June 22, 2005 News & Features » Cover Story


Desolation Row 

Philip Morris' new downtown research center may be the opportunity we need to turn a lifeless district into a vital, mixed-use neighborhood — but only if we take action. How to revitalize the North-of-Broad district.

Is it a good thing that hundreds of Philip Morris people will pass a dozen or so suburban office parks each weekday — the West Creeks and the Arboretums — before veering off the interstate or Downtown Expressway to enter, well, another architecturally generic and isolated complex — the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park?

One question we might ask is how to leverage the tremendous equity inherent in these 700 downtown positions and the center Philip Morris is building so that the BioTech Park and the longtime dull and numbing North-of-Broad district can take baby steps toward functioning like a vital, mixed-use downtown neighborhood.

Despite five decades of so-called urban renewal in the area bounded by Broad, Interstate 95, and Fourth and 10th streets, this isolated flatlands has stubbornly resisted cohesion — it has become only more frustratingly disjointed. Each complex and each building — from the sprawling Greater Richmond Convention Center to the Federal Building to J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College — is its own island. Students, employees and those doing business here have neither reason nor incentive to wander beyond their workplaces or intended destinations.

The area is devoid of retail, commercial or sidewalk life. Visible restaurants, welcoming parks? Forget it. Contrast this with the downtown financial district a few blocks south. This area hugs East Main Street (and to a lesser degree, Cary Street), where a visually lively mix of architecture, ongoing sidewalk activity and an entertaining lunchtime culture of people and people-watching is invigorating and presents a picture of the best that downtown can be.

Ostensibly, there's a lot going on north of Broad — inside courthouses, municipal offices, BioTech research buildings, the Coliseum, the Convention Center, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, Virginia Commonwealth University dorms and recreation facilities — but no soul.

"Identity scale is missing from the North-of-Broad area," says Fred Cox, a partner in the architecture firm of Marcellus Wright Cox & Smith (whose firm designed a huge parking deck in the district). "The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, St. Paul's Episcopal, are the types of buildings one can identify with; they have a sense of place. But North of Broad there's no focus, no towers, no gates — no sense of where you are. It's just a sequence of boxes that you drive through."

What went wrong?

Simply put, the area reflects modernist, post-World War II urban planning and architectural theory. What had been a historic residential and mixed-use neighborhood — eastern Jackson Ward — was demolished along with a number of signature buildings: the old John Marshall High School, George Wythe Junior High, Broad Street Methodist Church and the Howitzers Armory, a Gothic extravaganza in brick.

Nearly 150 years' worth of development, including hundreds of homes, was bulldozed, and the traditional street grid was tampered with to create sites for oversized stand-alone buildings. This reflected a blurry version of the architectural vision of such early-20th-century modernist gurus as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. They advocated placing large heroic buildings on open plazas with light, air and room for people. As in many other American cities at the mid-20th century, an old, tight pedestrian neighborhood that had functioned for centuries was replaced with sun-parched or wind-swept expanses — including acres of surface parking when buildings didn't materialize — that felt isolating and therefore creepy.

Construction of Interstate 95 was the first blow in 1957 because its arc defined the northern border of the district. By 1970, the Coliseum was straddling two blocks and set a new standard of scale: Leigh Street was widened and depressed between Fifth and Seventh streets to serve the Coliseum and eventually to speed motorists through the neighborhood to the Martin Luther King Bridge.

To the east, the low, sprawling Safety Health and Welfare Building incorporated two blocks bounded by Ninth, 10th, Leigh and Marshall streets, and cut off a critical physical connection with historic Court End. This was unfortunate because this neighborhood, which houses the 24-hour-a-day activity of the VCU Medical Center and such landmarks and tourist attractions as the Valentine Richmond History Center and the Museum of the Confederacy, is densely built and functions as a lively downtown district.

"It's a wall, a physical barrier," William Martin, director of the Valentine, says of the Safety, Health and Welfare Building.

At the north end of Ninth Street, the Civil War Centennial Center (now the VCU Larrick Student Center) was placed on a greensward. This peculiar building, which looks like an aluminum grapefruit half, replaced dense urban housing. Further south, city planners closed a block of Sixth Street to accommodate a food court, which linked the Blues Armory with a parking deck to create yet another megablock.

Other buildings occupied full blocks, something that hadn't happened in other parts of downtown: City Hall, the Federal Building, the Library of Virginia and parking decks.

More recently, some people believed that new construction at the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park would invigorate the place. But that hasn't happened. These mostly low-lying buildings are strangely isolated from the streetscape. The city of Richmond's recently adapted downtown plan observes, "The Virginia BioTechnology Research Park buildings constructed to date do not exhibit a strong relationship to the street."

Throughout the district, visual energy and excitement that make cities pop was lost and not replaced. "Urban areas are about the rhythm of blocks, and it is this natural rhythm that makes a city," Martin says.

Rhythm has been lost here. With major parts of the city grid destroyed, the distances between points — including acres of surface parking lots — become too long to walk comfortably. North of Broad is an area where one arrives — and leaves — by automobile.

Until a few years ago, people working here might have hiked to the department stores, five-and-dimes and clothiers on Broad and Grace streets. With these gone, North of Broad district is even more adrift.

And what of Philip Morris? From preliminary drawings, it appears that it will only add to the sense of isolation here. It will spread across two blocks bounded by Leigh, Jackson, Fifth and Seventh streets. The company is examining how its employees would fit into the neighborhood. Many of them will park in a large deck planned directly across the street and enter a secured, fenced corporate complex.

Is there any hope that North of Broad will someday behave like an urban neighborhood? Following are six suggestions to help make that happen:

1. Re-establish the traditional street grid and sidewalks wherever possible.

Traffic patterns have been manipulated to give more thought to carrying traffic through this area than to the experience of actually being here. Crosstown traffic volumes are not likely to change either on eight-lane Leigh Street — as it whisks vehicles from Jackson Ward to the Martin Luther King Bridge — or along Fifth and Seventh streets, which are major connectors to the interstates. Many streets have been closed to accommodate megastructures such as the 6th Street Food Court, the Coliseum, the Convention Center and the Safety, Health and Welfare Building. Combined, these closings and resulting land use have significantly changed the scale of the neighborhood — and not for the better.

One way the new downtown plan had suggested at least visually re-establishing the grid is by creating a pedestrian bridge immediately north of the Coliseum, over Leigh Street where Sixth Street would be. Such a bridge would connect Leigh with Jackson Street to the north. Unfortunately, the new Philip Morris building will straddle two full blocks, thus blocking the proposed bridge and creating another megastructure.

A better possibility for re-establishing the grid would be reconnecting East Clay Street between Ninth and 10th streets, which the Safety, Health and Welfare Building now blocks. A few things would happen. First, the Safety, Health and Welfare Building would be demolished — or at least trimmed and reconfigured. Both architecturally and in its deplorable decrepit condition, it is a civic embarrassment.

But more important, reopening the 900 block of East Clay Street would reconnect VCU's health campus, which functions successfully as a pedestrian-oriented urban neighborhood, with the grim area to the west. And thirdly, nationally important tourist attractions — the White House of the Confederacy, the Valentine Richmond History Center and the Marshall House — would be connected along Clay (although the Marshall House faces Marshall Street, the house museum wants to expand its grounds northward to Clay and build a visitor reception center there). With better access to the larger city, the Museum of the Confederacy might stop its rumblings about wanting to move. And since Clay Street is also on axis with the Convention Center, which houses the city visitor center, Clay would become a major promenade and focus for visitors.

The downtown plan (which wisely suggests keeping employees of the city's Safety, Health and Welfare Building as a city facility to maintain diversity in the area) suggests creating a pedestrian passageway around the building. Let's go one step further and reopen East Clay Street to traffic.

2. Make something healing and lively happen in the empty block lot bounded by Clay, Leigh, Eighth and Ninth streets across from the John Marshall Courts Building.

This block, where the old John Marshall High School stadium once stood, for a quarter century has been a surface parking lot — a scar in the heart of the neighborhood where there ought to be activity. Its careful development offers the best chance to reweave the area. It cries for mixed use. If Clay Street were reopened as a through street, this block should have retail and restaurants facing Clay. Offices and residences could be on the upper floors (with the medical student population in the area, demand is already in place for housing). There could be architectural diversity here, perhaps a signature building — or better, a group of signature buildings to bridge the overscaled buildings with the historic fabric of the John Marshall House and Court End. On the Leigh Street frontage, where the street is significantly wider, the building could be scaled larger. Again, convenience stores, cleaners and eateries at ground level would serve employees in the BioTech Park and students living in dorms across the street.

The new downtown plan suggests that activity at street level be included in buildings in this area. But none of the BioTech buildings or parking decks have attempted this.

3. Place parking facilities on the fringes of the district or on upper levels of new buildings and encourage people to walk through the area.

North of Broad can't afford additional sidewalk frontage parking structures without pedestrian amenities. Sidewalks should not be widened — for what? The public areas need tightening up, not spreading out. Street landscaping should be minimal: Accentuate the architecture — don't expect landscaping to compensate for buildings' shortcomings.

Aggressively promote bus ridership; this will increase pedestrian activity. Every GRTC bus line either skirts or passes through the North-of-Broad district.

4. Enhance the grounds immediately surrounding the Coliseum and program the Nina Abady Festival Park.

The Coliseum was envisioned to serve as the symbolic centerpiece of the North-of-Broad area. Although sightlines have been blocked from many directions, it remains an important icon and destination. Its grounds should be a showcase (like Capitol Square and the Canal Walk, which are points of beauty south of Broad).

Nina Abady Park, to the south of the Coliseum, which was created to generate activity at the 6th Street Marketplace, has been largely abandoned. Friday Cheers, which debuted here, has been removed to the riverside. But why not create a new ongoing public attraction that would bring together residents of Jackson Ward and downtown, and those who work in the BioTech center and Court End, as well as whoever might be attending an event at the Convention Center?

5. Intensify and expand residential activity in and around the VCU dorms north of Leigh Street.

VCU dormitories already define much of the northern boundary of North of Broad in an uninviting combination of modest-sized garden-style apartments and a high-rise tower. There's no reason why more high-rises couldn't be built in this area, increasing the residential population and making better use of limited acreage. This would also create more 24-hour buzz to the neighborhood.

6. Convene a pow-wow of principal landowners and residents of the area to develop approaches and a plan to invigorate North of Broad.

The commonwealth of Virginia is the major player here (as it is throughout downtown, with 9,000 employees), and it often acts an independent operator. But its roster of players — VCU, J. Sargeant Reynolds, the BioTech Park, the Library of Virginia, among others — should share ideas at a summit with representatives of the city and its courts system, Philip Morris, federal officials, Convention Center staff and the various cultural and historic institutions that enrich the area. Also, residents of the VCU dorms should be included in the discussion. They know the neighborhood, 24/7.

As development and dramatic residential growth mark other parts of downtown, can Richmond afford not to take a hard look at this potentially dynamic district? Will Philip Morris' 700-person workforce really make an impact or work in isolated splendor? Can we re-establish a neighborhood that citizens and visitors will want to visit?

When one considers the qualities that are admired in such American cities as Boston, Charleston and San Francisco, they are not that mysterious. They include the ability to walk between points, a close proximity of amenities, interesting architecture and the opportunity to rub shoulders with the locals.

Richmond has invested heavily in infrastructure — interstate roads, bridges across the James and Shockoe Valley, canal construction, flood walls and a convention center. What we have underfunded or lost sight of is the soul of downtown — the grid, museums, brick sidewalks, intimately scaled buildings and places that evoke the American history. Justice John Marshall, architect Robert Mills, Jefferson Davis, Aaron Burr, Abraham Lincoln, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, heart transplant pioneer Christian Barnard, Maggie Walker and scientist Matthew Fontaine Maury all played a part in the history of North of Broad. Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg played at the Coliseum.

After 40 years of hemorrhaging, how much longer will be continue to suck the oxygen out of this neighborhood? S

Senior Contributing Editor Edwin Slipek Jr. is Style Weekly's architecture critic. He teaches architectural history at Virginia Commonwealth University and at the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School.


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