As the Bridge Turns 

The plan for an elevated park across the James River grows more ambitious.

click to enlarge Peter Culley, an architect with Spatial Affairs, presents the plan for BridgePark, which connects downtown and Manchester. The model is on view to the public at the Storefront for Community Design.

Scott Elmquist

Peter Culley, an architect with Spatial Affairs, presents the plan for BridgePark, which connects downtown and Manchester. The model is on view to the public at the Storefront for Community Design.

Head scratching and frustration continues over the status of high-profile projects such as The Diamond, a regional children’s hospital and the financial district’s Kanawha Plaza.

But organizers of a multimillion-dollar plan to create an elevated pedestrian park across the James River are forging ahead with their vision — after going back to the drawing board.

Last week they showed city officials a strikingly bold design for a pedestrian and bicycle parkway that spans the river using the Manchester Bridge along Ninth Street.

The new version of the BridgePark uses the two westernmost traffic lanes of the downtown bridge as its spine. The lanes would be closed to automotive traffic and retrofitted for pedestrians and cyclists, becoming a landscaped river crossing. It would connect Brown’s Island and an expanded Kanawha Plaza on the north with various points on the south in the rapidly redeveloping Manchester neighborhood.

“This infrastructure was built to help us swoop downtown workers into the city and swoop them out in the afternoon,” says Ted Elmore, president of the Richmond BridgePark Foundation, referring to the bridge that was built in 1972.

Hindsight suggests the bridge and its adjacent roadways were overbuilt, Elmore told a group of about 75 people during a June 10 presentation at the Storefront for Community Design.

Since 2012, the nonprofit BridgePark group has examined how to link the financial district with the south side of the river in imaginative ways. Inspired by Manhattan’s wildly popular High Line elevated park, the foundation had proposed connecting the remaining granite piers from a 19th-century railroad bridge with spans that would reconnect the banks of the James.

But the new and considerably more ambitious concept leaves those evocative ruins intact. On the north side of the river, along South Ninth, Byrd and Canal streets, some traffic lanes also would be eliminated and replaced by park space that would flow into Kanawha Plaza. That underused plaza, now isolated by wide streets on all four sides, would be enlarged and extended a number of yards on the eastern side to meet Ninth Street.

Fewer lanes won’t create traffic jams, says Peter Culley, the principal architect with Richmond- and Los Angeles-based Spatial Affairs Bureau firm.

“The number of traffic lanes at this intersection equals those of Interstate 10 in Los Angeles, the world’s widest freeway,” he says.

Culley notes that recent lane closings along Ninth Street during construction of Gateway Plaza and for Manchester Bridge renovations have had no adverse effect on traffic flow. “We would be reclaiming redundant infrastructure,” he says. “Cities adjust over time.”

The existing bridge would be used partially as a parkway to connect Commerce Road in Manchester with Kanawha Plaza — which Culley calls a black hole in its current state. And a number of tentaclelike ramp extensions might connect the bridge with Brown’s Island and points on the river’s south bank.

Brown’s Island, with green space and a successful event venue, is situated at the equivalent of a five-story grade change below most downtown streets and buildings. Culley says the ramps rectify this disconnect, with hardly discernible slopes. And terraced platforms near Brown’s Island would be stepped down from the bridge with support facilities for concessions, restrooms and storage built underneath.

Rethinking how Manchester Bridge functions has additional ramifications for creating extended physical and pedestrian links to such nearby areas as Capitol Square, Hull Street and the underused grid of Manchester.

“It elevates what Richmond can be and how Richmond can be interconnected using reverse engineering to solve the problems of the past,” says David Bass, president of the Manchester Alliance. “It could transform what Manchester can be in a way not imagined before. It can be an amazing amenity.”

“It bridges gaps and it’s important that they are having open discussions,” says Chris Snowden, a Richmond native and an intern at a local architecture firm who attended the public meeting. “A lot of projects that get presented are one-sided.”

Culley says city officials briefed on the project are generally receptive and have suggested future meetings. An elaborate scale model of the BridgePark proposal is on view at the Storefront for Community Design, at 205 E. Broad St., till the end of June.

The architect says that no budget for what will be a private-public partnership has been established because the project is still in a highly conceptual stage and its scope and design perimeters are certain to change with feedback. “This is not a glittering architectural project that drops out of the sky,” Culley says.

There’s also no construction schedule. “It could be done in pieces,” he says. “But I can imagine this taking decades and I’m OK with that.” S

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