Rachel Flynn, former head of community development for the City of Richmond, joined host Will Synder and Open Source, a new show on WRIR 97.3 FM, to talk about real estate development along the riverfront, among other topics concerning land use in Richmond. What is the status of the Downtown Masterplan, riverfront developments and Echo Harbour? […]
Rachel Flynn, former head of community development for the City of Richmond, joined host Will Synder and Open Source, a new show on WRIR 97.3 FM, to talk about real estate development along the riverfront, among other topics concerning land use in Richmond.
What is the status of the Downtown Masterplan, riverfront developments and Echo Harbour?
Flynn: “When we did the masterplan, what was really important was that we have specific implementation steps, because there’s nothing worse than creating a masterplan and there’s no follow-through. A lot of time and money and citizen interest goes in to that. We set 1-5 year goals, 5-10, 10-20 and in the 1-5, we wanted to hire a firm that would look at the James River in detail, do a plan from Rocketts Landing…both sides of the river to Ancarrow’s Landing to the Dominion campus. And so we put out an RFP and that’s in the process…and they were working on that when I left.”
“The goal with that is to work with the citizens, a lot like we did with the masterplan, to say ‘What do you want for your river, where do you want the parks, where do you want the trails, where do you want the prominades’ and to bring in experts who’ve done this in other cities who can say ‘here’s the pros and cons of where things should be’ and how people use spaces, they are the experts. And then have some low hanging fruit, projects that could get done, say, within a year.”
“So you put in that boardwalk or that promenade along land we own, like say Chapel Island….And then you also put in the plan where the city should be purchasing riverfront land. There isn’t a lot left, there’s Mayo Island, which is 13 acre island…and that would be prime, it could be like Richmond’s Central Park. It would unite the Southside of the river to the Northside.”
“And then, there’s the Lehigh Cement factory…they are willing sellers and the city is working with them. And right next to that is Echo Harbour. When we were doing the plan, it became very evident from hearing from citizens and the experts that there isn’t much land right on the river available left for public recreation, and why not pay the developer fair market price for that, put that in the plan. Obviously they weren’t interested in that.”
“And so we said ‘If you are going to develop it, it should be low-rise, 4-6 stories in height,’ they weren’t interested in that. So we went back and compromised a third time and said ‘Why don’t we account for the flood plain,’ its right in a flood plain, that’s two stories up, so make it 6-8 stories. And then we were asked to compromise again and that was the point where I said ‘No, I’m not, I just can’t in good conscious do that as your planning director….They can develop that land, by right, for office or commercial use, they cannot develop for residential use…. They always said ‘We’re going to put an office tower there’ and we said ‘That is absolutely your right, we don’t think its a good thing to do, but it is your right. You purchased it, it is zoned for manufacturing.’”
“But they know the market really is for high-end residential, and what we saw was that we weren’t creating win-win situations. What we were doing was kind of walling off this riverfront. If you look at the Riverside by the James Towers, now you can’t walk along that part of the river, and what a missed opportunity. So, it could have been set up so that you have public land where people can walk along the river and you have the private development behind it. It’s what city after city does.”
“Probably the two best examples I could give you are, New York City, Battery Park City, where they developed a whole new park system and then private development happened along it. It is so valuable because of that great public space, because of the promenades, the fields, the recreation entities. Charleston would be another . Huge pressure from developers to develop right on the water….And the mayor said ‘We want this land for our citizens.’….He said ‘I don’t want the cheap land for my citizens, I want the best land.’ And they worked out a deal with the developer, and it was a win-win.”
When Snyder asked her where she would suggest to center growth in the downtown corridor, Flynn suggested that the area in the city near Rocketts Landing and back toward Fulton Gas Works was prime real estate with historic value and tax credits and had been studied for development.
When asked about development “lost causes” in the city, Flynn said “What we need to look for are the win-win opportunities. We want developers to come to the city. We want their money, we want their investments, we want new growth, we want new residents, new businesses. The question is where and how and what quality of development. So that you don’t compromise the other assets that you have.”
“Politicians, planners can’t believe the resource that we have, and the views that are afforded….And they are just shocked that we still have that in a city of our size. And they say ‘Do not lose this, what ever you do, you cannot lose this, this is such an asset.”
Snyder asked Flynn if she developed a need to protect the James River by a directive from then-Mayor Douglas Wilder, and she said “It came out of the Masterplan development, and I think Wilder was very much in support of that….Part of any good director’s job is ‘Hey, we got this amazing asset.’ But really when the citizens spoke and said ‘Great river, we need to do something’ and Wilder heard that loud and clear and so did I.”