After five years of dormancy, the Coliseum replacement debate resurfaced last week and with it some promising changes in approach. Most importantly is the idea of rebuilding on the current site, instead of on a site two blocks to the east.
For some, losing the Coliseum would be bittersweet due to its unique metallic brutalist presence — it was likened to a giant Big Mac when completed in 1971. And its spectacular interior concourse, ringed in brick arches, recalls the underbelly of a Roman amphitheater and offers excellent traffic flow. But most importantly, the hall has terrific sight lines — even from the vertigo-inducing steep upper regions. You can always see what’s going on.
But when certain forces start moving seriously in this town, there’s a slim chance of turning around.
If the building goes, however, it clears the way for other things. And boy, does the area defined by East Marshall and North Fifth streets — and the arc of the interstates — ever need some other things to happen.
Fifty years ago, this area was touted as the civic center, but following an overdose of urban removal à la planner Robert Moses in New York, it became a discombobulated blob of oversized structures, many built on super blocks. There are too many parking decks, ill-kempt surface lots, awkward angled parking on Tenth Street and massive sunken areas such as the parking lot behind the Public Safety building, blocks of Leigh Street north of the Coliseum and the arena’s subterranean loading dock on Clay Street. Massive Virginia Commonwealth University medical buildings obscure once-verdant vistas from the brow of Shockoe Hill. The Public Safety Building would be a disgrace in any Third World city, not to mention the GRTC Transfer Plaza — although daily commuters sitting on the steps of the Public Safety Building awaiting their buses do co-exist gently with the homeless encampment on the porch as the residents awake or remain snuggled in their blankets.
The remarkably positive thing about this pedestrian-trafficked tract of downtown — that planners and promoters term an “opportunity zone” — is that it ostensibly has so much activity going for it. There is City Hall, The Library of Virginia, the Social Services Building, the John Marshall Courts Building, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, the VCU Medical Center, the Virginia Biotech center and the looming Altria complex. In addition there is the Federal Building and the Greater Richmond Convention Center, with the Marriott hotel across the street. More graceful, but equally important, are the beloved historical destinations such as the Valentine and the John Marshall house. Jeez, it’s hard to imagine a neighborhood with a more concentrated and diverse work force that holds decent-to-well paying jobs. Then add tourists and thousands of college and university students. Strangely however, the area is devoid of commercial options, except hospital eateries and a deli or two.
The lack of retail results from the plethora of overscaled buildings and an unwelcoming pedestrian experience due to the corresponding destruction of the city grid and loss of modest-sized structures. Where smaller spaces exist — say on East Main Street in the financial district and on the new restaurant row of East Grace Street — restaurants and small businesses can’t seem to fill them fast enough.
So if a replacement arena is built on the North Sixth Street axis, the following things might be considered:
• Re-establish the rectangular street grid wherever possible. This means opening up Clay between Ninth and 10th streets where the Public Safety building now stands to connect it with Court End.
• Clay Street should be reopened through what is now Nina Abady Park to meet the convention center. Leigh Street should be raised to ground level on the north side of the Coliseum.
• Raze the food court of the former 6th Street Marketplace to re-establish sight lines and pedestrian passage between the new arena and Broad Street.
• A permanent and attractive GRTC transfer station, combined with a parking deck, could be built in the surface lot immediately north of the courts building. Downtown has no better location for mass transit connections considering the convergence of public services, medical facilities, tourist attractions, municipal, state and federal government offices, historic attractions, and a college and university.
If there is a drumbeat for a new coliseum, the project should be designed — and this once-in-a-half century opportunity leveraged — to finally give this schizophrenic urban landscape the shape and dignity that its remarkable range of activities deserves. S