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Where Do We Go From Here?



Behavior at City Hall has been messy if not downright surreal recently. But more positively, work has been getting done. During the past few months, Richmond's Department of Community Development has methodically and intelligently served as host to a number of public charrettes to add citizens' voices and visions to the process of updating Richmond's official downtown master plan.

The Miami city-planning firm of Dover, Kohl & Partners has worked deftly with city officials to gain input from citizens and civic and business leaders. This periodic discussion of what works, what doesn't -- and what just might — will lead to a guiding manifesto for downtown's physical and architectural development.

The collective thinking is that because the James River is downtown's centerpiece, it should be considered a single entity with Manchester. This makes sense considering the tremendous investments in infrastructure in the past decades along the river, including the flood wall, canal development, riverfront parklands, Main Street Station and the impressive Manchester and Robert E. Lee bridges.

In its preliminary report, which is being fine-tuned and will receive another public airing sometime this fall, Dover, Kohl establishes some basic assumptions:

  • The plan will include specific architectural guidelines.

  • Variety and choice in downtown is a good thing

  • Richmond should have a "green" environment.

  • Historic preservation is critical.

  • Traditional city planning should respect Richmond's historic grid system.

  • And the James River is a tremendous resource.

    Each of these is a worthy premise.

    So in the spirit of continuing the conversation, we're presenting 27 ideas for downtown. Some of these may already be included in the emerging downtown plan. Others may be too specific for such a document.

    Many of these suggestions are specific to the governmental, medical/biotech and former retail area situated along Broad and on streets immediately to its north and south. During the past 50 years, development in this vicinity has had mixed results at best — and some near disasters. On blocks north of Broad and along Grace Street, governmental and various official developmental forces often attempted utopian solutions that called out the bulldozers to wipe the slate clean.

    What got lost were human-scaled structures, places where small businesses and operations could take hold. In their place we now find surface parking lots and often overscale governmental and institutional buildings — the Coliseum, city governmental buildings and the biotech park. There is no meaningful retail activity despite the thousands of people working and living in the vicinity. More recently, and disappointingly, major swaths of Broad Street — the 400, 600 and 900 blocks of the south side of East Broad and the 600 block of East Grace — have been demolished for surface parking.

    In contrast, downtown neighborhoods closer to the river — the financial district, Shockoe Slip, the Canal Walk and Shockoe Bottom — are looking sharp. In recent years market forces and businesses have redefined the area in mostly positive ways.

    Here are some ways we might reweave lost urban fabric and add commercial vitality:

    Get Back to the Grid

    Maintain downtown's handsome and historic street grid. Re-establish it in places where it has been violated.

    1. No more street closings.

    No more building on street footprints. This disrupts the grid, throw off traffic onto shrinking street options, restrict air and light and obliterate views.

    It happens so gradually we hardly notice it. Let's call it super-block creep. Developers want as much continuous floor space in new buildings as possible. So they violate the parameters of the traditional city block and stretch their buildings over, say, two blocks.

    One of the most egregious offenders is the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street at the foot of Sixth. This wall of a building blocks what was once a spectacular view looking south, down Sixth Street in the vicinity of CenterStage (formerly the Carpenter Center) and Miller & Rhoads.

    Another unfortunate loss was the block of 12th Street between Marshall and Clay streets, where a hospital at the VCU Health System was expanded to create the Gateway Building. Then, around the corner, Virginia Commonwealth University expanded the hospital in another direction to block the views eastward toward Church Hill.

    The new Philip Morris building is another two-block monstrosity on the blocks bounded by Fifth, Seventh, Leigh and Jackson streets. Not only is it is built atop a block of Sixth Street, but an enclosed employee walkway sweeps over Jackson Street to connect with a parking garage creating an L-shaped super-block.

    The SunTrust operations center, built over two blocks in Manchester, necessitated the closing of a block of West 12th Street, thus blocking potential views of the river.

    Where is the equity in one institution getting the right to claim streets and block historic vistas? The Museum of the Confederacy, for one, says it has been choked out.

    Consider: What would Manhattan be without its views along crosstown streets extending toward the East and Hudson rivers? San Francisco wouldn't be recognizable without its sweeping vistas of hillsides and the bay.

    Much of downtown Richmond is built on high terrain. Let's not sacrifice our breezes and views of hills, dales and river.

    2. Keep a check on the Commonwealth of Virginia.

    While no one has noticed, the state has gradually created a Vatican-like enclave in the immediate vicinity of Capitol Square. Years ago, it closed Capitol Street and built a parklike pedestrian way. More recently, Governor Street, an ancient thoroughfare that predates the late-18th-century city grid, was closed to traffic (its gentle curves recall its establishment as an old cow path that wound its way up Shockoe Hill).

    The closing of these streets throws additional pressure on surrounding streets. And when there's a loss of vehicular traffic, there is less, not more, pedestrian traffic. The state also has closed a rabbit warren of streets east of Governor Street. Let's keep these old streets open and vital rather than creating the atmosphere of a suburban corporate campus.

    3. Demolish the Richmond Safety and Welfare Building and reconnect Clay Street.

    One way the lost grid should be remedied and the city pattern rewoven is to tear down at least a portion of the deteriorating Safety and Welfare Building and reopen Clay Street between 10th and 11th streets. This would link Court End with the Coliseum area and be a boon to tourists visiting the vicinity's wealth of historic attractions — the John Marshall House, the Valentine Richmond History Center and the Museum of the Confederacy. It would better meld the VCU medical complex with the government center.

    Mix Things Up

    Work for mixed uses and mixed-use areas.

    4. Build skateboard parks in parking lots and in transitional spaces.

    Rather than build open plazas leading to bland office-park-like complexes, let's weave in some fun stuff. Most evenings and weekends, skateboarders populate empty surface parking lots or find sidewalks, curbs and retaining walls to scale off of. Why not regrade and reconfigure some of downtown's surface parking lots with slight hills and rolls so that they could double as skateboard parks after hours? This would create a second use for surface parking lots, which are numbingly single-use. Other spots might lend themselves to skateboarding, such as the spaces surrounding the Coliseum.

    5. Leave the Coliseum where it is.Talk is percolating about replacing the Coliseum, perhaps moving it from downtown to another location. Somewhere near The Diamond is a possibility.

    Cost considerations aside, this is lunacy. Wasn't the Coliseum built as the great panacea for downtown revitalization? Isn't it situated next to the convention center where there is synergy for large conventions and activities? Aren't hotels nearby, and others under construction?

    Although the biotech officials may be eyeing the property, the Coliseum should stay where it is. Downtown needs mixed-use activities, and this includes entertainment venues. The biotech zone is already deadly dull as an urban space. There's too much parking in the area. Add housing, add retail and keep the Coliseum in the mix.

    6. Build a mixed-use complex on the former John Marshall High School football field.

    This surface parking lot — in the block bounded by Clay, Leigh, Eighth and Tenth streets — should be developed for housing, retail and small business. It's one of the last sites in the north-of-Broad area where there is any hope of adding an urban mix and needed vitality to this district.

    7. Create a transition zone between the Convention Center and Jackson Ward.

    Take a stroll north along Fifth Street starting at Broad. The new Greater Richmond Convention Center is unrelentingly grim. It required the closing of streets. Pedestrian bridges link certain hulking sections with each other. And while the east and south sides of the complex mesh somewhat better with the downtown fabric, the west side, hard against Jackson Ward, is brutal.

    Future in-fill construction in the empty lots here should create transitions between the scale of the mammoth convention center and the residential-sized buildings of Jackson Ward. There is an opportunity for smaller hotels and retail businesses that could serve both convention-goers and downtown residents.

    8. Build housing for older retirees downtown.

    Where is it written that upscale retirement communities — the Cedarfields, Covenant Woods and Westminster-Canterburys — must be located in the suburbs? And do government-subsidized senior homes need to be located adjacent to public housing projects?

    There are certainly older citizens, spanning the economic range, who would live downtown in high- and medium-rise complexes if they were available. These would be convenient to libraries, cultural activities and the offerings of VCU, J. Sargeant Reynolds and downtown churches.

    Rocking chairs on front porches may be a thing of the past, but I have never seen an urban senior home where residents didn't enjoy sitting near the sidewalk or on benches enjoying the passing parade. Older citizens always add dignity to city life: Regardless of their station, they know how to greet passersby. Seniors would add grace to downtown life.

    Enhance Our Assets

    Promote, maintain and support Richmond's urban strengths.

    9. Punch up the entrances to downtown from the interstate highways.

    In ancient times — think Rome — impressive gateways marked entryways to cities. Centuries later, train stations met visitors. Today, airports are the civic welcome wagon. What about the roadways that link American airports with downtowns? More specifically, what about Interstate 64 from Richmond International Airport to its exit downtown onto Fifth Street?

    First, motorists must pass by a phalanx of billboards (promoting some of our area's most prominent corporations — we won't name names). Don't these billboards violate some highway beautification act, anyway? Leaving the interstate, motorists enter downtown through a weedy no man's land. This and other entrances to the city could be landscaped. Real-estate agents tell us that the front door makes a strong first impression. What message are we sending?

    10. Increase the budget of the Richmond Public Library.

    We have a terrific downtown public library facility and staff. But the library should be a downtown mecca. It's a place that appeals to all citizens, regardless of race or income. Seattle and Chicago are among the cities that celebrate their libraries. Let's increase funding for ours. The proposed budget for 2008-2009 is basically flat.

    11. Don't move the Museum of the Confederacy collections out of town. Keep the museum downtown.

    Now that Jamestown's 400th anniversary commemoration is history, let's contemplate planning the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War (1861-1865) beginning in 2011.

    For Richmond, this sesquicentennial has tremendous significance. The war years were wrenching, and it was the postwar period that shaped (for better or worse) how modern Richmond evolved and how it thinks of itself. This is especially true of the physical city, with Monument Avenue (recently named one of America's 10 great streets) and the prevalence of Civil War memorials.

    This is not the time to be losing the bulk of the collections of the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond's oldest museum. For two generations now, Richmonders have been attempting to cobble together a cultural mix to enhance downtown. We are asleep at the wheel if we let the collections go elsewhere.

    As difficult as our Confederate past can be, we can't run away from it — or worse, give it away. The Civil War was Richmond's moment in history and we need to continue to accept that and build on it.

    12. Keep the 6th Street Marketplace food court.

    For all the building activity in the north-of-Broad area — the biotech district and government and courts complex — it's difficult to believe that there's no retail, or little that addresses the street life and the sidewalk.

    I have dull visions of all the employees in this area gathering around their microwaves and coffee pots in windowless break rooms. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's too bad when you're working in a downtown area that doesn't offer options.

    On a recent morning, I was looking for a place for a quick breakfast and darted into the food court, the last remnant of the 6th Street Marketplace (I wondered if it was even open). At 7:45 a.m. I had a full breakfast with excellent hash browns. Nothing fancy, but it serves a purpose.

    13. Re-establish trees.

    Last week New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a 10-year plan to plant 1 million trees in his town. That's a little ambitious for Richmond, but we already have an excellent program of maintaining curbside trees downtown. We need to keep planting aggressively. VCU does an exemplary job of replacing trees in its tree-boxes.

    That said, it may be time to rethink the willow oaks, many of which were planted on East Main and West Broad streets 30 years ago. They are pushing up the sidewalks, hold their leaves too long and block the light. They're the Edsel of shade trees and have outlived their charm.

    14. Begin periodic repairs and spruce up the 14th Street Bridge.

    Benign neglect of certain civic structures is a time-honed technique of forcing a replacement at some point. This was probably the case with the Eighth Street Office Building, which was allowed to deteriorate. A protective pedestrian walkway was even in place for a decade, suggesting the entablature was about to fall on people's heads.

    Similar neglect should not happen with the 14th Street (or Mayo) Bridge, which connects Shockoe Slip with Manchester. Completed in 1912, it is nearing a century of public service. What a beauty, with its Roman-like underpinnings, abstract concrete railing designs and a procession of 40 obelisks (now partially obscured by electric lines). It's also low enough to the river's waterline that it recalls antique bridges in many European cities.

    With the surge of activity in Manchester, the Bottom, the Slip and the prospect of cleaning up Mayo Island, its time has come. This sleeper of a landmark should be celebrated.

    15. Illuminate downtown's bridges.

    One of the most spectacular and original downtown amenities is the just-completed landscaping of the formerly dead space opposite Main Street Station for parking and park space. Moody blue lights illuminate the underside of the dramatic Interstate 95 flyover. Why not illuminate all of the downtown bridges in various ways? It would take careful design so as not to hurt river vegetation or run up utility bills. Maybe lights could be devised seasonally— red, white and blue on the Fourth of July; red and green at Christmas; pink on Valentine's Day. The lighting of the Empire State Building and other New York landmarks has proved that the illumination of iconic structures has exciting possibilities.

    16. Create a continuous outdoor "museum."

    Richmond likes to think of itself as one of America's most storied and historic cities. But where can you get that history? Downtown's Valentine Richmond History Center does an excellent job with tours, exhibits and special events. But why not take the museum to the streets?

    Already there are historical markers affixed to scores of buildings downtown, commemorating some event or another. Let's update this approach. Using eye-catching graphics and archival photographs, we could create, say, 2-by-3-foot display panels relating what happened at a particular place.

    Our city is so old that we are now constructing the third- or fourth-generation building on a tract — residences giving way to small commercial structures, these in turn giving way to larger institutional facilities. Every block has stories to tell. Just as the banners on the flood wall in Shockoe Slip attempt to do, these outdoor exhibits could soften many hard-edged buildings and spaces.

    17. Enhance the North Jackson Ward neighborhood.

    The area north of Interstate 95 is problematic in its concentration of public housing and general deterioration. There must be a concentrated and humane effort to make changes in this neighborhood. The residents of Gilpin Court and environs deserve it, and the long-term health of downtown Richmond requires it.

    Better Business

    Make spaces and build opportunities for small business and retail to take hold.

    18. Develop mixed uses in the East Broad Street block immediately west of the federal courthouse.

    There's general excitement about the new federal courthouse under way on Broad and 8th streets. But it's going to be isolated. The Eighth Street Office Building (which inspired the design of the new courthouse) is being razed, and who knows if state funds are available for another building on the site.

    The former Thalhimers department store site to the west is a vacant lot. This location calls for something that complements the unusual scalloped-shaped courthouse. A building shaped in an arc could create a 180-degree space and a modest-sized public piazza. Retail and restaurants could be established at ground level, offices on the upper floors. Seventh Street could be closed to add additional space for special outdoor events.

    19. Plan for retail in what are now surface parking lots.

    The block of 600 East Grace (across from the CenterStage) and the 400 block of East Broad (across from the Convention Center) are among downtown locations that should be developed (perhaps under a single entity) to ensure that a mix of eateries, clothing stores, drugstores and other retail return downtown. Not to regain the glory days of downtown retail, but to provide practical retail outlets that serve the increasing number of downtown dwellers, hotel guests and the daily workforce.

    20. Create an antiques district on East Grace Street.

    Artists are often called upon to fill derelict shop fronts with their work until another use for the building presents itself. In many towns and cities, antiques dealers are called upon to establish a transitional retail use (Asbury Park, N.J., has done this successfully). Why not encourage antiques dealers to repopulate the graceful old shop fronts of Grace Street. An antiques district where Ardley's, Montaldo's and Berry-Burk once operated might be a five-to-ten-year proposition until a higher use could be found, but shoppers would probably come.

    Think Ahead

    Let's build for future generations.

    I was startled recently when a bright young 18-year-old who lives in Chesterfield told me he'd never been downtown. He'd grown up in the suburbs and said he had no reason to go there. When he finally did, he was mesmerized by the architecture, the infrastructure and the hubbub. It struck me that there had been a complete generational disconnect. For downtown to thrive, it must attract young people.

    21. Move the Open High School or build a new high school downtown.

    Open High, in the Richmond public system, is a successful concept. It allows highly motivated students to gather in the mornings and then disperse to classes at other institutions, mentorships and jobs. It is located in Oregon Hill and adds life to that community. But why not move it downtown with access to bus lines? Open doesn't have its own athletic teams, so there's no need for space-hogging athletic facilities. A high school would be great for downtown, with young people adding energy to the area.

    22. Open an H&M department store.

    Maybe it's the selection of trendy clothing not available elsewhere. Certainly it's the moderate prices. Displays are straightforward and the sales staff hip and friendly. Whether in Washington, D.C., New York or overseas, I'm always amazed at the throngs shopping at H&M, a Swedish-owned clothier. What would it take to lure a branch to Richmond? Trust me; this would revive downtown retail in one stroke move. "I love H&M — everybody loves H&M," a 26-year-old gushed recently when I asked her about the store's appeal. Guys swear by it too.

    23. Open a downtown youth hostel.

    Any medium-sized city hoping to attract a broad cross section of visitors must have budget hotel options and a youth hostel. It's clear what hostels have done for tourism in European cities large and small. Richmond has scores of old buildings that could easily be adapted for a hostel. In Slovenia, for instance, the most popular hostel is owned and operated by a local university. Any interest, VCU? Having a place for out-of-towners to stay would help the university's efforts to not be a suitcase campus on weekends.

    24. Build a cinema.

    Everybody points to Charlottesville's downtown mall as that rare example of a pedestrian street that actually works. Part of that success is the multiplex theater there. Certainly, between college students and in-town residents, there's enough of a market for a theater. Why not build it near CenterStage (the former Loew's movie palace) and the National Theater (now undergoing an ambitious renovation as a popular music venue) to establish some semblance of a theater district.

    There are crossover opportunities: During the day it could be used for convention-goers, by corporations for annual meetings and maybe as an auditorium if a high school is established downtown.

    Get More Mobile

    Create transportation alternatives.

    25. Run downtown buses on a loop.

    One of downtown's most distinctive — and often overlooked — characteristics is its hills. This has created two distinct areas. At the bottom of Shockoe Hill, the financial district/Shockoe Slip/riverfront area is generally looking spiffy. But for activity at the top of the hill to flourish, the workday population must have a way to connect with this energy. Schlepping up the hill is off-putting to many folks. Downtown needs to expand its lunchtime express bus and make it an ongoing loop. The route might be Broad to First Street, left onto Cary, continue to 14th, then up the hill back to Broad. Make it reliable, and make it frequent, say, every seven minutes.

    26. Post bus schedules and maps.

    Why ride the bus when it's difficult to know where they run and when they're arriving? Try flagging a bus driver and asking for a schedule; they don't carry them. Richmonders might use public transit if they knew how. A start would be posting schedules and maps at each bus stop. Provide bus drivers with copies of the master schedule to give out. This is not rocket science.

    27. Bicycles.

    This is like mom and apple pie, so let's just crank it up. Incorporate bike lanes in streetscapes, provide bike racks, give cyclists the right of way.

    Respect the River

    Remember the treasure right in our midst.

    28. Everything begins with the James River

    It's one of America's most historic tributaries and a source of beauty and pleasure here since pre-European settlement. Regardless of what we plan and build downtown, the unique and mostly natural character of the river must be maintained, enhanced and passed on to the future. We should guard this resource jealously and question everything that could affect it, from a single boat slip, to park landscaping, to larger, multi-use riverfront development projects. S

    About the writer:

    Senior contributing editor Edwin Slipek Jr. has been Style Weekly's architecture critic for 16 years. He teaches courses in architectural history at Virginia Commonwealth University and architecture at the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government & International Studies.

    Last year the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods (A.C.O.R.N.) awarded Slipek the Edmund A. Rennolds Jr. Architectural Excellence Award for raising public awareness of the importance of architecture, its history and impact in Richmond.

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