City plans to move Social Services to South Side
Shift would facilitate effort to revitalize Coliseum area
To clear the way for the $1.4 billion redevelopment of the area around the Richmond Coliseum, Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration is planning to relocate the Department of Social Services from its hub on North Ninth Street to a South Richmond site 6 miles from downtown.
The Stoney administration plans to move the department from the Marshall Plaza building at 900 E. Marshall St. to the long-vacant Philip Morris Operations Center between Walmsley Boulevard and Bells Road in South Richmond, about a mile from the Chesterfield County line, according to Councilwoman Reva Trammell, who represents the area.
Trammell said she received a phone call Wednesday from Matthew Welch, a senior policy adviser in the city’s economic development department, informing her of the plans. Three other council members — 2nd District Councilwoman Kimberly Gray, 4th District Councilwoman Kristen Larson and 5th District Councilman Parker Agelasto — said the Stoney adminis-
tration had not shared a specific location but had said a South Richmond site was under consideration. Welch did not immediately return an interview request Thursday.
Stoney put the possibility of relocating services on the table a year ago, when he solicited plans to build a new Richmond Coliseum and remake downtown. He has already shifted the city’s cold weather overflow shelter from the Public Safety Building on North Ninth Street, a move Stoney said at the time was unrelated to the arena proposal.
Demolishing the two city-owned buildings on the strip would ready the site for NH District Corp., the private nonprofit development group led by Dominion CEO Thomas F. Farrell II. The group’s plans, which Stoney endorsed last week, call for a new office building on North Ninth Street to house a Virginia Commonwealth University program and a new home for The Doorways, a nonprofit that provides long-term hotel space for families or patients receiving medical treatment.
Alongside the office building, the group’s plans call for a 457-unit apartment building marketed to VCU students with more than 100,000 feet of retail space, according to a consultant’s report on the proposal released by the city last week.
It’s unclear what, exactly, the move would mean for Social Services’ clients, many of whom are seeking to apply for federal safety net programs or referrals for emergency services such as housing, medicine or food.
The city still owes more than $3 million in debt on the Marshall Plaza building, according to the request for proposals, which required developers to submit a plan for paying off the debt of any cityowned building included in their proposals.
While an NH District Corp. spokesman confirmed the entity is responsible for securing a site to relocate the department, city officials have not said who would foot the bill for the move itself.
“Negotiations are ongoing and nothing has been finalized as it relates to a site for [the department],” said Shunda Giles, the department’s director. “In any scenario, [Social Services] intends to maintain a presence downtown to serve residents.”
The department has 350 employees based at the Marshall Plaza building and serves about 3,600 clients per month, Giles said. Just over half of the city residents Social Services works with live south of the river, Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan said in an
email sent after this story was published online Thursday.
“[Social Services] has been contemplating a move prior to, and independent of, the proposed project,” Nolan said.
The Philip Morris USA operations center opened in 1982 and has been for sale since 2009, when the tobacco giant relocated several hundred employees who worked there. The headquarters building sits on a gated campus at 2001 Walmsley Blvd. off Commerce Road. On the property stands a 463,000-squarefoot office building and a 106,000-square-foot industrial space. There are also 1,300 surface parking spaces. City property records show the buildings and the 48-acre plot on which they stand are assessed at $30.3 million. The property is listed for sale with contiguous parcels the company owns that total 112 acres.
Two Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer commercial real estate agents overseeing the sale of the
property did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday.
The Philip Morris property is located near the Interstate 95 Bells Road exit. It’s also on a limited service GRTC Transit System bus line that runs every 30 minutes between 6 and 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. There is no service on the line midday, a GRTC spokeswoman said.
City officials are weighing an expansion of GRTC service to the vicinity to coincide with the relocation plans, council members and a GRTC official said. In his email, Nolan confirmed that the transit expansion would include a dedicated bus route.
“What was stressed repeatedly was the need for whatever site was chosen to be accessible,” Agelasto said. “That seems awfully far away from anything.”
City officials told reporters at a media briefing last week that they were still working out the relocation plans. An NH official confirmed the entity was eyeing a particular site in South Richmond.
Farrell’s group submitted the lone development plan in response to the city’s call for proposals. NH District Corp. had been studying how to redevelop the area around the Richmond Coliseum months in advance of when Stoney issued the request for proposals.
NH District Corp.’s $1.4 billion proposal centers on a new, 17,500-seat arena that would be the largest in the state. The group is also proposing more than 3,000 new apartments, a 527-room hotel, a $10 million renovation of the historic Blues Armory and new office, retail and restaurant space downtown.
The proposal hinges on the creation of a special tax zone called a tax-increment-financing district, or TIF. Establishing the zone would divert all new real estate tax revenues — either from new development or rising property values — to pay for a portion of the project.
New real estate taxes from within the TIF would go toward paying down $620 million that the city would owe over three decades for borrowing $350 million to pay for the new arena, armory renovation and infrastructure improvements tied to the project. City officials say they believe they can pay down the debt as quickly as 18 years, a pace that could save as much as $125 million.
The special tax zone would be bounded by First Street, I-95/64, 10th Street and the Downtown Expressway. It would encompass much of the city’s financial district, Monroe Ward and a portion of Jackson Ward.
City officials said a wider tax zone would help pay down the debt on the project faster, and they have proposed using the first half of any surplus revenue generated in the tax zone to make larger debt payments. The Stoney administration has drawn the zone around an area that is eight times larger than where NH District Corp.’s plans center.
NH District Corp. is sourcing $1.1 billion in private funding to pay for the commercial portion of the project. Farrell has declined to name the investors with whom the group is working.
After eight months of review and negotiations, Stoney endorsed the group’s plans last week and said he would submit them to the council, which must sign off on the development for the project to move forward.
Stoney has said the project could create 21,000 jobs and generate more than $300 million worth of business for minorityowned contractors. The plans also include 680 apartments reserved for people earning below the region’s median income and a new transfer plaza for bus riders.
The council’s next meeting, where Stoney could introduce a package of ordinances advancing the plans, is set for Tuesday.
City officials say a move by the Department of Social Services from the Marshall Plaza building (triangle building, top right) had been pondered prior to the Coliseum project.