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Richmond Fire eyes Southside field for new training facility

A Richmond Fire Department engine sits in front of a field in the Hickory Hill neighborhood.
Patrick Larsen
VPM News
The Richmond Fire Department said it has taken steps to ensure the impact of a proposed training facility in the Hickory Hill neighborhood would be minimal.

Some residents say the proposal would contradict Mayor Levar Stoney and City Council’s push for more green spaces south of the James River.

Richmond Fire Department's proposal to build a new fire training facility on existing green space next to Hickory Hill Community Center in Richmond’s Southside has led to disagreements among city leaders and community members.

Some residents say the proposal would contradict Mayor Levar Stoney and City Council’s push for more green spaces south of the James River. Both the city Urban Design Committee and Planning Commission responded to those concerns by voting against the proposal.

The new facility would be three stories tall, built out of shipping containers and used to simulate disorienting firefighting environments — by using live burns and theatrical smoke. It would replace grass with a concrete pad for maneuvering fire trucks, as well as landscaping intended to obscure the facility from view and a retention pond to minimize the impacts of runoff on vegetation and waterways.

The proposed site would replace Richmond Fire’s previous training facility in Henrico County, which was condemned in 2022 after 40 years of use, according to NBC 12.

Activist and minster Monica Esparza has been one of the most vocal community members against the project. She told VPM News that she’s interested in preserving green space for community use and spiritual communion.

Over the years, “[w]e’ve seen a great deal of development. Trees cut down, industry expanding and infringing upon community,” Esparza said. “So, that makes this green space even more important.”

According to the city’s RVAGreen 2050 climate equity index, the census tract including the community center has relatively high rates of chronic health problems like adult asthma — 10.9% compared to a statewide rate of 8.6% in 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In addition to that, you’re going to have the noise,” Esparza said, “which is just inappropriate for someplace where people are trying to maintain peace and health.”

The Richmond Fire Department said it took additional planning steps to ensure the facility’s impact would be minimal, based on recommendations from the Planning Commission. Those include lighting that won’t hamper night sky visibility and landscaping measures. It also said the section of the property in question, a low-lying field, is currently not actively used for recreation.

Although the Urban Design Committee acknowledged those additional efforts, it still voted 8–2 to recommend denying the plan, because “the proposed use and proposed aesthetics are inconsistent with the neighborhood, existing open space, and existing community center.”

UDC also cited the Richmond300 Master Plan and the RVAGreen 2050 planning framework as reasons for its recommendation. The Planning Commission followed suit in a 3-2 vote earlier this month.

Eighth District Councilmember Reva Trammell, who represents Hickory Hill, has supported the project.

“I’m 100% in favor of this. I’ve spoken to so many people in the 8th District, 9th District who are supportive of this,” Trammell said at an April 3 Planning Commission meeting. Trammell also said the RFD has done extensive outreach in nearby neighborhoods.

Other community members have spoken in support of the proposal. Juanita Gaines, a resident of nearby Davee Gardens, told City Council on Monday she wants this facility.

“Hickory Hill has always been a hub for information, training and learning,” Gaines said.

In UDC and Planning Commission meetings, the fire department said the facility was essential. RFD did not respond to VPM News’ questions about the department’s ability to use off-site facilities to complete training requirements.

According to the proposal, the facility would be ready for use by June 2024.

Esparza said people expressing concern about the plans appreciate the RFD’s work, but want others to see the bigger picture — one that includes the area’s broader environmental issues.

“We are not happy to have to be in the controversial position of going up against the fire department,” Esparza said.

Southside ReLeaf, a nonprofit organization that seeks to plant trees and expand park and green space in the city’s Southside, planted about 100 trees at the site in 2021. The proposal would result in some of those trees being relocated or replaced.

Andy Sisson, with engineering firm VHB, is working as a landscape architect on the project. He told the Planning Commission that relatively few trees will be affected and most will be moved. Only two Bradford pear trees, an invasive species infamous for its smelly blossoms and fragile limbs, will be removed completely.

Despite UDC and the Planning Commission’s recommendations to deny the project, City Council can still approve it with six yes votes. As of Friday, the proposal is not listed on next week’s council agenda.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.