Developer interest in Coliseum and Downtown persists despite claims

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 2/28/2020, 6 a.m.
Developer interest in the vacant Richmond Coliseum and Downtown real estate near it appears to be alive and well.
Richmond Coliseum Downtown

Developer interest in the vacant Richmond Coliseum and Downtown real estate near it appears to be alive and well.

Evidence of that interest continues to flow in, undermining previous claims that Richmond City Council’s Feb. 10 decision to kill the $1.5 billion Richmond Coliseum replacement plan and associated development would prevent anything from happening.

In recent weeks, reports have emerged that three new hotels are in the planning stage or are already underway on Main Street, Franklin Street and Duval Street in and around the city’s center.

Meanwhile, additional apartment construction is planned or moving forward in other parts of Downtown or on the fringe, including plans for replacing a gas station at Lombardy and Broad streets with a 12-story apartment building. That project was approved by City Council on a 7-2 vote Monday night. Even more telling, one ambitious company, Washington, D.C.-based Douglas Development, has submitted a proposal to buy the Coliseum and other nearby city property for $15 million.

Mayor Levar Stoney

Mayor Levar Stoney

In a Feb. 18 letter, the company, a major player in the nation’s capital and in Richmond’s Downtown, promised to renovate and reopen the Richmond Coliseum and undertake other development on 14 acres of city property in and around the arena. While Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s administration on Feb. 20 brushed off the proposal as inadequate, the solicitation unquestionably was a wake-up call to City Hall and City Council that other developers are interested in that property.

The council rejected the $1.5 billion plan launched by Dominion Energy’s top executive, Thomas F. “Tom” Farrell II, and backed by Mayor Stoney that would have replaced the Coliseum and created new offices, hotels, apartments and restaurants in Downtown. Officials claimed rejecting the plan by the Navy Hill District Corp. would be a development killer.

Council Vice President Chris A. Hilbert, 3rd District, said the Douglas Development proposal shows that the city’s underused property in the Coliseum area is in demand and “that we need to get moving on this.”

Near the end of Monday’s council meeting, Council President Cynthia I. Newbille sought to do just that, based on a resolution council also passed Feb. 10 laying out a path forward. That path includes creation of a plan for the public property that city residents could participate in developing and getting the city to appraise the property and develop an assessment of the infrastructure needs.

Any action to dispose of the Coliseum and other properties would remain on hold until such steps are accomplished, according to the resolution. Just as importantly, before any development could advance, the council would need to vote to list the property as surplus and available, which has not yet happened.

After council discussion, Dr. Newbille called on the council’s staff and the administration to develop by March 9 a tentative timeline for moving ahead.

Whether this effort will gain momentum is uncertain. Some council members already have expressed concerns.

Councilwoman Ellen F. Robertson, 6th District, indicated that a rush to focus planning resources on the Coliseum area could undermine efforts to get small plans accomplished for other parts of the city that previously were requested and remain undone.

Councilwoman Stephanie A. Lynch, 5th District, also wants the council to first take public soundings to determine if residents “want Richmond to be an arena city” before any plans are crafted.

And it is uncertain whether the administration or the council will have the time to move quickly on a fresh start.

The council is expected to be tied up through early May reviewing Mayor Stoney’s spending plan that is to be delivered on Friday, March 6. Separately, the city’s planning arm is busy trying to complete work and deliver by September for council consideration a new master plan to guide city development in the coming decades.

And, finally, campaign season is expected to be in full swing within a few months for the mayor and City Council members seeking re-election. With challengers beginning to emerge, the time to focus on the Coliseum area development is likely to be in short supply.