The Turning Basin Building gallantly fills one of the last gaping holes in Shockoe Slip. 

A New Turn

In the year or so since a short stretch of the James River and Kanawha Canal downtown has been made navigable and tourist-worthy, everyone's been asking, "What next?"

Well, an initial response is ready for inspection on the canal in the form of the new Turning Basin Building and the attached and renovated Southern Railway freight terminal. This mixed-use complex, with First Market Bank as an anchor tenant, plugs the irregularly shaped block defined by Byrd, Virginia and 14th streets, and the Downtown Expressway flyover.

Although it's conservative architecturally, the complex offers a textbook lesson in how to build successfully on a tricky urban site with prominent public exposure on all four sides. SMBW Associates of Richmond was the architect.

The new, four-story, 90,000-square-foot building fills the site of a former parking lot and is enveloped by stalwart, brick structures that give the Slip its distinctive, fin-de-siecle commercial character. In addition to these buildings, the visual appeal of the old neighborhood stems from its quirky street patterns. These date from the district's origins in the 1700s as a warehouse district that was situated just outside Richmond's corporate limits. The town proper, which stretched originally from today's 17th Street to 25th Street, was established along a grid pattern with each intersection meeting at right angles. By contrast, the warehouses built in and around Shockoe Slip were placed in helter-skelter patterns that followed the irregular topography, winding cow paths and jagged property lines. Streets eventually took form amid the buildings. And so now, while the streets are medievally irregular, the buildings provide architectural cohesiveness. They share consistent building heights, red brick exteriors and, most often, Italianate detailing.

Sweeping high overhead, in refreshing theatrical counterpoint to the 19th-century building stock, is the very 20th-century Downtown Expressway.

But while the new Turning Basin complex is politely contextual with its immediate neighbors — the Baskervill building, La Difference and Sine Pub — it brings its own considerable elan to the proceedings.

The new building is essentially a four-story brick box that fills the entire block — and then some. On the upper floors, it extends over the curb on the Virginia Street side. This variance increases floor space on the upper levels to better meet 21st-century demands for office functions. On the street level below, this extension to the curb creates a block-long loggia that parallels Virginia Street. It is a welcoming pedestrian amenity (providing shelter from the sun and elements) that may be expected in, say, Florence or Bologna, but is rare in Richmond. The only comparable downtown arcade is in the former Blues Armory at the 6th Street Marketplace.

The Turning Basin Building's long facade is divided into five main bays. These reflect the scale and visual rhythm of other buildings in the area, especially of 114 Virginia St., the sprawling, three-story, 1870s Baskervill building across the street.

A narrower, second front of three tidy bays faces the canal turning basin and expressway on the south side. Here, the street-level loggia is more deeply recessed and should present opportunities for open-air dining and activities overlooking the canal.

The building's north front, facing Byrd Street, is the service side. Here, tall metal doors screen dumpsters. A traffic ramp descends to the basement's 28-space parking garage. There are also entrances to retail spaces on this side, including a planned Morton's steakhouse.

The building's fourth floor recedes at the attic level so as to all but disappear when viewing the building up close. This setback creates a terrace that completely enwraps the penthouse.

The eastern side of the Turning Basin Building is linked with the restored 1910 railway building. The latter has been restored to punch up its arts and crafts bones: darker trim colors and the placement of wooden trusses at strategic points to create craggy, hand-hewn textures. The older building has been painted a dark salmon color to approximate the brick hue of its partner to the west.

The only jarring note in the entire performance is found in the new building where too-thin and obviously metallic framing and mullions define the windows. The white aluminum striping looks too flimsy on a building that strives so gallantly to be a player among its muscular neighbors.

But, more importantly, the building reestablishes a sense of pedestrian scale and urbanity to a part of Shockoe Slip and the Canal Walk that needed shoring up. Since Virginia Street is a primary pedestrian-way to the turning basin, the new arcade shouts, "Come on down!" And when the building's street-level retail and restaurant activity are open for business, things should pop.

One of the biggest architectural challenges facing Richmond downtown is a lack of infill construction. For too many years we've been cavalier in tearing down sometimes entire blocks of downtown and creating disconnects between landmarks and the city: Think the Renaissance (former Cornerstone) when viewed from West Grace Street, the Jefferson Hotel when approached from Main, or the Richmond Ballet building when viewed from the north. Surface parking lots give our downtown a minor-league look. The Turning Basin Building fills one of the last gaping holes in Shockoe Slip and provides valuable lessons in how Richmond ought to build to complement existing historic fabric. No, not every building should be this contextual, but bold modernist statements along the canal could be dynamic. But this was not the spot for acrobatics. If other new construction "listened" as well as The Turning Basin Building does to what the surroundings demand, then block by block Richmond could lay claim as one of the most textured and fascinating cities in the nation.


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