The Downtown Crupi Master Report Plan

Unravel the total WTF that is the Crupi report and Downtown Master Plan.

Richmond!It’s a bit prosaic that the Richmond community received two distinctly different reports on either end of a long Thanksgiving weekend. While both reports share a few common themes, they are utterly distinct in terms of vision, content and value.Strategic consultant Jim Crupi’s “Putting the Future Together” report on the Richmond region and urban planner Victor Dover’s “Richmond Downtown Master Plan” were delivered within a week of each other. Both make a case for a new Richmond — one from a regional perspective, and the other from an urban vantage. Both make for good reading, challenge the status quo and make a major case for new approaches to building community.

One report delivers what could be considered a transformational vision for our community’s future. The other invites a different sort of conversation about our shared future. Let’s take a quick look each of them.

The Crupi Report

The Crupi Report, a 55-page report chartered by an anonymous group of Richmond executives and delivered by the same man who briefly lit a racial fire with his 1992 report, examines the challenges and opportunities facing the Richmond region. And while its strongest feature is a healthy indictment of Richmond’s reclusive and exclusive corporate and political leadership, much of the media attention has been on Crupi’s laundry list of action items that he suggested could transform the region.

Like Jim Bacon at Bacon’s Rebellion, I believe that Crupi weakened his hand by criticizing Richmond’s leadership for its too-tactical approach life and simultaneously providing more than 40 pages of extremely tactical suggestions to improve the region — few of which could be succinctly brought together in any semblance of regional vision.

It didn’t help that Crupi’s report on the Richmond region dealt almost exclusively with the suggestions to strengthen the City of Richmond — saving the core of the regional apple is important, but ignoring the rest of the apple is a sure-fire way to ensure that more than a few key voices will be reluctant to show up for the next round of regional conversations. Here’s Bacon:

“The inability or lack of willingness to think and act strategically is a major problem,” Crupi wrote. “The default position among area leaders is to make individual, tactical, project-oriented decisions without the framework and benefit of an overarching strategic vision and plan. There is no compelling picture of the future that gets people excited. One could almost say that the Richmond area is blessed with many great managers, but few leaders. It has people who are strong on execution but weak on seeing how the pieces should fit together.”

Thwap!! The sound you just heard was that of the arrow squarely hitting the bulls eye. Having made Richmond my home for more than 20 years now, I can aver that Crupi nailed his target.

Alas, there is one huge drawback to the Crupi report: The author offers no compelling vision of his own — not even a set of criteria for developing such a vision …

And even Crupi’s attempts to address a key question for the region about the types of transformational projects that can improve the region’s competitive position feel a bit staid and lost — high-speed rail, tourism, taking advantage of the crescent of military development stretching from Norfolk to Petersburg to Washington. It all has a bit of a “been there, done that” feel. A big-ticket solution to regional challenges may not be realistic, and finding the right solution — one that brings Chesterfield and Henrico and other counties to the table — will require more vision than Crupi delivered.

At least one element of Crupi’s report deserves some traction. At the core of the report is a demand that Richmond’s largely corporate leadership create more room at the table for diverse voices, and to value leaders who bring intellectual or creative or social capital to the table. As I wrote soon after the report was issued:

It will also help if Richmond’s future leaders (the incredibly talented and relatively marginalized leaders of the area’s non-profit and community-centered organizations; young artists and small business owners; and emerging media talent) stop waiting for someone else — Jim Crupi, Jim Ukrop or Gene Trani — to give us our leadership.

Crupi calls it a leadership gap. Another way of looking at it is that Richmond suffers from a long-imposed sense of patriarchalism, where sometime well-intentioned businessmen take care of the rest of us. And if we’re interested in our community looking and feeling like “Daddy’s Richmond,” the best thing we can do is sit back and be passive. Rest assured, there are plenty of people in positions of power across the region who would like nothing better than maintenance of the status quo…

In other words, those on the margins can wait for an invitation, or they can issue their own invitations. Either way, it’s time for the conversation to change — and the best way to do that is to invite new people into the conversation, and to ask different questions.

Several corporate leaders told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that they’re ready for a broader, more diverse discussion to happen.

“It can’t just be the business community, it can’t just be nonprofit leaders, it’s got to be the whole community talking,” (businessman Jim) Ukrop said. “I don’t think it can be one of those things where you have 1,000 people and a lot of flip charts,” he added. “It’s going to have to be very serious talking.”

When the conversation changes, the culture changes. And if that’s all we learn from Jim Crupi’s latest report, it might just be worth its cost.

The Downtown Plan

Federal reserveIf the Crupi Report relied on an expert to come in and synthesize the thoughts of a select group of Richmonders (110 business, political and community leaders were interviewed for Crupi’s report), then the Downtown Plan may just be its polar opposite.

The Downtown Plan, shepherded by Richmond’s Department of Community Development and Miami-based urban planning firm Dover Kohl, relied on experts, as well. But it used those experts to facilitate conversations with a broad range of stakeholders — from professionals and developers to policymakers and curious residents. Over the course of several months, downtown planners educated and informed the community about planning basics and Richmond’s urban fabric, and asked the community about their dreams, desires and intentions for a downtown different than the one most of us experience every day.

The process was unique for Richmond, and it turned what historically has been a dull, closed planning process into the light. Hundreds of residents turned out for three large, public sessions to give their input to the planning team.

The team took all of that information — along with input from the city’s planning staff — and turned it into a detailed, 187-page planning document. Despite its length, it’s hard to find extraneous information in the Downtown Plan.

If the new draft report does not have any large projects that will shake the earth and transform the world, it does have a serious and mindful approach to transforming Richmond’s downtown through careful planning, intentional policymaking and an implementation plan that is thoughtful and well-planned.

More importantly, the Downtown Plan has a vision:

“The plan for the future of Downtown Richmond is both a physical plan to guide appropriate growth and development and a policy document to serve as a blueprint for action for city leaders, residents and downtown investors.”

Beneath the vision, a series of seven guiding principles (or the foundations of the plan):

  1. Embrace variety and choice in downtown Richmond.
  2. Celebrate the planning elements of a traditional city.
  3. Create a fully green and environmentally sustainable downtown.
  4. Make the James River a central, celebrated feature of downtown.
  5. Promote consistent and historic urban architecture.
  6. Take advantage of Richmond’s rich history as part of design.
  7. Make room for mixed-income and economic diversity downtown.

As the report begins diving into details — specific ways to recapture the vitality of Jackson Ward, for instance, or repair and enhance Manchester’s mixed-use nature — it threads all seven guiding principles throughout. There are no grand schemes anchoring the plan; rather, the Downtown Plan relies on a series of deliberate actions designed to heal decades of inattention and build a new downtown that can truly transform not just Richmond, but the entire Richmond region.

Now that’s transformation.

The Contrast

Jon Baliles at River City Rapids recently posted about the contrast between the two plans:

The scary thing about the Crupi Report is he expects the leaders to take the reins – which they did not really do so after his first report in 1992 – and as of this early point there is just talk and hope. Stay tuned.

This Downtown Master Plan is different – it provides the reins and the horse, we just have to say giddie up. From what I have skimmed so far, it lays it out in fairly nauseating detail and while it does not have all the answers, it plants the seeds in our minds to begin our investigation and determine what is the best course…

One piece of good news is that this is not an either/or exercise.

The Crupi Report has the potential to change our community’s conversations. If approved, the Downtown Plan has the potential to change the landscape of our community. Together, if well-led, the Richmond region of tomorrow will be very different than the one we experience today.

Photo credit: Daniel Farrell

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John Sarvay

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