Curing Projectitis 

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It's the little things that count for Victor Dover. Consider his choices in fashion: eyeglasses, slacks and a button-down shirt beneath a tie printed with a map of Paris.

"I have London, too," he reassures the half-dozen developers and citizens sitting in on a roundtable discussion about the future of downtown Richmond earlier this summer. "There was atrocity and crime and corruption and the reign of terror, and now everyone goes to see these cities -- and ah!" he exclaims at the vision of transformation he's conjured, espresso cups silhouetted against the Eiffel Tower, no doubt.

"But nobody goes to see the parking decks," he says, taking a gentle dig at Richmond's concrete-deck-prone cityscape.

In June, the city, with financial help from downtown booster club Richmond Ventures, brought in Dover and his Florida-based city planning firm, Dover Kohl & Partners, to begin the process of overhauling the city's master plan. They held a week of public workshops and discussions, which centered on a back-to-basics theme, focusing on wider sidewalks, streetscapes — the little things that make a city more accessible first and "worthy" of mass-transit and major municipal projects later.

Now comes the hard part: Dover returns for a first stab at turning all the input into a coherent vision Sept. 27 at the Renaissance Convention Center on Broad Street.

Like many second-tier cities searching for the Next Big Thing to save their downtowns, kicking the big-project habit in Richmond would signal a major shift. The idea of the project as savior still has a firm grip: Just last week, the city committed some $50 million to build a much-criticized performing arts center, the latest in a line of big downtown projects, including the behemoth convention center.

While Dover and other city planners put the new master plan into motion, their biggest challenge will be reversing the course.

Dover is optimistic. "We're taking 300 years of history about what works about city building" and applying it here, he says. Most important to "what works" is planning, or "knowing what we want to be when we grow up," as he's fond of saying. Rather than sinking millions in scatter-shot mega-improvements that attempt to lure people back downtown, the philosophy is to make Richmond more livable and accessible. More on-street parking, better lighting, improving the sidewalks.

"The festival marketplace fad" that brought us 6th Street Marketplace, "one-way-street mania, tearing out a chunk of your city to make way for superhighways — those are mirrored in other cities, but not precedented by history. They were experiments, basically," Dover says, that didn't work.

Many blame the city's master plan, or lack thereof, for the scattershot development philosophy that led to the $170 million expanded convention center, for example, In Virginia, localities must have a master plan that outlines the ideal form of the city. The requirements are loose. State code requires the document to guide "harmonious development" and to "promote the health, safety, morals, order, convenience, prosperity and general welfare of the inhabitants." Localities must update the plan every five years.

Revamping a city's master plan is supposed to work like acupuncture. The master plan is a book that city planners put together that tells the story of an area's brightest possible future, then zooms in and finds specific ways to ease pathways in the many veins that move the body politic. A good master plan will address everything from micro-regulations such as zoning and land use up to the grander networks of transportation, housing patterns and economic development.

Updating the master plan is ongoing and, in the past few decades, so have been efforts to revitalize downtown. Richmond is trying something new by positioning the required update as more than a homework assignment. The strategy is a departure from the big-box projects that attempted to tart up the area with major attractions. The convention center and Coliseum and 6th Street Marketplace are synthetic interruptions, the urban planning equivalent of a boob job.

Richmond's community development director, Rachel Flynn, echoes the sentiment.

"You don't just take $100 million dollars and throw it against the wall and see if it will stick," Flynn says. "You say 'OK, this can fail. Let's grow the small stuff.'" She sees a successful downtown not nucleating around a single grand project, but a batch of mixed-use buildings in a variety of sizes: "It's kind of like biodiversity. You need insects that the birds eat."

There is, however, plenty of political pressure pushing the other direction. It's easier to rally behind a new convention center or performing arts center. It's easier to measure progress with concrete. In fact, the plan for the new performing arts center, approved two weeks ago, marked the rare occasion when the administration of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and City Council came together to approve a plan that will cost the city $50 million plus.

"You can't minimize the importance of strong political leadership, but these days plans start at the bottom," Dover says, stressing the importance of citizen involvement. "You're a whole lot better off if the plan has a number of authors," he says. One of his favorite citizen-input success stories is about a 1992 plan the firm did for a downtown in South Miami.

"Its Main Street had been de-designed by engineering and road-widening projects that resulted in boarded-up storefronts because it was pedestrian-hostile," he says. "Three hundred and fifty citizens in a chorus said we want Main Street back." So they helped draft a plan that called for wider sidewalks and on-street parking, and every time a project gets proposed, the citizens can point to that plan and hold the decision-makers accountable to it, Dover says, because they helped write it.

Ideally, the master plan acts as a policy guide to City Council and the planning commission as new homes are built and new businesses arrive. The goals can also be grandiose. The current Richmond plan calls for a trolley system down Broad Street. These aren't new ideas, exactly. The last trolley line failed in the late 1990s because of low ridership, and proposals a few years ago got only a lukewarm reception. Richmond has a long memory.

Dover is hoping he can get past the bad history with better visuals. To illustrate the benefits of buried power lines, two-way street patterns and repaved sidewalks, at one of the earlier meetings, he laid out images of what those adjustments could do for a city block, say, Marshall and Second streets.

The first image showed a shot of the intersection looking barren and bleak. Even though it's just blocks from the convention center, the two corner restaurants were the only bright spots in an unappetizing sea of asphalt and drooping electric lines. The next shot showed how much more blue sky burying the utility lines buys. Add some brick-inlay sidewalks, plant a few trees, install some classier street lighting and it's on the right track to outside investment and reinvention as a nighttime destination.

Looks good to Maurice Rance, whose Jamaican restaurant Jam Q sits on the corner of Marshall and Second and would benefit from the virtual makeover. He gets a new awning, and a brick wall has been replaced with a row of windows. "It's about time they did something about downtown," he says. "In all the major cities downtown is a vibrant place, but here at 6 p.m. everyone closes up and goes home."

City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson puts a finer point on it. She worries the city is losing sight of the smaller businesses.

"There needs to be more opportunity for small businesses to be located downtown. I just hope that we get a nice representation of the city population, the diversity of the city's population, to include the different cultures, the different economic levels," she says. Robertson's concerned that with the constant flux the economic development office has seen since Wilder took office three years ago, small businesses won't have sufficient support from the city. How will small-business owners like Rance's compete with the new?

Flynn, the city's community development director, says the city gets it: "When there's a lot of tiny things and one fails, the whole can continue." S

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