Here’s one for you: How long does it take Richmonders to develop a scraggly vacant lot at one of downtown’s most prominent crossroads?
Ten years … and counting.
That’s how long it’s been since bulldozers leveled the flagship Thalhimers department store that for a century occupied the south side of Broad Street between Sixth and Seventh streets.
When a proposed concert hall addition to CenterStage failed to materialize, a scrappy looking mush of grass, weeds, sand and mud took its place. This has greeted conventioneers, hotel guests, theatergoers, and downtown residents and workers ever since. For now, there’s a temporary ice rink keeping things occupied.
Every structure surrounding this no-man’s land is spit-shined. To the east across Seventh Street is the federal courthouse, designed by the renowned firm of Robert A. M. Stern Architects.
Directly across Broad is the brutal but crisp 600 Building, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill — internationally known architect of One Freedom Tower at New York’s Ground Zero.
Next to that is University of Richmond Downtown, which occupies a recently — and smartly restored — former Franklin Federal Savings building.
The Miller and Rhoads condos and Hilton Garden Inn are to the west across Sixth. And immediately south there’s CenterStage and its piece de resistance, the Carpenter Theater, once a 1920s Loews movie palace.
All told there’s been $3 billion and 6.9 million square feet of downtown development since 2000, according to a 2013 Virginia Commonwealth University study. So if the difficult stuff has been pulled off, why is the equivalent of a downtown compost pile at the center of it all? It’s like building a fine house without putting any furniture in it.
We’re capable of developing wonderful public spaces. The Canal Walk, Brown’s Island and the pedestrian suspension bridge to Belle Isle are handsome. The public library park at Main and Second streets is a jewel, and Capitol Square is pristine. Why have we left this gaping hole along our chief thoroughfare?
This deplorable space joins the GRTC Transit System’s temporary bus transfer area, the ill-kempt Kanawha Plaza in the financial district, and the plan to plow up historic Shockoe Bottom as proof that we need more sophisticated oversight when it comes to polishing downtown public spaces.
There’s a pedestrian aspect to this too. A vacant lot in the center of town as you pass by reads dead. But maybe we just don’t care about sidewalk life. Currently, major construction projects every few blocks downtown have necessitated numerous sidewalk closings. The most egregious are at Broad, between 10th and 11th streets, where the VCU Children’s Hospital is underway, and farther west on Broad where a VCU dorm takes shape. Hundreds of pedestrians shimmy along chain link fences daily, dodging traffic. Is Richmond one of the few cities where temporary, covered pedestrian walkways aren’t required during extended construction periods?
Whether it’s the long-term weedy eyesore near CenterStage or the disappearance of sidewalks, what’s the point of downtown development if things fall apart along the sidewalks, where all parties ostensibly come together?
Perhaps in a generation, infill construction will bind the open wound behind CenterStage. Till then, how about a temporary solution?
After a decade it’s clear how this space has been used. Huge tents are pitched for corporate and cultural functions. Food trucks are invited in on other occasions. And you know the holidays are here when tons of sand are dumped onto the lot to support the seasonal ice rink — which, incidentally, could be spruced up. The plastic fencing with rough-hewn posts, exposed generators and other equipment, and uncoordinated Christmas decor all draw attention to the intended merriment for the wrong reasons.
What these outdoor activities have in common is the need for a large, level surface and electric hookups. What would it cost CenterStage, which controls the site, and other corporate and governmental partners, to jointly share the costs of paving this expanse attractively and surrounding the space with a permanent fence that defines the space without isolating it? A ribbon of dense landscaping also might enhance the plaza. These things would make the space appear intentional, not a leftover. It could be programmed seasonally.
It wouldn’t take that much.
Generally, I’m no proponent of large, open plazas in medium-size cities. They usually end up windswept and underused. But who knows? With sprucing up and some imagination, this Broad Street space could be the springboard for a practical and permanent town square at the site. It’s something we’ve never had in Richmond. But with the ongoing repopulation of downtown, the time might be right. S