Style Weekly recently ran a feature by architecture critic Edwin Slipek — “15 Questions” — regarding Navy Hill.
As an author of the Navy Hill plan, I decided to reach out directly to him and suggest we get together and discuss these questions in person. We agreed that as a guest columnist I could provide important context to the project.
In addition, you can read my answers to each of Slipek’s 15 questions at navyhillrva.com/15answerss.
City building and stewardship
Cities are complicated things. The good ones have healthy downtowns — walkable streets, a broad mix of services and uses, and one-of-a-kind urban attractors not available in the suburbs. They require skilled planning and implementation to be realized.
Urban amenities are things we expect to find in cities — arts districts, live theater venues, museums and yes, arenas. They don’t happen organically. They are painstakingly willed into existence by people who want to leave a better place for their children and grandchildren.
The top 50 metro areas in the United States — Richmond ranks 44th — all invested in features that planners recognize as catalysts to great city centers. Every one of these cities has an arena, and the best of them have arena-based urban districts that attract regional spending to their city centers.
When cities are planned well, they prosper. They attract more people who want to live there, more investment, and greater diversity, which makes the best cities continuously interesting. If their cultural infrastructure falls into disrepair, as occurred with the Mosque and the Carpenter Theatre several years ago, city leaders take action to fix them.
How did Richmond get here?
In the decade between the end of World War II and the mid-1950s, American city planners embraced the automobile in ways that caused us to set aside centuries of sound urban design principles. The most egregious result was to create an easy pathway to decentralization that paved the way, literally, for people to live, shop, work and play in different places for each. Some of these were many miles from the other. It didn’t matter since we all had cars.
For Richmonders, that allowed families to move out of the city and into suburbs, many of them outside the jurisdiction of Richmond itself. When the people left, suburban office developments sprung up, retail followed, and eventually new school development – but in the counties where the tax dollars now resided, not in the city.
The most important goal of the Navy Hill development plan, now in front of City Council, is to implement a strategy to reverse that trend. It’s a plan to bring people and investment back to our downtown and within our borders — not to Henrico or Chesterfield, but to Richmond. The plan will help make Richmond a better, more diverse and more inclusive city with a more robust downtown. It is intentional — the result of a decade of open, public solution seeking addressing a long list of chronic problems facing the city, and in particular downtown.
The 2009 Downtown Master plan addressed some of these problems and outlined similar benefits if implemented. The Pulse Corridor Plan imagined new transit-oriented development — like Navy Hill. The Greater Richmond Convention Center’s own future planning identified needs for additional hotel rooms, and especially rooms it could commit through room blocks to future conventions — like Navy Hill.
Decentralization inevitably leads to a declining downtown
For very different reasons, our Coliseum has been declining along with our urban core in general. It was losing tournaments and shows at an ever-increasing rate over the last decade. While not the root cause of these losses, our revenue-strapped city hasn’t been able to fund even basic maintenance for many years. The Blues Armory, one of the city’s most historic structures, has been boarded up and neglected. The defunct Public Safety Building remains an embarrassing blight right next to Richmond treasures — the Valentine museum and the John Marshall house.
These are problems that are not being solved by either public funding sources — we have no money — or private investment — no one is interested in building north of Broad other than nontaxpaying public institutions.
Because these two things are not budging, the area north of Broad and east of the convention center has fallen into chronic, steady decline to the point that it is dragging down its neighbors as well. The streets there — Leigh, Clay and Sixth — are unwalkable, the Coliseum functionally obsolete, no retail of any kind, no housing of any kind. Just parking.
On the positive side, our city is not without either resources or leverage. We have untapped real estate assets in the heart of our downtown. Unfortunately, these have remained static for decades, contributing nothing to solving these problems.
A coherent master plan of sufficient interest to private investors to develop these sites is set up to bring over $1 billion dollars into the Richmond economy — not just investment in buildings, but investment in jobs, in training for those jobs and in record commitments to minority business participation.
That is the Navy Hill plan. That is the opportunity. Use the tools we have available to us to fix the problems that are not otherwise solving themselves.
No Plan “B”
Most cities do not have contiguous urban parcels like Navy Hill within their control. It is an extraordinary opportunity for Richmond. Not to take advantage of it and create a comprehensive development approach would be civic malpractice.
As a city, we are not restricted in our vision. We are not limited in a search for solutions. We can be a city that is more than new apartment buildings and craft breweries.
Let’s question the plan, let’s debate the merits, but in the end, let’s move our city forward during an economy that invites investment.
Navy Hill does that.
Michael Hallmark is an internationally recognized arena architect, urban planner and developer and a member of the Navy Hill development team. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.