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Amid dinosaur-size construction of the city's expanded convention center, speculative talk volleys between blight and bloom of just what's in store for Jackson Ward.

Complex Vision

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Picture this: Jackson Ward as a cultural hub like city squares in Charlotte or even Paris.

Charlotte, maybe. But Paris?

It's as antithetical as it is absurd to imagine. No prophecy, however precious, could liken Third Street to the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

Rest assured, nobody's really suggesting it. Still, it has been thrown out there, if only for posterity's sake.

But who is worried about future generations of Jackson Ward, where dozens of historic homes and buildings already have been demolished?

Apparently, more than city planners expected.

As Richmond's new convention and visitor's center — slated for completion in 2003 - levels city blocks and promises to boost a wanting downtown economy, everyone from city officials to preservationists to Jackson Ward residents fears that only time - and money - will tell what is to become of one of Richmond's oldest neighborhoods.

It's a query that has topped the agenda for Spencer Ferdinand, the city's director of economic development, since he moved to Richmond from New Jersey last fall. On paper the city's plan looks promising, though Ferdinand is quick to add it's not a "plan" it's a "vision."

Essentially the "vision" targets development of the area surrounding the convention center on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd streets. The centerpiece is the Jackson Ward Entertainment District, complete with a large-scale movie theater, a market square lined with shops and vendors, monuments relating to the neighborhood's rich African-American heritage, fountains and attractive landscaping. Think Charlotte's pedestrian-friendly Heritage Avenue. The square is to be a cultural center attracting artisans and festivals. Remember Paris? The suggestion that Richmond might follow in Paris' path is one made by one city official, though the reference quickly is shrugged off as whimsy. An essential feature in the planning of Paris was the adaptation of squares as focal points for community activity. Phase one: Creating the vision and taking it to the community through a series of meetings with the Metropolitan Business League, the Jackson Ward Business Association, clergy groups and property owners is scheduled for completion by the end of the week. Phase two: The feasibility study stage is expected to take 60 to 90 days and will examine the traffic and residential impact of the "vision" as well as its cost.

Phase three is not so simple: "Where do we go from here," as Ferdinand calls it, will determine whether or not the city has sufficient resources, interest and financial backing to implement what, by then, will be an official "plan."

"We need to be ahead of the convention center," Ferdinand urges. "One reason it's so fast is that instead of spending time and money reinventing the wheel, we're going to use the best elements of previous plans. Once we've determined what it's going to take to make the program work, if it can be done with what we have, we're there."

But critics and some residents say they've heard it all before.

"I know it's only a matter of time," says Selma — who declined to give her last name — from the front porch of her house near the corner of Clay and Adams streets. She's lived here for more than 20 years. A matter of time before, she fears, someone will make her an offer. She's heard from her neighbors that her house could triple in value once the convention center's built. But she says she's not interested. "Read my lips: No amount of money will make me move." Selma has a friend visiting who seems to agree. "Why should we have to take flight again? I like it here, I sure do. I'll not move for no amount of money," she repeats emphatically.

Since Project One first outlined a comprehensive city plan for Jackson Ward nearly 25 years ago, the neighborhood — which serves as both a residential and business district — has been the target of modifications too many to count. But now, with the massive convention center that hopes to yield hundreds of thousands of visitors a year at a $65 million cost, necessity has forced the city to examine the only adjacent area that can bear new development. "The advantage of Jackson Ward is there are large vacant lands," says Ferdinand, many of which belong to the city and can be developed as parcels other than parking lots. But a larger portion of land - much with dilapidated housing - belongs to the community.

And that, according to Doug Harnsberger, former head of the city's architectural review commission, is largely the problem. Currently, Harnsberger is overseeing the $1.2 million renovation for Interfaith Housing of the Southern Aid building at Third and Clay streets. "All this is private property and the city isn't talking about that," says Harnsberger. What's more, Charlotte is a poor model of success, he says, because it has few historic resources. As a model, he says, "[It] misses the context of Richmond," and ultimately devalues the neighborhood.

The convention center likely will spike real estate values of surrounding properties - many uninhabitable though historic - and the core commercial area is not designated as an historic district. There is no protection in place to ensure property won't be sold for large profits, razed and turned into surface parking lots. Harnsberger points to a pink dilapidated building that once served as a photography studio. "It has historical significance because Maggie Walker had her portrait done there," he says. "But somebody owns that and it'll be first on the chopping block when surface parking becomes an issue."

Ferdinand agrees. "Surface parking lots are a killer for neighborhoods," he says, and likely to occur if market-driven needs of the convention center go unmet. And with only 8,000 parking places in deck sites, that leaves 192,000 potential visitors without a place to park. Harnsberger says that's a staggering problem the city hasn't addressed. As simple as it sounds, it is possible the future of Jackson Ward could hang in the balance between those needing parking and those who want to develop the neighborhood as an entertainment district.

Even so, it's Ferdinand's hope that the city's "vision" will prevent parking lots from running amok in Jackson Ward. And he concedes, "We've taken the liberty with some of the properties we don't own to expand that vision."

In the past residents have been skeptical of city initiatives to pump new blood into their neighborhood. Streetlights and herringbone brick sidewalks leading nowhere and an overgrown landfill buffer are reminders of the Jackson Place debacle four years ago when 300 housing units were supposed to be developed along the city-owned tract of land just south of Interstate 95 and never were. And Ferdinand doesn't dismiss initial concern. "Some of that is what they see as something else we were trying to shove down their throats," he says. But hopefully, the city's efforts now will be seen as a "broad brush, as buffers to the impact of the convention center."

Essentially, growth abounds in every city sector surrounding Jackson Ward, from the biotechnology center to the north; the financial district and ongoing riverfront development to the south; Church Hill to the east; and the Fan district to the west.

"What it's created is a vacuum in the Jackson Ward area," explains Ferdinand. It's a major concern when thousands of visitors pour into the city and have nowhere nearby to go for recreation. "The [convention center] is going to have major, major use in this area. We have to ask ourselves, 'What do typical conventioners want?' Retail and entertainment," suggests Ferdinand. "We're not trying to compete with [Shockoe] Slip, the Bottom or Carytown," he says. "It has to be unique to Jackson Ward. It used to be a kind of Harlem of the South, so we could expand those historical uses through development dynamics."

Those dynamics play out largely - and for now, only on paper - as the market square and multi-screen movie complex. It would be, Ferdinand points out, the only large-scale movie theater in the city. What's more, it would appeal to locals. "For anything to work it can't be only visitor driven," says Ferdinand.

But Harnsberger contends it's precisely that. "In the 25 years since I've been here, Jackson Ward has been in an economic spiral," and he contends the city's "wait and see" tack is an arbitrary approach. "I expect if we talk next year we'll be in the same place." Jackson Ward, he reminds, is the northern gateway to Richmond, the first thing visitors see. He points to crumbling buildings and asphalt, a construction crew roving behind barren space. "I think everyone, whether they're frank or not would say this isn't the image you want. [It's] an elephant sitting on a depleted

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