If you've been avidly following the evolution of Richmond's Downtown Master Plan since the first inklings of its very public development (Yes, it has been more than two years. Buttermilk & Molasses kicked off the public dialogue on the plan on July 6, 2007.) you may well be wondering why City Council is finally nearing closure on what has felt like endless debate and discussion on the plan's details.
Blame it on state law, which requires the plan get a stamp of approval within two weeks -- or back to the drawing board.
If you're looking for reasons to be frustrated by bureaucratic process, the two-year crawl of this plan would be a great exhibit. Launched with a week-long series of public, hands-on design activities, the plan was delivered to Richmond's Planning Commission just five months later -- in December of 2007. And it's only taken 19 months to make its way through that body, and into the hands of City Council.
And while large swaths of the plan have actually been approved for several months now, a conflated series of amendments to the plan have ensured that the guiding document has received more attention and felt far more important than it might have otherwise.
As tempting as it is to blame Council for being a bureaucratic, slow-moving mess, the truth is more discouraging -- what essentially slowed the Downtown Plan's progress through Council is good old-fashioned politics. Will Jones at the Times-Dispatch has more on last night's second-to-last hearing on the plan:
Last night's 8-0 vote came with fireworks. Councilman E. Martin Jewell was unable to get support for an amendment to give the council greater flexibility in considering Echo Harbour, a condominium, hotel and office development that's proposed for the eastern riverfront.
The project has met strong community opposition over its potential impact on river views from Libby Hill Park.
Jewell said the "council gives its rights away" by having the eastern riverfront area designated by the plan as an "urban center area," which suggests that the property may be used for mixed-use development with building limited to four to six stories.
The developers of Echo Harbour, which is proposed with building heights ranging from six stories to about 10 to 12 stories, have been asking for relief from the designation.
Jewell suggested a change to underscore that development projects could be judged on a case-by-case basis. However, Councilman Charles R. Samuels successfully urged colleagues to reject the change.
"We have the possibility to lose not one viewshed but all viewsheds," he said.
Jewell's motion to have proposals considered without the urban-center guidelines failed on a 4-4 vote. Later, the council voted 8-0 to schedule the remaining amendments for a final up-or-down vote in two weeks.
Those incorporated several amendments outlined earlier by Councilman Bruce W. Tyler, including one dealing with maps that show possible future uses of the site for Echo Harbour. The change would put a development scenario sequentially ahead of a "public open space" scenario for the Echo Harbour site -- an order preference previously endorsed by council.The good news? We're only three years away from the launch of a state-mandated revision to Richmond's Downtown Plan.
Tyler is a principal with the architectural firm for Echo Harbour, but he has been advised by the city attorney that he may participate in master-plan issues relating to the property.