Damage Control 

What to do with Chamberlayne Avenue.

click to enlarge art10_arch_chamberlayne_200.jpg

Residents decry demolition plans,” declared a headline in the Feb. 24 Richmond Times-Dispatch. A local philanthropic foundation filed for permits to demolish two adjacent 1920s houses on a prominent Ginter Park corner at Bellevue Avenue and the 4200 block of Chamberlayne Avenue. The land was to be sold for apartment development.

“Who cares?” some people might respond. True, it's only two houses — and located on sometimes sketchy Chamberlayne Avenue at that. Another demolition would be just the latest assault on this North Side boulevard that's systematically been denuded of stately old houses and character for as long as anybody can remember — 90 years to be exact.

Chamberlayne was laid out in the streetcar era of the late 1890s and enjoyed an extremely brief blaze of glory as a grand boulevard just as automobiles began to transform American landscapes. In 1925 the street's fate was set when it was designated as a stretch of U.S. Highway 1 between Maine and Key West, Fla. Many of the grand old villas on half-acre lots with distinctive front porches were transformed into tourist homes for transients. Soon, tractor trailer trucks were spewing exhaust along the route. When the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike opened in 1958, rather than offer relief to the neighborhood by pulling the trucks off the avenue, things got worse: Trucks preferred Chamberlayne to the dreaded toll road. Only when the tolls came off in 1992 was there relief for the spine of Ginter Park.

But the damage was done. Zoning had allowed substantial old houses to be demolished. Low-rise apartments set on asphalt parking pads had become the architectural norm.

Fortunately, something else has been in play for the past few decades. Ginter Park has become a designated historic district, and scores of residents have restored houses on nearby parallel streets: Brook Road and Hawthorne, Noble and Seminary avenues. So it's fantastic news that last week a buyer offered to purchase and restore these two houses that were in the sights of the wrecking ball. If Chamberlayne Avenue hasn't yet figured out how to reconnect and heal itself, one thing is certain: It can't afford to lose a bit of precious historic fabric — not even two houses.

The really difficult thing about making Ginter Park whole is that its physical and architectural centerpiece, Chamberlayne Avenue, has had so much of its building stock ripped out that it's a gouge between intact sides of the neighborhood. Repairing the damage will be tough, but here are some ideas:

- Plant, enhance and maintain the median strip and curbs with shade trees for the entire length from Brookland Park Boulevard to Azalea Avenue. A major effort has been made in recent years to do this but the trees haven't been pruned regularly. Nature can be very forgiving: A dense canopy of trees would tie disparate parts together.

- Institutional property owners could make sure that their front yards are in sync with historical landscaping traditions here: privet hedges first introduced more than a century ago by developer Lewis Ginter. Churches could remove chain-link fences (or disguise then within privet hedgerows).

- Many of the mid- to late-20th-century modernist apartment complexes need some special attention. Euthanasia isn't an option (or desirable because these structures provide critically needed, market-rate housing), so the challenge is to weave this building type (with attendant parking lots) into the overall fabric of an historic neighborhood of stately, single-unit buildings.

- A partial solution here, ironically enough, might come from Miami. During the late 1970s and early '80s, before the renaissance of the Miami's Art Deco district, the phenomena of “Miami Vice” or the later international vibe of South Beach, Brickell Avenue was a grand old, down-at-the-heels residential street just beyond the downtown business district. It too had been designated U.S. Highway 1 and was lined with glorious, good-sized suburban villas interspersed with apartment complexes large and small. But the entire stretch hung together visually because of thick plantings — thickets, really, of palms, vines and flowers that created an impregnable screen along the street.

Richmond seasons don't allow for tropical growth, but careful and consistent planting of evergreens — hollies, cedars and magnolias — would go a long way toward softening and screening the apartment buildings. Once again, give nature an even bigger part of the healing process.

In the current economy more than ever, communities must be aware of maintaining property values. And additional apartment complexes or vacant lots would do nothing to enhance Chamberlayne. Careful, surgical action to enhance the streetscape through landscaping would.

Richmond is a city of neighborhoods and Ginter Park is one of its stars. If the recent contretemps over two houses fueled conversations, that's a good thing.


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