London basks in the afterglow of a grand and gaudy summer Olympics, NBC touts a television audience of historic proportions, the United States flexes medal might and the torch passes to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for 2016.
The quirky and imaginative Olympics opening ceremony earlier this month was an intriguing mix of English music, literature, dance, puppetry, pantomime, video and even a star turn — Elizabeth II playing herself — to capture the history, culture and cheeky wit of a nation that's been pretty tough on itself of late. But if the midfield interpretation of the Industrial Revolution, and dozens of Mary Poppins figures descending from the sky, were over the top, they were just a preview of a dizzying succession of athletic venues and landscapes that showed off the glories of architectural London and environs to brilliant effect.
While absorbing all this, my mind kept coming back to Richmond on the James. This town is staging an international sporting event just three years out. Yikes!
It may not be the Olympics, but the UCI Road World Championships are a big deal. It will bring 1,000 athletes here for 10 days in September 2015. Area roadways will become bicycle raceways. Richmond landmarks and neighborhoods will become backdrops for visiting spectators and television audiences.
The championships have been held in such cities as Florence, Italy, and Colorado Springs. Maybe Richmond can't match the Renaissance or the Rocky Mountains for spectacular vistas, but we do have picturesque hills, a wild river, leafy turn-of-the-last-century suburbs and enough architectural fabric to create challenging courses for the cyclists. There are pleasant vantage points for the 100,000 spectators expected to arrive and evocative settings to satisfy television audiences.
When Mayor Dwight Jones announced Richmond would serve as host to the races — to a mix of cheers, shrugs and naysaying — he touted the economic benefits. But there are other, more immeasurable, upsides. Whether large or small, cities establish and reaffirm their character, traditions and values in a number of ways — one of which is through the types of civic events they support. This weekend, for example, sleepy Buena Vista will be splashed across newscasts another year when candidates for Virginia political office appear in the city's annual Labor Day parade. Farther south, and ramped up many notches, Tampa and Charlotte seek to brighten their images by playing host to the Republican and Democratic national conventions, respectively.
While the cycling championships aren't as auspicious as an Olympic Games or a presidential convention, there's a lot to be said for cycling. It's a wildly popular recreation that knows no age, racial or economic boundaries. Bikes offer an alternative, nonpolluting transit option. And don't overlook that in a celebrated tattooed city, hipness counts.
While routes, budgets, sponsorships, event responsibilities and collateral activities haven't been announced — although regional grumbling already has begun — the clock is ticking. Just as London marshaled its higher angels and best talents to show itself off to the world, Richmond must shift into gear to pump up civic pride, create tourist amenities and seize this opportunity, especially while it continues its search for a civic identity that multiple constituencies can buy into.
In no particular order, here's a to-do list — suggestions, — ideas and projects inexpensive and costly, common sense and fanciful — to get Richmond in shape for 2015. Just three dozen things we might consider.
Maybe, someone already is.
1. Create an environment that respects bicycles. Two weeks ago a cyclist friend said he was nearly run off West Broad Street near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus by an aggressive motorist who screamed through the open window: "Get on the sidewalk! Didn't you hear about that woman who was hit on River Road the other day?" This attitude must go. Because Richmond has precious few designated bike lanes, we must drive as if there's a bicyclist just ahead or around the next curve.
2. Resurface the streets. It seems like parts of downtown and the Fan are channeling Boston's infamous Big Dig this summer, as asphalt comes up and goes down with regularity. Potholes are legion citywide. The 10-day cycling event's playing field will be our roadways. While we're at it, let's restore some of our historic and picturesque cobblestone thoroughfares where visitors will surely stroll. Shockoe Slip, with its fish-scale block paving, is in good shape, but adjacent streets would look similarly great by skimming off a layer or two of asphalt. And the cobblestone paving in and around the 17th Street Farmers' Market is long overdue for restoration.
3. Many downtown streets will be closed during the races, so let's get in the habit now of parking off the street. Open up the Commonwealth of Virginia parking decks, now used by state employees on weekdays only, to the public after hours and on weekends. Opening the state decks on East Franklin (between Seventh and Eighth streets) and the gargantuan deck on East Main (between 14th and 15th streets) in Shockoe Bottom would encourage more people to come downtown in the evenings, get them in the habit of pulling in and therefore limit grumbling when the big event arrives.
4. Just for fun, if not for cleaner air, let's have an alternative transit weekday. Only bicycles and public transit would be allowed in certain areas of the city. That would get us thinking about how much we rely on our gas-guzzling vehicles. In the evening, how about a free concert as a thank-you to those who participate?
5. Install more bike racks citywide. They aren't just important amenities — they make us look more bike-friendly. Why not sponsor a major design competition calling on artists and architects to create a unique Richmond bike rack?
6. Pitch a national morning talk show to broadcast live from Richmond the week of the race. The "Today" show may be a stretch, but maybe the "CBS This Morning," perpetually third-place in the ratings, would opt for a change of scenery from Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
7. Seize this opportunity to create a national ad campaign that plays off the races. If most Richmonders had never heard of the UCI cycling event, maybe it's because previous host cities didn't promote it effectively. London pulled out the stops in weaving its celebrated writers — from William Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling — throughout the Olympics. We could engage popular authors with Virginia affiliations: Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, David Baldacci, Tom Wolfe and Rita Mae Brown, as well as such local authors as Harry Kollatz Jr. and David Robbins, as spokesmen for Richmond and the event.
8. How will visitors be welcomed to Richmond? Our information center in the Greater Richmond Convention Center downtown is fine as far as it goes, but it's too institutional and located in an underpopulated dead zone. Perhaps the Robinson House, the vacant "Addams Family"-looking manse near the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts motor court, could be transformed into a regional visitors' center. That location offers parking, dining and a dose of local architecture and culture.
9. We have a weed problem, and it isn't pot. We should landscape the major entryways to the city, especially at interstate junctions. These overgrown, undermaintained areas are an embarrassment.
10. Once the race courses are set, it should become apparent where and how to establish staging and viewing areas. But there must be a central focus to the event. The stretch of East Broad Street near the convention center would be excellent. The four surface parking lots (on both sides of the street between Fourth and 11th streets) could become staging and activities areas. Why not transform these spaces with huge, colorful tents to create a festive atmosphere?
11. Because it's probably the oldest attraction in town and already the site of a number of local festivals, the 17th Street Farmers' Market likely will be used for at least some part of the activities. Let's clean it up and restore the surrounding cobbled streets. Part of the reason there's perennial talk of reviving Shockoe Bottom (such as the recurring discussion to put a ballpark there) is because the overall infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate.
12. The UCI cycling event and potential international attention should spur meaningful development of the historical sites associated with black history in Shockoe Bottom and squelch any talk of building a baseball stadium in this part of town.
13. Is there a role for rehabilitating City Stadium in planning for the cycling championship? How about the envisioned Redskins training camp? Planning for the cycling event should be leveraged while these projects are developed.
14. There will be official entertaining. The observation deck atop City Hall is a much-underused facility and has no equal in showing off downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. Various historical and cultural groups should find ways to make their facilities available for related functions.
15. Another underused site is the shuttered food court at the Blues Armory on North Sixth Street. If nothing else, this could provide an indoor setting for various race activities. This modernistic glass pavilion isn't unattractive, but if we aren't going to restore and reopen it, tear it down and recreate a vista connecting Sixth Street with the Coliseum.
16. While we're at it, let's spruce up the next-door Nina Abady Festival Park (named, incidentally, for the late cultural leader who certainly would have been involved in this cycling event). This outdoor space — linking the former food court and the Coliseum and once the setting for Friday Cheers — suffers because of its proximity to two underused public facilities.
17. Mayo Island, linking Shockoe Bottom to Manchester, is being considered as a focal point and staging area for the cycling championships. If so, it's time to gain access to this privately owned property to begin clearing — or developing — this formerly industrial stretch.
18. Richmond's oldest span, the Mayo Bridge, provides access to the island. Beautiful though it is, it's crumbling. The 40 obelisks need to be stripped of signs and wiring and restored.
19. While Oregon Hill and the Virginia War Memorial along the stretch of Belvidere Street north of the Lee Bridge are in prime condition, the area immediately south along Cowardin Avenue looks like the third ring of hell. Parkland or an architecturally significant building should be placed here as the gateway to South Richmond.
20. Let's sneak another capital improvement under the banner of the cycling fete. Why not make the former GRTC bus sheds (located in the upper Fan District near Byrd Park) the cycling center? Expositions, community events and concerts could be held here. Engage a developer to restore the complex and build studio apartments to house the athletes. They could be converted to general housing after the event.
21. Involve all parts of the Richmond community now to generate ideas. The input from the public worked beautifully in developing the Richmond downtown master plan. We have a tremendous, underused brain reserve. Let's tap it.
22. Build ongoing excitement among Richmonders in the months leading up to the races. During the year preceding the championships, let's find a way to underwrite free admission to museums and other local attractions to familiarize locals with what Richmond offers. Let's make the locals cultural ambassadors.
23. Stage a nighttime bicycle ride, when busy daytime traffic ebbs, that winds through downtown and spotlights Richmond's historic, close-in neighborhoods. This will get folks excited about what things look like from a cyclist's viewpoint.
24. Encourage Richmonders to invite out-of-town family, friends and business associates to visit during race week. The Monument Avenue Easter parade, the 2nd Street Festival, Strawberry Hill Races and the International Folk Festival prove that Richmond can be a social and sports destination for out-of-town guests.
25. There's been periodic talk about establishing a youth hostel here to provide affordable lodging. Let's make it happen.
26. At some point during the event, how about holding a Ring-Out Richmond? Let's peal the church bells simultaneously while cyclists go whizzing by. All that metal is already up there in the belfries, so let 'em rip.
27. Engage the area's wealth of artists, musicians and writers to develop and stage opening, closing and cycling-related events. The organizers of First Fridays Art Walk, as well as others, have a wealth of talent in putting together well-received events.
28. Present an arts festival during the event. This is a no-brainer. We have children's organizations, high-school groups and professionals. Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond, Virginia State and Virginia Union University could collaborate. There's unlimited potential.
29. Because the event will take place in September, the annual and very local summertime watermelon and tomato festivals might become feeder events (no pun intended) to the international cycling event.
30. No matter what courses are set for the races themselves, all roads in Richmond eventually lead to the James River. So there needs to be a tie-in. How about a Pedal and Paddle event that converges at Rocketts Landing?
31. While they're here, where will out-of-towners go to capture — in one spot — the essence of our town? Perhaps the Valentine Richmond History Center will have completed its ambitious renovation. It promises a new comprehensive exhibition. Perhaps an independent producer could mount a multimedia presentation. (See "Where's Boston?" a former sound, light and image show that thrilled visitors to New England for many years.) It could package Richmond and tell its story efficiently and evocatively.
32. How about a bicycling exhibition at the Valentine Richmond History Center, Virginia Historical Society, the Science Museum or the Library of Virginia? Perhaps such an exhibit at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden makes the most sense. It was in Lakeside that Lewis Ginter (1824-1897), the garden's namesake, opened a popular Wheel Club when the cycling craze first hit the United States in the 1880s.
33. What about those folks who won't leave their houses during the cycling event and want nothing to do with it? WCVE public television could produce a documentary on the history of cycling — taking it back to the invention of the wheel, perhaps. Does anybody have Ken Burns' contact information?
34. If nothing else, the Capital Trail, the verdant walking and cycling route linking downtown Richmond with Williamsburg and Jamestown, must be completed. The sections that are completed are beautifully landscaped and restorative to the users. We need to get on with building the stretch through Henrico County.
35. With the spirit of the Olympics on many minds, now's the time to harness local energy to move planning forward for the UCI Road World Championships. We need to think big — globally — but keep it distinctively local. Let's get all the ideas on the table.
36. Most important, wherever you are, even if you aren't on a bicycle, look out for that person who is. S