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architecture: Off the Market

Church Hill's new marketplace fails to link to its neighborhood.


These stores are welcome amenities for habitues of this former industrial district, which has witnessed a spectacular and upscale transformation to a residential neighborhood in recent years. But also, the large-scale construction offered the possibility of re-establishing some of the lost, urban fabric along this stretch of Main that links densely-built Shockoe Bottom with mostly rural Route 5.

Due to neglect, if not intentionally, a number of textured and old structures along East Main Street had been demolished over the past few years to free up land for support activities near the massive Tobacco Row apartment complex — surface parking lots, tennis courts and a gas station/convenience store. In the process, this stretch had taken on the look more of a frayed and fractured suburban highway than an important urban connector street between two architecturally distinctive enclaves—the delicate, old homes of Church Hill and the hulking, former cigarette factories fronting the canal.

Unfortunately, the new construction does little, if anything, to reweave the urban landscape and link these districts.

First, the two new stores occupy a "super block" (we use the term loosely, to mean extra large, not terrific). The newly configured block is bounded by Main, Franklin, 23rd and 25th streets. For some inexplicable reason, 24th Street, between Main and Franklin, was closed and turned into a driveway and parking lot to serve the stores. This is unfortunate. It was one of our city's original blocks, established by William Byrd II and William Mayo in 1737 when they gave the wilderness trading post at the falls its first formal street patterns and named the town Richmond. And with the closing of 24th Street, the Superior Building (which sat on the southeast corner of Franklin and 24th) has lost its relationship to the street and looms precariously above the new retailers.

But on another level, shorter blocks make for more interesting and pedestrian-friendly urban spaces. Here, the ancient city plan was disrupted unnecessarily to accommodate the automobile and the larger scale it demands.

Making matters worse, the grocery store is set back many yards from the Main Street sidewalk and beyond an asphalt parking lot. This gives the space a strip mall look, not a sophisticated, urban aesthetic. Presumably, residents of Tobacco Row and Church Hill don't choose these historic neighborhoods and pricey places because they replicate the experiences of the suburban doughnut that rings Richmond: They want tightly configured and highly textured spaces. Would it have been so difficult to set the grocery store against the Main Street sidewalk and place the surface parking toward the rear? Since the developers of Tobacco Row were responsible for the loss of many older buildings along this stretch, they might have taken better pains to restore the fabric.

The CVS is situated at 25th and Main streets. While it does better than the Market at re-establishing an urban wall at this prominent corner, the result is clumsy. Trouble is, while hugging the Main Street sidewalk, the building is set 15 feet back from the 25th Street sidewalk to accommodate a service drive to reach the trash cans. Unfortunately, this setback breaks the consistent urban wall that defines the walk along 25th Street — beginning atop Church Hill at Broad Street and moving southward past St. John's Church (with its overwhelming, brick retaining wall), continuing along the outer wall of a private residence fronting Grace, picking up with the U.S. Historical Society building at Franklin and finally, the Pohlig Box building. For the CVS building to break this continuous wall is asinine. And for trashcans? Even the most minute details are critical when designing in historic neighborhoods.

At the Market building there is a similar problem. Not only was 24th Street closed, and the building is far set back from the Main Street sidewalk, but the main driveway into the parking lot is on axis with the grocery's truck loading dock. It's the first thing one sees. Ridiculous. Couldn't it have been placed on the building's western, less prominent side?

As for the exterior detailing decoration that envelops these two boxy buildings, they both have that cheerful, ersatz traditional look found at most new strip malls these days— a classical entablature here, a blind window with a contrasting cornice there. But it's all timid, thin and rather silly considering the major league buildings, both large and small, in the vicinity. Kahn Associates of Baltimore was the architect for the Market and Little & Associates of Charlotte, N.C. designed the CVS.

While Main Street is the principal approach to the complex, East Franklin Street, which flanks the center at a high elevation on the north, also figures prominently into the equation. Here, because of the steepness of Church Hill, the grocery store almost disappears — we see a huge expanse of flat roof. Here a concrete block wall has been built along the sidewalk. The wall is painted in unfortunate stripes of cream, burgundy and green, breaking the continuity of natural red brick structures that run eastward along Franklin. (The same color scheme is used on the Marketplace [a Winn-Dixie operation] on suburban, U.S. Route 360 near Brandermill. So much for contextualism.)

Some observers have decried this broad expanse of rooftop. It doesn't bother me. Actually, the roof is one of the most honest and contextual aspects of the whole scheme. As one looks out southward from Church Hill, dozens of warehouses (and their rooftops) of various shapes and sizes dot the immediate landscape. From Franklin Street, the Market and CVS become a natural part of this mix.

It is the closing of 24th Street, the setback from Main (leaving a gaping hole in the streetscape) and the clumsy placement of service areas that disappoint.

But hey, residents won't have as far to go for a pair of pantyhose, a bottle of Chardonnay and a head of Romaine lettuce. S

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