Now Developing: How 11 Richmond Public Spaces Are Being Re-Imagined for Better or for Worse 

The bicycle races in September brought a rash of new sidewalks, repaved roadways and fresh directional signs, not to mention highlighting the opening of the Virginia Capital Trail and the work on the Floyd Avenue bikeway.

But it’s still dizzyingly high season for a variety of proposed capital projects. Some are necessities, others niceties. Some are large and some quite small.

It appears that a robust live oak tree is likely to be saved at the Maggie Walker monument site downtown, where Broad and Adams streets meet Brook Road.

City Hall is fast-tracking the area for development and a statue memorializing the civic leader, while a bevy of preservationists and nearby residents are petitioning to save a particularly historic stretch of the downtown grid system that the statue’s conceptual architectural design indicates would be closed.

A posse of prominent Richmonders recently unveiled an ambitious plan of a transformation of the immediate environs of The Diamond, introducing tightly configured commercial and residential buildings while dramatically upgrading the ballpark.

Across town in Byrd Park, other civic leaders and nearby residents have settled on a highly visible spot on which to relocate the city’s memorial to fallen policemen, a statue that sits in forlorn Nina Abady Park near the Coliseum.

And as Richmond, Henrico County and state officials barrel ahead with plans for the Pulse — a proposed rapid-transit bus system linking Rocketts Landing with Willow Lawn — residents, property owners and business people with interests along the route are pushing back.

These are just a few of the projects challenging city officials as Mayor Dwight Jones enters his last year in office and seeks to burnish his legacy. Some projects promise to become contentious from the standpoints of priorities, budget and aesthetics, with Jones’ would-be successors beginning to jockey for his job.

With the new year approaching, it’s a good time to consider the pros and cons of some public projects on the drawing boards that will pepper conversations at holiday parties and family gatherings and are sure to make headlines in 2016.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Police Memorial

It’s too bad that the Richmond Policeman Memorial is being removed from Nina Abady Park. The downtown park was named for a visionary woman who championed the memorial and helped raise funds for it.

The bronze statue was one of a number of civic amenities and programs that Abady spearheaded in her tireless efforts to reinvigorate downtown activity in the 1980s — among them the establishment of Friday Cheers and the conversion of the former Loews Theatre into the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts. She was a huge fan of the Richmond Police Department and the cop on the beat, and masterfully corralled them as visible participants in her events.

It’s ironic that the park named for this woman who worked so hard to animate downtown is considered in deplorable enough condition to warrant the memorial’s move. It also signifies a pathetic loss of institutional memory.

Hundreds of thousands of people pass by and through Nina Abady Park en route to the Coliseum annually. Why shouldn’t this outdoor space be a place of beauty and civic pride? If we fixed the park, there would be no groundswell to relocate the statue.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Maggie Walker Statue

It’s time we established a major monument honoring Maggie L. Walker (1864-1934), a Richmond African-American woman who became a remarkable leader in religion, education, journalism, retail, insurance and finance. She also was the first American woman bank president.

But it shouldn’t be placed at the intersection of Broad and Adams streets and Brook Road.

Now that a 40-year-old oak tree has been given a reprieve, let’s move the Walker monument to Jackson Ward’s highly visible Abner Clay Park, within view of historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and the soon-to-open Virginia Black History Museum. This would preserve the triangular green space partially defined by the adjacent stretch of Brook Road, which is at least 235 years old.

The main link between Richmond and points north in the 18th and 19th centuries now slices Adams Street at a 45-degree angle — rare for the city street grid. This was how travelers once entered and exited the city. These often unrecognized urban fragments are as important as specific buildings and monuments to creating a sense of place. They’re welcomingly quirky, and this slice of Brook Road is a reminder of the street pattern laid out when Thomas Jefferson lived in Richmond as governor.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

The Main Street Train Station Shed

The 1901 Main Street Station train shed is a familiar sight for those motoring between Maine and Miami. It’s being cleaned and rebuilt for no announced purpose. Apparently its glass walls will allow it to be a beacon in the night. When completed, there should be a way of moving, at least on foot or by bicycle, under the shed and into Shockoe Bottom.

Some people are suggesting that the former train platform become the permanent GRTC transfer plaza. This would be unfortunate. Like the proposal to put a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom, the area is too fragile historically to accommodate a continuous onslaught of buses. And it would further clog the intersection of 14th and Broad streets, already a highly congested area.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Kanawha Plaza

This summer, in an act of urban vandalism, Kanawha Plaza was demolished. There was no pressing reason, unless it was to rid the park of encamped homeless residents before the international bicycle race or tidy the area before tenants moved into the adjacent, glitzy new Gateway Plaza building.

But supposedly an unnamed corporate entity was contributing to the project and there was danger of losing that funding if the city didn’t act fast. Well, the park was demolished and the still-unidentified corporate Medici has reneged.

So the city lost one of its most handsome, midcentury modern public spaces, and the design and an empty lot awaits, well, something.

All that is evil however, does not come to harm us. This eerily blank slate provides an opportunity to coordinate any forthcoming design with an ambitious plan, the Bridgepark, which was unveiled this year to reconfigure the nearby Manchester Bridge.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

BridgePark

Independent parties introduced an intriguing plan to physically reconsider the Manchester Bridge, the concrete behemoth that connects Ninth Street and Commerce Road, and transform it into a “bridge park,” a variation of Manhattan’s wildly popular High Line, which snakes through New York’s lower West Side.

Under the guidance of Peter Culley, an architect with international connections, the BridgePark Foundation has broadened its scope from its initial plan to build a pedestrian link between Brown’s Island and Manchester using existing historic bridge supports.

The new plan calls for removing a few traffic lanes from the Manchester Bridge, which should be painless because recent lane closures for repairs didn’t seem to create any backups. It would reconfigure the bridge to include enhanced pedestrian and bikeways. The bridge could link with a redesigned Kanawha Plaza, solving one of the ongoing issues of that isolated public space. Further, the BridgePark would have ramps that swing out to connect with Brown’s Island and riverfront spots in Manchester. As part of the plan, concession areas, restrooms, backstage and storage areas would offer additional amenities on Brown’s Island.

Importantly, the project better connects downtown with Manchester, an area gaining population and cultural pull. It’s a spectacular concept, but one that will require considerable redesign and cost.

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