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Our Lady of Perpetual Boxcars

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Parks, squares and plazas: We use them, but do we think about them? They serve a number of functions -- convenient places to meet, oases for relaxation or introspection and pedestrian crossroads in regular comings and goings. Occasionally they become stages for festivals, ceremonies or demonstrations.

The really great parks and plazas, large and small, serve any of these functions equally well — and on occasion, all at once. New York City's Bryant Park, Trafalgar Square in London and our own Capitol Square all measure up.

Richmond has an intriguing new public plaza in an unlikely spot. The Plaza at Main Street Station straddles the 1500 block between East Main Street and East Cary Street in Shockoe Bottom and lies under the soaring concrete piers of Interstate 95. Until last autumn this stretch was a no man's land, one of those in-the-cracks, decaying urban spaces from which Richmonders usually diverted their glance. But with the glorious restoration of the chateau-esque Main Street Station in recent years and the return of Amtrak downtown, this spit of real estate was too prominent and tawdry to ignore. Besides, parking and drop-off spots for station patrons were needed in this relatively densely built neighborhood.

The practical needs have been met. The Plaza provides 89 parking spaces and three slots for tour buses. But pleasantly surprising — startling even — is that by combining parking needs with a sprawling, mostly hard-surfaced plaza, an entirely new and fascinating public open space has been established.

How does The Plaza at Main Street Station measure up as a meeting place, oasis or public crossroads? Not so well. There is too little sunlight, too much overhead noise and not enough foot traffic.

But it offers significant pleasures of a different sort. A public space has been created from which one can enjoy intriguing, under-appreciated vistas of the surrounding, mostly late-19th-century urban landscape. The space encompasses elements from the muscular and heroic industrial age and the more ephemeral, postmodern information age, and it's fascinating how romantic the sight of heavy iron trestles and weathered brick warehouses, coupled with the deafening screech of railroad brakes, can be.

Wisely, the collaboration of landscape designers EDAW and Sneed & Associates with lighting consultants RK&K and Carter Adams chose not to soften the tough environs too much; instead, they used aggregate paving, bluestone, asphalt, antique granite blocks (from old canal enclosures) and a minimum of plant material. These are appropriately heavy materials for a mostly unforgiving space.

The designers caved in, however, by adding distractingly decorative black metal fencing around the perimeter of the plaza with a repeated Gothic arch motif. The space called for a stronger, more straightforward fencing pattern with a sharper edge, particularly along the eastern and western boundaries where the plaza meets the train trestles. The overall environment has an industrial aesthetic, and the plaza's design is diminished by this attempt at softening.

Since sunlight is mostly blocked by the overhead interstate roadbed, there is a visual flatness to the space during the day. But conditions change dramatically and magically at dusk and after dark. The grand procession of concrete interstate pier columns has been bathed with soft blue up-lights, creating a soaring outdoor nave. The dramatic verticality of this spectacular feature, which the designers have dubbed "Cathedral Walk," is elegantly tethered by large, granite blocks lining the space that are used as benches and are also up-lit with blue lights recessed in the pavement.

The overall design of the plaza and special lighting also focus and illuminate the colorful commissioned sculptural piece that was suspended from the interstate before the plaza was even built. "Skyrider," by New York artist John Newman, looked lost and junky — like a clump of balled-up debris — before the plaza was developed. It looks no better as a featured pièce de résistance of this space (but in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm not a fan of most contemporary public sculpture).

This delightful light park makes sense, as Shockoe Bottom especially comes to life at night as a dining and entertainment destination. But what is exciting about the Plaza at Main Street Station is that it exudes a spirit of innovation and modernity, and at its best moments establishes a special and welcome sense of beauty and utility in an unlikely spot. It speaks to the exciting possibilities of how downtown Richmond and all American cities can rediscover themselves by creating imaginative spaces. S



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