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The Battle of Navy Hill, It’s More Than Just a Coliseum

The battle for Navy Hill has taken Richmond, Virginia by storm as community members rally against new developments, while developers push for new structures. On this episode of Full Disclosure, host Roben Farzard talks with VPM’s City Hall reporter, Roberto Roldan and Richmond For All's Chelsea Higgs Wise on how an ambitious public-private plan to replace Richmond's decrepit Coliseum both divided and united the city.

Episode Excerpt

The following excerpt was edited for clarity.


Roben Farzad: It's an affront to some people that Navy Hill [redevelopment] is being brandished as a name branding vehicle for this entire thing. Why is that controversial? Tell me about the history of the tract, the area, it's inextricably linked to the history of the Interstate and 64, 95.

Roberto Roldan: So I haven't personally done a lot of reporting on this. My colleague, Ben Paviour, mostly did a lot of the reporting on the history of Navy Hill. But, the story is one that pretty much rings true for historic African American communities across the country, right? So you have this thriving African American community, I think there were about 500 families living there at one point. And then they put I-95, I-64, sort of through the community tearing up the community. By the 1960s, city leaders came in and they said, you know, this is a blighted area of the city. And once they put in the Coliseum in the 70s, the last few homes that remained there were pretty much gone. And I think when you look at sort of the history of a lot of African American communities across the country, this is a common story, right? So you have public officials who decide to run interstates right through African American neighborhoods. Then when that decreases property values, you call the area blighted, and then you use that as an excuse for reading Development for non African American non minorities.

Farzad: So in a vacuum, if there was just to be this request for purchase, the city would say okay the Coliseum has officially passed its useful life. I think the last show it aired was like a Disney on Ice thing around Thanksgiving of, I don't know, 2018 or some such. The place just looks like Harlem Globetrotters versus Washington Generals and you get that Kool & the Gang feel. It definitely needs an update, right? It definitely needs to be raised. Why couldn’t that just be put out in terms of a request for a purchase? You're saying the infrastructure in the area is so worn out that you can't just pluck a kind of a world class arena replacement, a 2020 vintage replacement right there?

Roldan: No, so the arena part of it does have all that infrastructure, right because you have the existing arena. It's mostly the parcels around it, a lot of the area around it is things like surface parking lots or parking garages. Those areas are not going to have those same services. But I think what you touched on there is sort of important, is that the city is going to own that arena. So they're not putting out a request for private developers to come build an arena that they own. They're asking for private developers to build an arena that the city would own. And I think that's one of the main criticisms, too, is there's a reason why when you look across the country that most of these types of arenas are publicly owned. And that's because it's not a good business. Most public arenas don't make money, they're subsidized, sometimes heavily, sometimes a little bit. But almost all of them are subsidized by local governments. They’re treated as sort of like a public library. And I've heard Mayor Levar Stoney make that argument that it's like a public library, you're offering a sort of cultural center for the city. And I think fundamentally, one of the issues with this project that a lot of people have is that we're sort of privatizing the things that are going to make money i.e., private apartments, private shops. Richmond's a growing city, and I imagine if you build apartments, people will fill them. But what we're doing is we're making public the riskiest part, which is a downtown arena.


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