The river. It's all about the river. Or so we're told.
For a quarter of a century now, sensitized by the environmental movement of the 1970s and after watching much of the historic James River and Kanawha Canal destroyed to make way for the Downtown Expressway, Richmonders have acknowledged the river as the inspiration and surest catalyst for urban development. And since the industrial age gave way dramatically to the information era, the once-desecrated riverfront is now seen as a main event, not an afterthought.
At least that's the talk. The walk has been staggered.
While construction of the flood wall severed visual ties and easy access to the river, it has also spurred the unprecedented preservation of historic buildings and new construction in the former flood zone. The SunTrust operations center in Manchester on Semmes Avenue, on the river's south bank, brought hundreds of new jobs downtown, but employees are stranded in suburban, office parklike isolation. They don't participate in the ebb and flow of downtown life. Meanwhile, this Suntrust fortress hogs river views and has done nothing to inspire development nearby. On Gamble's Hill, the city swapped this high ground with its public park and spectacular, historic vistasto Ethyl Corp. for Brown's Island. And while the reconstructed canal provides handsome infrastructure for the future, when will the future arrive?
Much is working. Portions of the former Tredegar Ironworks were restored carefully by Ethyl and now serve as the starting point for visitors exploring Civil War battlefields. The James River Park system (including lushly vegetated Belle Island which is reached by a delicate, suspended pedestrian bridge) is a must-visit for visitors. Oregon Hill, with its spectacular river views, but long-assaulted by surrounding corporate and institutional forces, is having a mini-building boom in new home construction.
Farther north along Broad Street, the city has used many a trick to pump life into the old retail district an enclosed shopping mall, an expanded convention center and perhaps a performing arts complex. The rapid creation of downtown apartments has been spectacular.
Against this backdrop, Dominion Resources' plan to radically expand the former James River Corp. campus on Tredegar Street to accommodate its own corporate needs is appalling. How can a thinking institution believe that placing 1,000 jobs in a flood plain, in a cul-de-sac and served by a narrow road (with just two traffic lanes) is responsible planning?
The location is isolated. Why would an organization announce a move downtown from a suburban setting and then, like dangling candy on a string, deny its employees immediate access to lunchtime amenities; dining with friends and colleagues, shopping, trips to the bank, getting a haircut or buying theater tickets?
Also, no public transit serves the vicinity. Most employees would drive to work, their cars would be warehoused all day in parking structures, adding unnecessary, man-made bulk to this fragile stretch of natural riverfront.
Yes, there are already buildings on the site, but the proposed complex makes little sense in a wild river flood plain. We should be clearing riverbanks of buildings and encouraging the return of flora and wildlife, not adding to building density. And definitely not building upward to destroy the spectacular views that distinguish our city.
In the 1990s, when James River Corp. expanded its headquarters on Tredegar Street, it did so stealthlike, realizing the delicacy of the site. The new headquarters was built on existing building footprints and designed contextually to its environs. It picked up on the theme of 19th-century warehouses and boat house design.
What Dominion Resources proposes is an 175-foot-high structure. At 18 stories, this is the approximate height of the Ross Building downtown OK in the financial district, but unthinkable on this historic stretch of waterfront. It would block views from Hollywood Cemetery and Oregon Hill, two of our 19th-century treasures.
While residents of Oregon Hill, Woodland Heights (a community across the river) and others are uniting to challenge Dominion Power's expansion, this is not a neighborhood issue only. Protecting the river concerns the entire region.
The city's downtown plan is clear on the point. It calls for maintaining river views, and concentrating high-rise development in the central business district. The current master plan also addresses the issue: " recreational, aesthetic and environmental attributes of the James River will be protected and enhanced in a way with its role as a unique urban waterway."
Dominion has made the tepid defense that it's bringing jobs downtown. But an isolated office park which affords little interaction with downtown life adds little to the mix.
An alternative? How about building a new structure in the business district? The fringes of downtown are marked with acres of open space. Or why not build on the currently vacant, but prominent block bounded by Cary, Eighth, Canal and Ninth. Next to the current Dominion Power building, this would create a corporate campus while also invigorating downtown life. A thousand people unleashed on the sidewalks would enliven the city immensely.
"What is it about Richmond?" is the question we've been asking ourselves as a community for over a decade now. The obvious answer is protecting the river and reinvigorating downtown. Dominion Power's current plans fly in the face of both.
One thousand people in the right place would be a spectacular thing. In the wrong place,
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