By Emma North
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. — Residents in Richmond’s 5th District had their first opportunity to hear from the eight candidates vying for a City Council seat open in a special election. The winner will serve the remainder of Parker Agelasto’s term when he resigns Nov. 30.
With Richmond’s growth rate hitting double digits in the last decade many of the candidates centered the discussion around the needs of a growing city. They spoke painstakingly about improving Richmond Public Schools, transportation access and the need for more affordable housing.
“The important issues came out through how the candidates answered their questions,” said Zeke Brody, a 5th District constituent who attended the second forum.
Beyond the daily workings of the district, the council member could be responsible for a hefty vote that would impact the city for decades. The proposed Navy Hill project, centered around a new Coliseum, is a major downtown development plan that could be put to a vote during the new council member’s term.
The 5th District is one of two districts to have voters on both sides of the James River. The district includes Oregon Hill, Randolph, Carytown and parts of Southside. A broad swath of district constituents were represented between the two forums, which focused on different topics each night.
Candidates at the first forum at Fifth Baptist Church, north of the river, concentrated on poverty, evictions, gentrification and quality of life. Candidates fielded questions at the second forum hosted at the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, south of the river, concerning parking, pedestrian and cyclist safety and protecting the district’s parks.
All candidates attended both forums, with the exception of Graham Sturm who was absent from the first.
Below are responses to key issues from both forums, edited for length and clarity.
QUESTION: If you were on City Council today and the vote for the Navy Hill project was introduced, what would be your vote?
Jer’Mykeal McCoy, a business development manager: McCoy would vote no but is not against future redevelopment negotiations. He wants to ensure that locals are hired for projects.
Robin Mines, an associate minister: Mines would vote no. However, she believes there are ways to make the plan work and wants to see more information about the project.
Stephanie Lynch, director of government affairs, strategy and development for Good Neighbor: Lynch currently is against the project. She’s gathering more information before choosing her stance. “We have a history in building in the shadows and not in the sunlight,” Lynch said.
Mamie Taylor, a former Richmond School Board member: Taylor would vote no because it isn’t clear who will own the land slated for development. “This is our land,” she said.
Nicholas Da Silva, a recent Virginia Commonwealth University graduate: Da Silva said he spoke to hundreds of constituents in the 5th District. A majority of the people he’s met are against the project. “No, unequivocally and not for lack of information,” Da Silva said.
Thad Williamson, a professor and former adviser to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney: Williamson would consider voting for the development. However, he said there’s not enough information about the numbers behind the project. “We need to take the time to be absolutely sure who owns things at the end of this,” Williamson said.
Chuck Richardson, former Richmond City councilman: Richardson said that any vote right now would be unwise and irresponsible. He said whoever is elected will have to hit the ground running and know how to vote on this issue, otherwise it could be bad for the city’s bond rate.
QUESTION: What will you do to prevent the unfair increase in taxes due to gentrification?
Da Silva: He plans to push for progressive taxation — tax rates that increase with income level — to help keep the city’s cost of living affordable for vulnerable communities.
Williamson: Williamson said Richmond needs a comprehensive housing plan. He would like to see more housing offered for all incomes and tax credits and rebates for vulnerable populations.
“VCU could be doing more to create workforce pipelines through social enterprises, minority contracts to make it a true powerhouse for economic equity that it potentially could be.”
McCoy: McCoy’s family lived in public housing for four generations. He is concerned about the low rate of African American homeownership. One of the solutions he proposed was to ensure homes stayed with their families after their older family members passed away. “Folks, don’t sell grandma’s house, we need you in these communities, we need to make sure y’all are not being pushed out,” McCoy said.
Lynch: Lynch said that raising property taxes should not be the go-to answer. She also wants to offer seniors information about rebate programs.
QUESTION: Bicycling and walking are prevalent forms of transportation and recreation for residents. What will you do to ensure the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists is prioritized as highly as moving cars through our roads?
Taylor: She has seen some positive changes in the transportation infrastructure but wants to see more bike lanes, roundabouts and speed bumps.
Graham Sturm, a high school teacher: Sturm wants better bike lanes because he knows two teachers who have been hit by cars while riding bikes. “A bike lane should not end into a parked car,” he said.
Mines: Mines wants lower speed limits in pedestrian-heavy areas. She said that raised sidewalks would be another effective tool in increasing pedestrian safety.
The deadline to register to vote in the special and general election on Nov. 5 is Tuesday, Oct. 15.
The newly elected council member will serve through December 2020 and will have to run again in the general election to secure a four-year term. All candidates except for Richardson committed to running for election next year.