In a retreat from a two-year-old policy of expanding parks and green space in overly hot South Side, Mayor Levar M. Stoney and his administration are quietly pressing to replace 2 acres of lawn at the Hickory Hill Community Center in South Side with a $1 million fire training building.
Next Monday, April 3, the Richmond Planning Commission, could settle whether to approve or reject the controversial proposal that has pitted residents of the area against their council representative and the life-saving department they generally support.
The Fire Department is seeking approval to develop the two-story building as a replacement for the outdated and condemned training facility it has used for years in the Sandston area of Henrico County.
The new building is to be formed from stacked shipping containers and be used a few days a year for required training of recruits.
An advisory arm of the commission has already rejected the proposal to develop the training building on land located on the west side of the community center at 3000 E. Belt Boulevard.
On March 9, the Urban Design Committee, which is charged with reviewing the design, character and location of proposed public buildings and providing recommendations, voted 7-2 to recommend that the Planning Commission turn down and direct the city to find another location.
Arborist Eva Clarke was among the committee members who could not understand why the Stoney administration wanted to wipe out green space in a relatively poor section of the city where parks are scarce and which ranks at the top of Virginia’s list of places where chronic asthma is epidemic and other diseases rife.
Eighth District City Councilwoman Reva M. Trammell expressed disappointment at the vote. She has been a gung-ho supporter — despite being aware her constituents in the area are opposed.
“Our city staff has done due diligence to ensure that Hickory Hill is the best location for the fire training facility,” Ms. Trammell stated in a response to a Free Press query that was crafted on her behalf. “Based on all data, the surrounding community and green space will not be harmed by having the training facility co-exist” with the community center.
Assistant Fire Chief Travis Ford told the UDC that the department would not use polluting chemicals or foam and would not even use real flames in the facility.
However, every civic association in neighborhoods that border or are located near Hickory Hill have passed resolutions urging rejection on the grounds that the facility would take over much needed green space. They have united under the banner of the Southside Joint Civic Association to promote their opposition.
Along with the civic groups, longtime residents are urging rejection as well.
Among them is Mechelle Esparza-Harris, who has turned her family’s property that sits across railroad tracks and a creek from Hickory Hill into the Serene Wildlife Sanctuary, primarily for birds.
Lenora McQueen, who has lived in the Bellemeade area for 53 years, also urged rejection.
“The (Hickory Hill) center is a convenient for community meetings, after-school summer programs, physical exercise, recreation and social interaction,” Ms. McQueen wrote.
“South Side already deals with heat islands, noise levels and pollution because of the industrial businesses located nearby. There are already too few green spaces in our South Richmond communities, especially in marginalized neighborhoods, and building a training facility does nothing to protect our green spaces the and the health of our residents.”
The Rev. Monica Esparza, a sister of Ms. Esparza-Harris whose ministry focuses on land stewardship and conservation, said Hickory Hill is the only major green space in this section of the city.
The mayor “would not consider taking a piece of Byrd Park for this kind of facility,” she said. “It is far easier to take a slice of green space from an area where residents are regarded as powerless. The mayor’s slogan may be ‘One city, our city,’ but actions speak louder than words when it comes to fulfilling that theme.”