Despite a somewhat haphazard appearance, Shockoe Bottom isn’t a failing section of Richmond. In fact, it’s gaining population every year. The flood-ravaged blocks surrounding Main Street Station and the 17th Street Farmers’ Market are development gold, ripe for long-term economic revitalization. There are jobs to be created and money to be made, but the strength of the area — its history — must inform future development.
Unfortunately, few people understand — while others ignore — the riches that lie beneath the surface. Nowhere is this lack of understanding more evident than in the repeated resurrection of proposals that would put a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. The area should be removed forever as a possible stadium location for a few key reasons:
1. The Bottom’s national historic significance must be protected and appropriately developed.
Shockoe Bottom is twice listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1981, the Shockoe Valley and Tobacco Row Historic District was established to attract investment and spur renovation of the area’s historic buildings. This designation turned the Bottom into the fastest-growing residential area in the city. In 2008, Shockoe Bottom’s significance in the international slave trade and in American history brought a second designation. After slave importation waned in the 18th century, Virginia exported slaves and Richmond was the preferred city to sell and trade human capital. Richmond’s slave trade was second only to New Orleans’.
Further, Shockoe Bottom meets five out of the 10 criteria for a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If pursued, there is no doubt this international honor would be imparted to this chunk of Richmond real estate.
The city has struggled for years to devise a plan for this area. In the meantime, growth has boomed and recognition of its significance has blossomed. This has happened despite the lack of zoning protection to ensure compatible, appropriate development and the ever-looming possibility of a baseball stadium holding it hostage.
The Bottom should be protected via a cultural heritage district, encouraging development that embraces the international history it represents. If future development tapped into the heritage tourism market, Shockoe Bottom would become an economic development powerhouse. Regrettably, we repeatedly ignore the obvious potential and instead seek to gamble our future on shortsighted, incompatible concepts, such as shoehorning a stadium into an area that can’t support it. We court complex financing schemes to pay for a sports facility with a short economic life span rather than taking advantage of Shockoe Bottom’s inherent asset as a cultural Mecca.
That approach here is beyond haphazard; it’s economically irresponsible and morally disgraceful. Would you put a soccer stadium next to Auschwitz?
2. Shockoe Bottom needs a unified identity.
The Bottom lacks a common thread to create a sense of place. It has residents, history, architecture and diverse historic sites. Yet we struggle to tie them together. A 2011 Urban Land Institute magazine article listed ways in which localities have tried without success to re-energize urban centers. Among those doomed concepts: downtown stadiums.
As the article’s author, Nancy Egan, observes, “What is working in communities large and small across the country are cultural and entertainment districts — well-recognized, compact, mixed-use districts in which a high concentration of cultural and/or entertainment venues (which) creates multiple attractions within a defined destination.” Shockoe Bottom has the bones to be such a district. In New York, Times Square needed something to bring the barrage of land uses, dizzying lights and chaos into focus. The solution was the construction of the iconic Red Steps, now described as “the best seats in the house to watch the greatest show on earth.”
Shockoe Bottom needs its Red Steps.
3. The 100-year flood plain needs to be addressed creatively.
Re-creating Shockoe Creek as it once existed would be impractical, but establishing a water feature to restore the connection among Shockoe Bottom, the Haxall and James and Kanawha canals and the James River is not. Properly designed, an urban water feature meandering through the Bottom addresses the flooding problems and opens an array of development opportunities. We’ve already restored the canals; why not take it a step further?
The San Antonio Riverwalk started back in the late 1910s after a heavy rain caused a flood killed 50 people downtown. Evolving over decades, this flood control project is a major tourism draw. Kalamazoo, Mich., unearthed Arcadia Creek from beneath a former downtown parking lot. It’s now a 3/4-mile stretch of water playing host to five festivals and generating $12 million in annual tourism dollars. Imagine if Richmond could incorporate Shockoe Bottom’s history into a solution for its flood plain problems and create the backdrop for sustainable economic development.
Wedging a ballpark into this internationally historic location isn’t our only option here. But in order to protect this fragile resource, city leaders must be open to other solutions, including the development of other underutilized sites in Richmond, such as the Boulevard and Manchester.
I am a Richmond Slave Trail Commission member, but I speak only for myself, a longtime Church Hill resident, in writing this opinion. That said, just as the commission installed the Reconciliation Statue at 15th and East Main streets to symbolize forgiveness and healing from the horror of the slave trade, so it is time for Richmond to reconcile its past and set a correct path for the future. Shockoe Bottom is the historic and cultural heart of our city. We must be responsible stewards and choose development that is compatible, sustainable and honors the history that exists only here. If we choose shortsighted development schemes completely inconsistent with the character of this area, if we continue to ignore and destroy essential American history, we will have failed not only our ancestors, but also current and future generations.
David Herring is a 27-year resident of Church Hill and a member of Richmond’s Slave Trail Commission.Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.