In November Mayor Levar Stoney issued a request for proposals for a North of Broad Downtown Redevelopment Project. The goal is to transform the 20 acres bounded by Fifth, 10th, Marshall and Leigh streets into a viable, mixed-use neighborhood.
Fifty years ago this now-dreary area was known as the Civic Center: It was a half-baked attempt at urban renewal based on the modernist concepts of a noted European architect, Le Corbusier. He advocated yanking out old urban fabric and replacing it with behemoth structures. In the north of Broad area that was translated into the City Hall, the Federal Building, the Public Safety Building and the Coliseum. A generation later, the 6th Street Marketplace was injected into the mix, an attempt to enliven what has stubbornly remained a civic and aesthetic dead zone.
Perhaps this time around the mayor and his planners will rectify the design sins of the past.
Interestingly, there is a plethora of major institutions and corporations that encircle the redevelopment zone. You'd think these might energize the district. Strangely, this has failed to occur. Nonetheless, they provide points of departure from an architectural standpoint for prospective designers and developers. These structures include the Library of Virginia and the National Theater, although they back up to the site. Also in the neighborhood are the Valentine history center and the Virginia Commonwealth University medical campus, including dormitories— which translate into 24-hour a day activity. There is also J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, the Virginia Bio-Park Center, a Marriott hotel, the sprawling Altria operations center and towering City Hall.
Set within the designated redevelopment zone are a number of historic sites and major public buildings. These include the John Marshall House, a well-maintained and intelligently interpreted national historic landmark, and a relentlessly glass municipal courthouse named for the esteemed chief justice. Happily, there is also the Blues Armory, a top-tier building architecturally that has long awaited care and a new use. Also in the mix are some freestanding parking garages. Among the outright eyesores are GRTC's so-called Transfer Plaza, a sunken surface parking lot, once a high school football field, and the dilapidated Public Safety Building — a civic embarrassment.
The centerpiece of this urban muddle is the architecturally distinctive, but generally unloved, Coliseum. It was designed in the late 1960s when similarly sized Virginia communities such as Roanoke and Salem, Hampton, and Norfolk were also spouting spaceshiplike arenas. Its architect was the distinguished Philadelphia firm of Vincent Kling Associates, which aligned the domed structure visually with Sixth Street to be a visual lure from the vantage point of Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, former department stores. The visual connection between the Coliseum and the shopping district was severed in the early 1980s when 6th Street Marketplace was constructed in Sixth Street.
Thus, in decades past, the marketing mantra was to shop, work and play downtown. Dramatically, recent years have brought living downtown to the equation. Therefore, building mixed income housing is one of the mayor's goals for this neighborhood north of Broad. When you add a new transfer bus station, a new convention hotel and a replacement Coliseum, a great deal is being shoe-horned into a tightly configured urban space.
So what to do?
First, to bring order and additional acreage for this challengingly diverse mix of uses, the city and its still-to-be-named development team should make some bold moves. The first would be to demolish the Public Safety Building as well as the Coliseum, if the developers are hell-bent on building a new arena. Then, the blocks of East Clay Street that are now closed could be reopened, reconnecting Court End and the VCU medical complex to points west. The blocks north of the Coliseum, where East Leigh Street is now recessed, could be returned to street grade. The city grid is an organizing principle that shouldn't be messed with.
Secondly, the plan for building a new and larger Coliseum where the existing arena stands should be rejected. For half a century the complex has done zilch to generate retail activity or inject life into north of Broad Street. Why repeat this mistake? Besides, doesn't the economics of entertainment and sports arenas depend on selling patrons all manner of food, drink and souvenirs once they are within the turnstiles?
A new arena could be built near the Diamond on the Boulevard. Come to think of it, why haven't the prolonged discussions as to the ball park's fate included building an indoor entertainment and sports complex at the site? With the remarkable development and popularity of Scott's Addition nearby, wouldn't that be enhanced with a new coliseum within walking distance? There is ample room for parking at that semisuburban location.
The rectilinear grid of downtown is better suited for pedestrian and 24-hour activity. Imagine the possibilities of a North of Broad redevelopment minus the Coliseum sitting there like an elephant in the living room.
Besides, a new arena could be built on the Boulevard — probably a five-year project — and the Coliseum could continue to operate downtown without missing an event. If such a facility is so important to our city's lifeblood, why would we want to go without for half a decade?
The sprawling, regional convention center, which sits like a beached whale and divides the North of Broad development area from the 19th-century architectural fabric of Jackson Ward, would remain. Linkages between the convention center and Coliseum could be made by sending conventioneers westward on the Pulse.
If viable housing — a raging success in all other parts of downtown — and pedestrian friendly sidewalks and streets are goals for the reconfigured North of Broad district, the Coliseum must go. S
Edwin Slipek is Style Weekly's architecture critic.