Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

Keeping Up Kanawha

Architecture Review: The marooned downtown plaza is due for a generational rehab.



Richmond's two oldest parks have been generating intense discussion.

City Council's vote on a proposed 15-story condominium at the base of Libby Hill Park on Church Hill was canceled last week when its developer realized that support had fizzled. Opponents argued the tower would fracture panoramic and cherished vistas of the James River and beyond.

And across town near the Fan District, ongoing efforts to invigorate long-neglected Monroe Park are continually mired in debates about the plight of its primary daytime population, homeless people.

But the sorry condition and future of a much newer park, Kanawha Plaza, also has been seriously considered in recent months. With Gateway Plaza topping out — the long-awaited signature high-rise at the northern end of the Manchester Bridge — it's clear that the ill-kempt park across Canal Street needs serious attention. Some demand a total redesign.

But however dilapidated and overgrown, Kanawha Plaza remains remarkable in many ways. It's fundamentally a visual bridge designed to hide a block-long stretch of the Downtown Expressway. And as weird as the feng shui is with continuous, high-speed traffic below, all manner of flora — from full-sized magnolias to Bradford pear trees — manage to survive.

The glory of this ill-loved financial district oasis is the hexagonal fountain at the northeastern edge of the park near the confluence of traffic lanes at Ninth and Canal streets. Water gushes lustily over the steeply layered tiers of a sculptural concrete ziggurat. And while the fountain is visible mostly to motorists during afternoon rush hour, it's a refreshing, if fleeting moment. Otherwise, the 3-acre park, set amid thousands of downtown office workers, hardly registers.

With Gateway Plaza taking final form, Kanawha Plaza is due a generational update. Many observers find it an architecturaly brutal statement beyond aesthetic and functional repair. I suggest there is nothing wrong with its design, which is handsome and well thought-out in every way. What it needs is restoration, maintenance and occasional special programming. It served the Occupy Richmond protest in 2011 quite well without bothering anybody.

Admittedly, it's the park Richmonders love to bash, so before the groans and eye-rolling, consider why it was initially conceived. Rewind the tape to the late 1970s: The Richmond Metropolitan Authority's Downtown Expressway finally was completed after many years of discord, legal wrangling and considerable preservationist and environmentalist outcries. An especially sore spot was how the roadway destroyed most of the granite locks and canal bed of the historic James River and Kanawha Canal.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank was erecting its new metallic and glass tower to the south of the recessed highway, and officials weren't amused by their building being physically cut off from downtown by the expressway. Fed officials demanded that the city re-knit the urban fabric by funding and constructing a park above the highway. The Cambridge, Mass. firm of Zion & Breen (landscape architect of the renowned Paley Park in midtown New York City) was engaged to build a worthy complement to noted architect's Minoru Yamasaki's Fed tower.

Zion & Breen designed a space that does two things well. First, the inside of the park is visible from the surrounding streets and sidewalks. Secondly, those inside the park feel a sense of enclosure without being shut off from the outside. This was achieved by building the park up off the sidewalk to create a deep-enough planting bed for substantial shrubs and trees. The concrete retaining wall that surrounds the park isn't fortresslike, but contains a series of open periodic slits that allow passersby to peer in and park patrons to look out. Entrances are at the four corners, near crosswalks where pedestrians would most conveniently enter.

But pedestrians never materialized. It's no fault of the park's designers that this is a dead spot in downtown's landscape. To the east across Ninth Street, patrons of the authority's parking deck have no reason to ever cross over to the park. The western edge is a hole — the expressway itself. To the north, the monolithic Dominion Resources building turns its back to the park and sits upon a listless plaza that hides a parking deck below.

To the south of Kanawha Plaza, the Federal Reserve complex now sits behind offensive security fences and occasional guard houses. This discourages anyone from even using the nearby city sidewalks.

The best hope for park access is the area near the fountain directly across from Gateway Plaza. But heavily travelled vehicular traffic lanes along Canal Street that feed the Manchester Bridge make crossing here impossible.

So let's leave the design of Kanawha Plaza alone. It's handsome enough in its isolated splendor. Yes, the walls and walkways that have settled (in some places as much as a foot) need shoring up. Crumbling concrete and brickwork need major repairs. Trees and plantings need maintenance. And let's keep the handsome fountain clean and free-flowing.

Those who work in surrounding office towers will continue to enjoy this green space from above. Let the skateboarders have at its hard surfaces. And may the homeless enjoy its relative quietude.

The park has developed a natural constituency— it's just not what planners and city officials envisioned. S

Comments (16)

Showing 1-16 of 16

Add a comment

Add a comment