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Architecture: Reclaiming Recreation

Disappointed by the rejected Brown's Island development plan? Snap out of it, the plan was flawed anyway.

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What was objectionable?

The plan proposed continuous structures along the river's edge that created an impenetrable wall that denied public or pedestrian access to, or any sense of or even visual connection with the river — unless one was on an upper floor.

And the architectural mode was fussily classical — vaguely Jeffersonian — having little context with other downtown buildings, or more importantly, the industrial aura of the site.

But most disturbing, the development's success was predicated on a 659-parking structure set immediately at the river's edge for the convenience of residents of the proposed 160 upscale apartments and occupants of 209,000 square feet of office space.

In short, although it provided 76,000 square feet of retail and restaurants at pedestrian level near the canal walk, the "Village" would have virtually privatized a critical stretch of the riverfront and hogged its views at a time of heightened interest in reclaiming James River shores for public use.

While one can admire the rubriclike precision — elegance even — in how the architect (Smallwood, Reynolds, Stewart, Stewart & Associates, Inc.) maneuvered the buildings into so tight a space, they were the wrong elements — particularly the parking deck — in the wrong place.

The Brown's Island site is intriguing: Its history reflects the nation's industrial growth since the late 1700s. Today, a massive, sculptural railroad trestle along the river's edge girdles the island's south side. The old Haxall mill race, now part of the downtown canal system, defines the island on the north.

Two massive, decaying but spectacular structures occupy the proposed development site. The Virginia Electric and Power Co. hydroelectric plant (1900), at the island's far east end, is a pavilionlike concrete box with large window openings punched out at regular intervals. A handsome, Greek Doric entablature envelops the building. This building would remain and be converted to retail and entertainment use.

To its immediate west is a sprawling, art deco, 1920s, brick steam plant. Its zigguratlike setbacks resemble Mayan or Aztec temples. This building, and its three monumental smokestacks, would be demolished to make room for the parking deck and office tower.

Set between the former hydroelectric plant and parking deck/office tower would be a new apartment tower, with balconies providing spectacular panoramic views.

Two vehicular bridges would link Brown's Island with the mainland.

The new buildings would be clad primarily in red brick and white trim, resembling such 1920s hotel and residential landmarks as the old Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach and the Tuckahoe apartments on Cary Street Road.

But if new construction happens on this formerly industrial site along the rapids, wouldn't it be handsomer to use more aggressive materials such as steel, glass and concrete in a contemporary vein? It's time Richmond abandoned poorly interpreted classicism, stopped recycling tired architectural traditions and began asking what the 21st century should look like.

But the project's biggest problem was the parking garage on the water's edge. This is the last thing we should be building on a natural riverbank. One of the current, ongoing challenges of making the James accessible is getting around train trestles, waterways and other infrastructure from the bygone era of steel and steam. To add a parking deck here is incredible.

But without the parking spaces, the apartments and offices would probably not be feasible at the site in today's market.

In its efforts to bring bodies and dollars to the downtown riverfront, "Riverside Village" would destroy invaluable, historical, industrial fabric and natural waterfront.

Let's put high-rise apartment and office buildings in parts of downtown where they can reinforce already established mixed-use areas such as on Main, Franklin or Grace streets. Let Brown's Island remain a more passive, recreational space. There are better ways to add bucks to city coffers and get people strolling the canal walk than to stack 659 cars smack against the river's edge. S

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