It hasn't been that long since the intersection of Meadow and West Cary streets was one of the sketchiest spots in town. The pay phones outside the corner convenience store were busier than the telephones at Domino's on Super Bowl Sunday. But let me tell you, nobody was ordering pizza.
It's therefore heartening if not startling to see the transformation that's taking place at this crossroads and continuing eastward along West Cary to the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. For better or worse, a number of old houses and former business structures have been demolished and await future residential construction. Definitely for the better, however, a strikingly handsome new mixed-use complex, The Lofts at Cary Place, has taken form on the south side of the 1900 block of West Cary, the site of the former convenience store.
The Lofts project also incorporates the western side of the first block of South Meadow Street. The complex stretches to Parkwood Avenue, where the open-air drug market once flourished. And because of its prime location and sheer bulk, this development of 14 condominiums and 14 retail units has become the ad-hoc anchor of the linear Cary Street redevelopment area.
At The Lofts the Johannas Design Group, a Richmond architecture firm, has established a solid three-story brick structure that delivers just about everything correctly in the way of good urban design. The first floor meets the city sidewalks (now repaved in brick herringbone) with doors that open into retail spaces. The upper two floors contain two-story condominium units. These upper floors are set back a few feet to allow space for terraces that face Cary Street. Parking has been relegated to a lot in the center of the block, shielded from the street.
In some ways The Lofts recalls in concept Ramz Hall, the relatively new VCU dormitory fronting West Broad at Shafer Street. But whereas the dorm, which boasts retail and restaurants on the street level, is extremely lightweight architecturally speaking, The Lofts possesses considerably more gravitas and sophistication. This is due in no small part to how the building's mass is broken up and to its overall strong detailing.
On the Cary Street side the broad facade is divided into what reads visually as four separate buildings. Two of these divisions have a slightly arched front that animates the facade understatedly but effectively.
The Lofts is faced in a good-sized red brick. Certain building edges and architectural highlights are fashioned in slightly contrasting brown brick. The windows and door frames on the lower retail level are fashioned of silver aluminum, while the mullions on the two upper residential levels are painted a more subtle shade of khaki.
From these intelligent design decisions it is apparent why Johannas has become a go-to firm for clients seeking effective and contextual urban infill. It also designed the handsome row of townhouses in the 3200 block of Grove Avenue west of the art museum and the new townhouses in the 100 block of North 19th Street in Shockoe Bottom.
Is The Lofts design perfect? Well, no. Visually, as you approach the structure from Cary Street and see it in profile, the form appears far too shallow. The buildings could have been built deeper into the block to relate better to the structures surrounding it: There is too much open space between the Cary Street and Meadow Street buildings.
From a stylistic standpoint, while the complex is overall modernist in spirit, the placement of the underdetailed but overbearing cornice that runs the length of the building is both heavy-handed and an unnecessary ersatz classical element.
But what is overridingly important here is that The Lofts creates solid massing, convincing scale, urbanity and the promise of positive energy at a place that sorely needs it.
With this considerable anchor in place, other new projects suggest that West Cary Street has turned a corner. A few older buildings have been restored, and a considerable number of brick market-rate townhouses are adding presence to the street. While the design of the latter is considerably far too conservative as architecture, developers understandably build what they believe will sell.
This Lofts project was three years in the planning, and now the decade-long effort of local officials, architects and developers to revive this overall area is bearing fruit. But the completion of The Lofts signals that this once-depressed thoroughfare has turned a tough corner, as Carytown and Uptownd did years ago, and has joined the community of possibilities. S