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Part 2

21 Things to Improve Downtown


Take it to the streets

12. Clean up the entrances from the interstates.
Those strips of land that fall between the interstate highways and the city itself often form visitors' first visual impressions of Richmond. There's room for improvement here. At a minimum, grass should be cut, nearby sidewalks weeded and welcome signs added. More ambitiously, landscaping at each different location could send a single message: We're glad you're here ... and this town is pulled together.

13. Stop closing downtown streets.
Taken case by case, there's nothing particularly sinister about an occasional permanent closing of a downtown street.But are things getting out of hand? Increasingly, each time a neighborhood, institution or business has a space or expansion challenge, they look greedily to the streets. For more than 250 years Richmond has had a grid system. Let's keep it that way. For grids to work, they must be free-flowing. A few examples of streets that really didn't need to be closed: Capitol Street behind the Capitol Square. Did we really need a park next to a park? The downtown convention center ripped out a number of blocks of historic Jackson Ward and will close the connecting streets. One of the purposes of the convention center is to bring people downtown. What's the point of obliterating what you hope to bolster? The new VCU/ MCV gateway has necessitated closing 12th at Marshall Street, just south of the Museum of the Confederacy. This will make it that much harder for visitors to reach one of Richmond's world-renowned attractions. Also 12th Street is historic in itself: Abraham Lincoln passed this way in April 1865 after the fall of Richmond, as recently emancipated slaves cheered his procession. The Jefferson Hotel has closed Jefferson Street between West Franklin and West Main for its expanded entrance. And recently, residents of West Grace Street near the Fan have achieved limited access to Grace by traffic blocks at Ryland. Since when were streets private fiefdoms? Enough is enough. Let the grid do its job.

[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasArea merchants and property owners pushed for restoring the distinctive fish-scale granite pavers in Shockoe Slip (shown here on East Cary near 13th street). The handsome surface slows vehicular traffic and is visually pleasing.14. Develop Adams and 14th streets as north-south arteries.
Richmond's major streets run mostly in an east-west direction, generally following the river. Physically and psychologically, these become vehicular raceways as commuters come into and out of the city. With new sidewalk landscaping, interpretive signage and lighting, Adams Street could be established as an excellent north-south connector, linking the Jefferson Hotel and the YMCA on West Franklin Street with Theatre IV and the emerging small business/residential district on West Broad. From Broad, Adams would continue into Jackson Ward and to attractions such as the Bill "Bojangles" Robinson monument and the Maggie Walker House.

Another street that could similarly link downtown districts is 14th. Beginning at the Mayo Bridge, it sweeps past the new canal turning basin, through Shockoe Slip (past emerging shops and restaurants), past Main and the envisioned new parking facility for the new transportation center, past the towering Monroe building and on to Broad. Currently, this winding, 18th-century street that predates the city's grid street pattern is amorphous — it's been a back door for too long. But it could be a steep and charming connector.

15. Repave Cary, 14th and other historic streets in the fish-scale pattern.
Shockoe Slip is the sharpest and most coordinated downtown district. One of the major enhancers is the paving — small granite stones placed in a fish-scale pattern. This treatment should be expanded on 14th Street and into Shockoe Bottom. It looks great, it slows cars and trucks down, and it can unify otherwise architecturally divergent blocks.

16. Expand the tree planting program and repair brick sidewalks.
Trees don't work everywhere. Sometimes they block glorious facades. And the oaks are getting a little top-heavy and spindly on some downtown streets. But in other places, such as the 100 block of East Cary (between First and Second), trees can be wonderfully forgiving of urban rough spots and tremendous unifiers of the streetscape. Visitors and residents alike find our tree-lined streets enchanting. And there are few more glorious sights then Monument Avenue's maples in the fall — or when they sprout green in the spring. The herringbone brick-patterned sidewalks are another identifier special to Richmond. We should keep these sidewalks free of weeds, restored and planted with trees in every available spot.

17. Make Broad Street downtown's premier avenue.
When do you know that you are downtown? Capitol Square is probably the destination for most visitors; it is the epicenter. But why couldn't Broad Street be a long, continuous boulevard from the Boulevard to Church Hill, sidewalks widened, median strips unified, street lighting enhanced, signage coordinated. Whether viewed on foot or from a vehicle, it could be every bit the showcase that Monument Avenue is — only in a more urban and commercial context. So many of our local landmarks are within a short walk of Broad, it should be redesigned to be an event in itself and as a way of channeling activity.

[image-2]Photo by Stephen SalpukasOut-of-scale and disfiguring utility lines (shown here along 17th Street near East Main) mar the scale and obscure often delicate detailing of old commercial and residential build-ings in Shockoe Bottom and other historic neighborhoods. 18. Remove overhead power and telephone lines from Shockoe Bottom and West Main Street.
In many parts of downtown, near Capitol Square, near Ethyl Corp. and along Main Street's financial district, over-the-street utility lines have been buried or consolidated along alleys. But we've got to keep going. The lines are especially disfiguring in Shockoe Bottom because the scale of the buildings is relatively intimate. The Bottom also contains some of Richmond's oldest remaining 18th-century fabric. Farther west, as one approaches the Jefferson Hotel on West Main, with the dome of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart looming ahead, utility lines again mar the vista. These are just two examples of chronic visual pollution. In many residential neighborhoods, spectacular trees are tortured into submission as power lines cut through their branches.

Through the Visitor's Eye

19. Build a highly visible visitors information center.
Quick. If your out-of-town visitors wish to see the downtown visitors center, you'll probably be at a loss. Is there such a thing? Yes, we have one and it's located in the 6th Street Marketplace. But who knew that? The center had only 60 visitors in October. Richmond has another visitor center on Robin Hood Road. Both centers should be big, bold, easily identifiable and convenient both on foot and by vehicle. Richmond could also have a visitors center on Broad in Shockoe Bottom — convenient to interstate interchanges and the coming AMTRAK station, and within walking distance of attractions such as Capitol Square, the Valentine Museum, the Poe Museum and Church Hill.

20. Get a downtown transit system rolling.
The rubber-wheel trolleys ran up and down downtown streets in recent years. They were mostly empty. But without such a transit system, it's virtually impossible for visitors to get about downtown. We don't have cabs rolling up and down our streets. And the hills are a real obstacle — especially for the elderly and infirm. It would take a major marketing push, but downtown transit is essential to sustained growth. VCU's buses, which run regularly from MCV to the VCU academic campus, enjoy heavy ridership. They are proof that well-defined routes can work.

21. Improve the signage to attractions.
The blue-and-green signs that direct traffic to local downtown attractions are nicely rendered. But we need more of them. And we need maps that are coordinated with this signage system. Many European cities use graphics effectively — and sometimes humorously — to get people from place to place. We could learn a few things from these pedestrian-oriented places.

Contributing Editor Edwin Slipek Jr. has been an award-winning architecture critic for Style Weekly for eight years. He teaches courses in architectural history and art history at Virginia Commonwealth University and at The Governor's School for Government and International Studies.

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