Arrested Development 

Have we learned anything from history? Not when it comes to the Coliseum.

Perennial bantering — and dreaming and scheming — about new ballparks and arenas ticks back and forth like a metronome. With few locals wanting to focus on meatier topics — say education, the environment or public transit — the chattering class thinks it's having meaningful, civic-minded discourse when discussing possible locations for a new sports facility: downtown, Shockoe Bottom, the Boulevard, Manchester, Richmond International Raceway, City Stadium or somewhere else?

Almost lost amid current and specific debate about redevelopment possibilities for City Stadium and environs is the consultant's report issued in late January on the fate of the Coliseum. It was commissioned by four of our city's major companies. Certainly there are parties eying and licking their chops for the site that the behemoth occupies — the four downtown blocks bounded by Fifth, Seventh, Clay and Leigh streets, and adjacent to the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park.

The lengthy report, prepared by Barrett Sports Group LLC, concludes that yes, the Coliseum, opened in 1972, should be replaced (no surprise there), and a new arena built downtown on a two-block, six-acre tract of land bordered by East Clay, East Leigh, Eighth and 10th  streets. It's the site of the embarrassingly dilapidated Public Safety Building, whose plan necessitated closing the 800 and 900 blocks of East Clay Street when it was built in 1962.

Barrett's recommended site for the new arena would allow Clay to be reopened, which is a critically good thing. But the main reason for proposing a new arena at that location was its relative proximity to the convention center and that the city already owns the land.

Don't hold your breath. Between the sour economy and concurrent yammering about a new ballpark where the Flying Squirrels might land, and City Stadium's future, a new downtown arena isn't happening anytime soon. It's maybe a decade out. This isn't a bad thing because it allows time for discussion.

OK. I'll go first: The proposed concept and location are lousy.

In endorsing the tightly configured, downtown location as if this is going to be an economic panacea for the district — and on the edge of the Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical Center — is to admit we suffer from both amnesia and blindness.

First, the amnesia.

The Coliseum was opened 40 years ago as the architectural centerpiece of an ambitious civic center north of Broad Street that replaced parts of the mostly residential Jackson Ward and Navy Hill neighborhoods with a shiny new City Hall, federal building and public-safety building. It was a scorched-earth redevelopment scheme that reflected what was considered by some as solid planning policy and architectural thinking at mid-20th century. But it's clear to those who experience these dreary environs that the vision didn't work. A textured, historic old neighborhood was replaced by a moonscape with no sidewalk life, or residential and retail activity.

An aspect of the plan that reflected good urban thinking, however, was that the Coliseum was erected on a site on axis with Sixth Street and visible from two now-defunct department stores that were south of Broad Street: Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers. The Coliseum's heroic profile established a strong visual pull up Sixth Street and past smallish retailers that long had been part of an open-air and enclosed fresh foods marketplace.

The Coliseum's architect was the highly respected firm of Vincent Kling and Associates of Philadelphia. True, the great public arena looks like a gargantuan, bronzed Big Mac that landed from space, but it holds its own architecturally with its extraterrestrial kinfolk down Interstate 64 in the form of the Hampton Coliseum and Norfolk Scope. And the Coliseum's crenellated cap is a welcome attempt to be architecturally contextual with the medieval revivalism of the adjacent Richmond Light Infantry Blues Armory.

But after some 15 years of circuses, hoops, hockey and tractor pulls, the Coliseum looked like a beached whale and had done zilch to spark an entertainment or retail rebirth in the vicinity. Thus, while the department stores and downtown retail hemorrhaged, the town's movers and shakers implored famed retail developer James Rouse to open one of his festival marketplaces as a panacea. His enclosed mall destroyed the powerful visual pull of the Coliseum and isolated the looming facility further, no small feat.

Now, 6th Street Marketplace is mostly gone, with its food court boarded up. There's no pedestrian-oriented retail or dining in the vicinity. Spinoff development has been a disaster. The concepts were well-meaning, but extremely ham-handed social engineering. Nothing was driven by market forces. Piece-by-piece is how downtown business is built, each element carefully woven into the fabric.

The proposed arena would only slap another megastructure onto the downtown landscape. It would be ridiculous to build it directly across the street from the 1000 block of East Clay Street which is the only complete block in Richmond with 19th-century buildings (or faux, low-slung 19th-century buildings). It houses the Valentine Richmond History Center. At the western edge of the proposed arena sits the John Marshall House. Both attractions are National Historic Landmarks and part of Richmond's cultural patrimony. They shouldn't be linked by a megastructure. Better that the Public Safety Building be demolished, Clay Street reopened and the property sold to private developers for mixed-use office, retail and residential. With its proximity to the medical center and the biotech park, new buildings probably would be quickly leased.

What is it about blindness that we don't understand? The Coliseum did nothing to revive the fabric of this part of town. And we're set to do it all over again? Come on.

The area near the medical complex already is too densely built up. Streets have been closed and built upon, thus eliminating historic and beautiful vistas to the north and east. If an institution can paint itself into a corner, Virginia Commonwealth University has managed to do it. An arena is not only a bad idea here, it would be a logistical disaster.

So what should we do? Let's live with — no, let's embrace — the Coliseum. If your schedule in the coming days includes basketball at the maligned facility, absorb what there is to like about the place. It can be approached from 360 degrees. Once inside, access to its ring of vendors and the distribution of patron traffic are excellent. The interior architecture is bold and timeless: The soaring red brick arches create handsome spaces. The arena's interior is breathtaking, especially. The skeletal framework supporting the roof is a sculptural wonder. And the sight lines are great, despite that the upper seats that will induce vertigo more than nosebleeds.

The Coliseum is bluntly modernistic — a middle-aged but refreshing alternative to the rash of cloying, kitschy, classical gift-wrapped buildings that we've built here in recent years. The Coliseum is also brutalistic, but that's what makes it so powerful. Let's give it some love. For 40 years it has done its job. We've let it down by not developing its immediate environs in any kind of meaningful way. S



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