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15 Questions

As the Navy Hill discussion drags on, our architecture critic offers other questions and suggestions to consider.

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To replace the Richmond Coliseum in Navy Hill, or not to replace it? How about construction of a large, new convention hotel attached to a restored Blues Armory? Should there also be a major housing component, with some income-restricted units?

Discussion of these questions surrounding the future of Richmond’s 48-year-old, 12,000-seat arena as part of a $1.5 billion redevelopment of 10 blocks downtown has been the hot-button issue of the year. The complex, 900-page plan by the city’s designated developer, NH District Corp., is enough to make even the most astute budget cruncher cross-eyed.

But the multifaceted plan to build a much larger arena on the foundations of the existing structure as well as a million square feet of office space, a convention hotel, 260,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, 2,124 living units with a certain number designated for households earning less than the area’s median income, plus a bus transfer depot, has not gained popular traction. Now, there’s a challenge to the not-for-profit status of NH District Corp. in the form of an individual complaint to the Internal Revenue Service. City Council, which may vote on the plan early next year, appears split.

Perhaps the proposal is too overwhelming for everyday people to wrap their heads around. There are many questions. The financing is complex. The sweeping plan has not been succinctly presented or vetted. What’s in it for the NH District Corp.? And finally, should the City of Richmond even be in the redevelopment business?

It occurs to me, however, that the pricey Navy Hill plan has been sprung on the public too suddenly as a fait accompli. Its public rollout was classic old school, top-down in tone with Dominion Energy as a key player and the utility company’s chairman, Thomas Farrell, the face of the project. If the financials have been hard to digest, so have the optics.

But finances aside, the issue that has driven the discussion this far, from an urban planning and architectural standpoint, is have we been asking the right questions? Especially in light of a costly renewal plan that is touted as the most ambitious and expensive project in the city’s history. Here are some other questions and considerations to ponder:

A rendering of the proposed project offers an idea of what the neighborhood would look like, with the circular building at top left as a 17,500-seat arena. - CAPITAL CITY PARNTERS LLC
  • Capital City Parnters LLC
  • A rendering of the proposed project offers an idea of what the neighborhood would look like, with the circular building at top left as a 17,500-seat arena.

1: Who determined that the Richmond Coliseum should and would be replaced?

The hulking metallic and brick structure was shut down abruptly with no notice last December. It was reported that the Coliseum had run a deficit for two years, but no explanation was given as to whether being in the red is standard with similar municipal facilities. What do the profit or loss figures of facilities in comparable markets report? If the deficit here has been growing in recent years, was this a reflection on potential and available acts and programs, performances and shows, or shifting customer and pricing patterns?

Historically, deficiencies in the Coliseum, real or purported, have been blamed on the physical facility itself such as having too few seats or a leaky roof. Without the benefit of baseline information and hard facts, area residents haven’t been able to weigh pros and cons of a replacement versus maintaining the current arena.

So, why, and who deemed the Coliseum obsolete? Who had the authority to make that call?

2: Do we even need a coliseum downtown?

Now that the 12,000-seat facility is closed, there has been little groundswell from individuals or organizations calling for its reopening. If the place could be shut down so quickly — and may remain closed for say, from five to 10 years while a replacement is constructed — would our community and local economy really suffer? Is a large downtown arena indispensable in the 2020s? Remember, the Coliseum was built a half century ago when Richmond’s downtown, and others nationally, were hemorrhaging economically. Such juggernaut facilities were injected into cities, in Hampton, Salem and Roanoke, and Norfolk for instance, as lures in the best ancient Roman tradition of providing the masses with circuses. Richmond is now experiencing population growth and is on the rebound. Do we need a lumbering structure hogging valuable downtown real estate?

3: What is physically or operationally wrong with the current Coliseum?

Let’s imagine retaining the Coliseum. Until evidence to the contrary, let’s assume that it is in fairly good shape, despite what those who are beating the drums for its demolition say. They curse it as dilapidated but provide no corroborating information. Some cite that its capacity is too small with just 12,000 seats, compared to the vaunted John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville with its 14,500 seats. What is the ideal size for Richmond, and why? Are proponents just chasing the extra admission taxes that a larger facility might generate? Is the existing Coliseum too limited structurally to expand luxury skyboxes, a popular revenue source? Are the loading docks the wrong size for current mega-concert tours and their accompanying caravans? Maybe, but are we predicating construction of a new arena with the vision of corporations having snazzy places to entertain and be wined and dined?

The general public would still be on the hook financially.

4: Why not provide the public information on how the Coliseum has performed historically, with such measures as attendance, income or losses, maintenance expense, and measure the residual impact on local businesses and other organizations?

If the findings are positive, the public would be more supportive of the NH District redevelopment plan. If the present facility has been so invaluable to the local aura and economy for almost 50 years that it warrants replacement with a larger version, then show us how it has been a boon.

From what proponents say about the new arena, the current Coliseum is blight on the downtown. Advocates of the NH District plan point out, and reasonably so, that the 10-block proposed redevelopment tract currently suffers from no inventory of medium-sized and flexible buildings like those found throughout Manchester, Jackson Ward or Scott’s Addition. These structures have proven highly adaptable for such mixed uses as multiunit housing, eateries or small- to medium-sized businesses. But these thriving urban neighborhoods are also experiencing significant ground-up building starts, including high-rise construction. Why can’t city-owned property in the Navy Hill area be subdivided into compact building lots, and developed more organically by multiple private developers?

The Diamond. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/FIle
  • The Diamond.

5. Has the Navy Hill project design been developed after conversations with, or in conjunction with, parties developing plans for a new baseball stadium for the Richmond Squirrels and Virginia Commonwealth University athletics on the site of the state ABC warehouse near the existing Diamond?

It is fascinating that public discussions have come to a halt concerning redevelopment of the Diamond on Arthur Ashe Boulevard since focus shifted to replacing the Coliseum. Why not consider redevelopment of the baseball stadium and Coliseum together near the Arthur Ashe Boulevard? There could be economies of scale. The new arena would continue to hold tractor pulls, religious revivals and rock concerts, but spectator sports events would continue to be a natural fit at that location. If a new coliseum were built on this city-owned property, it could strengthen considerably the current offerings with extra and top-quality programming. Also, since the current Arthur Ashe Center, a Richmond Public Schools multipurpose and sports facility, is in dire need of attention. Its redevelopment could be part of the mix and add another amenity for conventions.

Perhaps time has come for a large coliseum to exit downtown and be built at a place that would play off the real and growing energy of Scott’s Addition and the nearby sports complex. The property is served by two interstate highways and has ample open land for parking.

6. If the financial prospects of a new coliseum and a redeveloped, mixed-use Navy Hill district are so promising, why did the City of Richmond receive only one response to its request for proposals from regional, national or international developers? Is Richmond really a city on the move, or is this local hubris?

7. During the past half-century, many buildings were torn down for parking to serve such complexes as the Coliseum, the Greater Richmond Convention Center and the John Marshall Courts Building. With daily parking at such a premium, what is the wisdom of bringing thousands of additional vehicles into the neighborhood for short-term Coliseum events?

Short-term parking facilities for an even larger coliseum are not compatible with a tightly configured, 2,000-unit residential neighborhood, as the NH District plan suggests. Besides, those households will bring in hundreds of additional vehicles.

I know, utopian thinking suggests that in the future, environmentally minded residents won’t want cars downtown. Come on, the folks who can afford to live in this area will most likely have cars.

East Clay Street. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • East Clay Street.

8. If the Navy Hill redevelopment project doesn’t fly, it isn’t the end of the world. Can’t many aspects of the plan be financed and developed on their own merits?

There’s been little public outcry over the decrepit conditions of swaths of city-owned property in this underbelly of downtown. Three blemishes stand out.

First, why can’t even a basic shelter be provided GRTC riders at the so-called transfer plaza on North Ninth Street, where mostly blue-collar bus riders change buses?

Second, why hasn’t the two-city block-long city public safety and welfare building at North Ninth and East Leigh streets been remodeled, torn down or sold? By eliminating this building, the city could reopen East Clay Street to vehicles and pedestrians and reconnect the flow between Navy Hill and Court End with its biggest draw, the Virginia Commonwealth University medical campus. This reopened street would also reconnect important attractions, the Valentine history center and the White House of the Confederacy on the east, with the John Marshall house on the west.

Third, why is the dilapidated food court, the last vestige from the 6th Street Marketplace, still standing? The homeless community encamped on the north side of the food court structure only adds to the reality of civic dysfunction, but at least these residents are making some use of the structure.

The historic Blues Armory and former 6th Street Marketplace food court. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The historic Blues Armory and former 6th Street Marketplace food court.

9. As architecturally attractive as the former 6th Street Marketplace food court may have been initially, should it be demolished?

If the current Coliseum were to remain, Sixth Street could be reopened, which the NH Corp. plan proposes. This would re-establish the grand urban vista that was envisioned 50 years ago, when the Coliseum was designed, looking northward up Sixth Street from Broad and Grace streets. The grand downtown department stores facing Sixth Street are long gone, but the 200 block of North Sixth has been enhanced with the restoration and expansion of the Dominion Energy Center and the Miller and Rhoads condominiums. Viewing the Coliseum from this approach would lure pedestrians and provide exciting visual connective tissue. The Coliseum could also be viewed in context with a restored historic Blues Armory, an architecturally glorious, medieval revival building whose crenellated features are reflected in the design of the 1971 Coliseum: its cap reflects the antique turrets and battlements of the early 20th century armory.

East Leigh Street. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • East Leigh Street.

10. Whatever happens on Navy Hill — whether the current Coliseum stays, is demolished, or is replaced — the city should proceed with eliminating the depressed roadway in the 500 block of East Leigh Street and elevate this stretch of road to grade level.

The ditchlike stretch of road on the north side of the Coliseum was designed to serve the box office. It is disruptive to the overall grid of the area and only adds to the numbness of an already overpaved space.

A rendering of the BridgePark plan. - RICHMOND BRIDGEPARK FOUNDATION
  • Richmond BridgePark Foundation
  • A rendering of the BridgePark plan.

11. If the Navy Hill project gets the green light, perhaps it could establish the first phase of BridgePark, a bold and green scheme that has been designed by an international team of architects and planners. It has received a positive response as a way to soften the overbuilt Manchester Bridge by eliminating traffic lanes and adding strategic and sometimes dense landscaping along its connector streets.

The north end of the Manchester Bridge enters downtown at Byrd and South Ninth streets. Ninth runs through the heart of Navy Hill and terminates at East Leigh Street. It skirts the historic John Marshall House, which already has attractively landscaped grounds; its parent organization owns contiguous property along Ninth. The deadly stretch of Ninth Street, along the open, surface parking lot between Clay and Leigh streets, could be planted as a pilot program of BridgePark. Since there has been little or no talk of parks, or open space in the Navy Hill project, this could provide much needed breathing room. Redevelopment isn’t only bricks and mortar.

12. If the downtown Greater Richmond Convention Center is a regionally financed endeavor, and if a downtown coliseum is inevitable, we should revisit the issue of why a new facility isn’t being financed by Chesterfield, Henrico, Hanover, and other jurisdictions? Why is Richmond footing the bill?

John Marshall Courthouse. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • John Marshall Courthouse.

13. The all-glass John Marshall Courthouse needs to be replaced considering concerns since Sept. 11, 2001, and in consideration of how contemporary courthouses are designed. Should the Navy Hill project address how and where this building might be replaced or rebuilt in the coming decade?

Should another site be designated for a new courthouse? If so, the current courthouse could be repurposed for other use, or demolished for other Navy Hill redevelopment. Similarly, what is the fate of the current city Human Social Services building? It is new enough to remain but does little to enhance its environs.

The Richmond Coliseum opened in 1971 and was shuttered recently. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Richmond Coliseum opened in 1971 and was shuttered recently.

14. Where does downtown grow next?

The answer may be North Jackson Ward, across the interstate highways and north of the J.S. Reynolds Community College and the Altria complex. It would be a bold move, but should we be considering it in conjunction with Navy Hill?

15. Why hasn’t the VCU Medical Center been more of a factor in discussions for redeveloping Navy Hill?

Yes, a driving goal of the downtown project has been to return publicly owned property to the tax rolls, but this sprawling medical operation is essential to the health, educational, economic and civic life of our city. It is severely landlocked.

Does its importance to the region and state as an employer, educational and institutional force not trump its not-for-profit status?

More of Navy Hill’s acreage could be devoted for expansion of the VCU Medical Center, or related services and activities or housing and office buildings connected to the university.

The Virginia Bio-Tech Center. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Virginia Bio-Tech Center.

Conclusion

If the city loosens its grip on the Navy Hill property, organic expansion could come from a wealth of adjacent institutions, corporations and organizations: the Virginia Bio-Tech Center, Reynolds Community College, Atria, the city courts system, VCU Medical Center, the historic house museums, the Blues Armory, the Federal Building, the convention center, municipal buildings and a GRTC bus transfer depot.

Just add a convention hotel, retail strip, housing and stir.

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