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A Monster Downtown


“Richmond doesn’t have a bad image; Richmond doesn’t have a good image; Richmond has no image,” Pete Boisseau, one of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s consultants, lamented to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Boisseau feels that building such a colossus on the river will give Richmond an image. Here he and I agree.

In fact, I think the Richmond area is overlooking another potential source of revenue if it adopts this plan: It will soon be a one-stop laboratory for urban planners who want to see what a city looks like after it’s tried everything to reclaim its downtown.

Everything that is, but what’s worked here already, in Carytown and Shockoe Slip — encouraging the development of shops and night life. Instead, we lurch from massive project to mammoth project. You’d think that a city that has egg on its face from the failed Main Street Station and the failed 6th Street Marketplace would shy away from planning huge retail and entertainment complexes downtown, but in the past 12 months our town fathers have committed $4.6 million in cash, and the developers hope for $12 million in tax abatement credits, to denude Brown’s Island and put up a huge retail-entertainment complex downtown. (Not that anyone has noticed, but construction for that project has shuttered a good part of the publicly financed Canal Walk, the most recent project that was supposed to resurrect the riverfront.) Meanwhile, the convention center that was supposed to bring back downtown instead serves as host to such prestigious events as modeling school soirees, family reunions and log-home shows.

Most surreal, our city, which has successfully prosecuted a war on live entertainment via unreasonable security and parking restrictions and state alcohol regulations, now wants to reposition itself as a beacon of the arts. To this end, it has raised the tax on meals and will soon raise the tax on hotel rooms to build a king-sized arts center whose now $150 million plan has mushroomed to eight venues, none of which is scheduled to be home to any type of entertainment with an audience that isn’t dwindling.

The reasoning behind the proposed statue the chamber wants is that which launched all these turkeys, past, present and future: “What don’t we have?” In 2007, Boisseau says, many important people, including perhaps Queen Elizabeth II of England (though I’ll wager $10 we get Princess Alexandra and the carpenter from “Ground Force” instead) will be passing through Richmond on their way to Virginia’s 400th anniversary celebration in Jamestown. The statue, he notes, will be visible from Interstate 95.

The statue will be visible from outer space. It’s nearly the same height as the Paramount’s Kings Dominion version of the Eiffel Tower. But why stop there? Since it celebrates religious freedom, why not make it twice the size and have it blink the Lord’s Prayer, Shabbat prayers, and the muezzin’s five-times daily call to face Mecca in Morse code? That’ll really get the queen’s attention.

What nobody considers with these plans is the people who actually live here year-round. We’re the ones who will have to navigate this Frankenstein’s monster of a downtown (granted, we’re about to have one whale of a landmark). We’re the ones who can’t see a current movie anywhere near downtown. We’re the ones whose lives never get appreciably better despite having our tax dollars thrown willy-nilly at every developer who rides into town with a song and a dance and a pie-in-the-sky plan for our blighted downtown. (Not to mention the fact that many of the boosters of many of these plans lay their heads in the suburbs every night.)

How many Jamestown revelers will there be? How many days will our city be teeming with American history buffs deeply moved by the way our zeal for religious freedom blocks out the sun north of Canal Street? And how long is it going to be before I can walk from my home in Church Hill to a nice coffee shop on a Sunday morning?

Richmond has so much going for it — great rapids in the middle of downtown, an almost embarrassing richness of unused beautiful buildings, an ever-replenished supply of talented young people — and I’ve never heard of any plan that tries to leverage these assets. It’s always build this, and they will come. I got news for you: The people who can bring back this city are already here. And we’re bored. We will leave if you don’t start trying to keep us.

We’re not being negative for the hell of it. We like it here. But let’s not forget that it was Richmond’s most fervent defenders who accidentally burned the city to the ground at the end of the Civil War. As Stengel once told his barber, “A shave please, but don’t cut my throat. I may want to do it later myself.” S

Andrew Beaujon is a senior contributing writer for Spin magazine. He now lives is Church Hill and co-founded the group SaveRichmond, which is working to make the city’s music scene better.

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

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