needs to recognize that only the youths can bring the change we all hope for. Classrooms over coliseums.