If we're going to build a downtown arts complex, we'd better 

Clearing the Arteries

While it's too soon to determine exactly how the planned arts complex will function or what architectural form it will take, the city's first job should be a cleareyed examination of the proposed physical site and the potential of existing buildings on adjacent blocks. Traffic patterns, both pedestrian and vehicular, will also be critical to the project's success. Specifically, here are some things we might consider:

1. The neighborhood's current feel-good Band-Aids — the quasi-pedestrian mall on West Grace Street, the enclosed 6th Street Marketplace and the bridge over Broad Street (all ghosts of urban renewal schemes past) — should be re-examined. Since these intended panaceas didn't work to jump-start activity, let's ditch them and start afresh with the traditional street and sidewalk grid pattern intact.

With these visual obstructions removed, Sixth and Grace streets would be free-flowing again, and the planned theater complex would be visible from more vantage points — from Marshall Street from the north and from Broad from the east and west — especially at night, when dazzling theater marquees could be seen from blocks away.

Though few out-of-town conventioneers attend performing-arts activities in host cities, at least Richmond's visitors could sense a pulse when they roamed downtown Richmond's streets. In New York, pedestrians approaching Times Square don't necessarily need theater tickets to bask in the theater district's energy.

Reopening the now-closed blocks of Sixth Street also would help that. The city has been on an unfortunate street-closing binge in recent years, robbing us of critical links in the street system. For an urban grid to work, its arteries must remain unclogged. That will be particularly important since the convention and arts centers will generate increased traffic from automobiles, group buses and trucks servicing the facilities.

2. Reopening the two blocks of Sixth Street from Marshall to Grace Street would mean demolishing all of 6th Street Marketplace except for the food court that occupies the block nearest the Coliseum. But important sightlines would be reestablished that would pull pedestrians back and forth across Broad. Also, the handsome 1920s rococo façade of the Carpenter Center and the Sixth Street side of Miller & Rhoads would be visible again.

3. The useless bridge over Broad Street should be removed. Why leave it up? Let's push pedestrians onto the sidewalks to rub shoulders and interact, window-shop, spend money and generate activity at street level. (Once removed, the steel bridge could be reconstructed elsewhere, erector-set-like. Why not have it straddle the canal at some point, perhaps placing a restaurant on the bridge? Or what about putting it over West Broad Street just west of the Belvidere intersection? It could be a gateway to Virginia Commonwealth University's campus.)

In addition to putting traffic on Sixth Street again, the Grace Street pedestrian "semimall" between Seventh and Fourth streets should be removed. This would add additional traffic or parking lanes. The overgrown trees and clumsy brick planter boxes do little but obscure the elegant old retail buildings whose reuse will be essential for the arts district to succeed.

4. We should stop talk of tearing down the Miller & Rhoads store for an ill-conceived plaza. Such large open spaces rarely work in this country. Instead of tearing down the beloved landmark, with its neo-Assyrian art-deco façade on Broad Street side and a tailored classical front on Grace Street, it could be converted to retail, office, hotel or residential use. That would help it stay on the tax rolls.

The building could be rethought.Why not open up all the display windows to make them doorways into a great, open-air pass-through under the building? This would establish connecting sightlines and pedestrian pathways between Broad Street and Grace Street and Fifth and Sixth streets. Under roof, this covered plaza would also be cooler in summer and protective in inclement weather. Cafes and small shops could be placed here at intervals (and could accommodate any displaced 6th Street Marketplace shops).

Linking the National Theater at 704 E. Broad St. visually with the performing-arts center will also be key to enhancing energy in this area. The shade trees in front of this landmark should be removed so that the marquee and Italian Renaissance façade are unobstructed. Trees are great, but not when they obscuring good buildings. The National should be illuminated at night with megawattage.

5. The Atlantic Life Building in the 600 block of East Grace should be restored. Now mostly empty, this building is an underappreciated modernist gem. It is perhaps the most sensible building ever built downtown. Occupying much of a city block, it has shops on the street level (now reduced to a CVS), parking on the intermediate levels and offices on top — a textbook case in how to build sensibly in a city.

6. Tear the aluminum facing off the Thalhimers building. It may have read "modern" when it was applied in the 1950s, but it is out of scale with the mostly classical facades on Broad Street. What many people don't realize is that a number of older facades are hiding underneath waiting to be liberated. With the aluminum off, we'd see what's hiding. We could live with the old fronts for awhile and discover if there is anything worth saving and incorporating into the new arts center. Americans have come a long way in appreciating their turn-of-the-last-century architecture in our country.

7. In short, let the historical streets, sidewalks and buildings in downtown Richmond guide our urban redesign. These are the permanent factors that shape our community's character. We should respect and celebrate our architecture, letting it breathe and shine. We should reopen our streets and unclutter sidewalks, encouraging folks to interact.

Once we've established a viable, preservationist-guided foundation in this district, then talk can proceed about the actual design of a new arts center. With the proper framework, whatever comes next won't seem like the next great thing imposed on the cityscape, but something that grows naturally, even organically, out of Richmond's historic urban fabric.

Edwin Slipek Jr. is an architectural historian and Style's architecture critic.


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