For almost a week last month, Richmond was visited by some 500 athletes using wheelchairs. They made quite a statement, whizzing purposefully from hotels to competition venues and back again. Despite the heat, downtown's sidewalks were atypically alive. After years of planning and the completion of the convention center and nearby hotels, the sight of participants in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games provided an optimistic snapshot of what the new normal might look like in the vicinity of East Broad and Fifth streets. Yes, the retail hub collapsed years ago, but a mix of hostelries and handsome restaurants is providing an emerging picture of how the new downtown is evolving.
But as those visitors were moving up and down Broad — a stretch that boasts an impressive string of new and restored buildings, including the federal courthouse, the Library of Virginia, the National and the Miller & Rhoads Hilton Garden Inn — surely they noticed unsightly gaps in the sidewalk narrative. There are three particularly dreary spots, each a block-long surface parking lot, located on the south side of Broad between Fourth and Ninth streets. This trio of unfortunate open spaces could be ranked as mildly acceptable, deplorable and downright peculiar, respectively.
The mildly acceptable lot is the one farthest west. It occupies the half block bounded by Fourth, Fifth and Broad streets, directly across from the Greater Richmond Convention Center. It's surrounded by an attractive black metal fence and planted densely along the perimeter.
The deplorable parking lot is the one farthest east: a block-long sea of gravel. This half-block is bounded by Eighth, Ninth and Broad streets and is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia. It's just a few yards north of the vehicle entrance to Capitol Square.
This tract once was the site of two now-demolished hotels. One of them had been converted into the state's Eighth Street Office Building and served as architectural inspiration for the new Robert A. M. Stern-designed federal courthouse across Eighth Street. Sadly, the office building was demolished to make way for a replacement state office structure that never materialized. With the economy flat, it may be a decade before anything's built on the site.
What's deplorable here is how the state spit in the eye of the capital city by placing a chain-link fence around the site. Forget landscaping; the tract isn't even paved. The contrast couldn't be clearer between this and what's happening just half a block south along Ninth Street, where the state is installing concrete planter boxes in a "greening" gesture. The commonwealth wouldn't be ignoring this nasty parking lot if it fronted directly onto the Capitol Square grounds: It would receive Vatican-like attention and reverence.
Solutions abound. The Virginia Commonwealth University surface parking lots (and there are plenty) offer lessons in how even asphalt-paved lots can be enhanced by basic fencing and some well-placed evergreens.
So Gov. Bob McDonnell, please channel and paraphrase a Republican icon with the following dictate: "Department of General Services, tear down that fence!"
Finally, the downright peculiar surface lot on the south side of East Broad belongs to the CenterStage Foundation. It occupies the half-block between Sixth, Seventh and Broad streets. Some will argue that this isn't really a parking lot because it isn't paved and is, rather, a lawn (mud pit is a better description). But a windshield survey last week found a dozen or so cars parked there each day on the dead grass.
This site once was occupied by Thalhimer's, but the department store was razed to make way for a proposed concert hall. That facility never materialized, so grass was planted — and gets mauled regularly. At the holidays an ice-skating rink is installed here. At other times during the year, huge tents (with temporary flooring) are pitched for corporate gatherings. But most of the time, the lot's an unresolved mess.
The bigger issue is what's intended for this prominent piece of real estate. CenterStage has no plans for it, says spokesman Jay Smith, who adds that the city, by agreement, gets a say in what the lot is used for. What I'd suggest are retail outlets — a drugstore, eateries, dry cleaners — to serve the thousands of VCU Medical Center and government employees who work nearby, not to mention the growing population of apartment dwellers.
In the meantime, because money is likely an issue, why not just pave the entire thing and landscape its outer edges? This would accommodate the ice rink and corporations pitching their revival tents while providing a solid base upon which other activities could be staged. The goofy rotation of planting the lawn, destroying it, and replanting it could be stopped.
Because we're probably a decade away from seeing new construction on any of these three sites, but with hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate and infrastructural investments within a few blocks, these negative spots are a real drag on the new downtown. Visitors shouldn't be returning home with memories of how trashy Broad Street looks. It's our principal downtown thoroughfare. We can do better. S