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Attention Please!

The Virginia BioTechnology Park could make a real difference downtown.

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The expansion of the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park could change the way a certain sterile section of Richmond's downtown looks and feels. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The expansion of the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park could change the way a certain sterile section of Richmond's downtown looks and feels.

Memo to Mark A. Olinger, new director of the Planning and Development Review Department, City of Richmond:

Welcome! You're coming from Madison, Wis., bringing fresh ideas from a big college town to a bigger city with a smaller, but quite large, public university. Of course, the shadow of your impressive predecessor, Rachel Flynn, looms long. But you're already off and running with discussions and ambitious plans to take the James River Park System to the next level — and eastward. The plan's broad strokes look pretty good.

But there's another part of downtown that needs the thoughtful attention of you and your staff. These are the blocks north of Broad Street that comprise the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park. Late last month Health Diagnostic Laboratory, a fast-growing corporate tenant in the park, announced a $68.5 million expansion. This will be along Jackson Street between Fifth and Sixth streets, bringing 653 more jobs to the neighborhood. Is it possible that design features of this large, new building could help enliven — and heal — this fragmented part of town, giving it one more chance of looking and acting like an urban destination and center?

The area that needs attention is well defined. As you know, the borders are Marshall Street on the south, interstates 95 and 64 on the north, the juggernaut of the Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical Center on the east and the sprawling Greater Richmond Convention Center on the west. Trouble is, the district is plagued with examples of just about every bad urban design idea that's been hoisted up the pole for the past half century.

Consider:

Where once there was a viable, pedestrian-friendly grid system of open streets and sidewalks, monolithic structures were built. These necessitated the closing of — and building atop — streets. Examples include the gloriously giddy Coliseum (does it look like a spaceship, or what?), the dilapidated city health and safety building; the ridiculous Altria research center that looks like a fractured tin can; and the deadening dull convention center with its bleak, surrounding city sidewalks.

Then there are streets that tunnel under the area such as Clay and Leigh streets next to the Coliseum.

Tragically, too many historic buildings that were links to Richmond's indigenous domestic architecture have been lost here, especially on the eastern, Jackson Ward edge. In other words, there is little memory.

The parking facilities are oppressive. Sure, we need parking, but the way it's handled here is with too little thought (the lot behind the John Marshall Courts Building) or too much, as in the fussy detailing of the deck just east of the Coliseum.

One building that could have added some semblance of youthful vibe and institutional humanity, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College — which replaced a glorious, 19th-century, medieval-revival armory — looks like an ominous modern penal institution.

And finally, many of the buildings in and near the BioTech Park shout "high security." There must be all kinds of sensitive research going on; there are few inviting structures among the bunch. The massive Altria complex is insultingly off-putting with its over-the-street walkway connecting tower to parking garage and its high-walled and gated park.

The Health Diagnostic Laboratory expansion will require, ironically, demolishing the most humanistic of the buildings in the park. Located at the northeastern corner of Fifth and Jackson streets, this is a three-story, brick structure with a gently sloping, green, standing seam roof. But it's not architecturally distinctive and it's way too small considering the scale to which the park has expanded.

So here are a few ideas for the replacement building.

The new structure, which will bring Health Diagnostic Laboratory's facility to 240,000 square feet, should be a solid-looking affair to help ground the weird shapes and strange angles too prevalent on nearby buildings. These add up to little more than confusion when experienced from the streets and sidewalks below.

How about retail at street level? Surely there are enough employees in the park with decent enough paychecks to support, say, a CVS or Rite-Aid, two or three lunch spots and a hairstylist. The new jobs generated are expected to pay median salaries of $67,000. How about a clothier, florist and bookstore? Reynolds students and those living in Cabaniss Hall, the nearby high-rise VCU dorm, could provide traffic into the evening hours.

Other factors in this part of town are the streets and ramps that feed the nearby interstate highways. Could approaches to these roads be calmed with alternative paving methods and enhanced landscaping?

The broad question is whether we want the BioTech Park to continue to look like a third-world suburban office park, or a part of town that has inherent aesthetic merit like so much of downtown. S

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