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Proposed Southside fire training facility passes City Council

A fire truck is parked out front of a low-rise brick building with an American flag out front
Patrick Larsen
VPM News
The Richmond Fire Department will build a new fire training facility at Southside's Hickory Hill Community Center following a Monday vote by City Council.

Eight councilmembers voted for the plan, contrary to recommendations from two city panels.

Richmond City Council voted Monday night to site a new fire training facility and burn building next to Hickory Hill Community Center in Southside. The decision overturned recommendations from the City Planning Commission and Urban Design Committee to reject the plan.

Some residents of neighborhoods surrounding the community center have voiced opposition to the plan, saying the facility would interrupt current use of the center and its greenspace. Most said they support the fire department’s efforts to train in city limits — but want the department to find another location.

“What I'm opposed to is laying down a concrete slab, taking up a playing area that is highly utilized by our citizens,” said Rosalyn Gibson, a Cullenwood resident. “We live in a heat zone, we are suffering already from environmental injustices. And this would add to that environmental injustice,”

The Richmond Fire Department told council it spent 18 months evaluating locations, and Hickory Hill was the only suitable one. Other sites would require costly environmental work or already had development plans, according to fire officials.

Other residents argued a fire training academy would be a welcome addition to the area, offering community members a chance to engage with first responders. Eighth district resident Jerry Blow told councilmembers that the need to support the fire department outweighs the risks.

“You're looking at the entire city, not just one community. We need that training center,” Blow said.

Although the Urban Design Committee acknowledged additional efforts by the fire department to reach residents and reduce the facility’s impact, it still voted 8–2 to recommend denying the plan.

UDC cited the Richmond 300 Master Plan and the RVAgreen 2050 planning framework as reasons for its recommendation, writing “the proposed use and proposed aesthetics are inconsistent with the neighborhood, existing open space, and existing community center.”

Those plans call for the development of greenspaces, which are associated with a range of health benefits, across the city. They particularly emphasize Richmond's South Side, where residents are less likely to live near parks — an issue the city is attempting to address.

The Planning Commission followed UDC's lead and voted 3–2 to deny.

But the effort was revived in April by 8th District Councilmember Reva Trammell and members of Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration, who submitted a new resolution to overrule the City Planning Commission's action.

The fire department and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities have argued throughout the process that the impact of the facility and burn training would be minimal.

Fire Chief Melvin Carter told City Council on Monday night that although existing trees and greenspace will be removed for a concrete pad and burn building, the department plans to plant more trees to reduce the facility’s visibility and cut down on training noise.

Carter also said the facility will only have 4-6 live burns a year — and only operate during business hours.

“There are no chemicals involved, there are no hazardous materials involved and we will use water only to extinguish these fires,” Carter said.

The department has already overtaken some classroom space inside the community center for recruit training. Carter said it would only occupy 10% of the building for training and storage, and he offered a range of "spin-off benefits” to the community center.

“We will improve the information technology infrastructure and other education systems within the building,” Carter said. He added the department could offer public-facing events like first-aid training, open houses and youth camps.

Department officials said it’s also under financial pressure to get the project moving. It’s had to use facilities owned by surrounding counties to meet training requirements, requiring extra time and money.

Eight council members voted in favor of the resolution. First District Councilmember Andreas Addison, who voted against the project as a member of the Planning Commission, abstained.

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