School ADA funds could go to business development

Councilman Bruce Tyler proposes that a portion of proceeds from city property sales be used to develop businesses in RVA. But could it end up shortchanging efforts to bring city schools into compliance with the American with Disabilities Act?

It certainly wasn’t the endless supply of free coffee provided by City Councilman Bruce Tyler that packed the Mary Munford Elementary School cafeteria early Saturday morning two weeks ago with sleepy-eyed Near West End residents.

Rather, it was the fate of the turn-of-the-century Westhampton Elementary School building (the dominant architectural feature on the corner of Libbie and Patterson avenues) that had so many in this community stirred up.

“I haven’t had my first cup of coffee yet, so forgive me,” says the as-always impeccably coiffed Tyler, offering his gathered constituents a self-deprecating joke meant to infer that he might not yet be on his game as the meeting starts.

Unlikely. Despite his purported low reserves of caffeine, it is clear Tyler is operating on enough juice to know how to disarm this crowd. This meeting, he tells them, will NOT focus on the Westhampton Building – with its beautiful art-deco influenced detailing and its deeply undervalued city assessed value of $7 million – but rather on the future of the entire area.

Murmurs of vague displeasure pass through the room, but Tyler keeps the meeting steered along a friendly course – there’s free coffee and pastries, after all.

The Westhampton Building is just the first of many city-owned surplus properties for sale that Tyler would like to use to seed a proposed economic development fund aimed at attracting and supporting businesses to the city. The councilman seeks to establish the fund in a new way – not the slush-fund approach of the past where the city freely passed out money and tax abatements to developers promising big returns only to find themselves and the taxpayers they represent on the hook for soaring debt and disappointing project results. Instead, he sees it working almost like a line of credit.

Tyler would like to see 25 percent of the proceeds of all city property sales to go to the fund.

“It won’t be a gift, it would be a fund that would have to be paid back to the city so we could grow this fund,” says Tyler, even envisioning the city becoming a profit-sharing partner. “For instance, if a developer comes to the area and he needs capital to finish out a building, when the building is sold or as the payments go down, we would get a return on investment.”

But there’s a hitch. As currently proposed, Tyler’s proposal may shortchange the most vulnerable city residents – not only children with handicaps who attend Richmond Public Schools, but the roughly 23,000 students who attend schools in buildings, many of which lack modern libraries, computer labs, athletic facilities, and adequate and accessible playground equipment.

Two years ago, then-Council President Bill Pantele pushed through an ordinance that sets aside all proceeds from the sale of surplus school buildings to pay for capital improvements in the schools, which would include the cost of bringing the schools into compliance with the nearly 20-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Pantele’s ordinance came at a time when former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder refused to allocate any money to pay for the tens of millions of dollars needed to bring Richmond’s 50-plus school buildings into compliance with both state and federal laws and the terms of the settlement agreement of a lawsuit brought in U.S. District Court by parents and children with disabilities against the city school system.

Tyler’s plan to partly undermine Pantele’s ordinance isn’t raising hackles yet, but schools officials and advocates for the disabled are cautious and want to know more.

“I have reached out to Councilman Tyler to get more information,” says School Board Chairwoman Kimberly Bridges, who says she only recently became aware of Tyler’s proposal and is working on a time to meet with Tyler to discuss his proposal. “I would want to find out how this would impact our ADA funding.”

Carol A.O. Wolf, an advocate for the disabled and former School Board member who pushed hard during her time on the board to bring city schools into compliance with ADA, credits Tyler with pushing through a $25 million Council plan to fund ADA improvements. But, she says she remains skeptical of a plan that might take any other funding resources away from school ADA projects and other capital needs of the city schools.

“I’m relieved to hear he’s only talking about 25 percent here,” Wolf says. “I think we need to get the ADA improvements made in the schools and that most people know that the economic development that will do the greatest good for Richmond is to make all of our schools models of excellence that are 21st century learning environments.”

Wolf’s concern is in part due to the possibility that a desire to feed the fund could lead to an overly hasty sale of historically significant school properties that – like Westhampton Building — are worth far more than their apparent market or city assessment values. Valuable historic tax credits – amounting to as much as 45-percent of the value of the properties – are only available to whatever parties move forward to renovate the buildings, and with past school sales these potential credits were not factored as part of the sale price.

“I was really surprised to hear now with the properties coming available – properties that carry substantial historic tax credits that are gold to developers – that he now wants to take back the money promised in the ordinance,” Wolf says.

For his part Tyler says he’s ready to talk – and possibly willing to make compromises like a sunset clause for school sales that would expire after the renovations imposed by the school district’s ADA settlement are completed.

“I think it’s reasonable to have the conversation,” says Tyler, hammering on the bad deals Richmond taxpayers have continually been saddled with when good economic development ideas have gone wrong. Besides, he says, “three years ago when [Pantele’s] ordinance was introduced, there was no [ADA] money going into Richmond Public Schools. That has changed and I think it’s fair to look at it in a different light – and we’re going to look at some of this money for different purposes.”

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Chris Dovi

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