Any drive-by economist knows that the number of construction booms silhouetted against the sky is a barometer of a community's prosperity. By that standard Richmond could use a few more cranes.
The development of one major new office tower, however, the Williams Mullen Center, built on an impossibly tight corner lot at Canal and 10th streets, squeaked past just before the real estate downturn. This may be the last new office tower to go up in downtown for a while. That's reason enough to note. But there's something else happening here. Who cares if the conservatively modernist, 210,000-square-foot structure, designed by HBA Architecture of Virginia Beach and headquarters of the Williams Mullen law firm, doesn't break new ground architecturally?
The project deserves high praise for reviving a forlorn but strategic stretch of 10th Street that had long been hampered by being on the backside of James Center and near the gaping ditch of the Downtown Expressway. The lower financial district has always been divided in two by that recessed road — Riverfront Plaza, Riverside on the James and the Federal Reserve Bank complexes on the south and the James Center to the north.
Over the decades, valiant attempts have been made to bridge the divide. First, a park, Kanawha Plaza (designed by the Sasaki Dawson DeMay Associates landscape firm) was built across the expressway immediately north of the Fed to soften things. Some years later, in the block to the east, a Richmond Metropolitan Authority parking deck and small park (currently in deplorable condition) were built atop the expressway filling three-quarters of the block bounded by Ninth, 10th, Canal and Byrd streets: Aesthetically, both were lifeless. This part of the financial district continued to look and function more like a suburban office park than a core of a thriving, pedestrian-oriented downtown legal and business district. Too many workers proceed from roadway to parking deck to workplace without ever setting foot on a city sidewalk.
The urban design problems in the lower financial district can't all be blamed on the expressway. There are issues of scale from too many traffic lanes connecting the Manchester Bridge with the city street grid. And, nearby, there's a perfect storm of urban design “don'ts”— relentless embankments of parking decks with no street-level amenities; too much surface parking; buildings set too far from the curbs; and a Dominion Resources office tower perched atop a high podium that essentially kills an entire city block. Also, the lower financial district (in sad contrast to the elegant, lively, architecturally top-shelf East Main Street), offers little to engage the eye and relieve the visual monotony other than the James Center's decorative and melodic clock tower and goofy statue of naked canal boatmen hoisting sails, both on East Cary.
The Williams Mullen Center tightens things up considerably. First, it fills a formerly vacant corner lot — fitting like a glove into a site adjacent to the metropolitan authority's parking deck. Now, downtown habituAcs can stroll between Riverfront Plaza or Riverside on the James and the James Center or Main Street along a stretch of 10th that is passably urban: This will become more lively when the building's 5,000 square feet of retail space are occupied.
At 15 floors, the verticality of the tower carries the eye upward and balances the blocky, pre-existing parking deck to which it is now attached. Architecturally, this sense of verticality is heightened by the use of two contrasting exterior treatments. Reflective, bluish glass wraps around the building's northeast and southwest corners. The remainder of the building, which extends beyond its footprint some 50 feet across the parking deck, is clad in white, precast concrete panels interspersed with large window openings (views from the interior are unbroken and dramatic from all sides).
Along the roofline there is a welcome bit of restrained flourish. Here, where many modernist buildings employ a broad, flat and dull entablature, HBA Architecture has crowned its building with an understated tiara— a simple, horizontal, trellis-like railing that becomes a light-handed exclamation point.
As might be expected as the home base of a 101-year-old, white-shoe Richmond law firm with international reach, the Williams Mullen Center is not showy. But its building is an architectural healer in a part of downtown that sorely needs adhesive to bring its disparate parts together. In his seminal book, “Edge City: Life on the New Frontier,” which examines the phenomena of suburban commercial and residential growth, journalist Joel Garreau suggests that one way to conserve our nation's open spaces and farmlands is to build more densely in mixed-use, suburban developments. Since Richmond's lower financial district has always operated more like a suburban office park than a downtown, there are lessons to be learned here. As handsome infill, the Williams Mullen Center transforms a problematic site with aplomb and offers hope that this sector can eventually look and act like a downtown should.