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Street Smart

Here's how good (or bad) design can change a city.

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At 6 o’clock in the morning one Sunday in October, a group of volunteers starts positioning traffic cones and road closure signs along the 300 block of East Broad Street. This is Richmond’s version of Grand Central Station, the one block in the city where almost every bus stops.

The volunteers are setting the stage for community-envisioned upgrades. Closed to traffic, this normally bustling downtown block feels and looks like an empty room. The raised crape myrtle beds that cover the old trolley lines form a small, linear park, and the architectural details of the late-19th- and early-20th-century buildings emerge a little more intensely.

Four lifts take painters up three stories to repair and touch up the ornate trim of the buildings, appearing as mechanical dinosaurs grazing along the rooftops. Volunteers on ladders with metallic spray paint make washed-out silver awnings shimmer once again. A locally designed, hand-painted sign for 707 Fine Clothing is hung just above a newly installed spotlight. Three formerly blank facades now don colors with names such as Dorian gray, deep sea dive and harmonic tan. Trash-filled display windows are cleared out, carpets are cleaned, walls are scraped and painted and LED lights occupy every available socket. The few vacant buildings on the block now invite you to peek inside and imagine what you could create there: a hat shop, a taquería or a recording studio.

You probably didn’t hear about the Broad Street block blitz — a day of volunteerism aimed at upgrading facades, prepping vacant storefronts for pop-ups, clearing up code violations and providing new coats of paint along one of the most-used and underappreciated commercial arteries of the city. But it’s what I get to see up close in my role as executive director of the Storefront for Community Design. Our nonprofit helps urban communities address change through design and engagement, connecting them with local professionals in architecture, design and planning.

The idea for the block blitz was hatched by Storefront with concerned business owners, members of the Broad and Grace Merchants Association, the Downtown Neighborhood Association and city officials. They were looking to kick off the now up-and-running facade improvement program for the Broad Street Arts and Cultural District. It’s an example of community-engaged design — design that’s participatory, hands-on and done in the spirit of community. It’s doing and making with the tools and ideas at our disposal for the betterment of our city.

You may have noticed a new shine on Fulton Hill, where business owners and neighbors have organized a similar approach along Williamsburg Avenue and Government Road to revitalize that community hub. Plans are in the works for similar activities along 25th Street in North Church Hill, and for the Six Points and Meadowbridge Road business district in Highland Park.

When a little love is applied in the form of paint and a community-driven volunteer force, it changes the conversation about a place. It can make someone take a new look at a building they’ve long stopped noticing. It can inspire entrepreneurs who’ve been holding onto their business plans by giving them new views toward physical spaces where their ideas could come to life. Community-engaged design can empower residents and assist them in reclaiming the historic commercial districts in their neighborhoods.

Does a coat of paint really change anything? Is that even design? Maybe not, maybe some people may see it as a feel-good activity that won’t have a lasting impact for the city as a whole. Perhaps design, like art, is in the eye of the beholder. Three months later on Broad Street, some alcoves still are used as urinals, and graffiti has crept back onto some inviting blank canvasses. The difference now is that shop owners are even more awake to their own agency in Broad Street’s future. Design can make our city better by providing a little community love, one block at a time.

Ryan Rinn is executive director of the Storefront for Community Design.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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