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A critical look at the good, the bad and the downright ugly projects of the last decade

Towering Failures, Subtle Successes

The 1990s was a decade of galloping prosperity. Architecturally, this affected the face of Richmond and the surrounding landscape.

And despite collective hand-wringing, downtown proved not to be a patient needing life-support but the center of energetic building activity — but, alas, not of innovative design.

At the top of Shockoe Hill, biotechnology labs, a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed state library, and scores of apartments in long-dormant, above-the-store loft spaces, began to add 24-7 life to urban sidewalks. At the bottom of the hill, new office complexes, an expanding Tobacco Row, the monster flood wall and a handsome new canal walk renewed the riverfront as a destination for work and play to at least another generation.

To the west, VCU pushed its campus onto Broad, and Fan property values soared, even as residents rejected local landmark status for their neighborhood. The Museum District and Carytown continued to bolster their upscale identities. And the Boulevard, until recently a last-chance kind of address, received a miraculous, restorative turnaround, thanks to an infusion of cash and entrepreneurial chutzpah. Henrico and Chesterfield suburbs saw extended growth, resulting — in some places — in disfiguring sprawl. Meanwhile, Powhatan, Goochland and New Kent (where the Colonial Downs racetrack opened) braced for inevitable growth while Ashland attempted to apply the brakes.

In this proud Southern burg, which will soon mark 400 years of European settlement, urban design and architectural excitement is best measured by how effectively projects are woven into the often tattered urban fabric. When this approach works, something stronger, refreshing and even exciting can result.

And in the fast-evolving, once-rural areas, how intelligently — both environmentally and aesthetically — buildings are laid onto the storied Virginia countryside will determine whether sprawl becomes a chronic condition or part of our learning curve.

So with context and sensitivity as our guides, consider the following 10 projects — arguably the worst and best building projects of the decade. Five we could have done without, but the others offer valuable and even delightful clues as to how we might build in this new decade.

The Five Worst:

[image-1]Photo by Ken KocheyAlthough built within the past decade, the Riverfront Plaza's twin high-rises already look dated. Architecturally, modernism and post-modernism battle for attention here; smooth, reddish-brown wall and window surfaces are punctuated by poorly proportioned arches and entablatures. The Mansard roofs are downright peculiar. But worse, major opportunities to better address the river were squandered.1. Riverfront Plaza
951 East Byrd Street
1991, HKS, Inc., Dallas, Texas, architects

By the early '90s, finally admitting that 6th Street Marketplace wasn't attracting the crowds and commerce it was built to, downtown developers applied the steam with renewed gusto along the James River. But Valentine Riverside, the reworked canal system, Tobacco Row and new office complexes on Main Street and toward the river suggested that all the politically correct talk about redeveloping the former retail district and connecting formerly white and black sides of Broad Street was disingenuous. Richmond's white-dominated economic forces had no real interest in that part of town.

At Riverfront Plaza, a twin-towered office park near the Manchester Bridge, the big boys got a chance to strut their stuff. And what a disappointment! Rather than continuing the densely built grid that makes the East Main Street financial district so handsome, the developers built a narcissistic, postmodern, self-contained project, inspired more by suburban office parks than the dramatic site. And rather than stepping back politely from the river, as the structures rise in height, the twin towers hog river views. There isn't much to show for all the talk about the potential of riverfront development.

Along Ninth Street, the west tower is set back from the street behind a strip of grass and a row of shade trees. No sidewalks run alongside the tower to reach the elaborately landscaped terrace overlooking the river. But this doesn't matter anyway, since a high, spiked, security fence around the plaza prevents public access.

Even the Federal Reserve Bank across Ninth, which actually has something to protect, set its huge, gleaming, landmark high-rise in an open, parklike setting and nary a physical barrier in sight.

At Riverfront Plaza, street-level commercial activity takes place within well-secured, interior areas. Nothing fronts the street.

The exterior facing is horrendously detailed with ridiculous proportions and clumsily articulated rounded arches and Mansard roofs among the grab bag of tricks. But then silly, cloying things often come in pairs — Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, and the Tarleton twins in "Gone With the Wind."

As it approaches its 10th anniversary, Riverfront Plaza hasn't improved with age. It sits in self-isolation — a development in the city, but not of it.

[image-2]photo by Stephen Salpukas / Style WeeklyThe Crestar Operations Center is set too far back from Semmes2. Crestar Operations Center
901 Semmes Avenue
1998, TBA Associates,
Charlotte, N.C., architect

For the past quarter century, city officials and developers have eyed South Side's Manchester neighborhood with mixed feelings of greed and optimism.

The positives include long stretches of James River frontage, spectacular views of the impressive downtown skyline, and convenient connections via the Manchester and Lee bridges. Adding to the appeal is that much of the land is vacant. Major chunks of the former 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century housing stock have been decimated, leaving the neighborhood looking like Dresden after the blitz. As development evolves, it won't displace residents, always a pesky detail.

The bad news is that Manchester also backs up to Blackwell, one of the city's most economically depressed and crime-ridden areas. Would anybody want to invest in this area?

In a grand gesture that forgave debts owed Crestar caused by the collapse of Valentine Riverside, the city gave the bank a prime chunk of land for construction of a 1,500-person operations center. But like the Riverfront Plaza across the rapids, this second major project didn't use the potential of its wonderful site. In fact, it destroyed the ability for future good things to happen.

The building's footprint stretches over two blocks, enveloping a block of 12th Street that once led to the river. And rather than creating something with urbanity fronting Semmes Avenue, this overachieving, moonscape-looking building is set as far back from Semmes as the site allows. The building's oppressive footprint negates any tie-ins with future development in the vicinity. The building, which is not devoid of style (it owes a great debt to Richard Meier, architect of the Getty Art Museum in Los Angeles), should have been spun around with its looming, flat, western wall facing Semmes Avenue and its irregular overachieving eastern front facing the river.

Of course, city officials have rationalized how leaping the river expands downtown, but that's the last thing we need. Had this complex been built north of the river, near more public transit, and commercial and institutional activities, instead of leaving employees time-restricted to the company cafeteria, Crestar workers could have patronized downtown merchants and restaurants.

A singular riverfront location and development opportunity was squandered.

[image-3]photo by Scott Elmquist / Style Weeklythe Holton school's ridiculous expanse of roof would better suit an industrial district3. Linwood Holton Elementary School
Laburnum Avenue and Hermitage Road
1999, G.E. Svedrup Engineers,
Architects and Construction, St. Louis, architect

This site, 13 acres famous for a grove of elm trees and a twice-annual flea market, was a remarkable link with the time when North Side was dotted with small farms, and horseback riding and cycling were sports of choice. When the decision was made to place a new public school on the site, there was general concern about what form the building would take. The tract is surrounded by beautiful, middle class neighborhoods with tidy Cape Cods, bungalows, American four-square and Williamsburg-type houses.

But the architects seemingly ignored all this. This building's prototype is the same as that used at two other new Richmond schools (Blackwell and Jones). The front of the school is set too far back from the intersection of Hermitage and Laburnum to relate to that crossing marked by the A.P. Hill monument. Rudely, the building's service side backs up to the residential streets of Monticello and Avondale. The school itself is bombastic with an overwhelmingly top-heavy gray, metal roof atop a discombobulated assemblage of building shapes and forms. Come to think of it, it looks like something a child might build with a mismatched set of building blocks. Neighbors reportedly cried when many of the elms were destroyed. They should have saved their tears: the worst was yet to come.

[image-4]photo by Scott Elmquist / Style WeeklySix irreplaceable blocks of historic Jackson Ward bit the dust for a bigger convention center4. Demolition of six blocks of Jackson Ward for the new Convention Center, 1999
For many decades, Richmonders were mostly served local history that had been filtered through the lens of The Lost Cause. But in the 1970s, we finally began to acknowledge our black historical and cultural traditions. The unveiling of the Bill "Bojangles" monument, restoration of the Maggie Walker house under the guidance of the National Park Service, and the cathartic unveiling of the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue were all giant steps toward more balance in interpreting our history.

Economically, Richmond also began marketing itself to a broader base of tourists and touted Jackson Ward as Harlem of the South.

But then in the 1990s, we fell backward. First, city developers decided that the section of the Ward closest to the interstate highway would be developed for upscale housing — the project was named Jackson Place (approximately suburban-sounding). But, after some shenanigans, the project came to a screeching halt. Then the city decided that the panacea for what ailed downtown was an enlarged convention center to attract national gatherings.

But sadly, to save the patient (the ailing retail center) some amputations would be necessary. Jackson Ward got hit hardest with six blocks of handsome architectural fabric being demolished. It's as if mid- to late-20th century lessons in urban development had all been forgotten.

Urban removal has damaged the social and physical fabric here and in other American cities. If we must have monolithic buildings such as the convention center, they should go in less fragile areas.

And now, fearing there won't be adequate hotel rooms to attract national conventions, planners are wondering where those who arrive by auto for regional conventions will park. Since extensive parking has not figured heavily into plans for the enlarged center, more of Jackson Ward is likely to be sacrificed.

Stay tuned.

[image-5]photo by Scott Elmquist / Style WeeklyShort Pump's transformation as a big-box mecca is startling.5. Sprawling Short Pump
West Broad Street at the intersection of Pump and Pouncey Tract Road

If such a thing as hell on wheels exists, Richmonders would agree that Midlothian Turnpike — home of the "Motor Mile" — is such a place. But rather than vow that such environments won't spread, we Richmonders and Americans seem to relish such strips. Consider Short Pump: At decade's start, it was merely a curve in U.S. 250 marked by a simple country store and an auto repair shop . Mid-decade, the developmental floodgates were opened as the area was transformed into a scarily generic orgy of bright lights and big-box stores. Nothing exemplifies this scorched-earth approach better than the Brookhollow shopping strip on West Broad Street, just east of Pump and Pouncey Tract roads. For over half a mile there is a continuous retail strip — The Home Depot, Kohl's, Target Greatland, HomePlace and Wal-Mart set in a sea of parking with little landscaping. This stands in sharp relief against still-undeveloped green space across the road.

While one can applaud Henrico's efforts to preserve the county's rural landscape along such thoroughfares as Mountain Road, one wonders whether the county isn't hellbent on developing everything in sight.

Jump to Part 1, 2,Part 2: The Five Best

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