In many ways downtown Richmond has never looked better. The historic restorations are more sophisticated, the newer complexes snappier, and there's an overall attention to detail that was missing in many projects of the '70s and '80s.
Yes, the old retail district is forlorn and much of the area near the Coliseum north-of-Broad is a soulless urban desert. But the new residential units on Tobacco Row and on Broad Street, continued growth of shops and housing in Shockoe Bottom and Slip, the development of the canal project and the lively activity of Theatre IV and the Carpenter Center all create excitement. The jury's out on whether the expanded convention center and biotech complex will eventually invigorate downtown.
Without regard to cost, what follows (in no particular order) is a shopping list for capital and aesthetic improvements. Each builds upon what we already have, reinforcing the tremendous natural, historic or architectural assets that are solidly in place.Buildings: knowing when to hold 'em, knowing when to fold 'em
[image-1]Photo by Stephen SalpukasDeadening surface parking lots, such as this one near Adams and Main across from the Jefferson Hotel, define much of Monroe Ward's landscape. New residential construction could reweave the fabric of this once-handsome neighborhood.1. Stop demolishing old buildings.
In 1982, Historic Richmond Foundation published Robert Winthrop's "The Architecture of Downtown Richmond" that chronicled every downtown building. In just 17 years, 10 percent of this building stock has been demolished. True, more buildings have been restored than lost, but some of the greatest losses have been old hotels in the vicinity of Eighth and Broad. The old Richmond Hotel at Ninth and Grace now may be threatened to make room for a federal court building. Every downtown building should be inventoried and graded on a system of expendable, must save, local or even national treasure. It shouldn't have to be such a hysterical fight every time new construction threatens a landmark. A preservation plan will keep Richmond whole and progressive.2. Build up Monroe Ward' s residential area.
The construction of apartments above the stores on Broad Street, alongside the Richmond Dairy Building facade and on Tobacco Row is one of the most exciting developments of the '90s. Built on these successes, there could be other housing options downtown. High-rise apartments were built on West Franklin Street in the '60s and '70s, and they seem to have peaked out. But low-, medium- and even high-rise apartments and new townhouse construction in Monroe Ward would serve to repopulate downtown and fill this mostly abandoned area (bounded by Belvidere, Fifth, the downtown expressway and Main). Monroe Ward is also convenient, from a pedestrian standpoint, to downtown offices, shopping and dining. Historic Richmond Foundation is moving its headquarters to this area. Perhaps this will spark further development.
[image-2]Photo by Stephen SalpukasNot bad for Mussolini modernism, but City Hall is falling apart and should be put out of its misery. VCU/MCV could use the space, and a new municipal building could spur development3. Tear down City Hall and sell the land to VCU/MCV.
Geez, it doesn't get any uglier than Richmond's city hall. Or more symbolically pathetic the building's thin marble veneer is held in place by hundreds of plastic straps and metal padlocks. This block bounded by Broad, Marshall, Ninth and 10th could be better used by landlocked Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia. Why not build a new city hall on West Grace near Belvidere, an area still convenient to urbanites and motorists, but an area needing a shot in the arm. 4. Restore the Eighth Street Office Building.
Many 20th-century landmarks have been lost in recent years. The protective wooden walkway around the state's Eighth Street office building has evidently become a permanent fixture. There is no sign that the state intends to fix whatever it seems to be protecting pedestrians from falling bricks or cornices. Anyone who takes the time to look, really look, at this building, will discover an architectural gem.5. Remove the city's Health, Safety and Welfare Building and reconnect East Clay Street.
One of the peskier downtown trends is the closing of streets for large multiblock structures. One of the earliest offenders was the city's Health, Safety and Welfare building in the 1960s. It spans blocks bounded loosely by Marshall, Leigh, 11th and 12th streets. With this building gone, Clay Street could be opened up to reconnect such historic sites as the John Marshall House with the Valentine Museum. It would also serve as a connector for visitors to the convention center to points-of-interest eastward.
[image-3]Photo by Stephen SalpukasThe Miller & Rhoads building at 517 E. Broad is an art deco masterpiece. "The windows themselves are detailed elegantly in cast iron; also elegant are the bas-reliefs of griffins in the shallow segmented arches of the shop windows," wrote architectural historian Robert Winthrop. "This front is chic and sophisticated ..." The former department store should be converted to retail on the street level to lure convention-goers south of Broad where little remains of a former retail district. 6. Convert Miller & Rhoads into retail shops.
Year after year, smaller buildings disappear as larger complexes transform the downtown landscape into something that looks increasingly like a suburban office park the James Center, Riverfront Plaza, the biotech complex. This gives small businesses fewer spaces to lease, fewer places to go. By contrast, Carytown is an example of the commercial and visual energy that small businesses can inject into an area when modest spaces are available. Why not turn the old and large Miller & Rhoads and Woolworth buildings into a series of shops? In other words, take something large and make it intimate. Some spaces might open onto the surrounding streets, others could open onto a center atrium. Basically, it would be an extension of 6th Street Marketplace. Offices and/or apartments could be upstairs.7. Build a new school elementary, middle or high downtown.
There are few livelier or more reassuring sights in any neighborhood than a school with its clutches of students discussing whatever children chat about with such intensity, exhibiting the latest fashions or generally bounding about on foot or bicycles. What Petersburg has achieved by restoring its former high school as a new Governor's School for the Arts and Technology on South Washington Street is remarkable. The entire surrounding residential neighborhood is on the verge of a renaissance. When the Richmond area's Governor's School for Government and International Studies moves into the former Maggie Walker High School on Lombardy Street, it ought to do the same for Carver and New Town. Why not a school public or private in the heart of downtown?The River and Canals
[image-4]Photo by Stephen SalpukasVisitors have responded favorably to the new Canal Walk, shown here near 14th Street, but want amenities and commercial activity. 8. Keep the James River park natural.
In a rush to make a quick buck, there's talk among city officials of adding more concessions food, equipment, activities on Belle Island and other parts of the James River Park System. Forget it.
Instead, further develop the already dense parts of downtown; give franchises to more sidewalk vendors and make the canal walk a more intensely developed walkway. Conversely, let nature take its course along the riverfront as it has, well, for millennia. Heck, don't even hack the weeds off the pathways. Let the natural open spaces define themselves as people use them. And another thing: Mountain bikes ought to be banned. It was one thing when, years ago, a few hardy urban explorers used Belle Island as their private cycling courses. But now that the island is pleasantly accessible by footbridge from the north, there is a sometimes unsafe mix of cycling and pedestrian traffic.9. Extend the canal for rides to Maymont.
The first phase of the canal reclamation project is a great success aesthetically. But ultimately, the canal really ought to go somewhere. Why not Maymont, the city's beloved park and showplace? If the canal below Ethyl Corp. (near the restored Tredegar Ironworks) were reopened, travelers could embark near the future Richmond Battlefield Parks visitors center and be transported westward on an unforgettable trip along the James.10. Intensify commercial and cultural activity along the new canal.
Obviously, there needs to be more activity along the new James River and Kanawha Canal. Richmonders are a fickle bunch and if they go downtown and find little that engages them, they won't go back. Since mostly new construction will provide spaces where commercial and cultural development can happen, thought should be given to places to support small businesses. Recently, an out-of-town visitor (already kindly disposed to downtown) remarked incredulously, "There's no place to buy an ice cream cone." The small businesses, the little pleasures and surprises must be returned to downtown. These aren't found in towering office complexes.11. Restore Mayo Bridge, Richmond's oldest crossing.
There has been a bridge of some description here since Colonial times. Mayo, Richmond's oldest bridge, is a faded symphony in concrete and is largely overlooked as a significant historical landmark. Built soon after the 1910 merger of Manchester and Richmond, it symbolically and physically linked the two communities at the James River fall line. Obelisks, an ancient Egyptian building tradition for channeling ceremonial processions, line the bridge. These 40 posts have long been disfigured with electrical wires and the addition of long-armed streetlights. But if the tangle of wires were removed, effective lighting installed theatrically and seasonal flora placed in strategic spots, this would easily be one of the nation's most charming urban bridges. With the evolution of Mayo Island as an entertainment venue, in addition to the revamped canal system, the time is ripe to give this treasure a celebratory facelift.Jump to Part 1, 2,Continue to Part 2