Architecture Review: The Virginia Capital Trail Offers a Sublime Public Amenity 

click to enlarge Trail followers can see the city near the train trestle along Dock Street beside the Canal Walk.

Scott Elmquist

Trail followers can see the city near the train trestle along Dock Street beside the Canal Walk.

With the reinvigoration and repopulation of such neighborhoods as Scott’s Addition, Union Hill and downtown’s former retail district, people often ask: Who’s living there?

Meet Monty Bibb, 57. He lives in the re-emerging district of Manchester on the South Side.

But on a recent and golden morning, Bibb is four miles east of town, behelmeted and pedaling his bike along the asphalt ribbon way of the newly completed Virginia Capital Trail. After moving from state to state for a number of years while working for an expanding national retailer, he’s returned to the place where he graduated from high school, Douglas Freeman. Bibb’s home, during a hiatus and deciding his next career move, is in a former office building turned apartment complex.

For many Richmonders — young, middle-aged like Bibb, and older — the recently completed, 55-mile pedestrian and cycling trail’s sinewy path is an escape hatch connecting the urban hardscape on the west with sprawling fields, ponds and streams and tunnellike passages through dense forests on the east.

The development of the trail, whose paved surfaces measure 8 to 10 feet wide, was spurred by the 400th anniversary observance in 2007 of English settlement at Jamestown. It connects that other former Virginia capital, Williamsburg, and Richmond. Its path runs parallel to mostly sylvan Route 5, a scenic byway linking Richmond with Henrico, Charles City, and James City counties, the town of Williamsburg and finally, Jamestown.

For many cyclists, joggers and walkers, the Capital Trail experience begins at its westernmost point in Shockoe Bottom, beneath the highway spaghetti works of flyovers and ramps just east of South 14th Street. From there it continues parallel to the James River flood wall and Kanawha Canal. Regardless of the mode of travel, this remarkable parkway offers intriguing and fresh ways of viewing the city and its neighboring countryside.

The approach to the trail in the vicinity of South 14th and 15th streets near Dock Street is tricky because the flood wall creates both a visual and real barrier and with no city sidewalk on the north side of Dock near 15th Street. The trail doesn’t announce itself. But after passing through an opening in the flood wall to the canal side, the magic kicks in.

At this point, the wall rises like a concrete version of a massive steel Richard Serra sculpture. And regardless of your stance on public art, the skeletal Chesapeake and Ohio Railway trestle looms above and extends along the canal path in one exhilaratingly monumental statement. Then, as the trail passes 19th street, an open patch of lawn, wild grasses and newly planted shade trees have been introduced to soften the industrial aesthetic.

Eventually the asphalt pathway arrives at Great Shiplock Park, long an underdiscovered city green space, but one of the city’s infrastructural gems with a still-functioning canal lock. Just east of the park, an undeveloped stretch of open land awaits proposed mixed-use construction.

Next in the chain of treats comes the aging Intermediate Terminal, a looming and wonderfully gloomy concrete structure that provides a physical link to Richmond’s waterfront history. Its next life may be the Stone Brewing restaurant, part of a larger development here.

At Rocketts Landing, the trail veers southward of Route 5 to hug the north side of the river for a stretch. You move past the architecturally handsome Boathouse restaurant, boat slips and the evocative and crumbling granite walls of the former Yuengling beer caves that await restoration.

Next comes a steep hill and, if you’re on foot this is a good place to do an about-face and return to downtown after a half-hour stroll. The views of city skyline looking west are a singular thrill.

For those cycling or jogging farther along the trail, the views change constantly and often. But navigation can be dicey and requires vigilance with the trail meandering through Henrico County. There are residential driveways to cross and at one point the pathway shares space with a 7-Eleven parking lot. Crossing over Route 5 also requires extra attention. The fact is, Varina — long a rural precinct — is developing as a suburban residential area at a rapid pace. With retailers moving onto Route 5, activity is ramping up. This growth is going to continue.

Running or cycling the trail has other challenges. Those bicyclists headed westward and uphill are traveling at a much slower pace than those traveling east in the downhill lane. And some cyclists say that construction and maintenance workers tweaking the path often park on the trail itself.

But with suburban growth continuing along this storied pathway, where Native American, European and African peoples once collided, it is a remarkable achievement that the land was acquired for recreational use and landscaped so sensitively for a sublime public amenity.

“It is the first time in Richmond you can ride around without getting run over,” says Bibb, who took up cycling four years ago and used to ride mostly through the West End. As he takes a break along the Henrico leg of the trail, just east of the Interstate 295 and Route 5 cloverleaf near Dorey Park, he surveys the course.

“On the trail there are no really bad hills,” he says. “Except for a stretch just east of Rocketts Landing, it’s never steep but always mellowing out.” S


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