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Lab Brings New Life

A new state building re-establishes a sense of urban density in the empty wasteland north of the Coliseum

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The new lab won’t jump out and grab the casual observer. While it isn’t bland, neither does it break any interesting ground architecturally. Three stories tall, and with red brick walls and large windows trimmed with aluminum mullions, it is modernistic and could easily be mistaken as part of the gargantuan new convention-center complex located immediately to the south across Leigh Street.

But upon closer inspection, the lab building clearly has a function in the downtown landscape: It contributes significantly to re-establishing some sense of urban density in the sprawling and dishearteningly empty wasteland north of the Coliseum. Surface parking lots (some paved, others just gravelly and weed-ridden), ill-kempt city sidewalks and a depressing lack of buildings have marked this district for 40 years. Not only has this section of Jackson Ward and Navy Hill lost most of its building fabric to demolition, even the structural bones of the neighborhood have all but disappeared.

The formerly residential blocks north of the Coliseum have been in physical and psychological decline since the mid-1950s when the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (now I-95) destroyed a swath of historic neighborhoods. By the 1960s, additional blocks were cleared to make space for the Coliseum. Surrounding blocks have been dedicated to surface parking.

Old streets were widened and in some cases rerouted to prompt traffic flow to and from the interstate and the Coliseum. And most recently, other streets have been closed to accommodate the convention center. The guiding principle has been to move automobiles in and out of the area as rapidly as possible for Coliseum and convention events. This, of course, wreaks havoc with an existing street pattern that was established in the early 19th century when this was a residential neighborhood. There has been little thought given to what happens to the neighborhood when you get there, only the process of access and egress seems to have been considered.

Demolition has whittled away at Court End on the east, Jackson Ward in the west, and Navy Hill, to the north, has disappeared altogether. Recently, after decades of serving as a parking lot, the area has re-emerged with VCU’s Virginia Biotechnology Research Park buildings and a number of new parking garages. The guiding architectural principles seem to be to trick the tenants of the Biotech centers into thinking they are in a suburban office park. Yes, the buildings are built to conform to the existing street grid, but begrudgingly so. The curb cuts for street parking and broad sidewalks have done little to heal the wounds of the decades.

The Division of Forensics Sciences building and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (Biotech 2), while establishing a solid urban wall along Fifth Street, is a disaster on other sides — a choppy fa‚Ä°ade on Jackson Street and its unfortunate Fourth Street front where a parking ramp dominates the structure.

At the Consolidated Laboratory Services building the front is clearly on Fifth Street, and architect, McKinney Associates Inc. of Ashland, brings the building tight to the sidewalk. The building’s mass is divided into three sections. The largest block is to the south, a narrower wing to the north and an entrance section at the center. On the Leigh Street side, in the block where the traffic ramp leads to the box-office level of the Coliseum, the building steps down to a parking garage. The service entrance is on Fourth Street, with large loading docks. On the Jackson Street side, where the building might have helped counteract the unfortunate Forensic Sciences building, there is a setback with piddling landscape.

The entrance lobby is quite dramatic, if not a model of proportion. It soars three stories, its high-ceiling floors are connected with a seemingly floating staircase that sweeps like festoons upwards. Glass railings enhance the lightweight sense of things here.

The completion of this building begs some questions. When will this Bio-Park district have the critical mass to support small businesses in the area? Branch banks, shops, restaurants. Six buildings have been built that carry the Biotech imprimatur, but there is still a ways to go before this district takes on a dense, urban reality. S

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