News & Features » Cover Story

Familiar Territory

It's back to square one — again — for Shockoe Bottom. Why a plan for Richmond's most historic neighborhood just might stick this time.



John Dodge had heard enough. In a standing-room-only conference room at the downtown headquarters of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a firing line of citizens denounced plans to build a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. One by one, they lobbed grenades: It was too intrusive for the area, the financing was shaky, the economic benefits of baseball were a sham. It would take another month and a half after this May 12 public forum for the $363 million development plan to officially bite the dust, but for all intents and purposes it died here.

Dodge, a local businessman and a friend of project co-developer Bryan Bostic, must have seen the project slipping away. He stepped to the microphone, a reddish hue to his cheeks, and let loose. 

“I have to say it's not difficult to understand why a pilot would tell you when you land in Richmond airport, ‘Welcome to Richmond, set your clocks back 30 years,’” he scolded, his voice dripping with disgust. “It's because of this, this cement that we have surrounded ourselves with, this fear of change. … We have become the laughingstock of this nation.”

Economic development in Richmond has never come easy, particularly in the Bottom. It's difficult to imagine the same development proposal generating similar outrage anywhere else. Would Brandermill residents band together to fight a ballpark along Powhite Parkway? Would Wyndham's elite protest a stadium in Short Pump?

If you think the problem was baseball, think again. In the aftermath of the Shockoe-stadium implosion, a plan to put a new team back on the Boulevard has inched along with little public discussion. The minute Shockoe Bottom left the conversation, the public controversy ended and the debate died.

There's good reason for the passion. Shockoe Bottom, the city's most historic district, predates Richmond. It became an outpost along the James River for English settlers in 1679, and it's where William Byrd II established the town of Richmond's first eight-block street grid in 1737, stretching from what is now 17th Street to 25th Street. In the 1780s the area became the city's first commercial hub — a public market was officially established in 1779 at what's now known as the 17th Street Farmers' Market. And along Shockoe Creek, the Bottom earned infamy as the center of the domestic slave trade from 1807 to 1865.

That's always been part of the problem. If ever there were a place to study and foster discussion about the complex racial and social difficulties that have vexed the country, it just might be the Bottom. But it's an uncomfortable history, the kind no one likes to talk about but wouldn't dare dismiss.

Troubled Waters

Then there's the Bottom that continued as a commercial hub but slowly gave way to other industrial corridors in the region. In the late 1950s and early 1960s came the interstate spaghetti works that lord over the Bottom and Main Street Station.

But the neighborhood's always had a nemesis: water.

Shortly after the tobacco manufacturers began moving out of the area in the 1960s, a pair of devastating floods rocked the valley in 1969 and 1972, forcing more than half of the area's retail shops and restaurants to close — unofficially ending the neighborhood's era as an industrial and commercial center.

After Hurricane Agnes put the Bottom under water in 1972, the area never fully recovered. A bustling nightlife district had begun to crop up, but the flooding didn't stop. Another major flood hit in 1987. In 1995 the city completed a huge floodwall to keep the waters out and business in.

Then in 2004, almost a decade after the floodwall was built, Tropical Storm Gaston came gushing in — a freak of nature, a once-in-a-millennium storm that flooded streets, overwhelmed storm drains and coated the roads and shops in toxic muck. Instead of the usual culprit — rising water levels from the James — Gaston's torrential downpour exposed the city's drainage issues. The floodwall was designed to keep the James out of the city, but wound up trapping the rainwater in the Bottom.

“It was a rain event of unfathomable intensity,” Chris Beschler, deputy chief administrative officer and director of public utilities, says of Gaston. After the storm, the city initiated $20 million in drainage improvements to counter the problem of occasional interior flooding. The improvements are expected to be complete in November, which has already helped with smaller nuisance floods that occur every six months or so, says Beschler.

But nothing will stop another storm like Gaston. “If Gaston happened again, Shockoe Bottom would flood again,” Beschler says.

In a painful irony, many business and property owners lost everything during Gaston because they had canceled their flood insurance after the floodwall's construction nine years earlier.

“What's always been the curse of this area is the flooding,” says Rachel Flynn, the city's planning director. “Every time there is a flood, it sets this city back.”

Searching for Vision

That was the genius of the Highwoods Properties proposal, ballpark proponents say: It included a concourse that doubled as an emergency access road in case the area flooded. This was critical because after Gaston, the Federal Emergency Management Agency did an extensive redrawing of the floodplain maps in April 2008. It extended the 100-year floodplain north, forcing previously unaffected property owners to get flood insurance and limiting the kind of residential and business development in the area.

“You can't build any buildings down here now,” says David Napier, owner of White House Catering and president of the Shockoe Bottom Neighborhood Association. “Everything has to be on stilts here going forward.”

Building can take place, but it's more difficult, agrees Beschler. This is why Napier and the neighborhood association supported the Highwoods ballpark development. It had little to do with baseball — Napier says he really isn't much of a fan. Rather, he says, the project finally would have opened up the area for sustainable development.

Napier says the Bottom's spotty reputation as a restaurant district forced him to close The Old City Bar restaurant next to Main Street Station more than a year ago. (It remains available for private parties and catered events.) “It's about as good as it gets without a major driver,” he says. “The neighborhoods are kind of flatlining. We're the welcome mat for the city at Main Street Station, and right now we're kind of dusty.”

The ballpark proposal ran into major resistance from preservationists, residents in Church Hill, and, in the end, financial analysts hired by the city, who debunked the myth that a new stadium could be built without public tax dollars.

Economics also played a role, as did the shift in power at City Hall. Then-Mayor Doug Wilder introduced the plan in the fall, leaving it mired in controversy for the current mayor, Dwight Jones.

The plan may have been new but the process felt familiar. For the last decade, Shockoe Bottom has been hindered by something akin to attention-deficit disorder at City Hall. Instability in the upper echelons of city government has meant short memories and spotty funding — a few streetlights here, a few trees cut down there, never enough to truly make a difference.

“It's always seemed to me that the fundamental problem in Shockoe Bottom is that there really isn't a clear vision and a drive behind that vision for what Shockoe Bottom should be,” says Bill Pantele, former City Council president and mayoral candidate. He cites the on-again, off-again plan to enclose the farmers' market, turning it into a viable year-round marketplace.

First floated more than five years ago, the idea never gained traction despite a recent surge in area farmers' markets driven by the organic- and local-food movements. Pantele attributes the idea's lack of success to instability. “We've had seven or eight economic-development directors; we've had maybe half a dozen public-works directors,” Pantele says. “That kind of revolving-door of leadership at the top makes it very difficult to steer major, transformative projects through. We need to get started, but without a vision that has the right kind of process then it's just fighting over individual projects and ideas.”

Indeed, the Bottom has always been in a defensive position when it comes to economic development. Instead of reacting to a vision or a strong master plan for the area, the Bottom tends to react to whatever the latest big idea may be — a multimillion-dollar ballpark, for example, or, recently, a mega medical complex that leverages the research being done at VCU Heath System just up the hill.

Prescription for Recovery?

Earlier this summer Paul Goldman, former mayoral candidate and senior policy adviser to Wilder, floated the idea to turn the Bottom — the three- to four-block area north of the farmers' market that sits largely undeveloped — into a public-private medical campus of sorts, perhaps an extension of the Virginia Biotechnology Research Park on Leigh Street.

The idea is gaining traction among local political and business leaders. Mort Gulak, longtime professor of urban planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, says the idea represents the kind of development that fits with the character of the Bottom.  

“It needs a push, and maybe the biotech park could provide that spark,” says Gulak, who's studied Shockoe Bottom since the 1980s. He agrees with Pantele that the city's birthplace needs a vision and leadership from City Hall, but he also sees the right pieces finally falling into place. In May, City Council Vice President Ellen Robertson garnered support, and $125,000 in city funds, for a broader study of the Bottom's potential for development. Planning director Flynn is also making the area a priority. 

The new focus is buoyed by recent progress on several fronts. Plans to tap into the tourism potential of retelling the Bottom's role as a slave center, particularly around the old Lumpkin's Jail site, appears to be gathering steam (see sidebar). GRTC is moving forward with plans to put a transfer station next to the train shed at Main Street Station, and there's the promise of federal stimulus funds for rail improvements that many people hope will lead to high-speed rail.

The Bottom finally could be in a position to move out of the basement.

“Maybe it's a good thing that it hasn't developed overnight, in a sense,” Gulak says. “Richmond is like that. It doesn't do things immediately, but in the long run that's a good thing.” After all, the city's big-bang development saviors — 6th Street Marketplace and Greater Richmond Convention Center, for example — rarely work as envisioned. While the controversy over the Bottom ballpark was dispiriting to many, the heightened debate may really have been a sign of the Bottom's success.

There's an old real-estate maxim that residential population drives development — “retail follows rooftops,” the saying goes — and the same holds true for political purposes. The growing Church Hill community, the apartments and condos in Tobacco Row, and recent progress north of Broad, in particular the conversion of the Richmond Cold Storage complex into apartments, represent a growing economic and political force. In other words, the rooftops got there first.

“It's not so much that it's wrong to think about big projects, but it's ‘Is that the answer to what the community needs?’” says Jim Crupi, the urban planning consultant who penned a pair of regional economic and political studies of Richmond in 1993 and 2007.

Crupi envisions the area growing organically because it already is an attractive place where people wanted to live. “I felt that if you did other things around it, it would cause it to grow,” he says. “You don't have to necessarily build something in a place in order for it to grow … if that's an area where people want to live.”

It will grow, Flynn says. But she adds that on her watch that growth will happen with purpose and a vision. The plan is that after the Robertson study is complete, the city will issue new requests for proposals in the fall to develop the last remaining city-owned blocks in the Bottom. “Do lots of little things,” Flynn says. “Do them right, and let it grow up from the ground.”

Napier will believe that when he sees it. At this point, he says, it's just another round of promises that doesn't take into account the only people who've invested anything in Shockoe Bottom — business owners like him.

“I've seen a lot of studies and a lot of proposals,” he says, “and I haven't seen anything happen.” But he doesn't necessarily want to discourage another one, he says: “I will be 100 percent behind any reasonable project — anything. I'll take a Wal-Mart on stilts at this point.” S


Leveraging History: Support grows for slave museum, tourism center near Lumpkin's Jail site. by Chris Dovi

The Groundwork: Keys to success for a Shockoe Bottom resurgence.  by Edwin Slipek Jr.

Comments (7)

Showing 1-7 of 7

Add a comment

Add a comment