Canal Watching 

Architecture Review: The Gate 5 development near Shockoe Slip respects history while meshing well with its surroundings.

click to enlarge Public spaces and residential living co-exist at Gate 5. A portion of the flood wall and the Riverside-on-the-James condos are at right.

Scott Elmquist

Public spaces and residential living co-exist at Gate 5. A portion of the flood wall and the Riverside-on-the-James condos are at right.

Amid the gold rush to build ever more apartments downtown, one residential complex has been completed in an unlikely spot — Gate 5 near Shockoe Slip on South 12th at Byrd Street.

The new, four-story building is wedged into a modest amount of space defined by three formidable behemoths of urban infrastructure: the James River flood wall, the Downtown Expressway and two 19th-century locks that once serviced the long-defunct James River and Kanawha Canal.

Gate 5 is the latest of five structures in a complex of adaptive reuse and new construction that comprise the Locks, a multiuse community situated along the north side of the Haxall Canal, a former mill race that separates the financial district from Brown’s Island.

Among the obvious selling points in attracting residents to this once industrial zone are ambiance, convenience and unique interior spaces — especially within repurposed buildings.

And if city views count as ambiance, then Gate 5 is a winner. Because the James River flood wall, a concrete bunker, skirts the entire south side of the property, developers Fountainhead and WVS and their architect, Walter Parks Architects, wisely created a podium — a 42-vehicle parking garage — on the ground level atop which they placed a four-story, 52-unit structure with some commercial space on the first floor.

All units open onto either balconies or terraces. On the building’s south side, there are vistas are of the James River and the eclectic architectural stash of such landmarks as the distressed, roofless hydroelectric plant, whose Doric detailing makes it as much a ruinous monument to Richmond’s industrial past in the way Rome’s Baths of Caracalla evoke that city’s imperial glory.

While views from the north and Expressway side of the building are less sweeping, they’re no less evocative. Residents can almost reach out from their balconies or patios and touch the beautifully fashioned granite walls of two former canal locks that were constructed in 1854. Adding to the romance of these locks is the overgrowth of stink trees, which is mitigated by the overgrowth of honey suckle, ivy and magnolias that cling to the impressive stonework.

This pair of locks were two of five that comprised the tidewater locks that regulated water levels so boats could move from the James River near Pear Street (at the foot of Church Hill in Great Shiplock Park today) westward to the turning basin, a manmade inner harbor that filled the site now occupied by the James Center complex on East Cary and the almost completed Gateway Plaza building.

Once there were a 90 canal locks that connected navigable stretches of the James River by canal to Buchanan County, 197 miles west in the Blue Ridge Mountains. By 1880 the canal had long lost out to railroads and ceased functioning. In 1940 the basin was covered by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Co. for use as a train yard. And sadly, in the 1970s the city’s greatest historical preservation misstep occurred when most of the downtown canal was destroyed for construction of the Downtown Expressway.

Locks Four and Five, however, missed obliteration by only a few feet and were left for dead like metamorphic road kill. Fortunately, enlightened officials at Reynolds Metals, whose aluminum foil plant literally sat atop parts of the old canal, cleared the remaining canal of overgrowth and debris and led a successful effort to create a pedestrian pathway along the canal’s south bank. This sparked a more ambitious effort some years later when the current Canal Walk was established in 1999.

For Gate 5, Walter Parks Architects has fashioned a building that respects history, isn’t overwhelmed by adjacent infrastructure and meshes well with the four other buildings comprising the Locks.

Because of its proximity to the historic canal, there was considerable discussion as to how best wedge a contemporary residential building into the tricky site. The Parks firm is known for modernism, but it’s also proven it can design contextual buildings, as with its Terrace 202 apartment building in Shockoe Bottom. There were officials at the approval table who wanted the two ends of the elongated red brick building to be stepped in homage to 19th-century Richmond warehouses: These areas would be most visible to passersby. So stepped ends we get, but they fall short of matching the muscularity of the surrounding industrial buildings. And the window openings on the ends are too shallow to create interesting plays on light and shadow. But the two modernist sides are successful architecturally with deep-set balconies and projecting bays with floor-to-ceiling windows that embrace the building’s surroundings.

When the steps and pathway along the public right-of-way canal are reinstalled during the coming weeks, those folks living on the north side of the building and enjoying their outdoor living spaces will surely become a popular attraction with tourists. Curiosity seekers will make for lively encounters with residents. But hey, that’s life in the city. Most importantly, another patch of the city’s considerable historic landscape will have been sensitively restitched for future living and discoveries. S

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