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OPINION: A Better Riverfront Project 

The public should be invited to weigh in on the city’s fast-moving plans for Brown’s Island.

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Scott Elmquist

“The public wasn’t invited to participate” was the response of Max Hepp-Buchanan to a Richmond Urban Design Committee member who asked: “What option did Oregon Hill have to participate in the Brown’s Island Improvement Design charet held last April by Venture Richmond?”

The word public smacked the eardrum in an unpleasant manner, sort of the way it does in phrases like no public restrooms.

Oregon Hill is a short walk from Brown’s Island and is very much impacted by any possible changes made to the infrastructure and amenities of this city park. Dominion Energy was invited to the design-input gathering. Altria, New Market Corp., Venture Richmond board members, various lawyers, developers and city officials also were invited to make plans that could supersede the already approved 2012 Riverfront Plan.

I respectfully requested that the design committee, with only three of 10 members participating in the hearing, defer a vote until the community could be included in this design proposal. The committee unanimously approved it anyway, with David Johannas sitting in as chairman since regular chairwoman Andrea Almond recused herself. She is a project manager and designer for 3north, the firm that did this new plan.

Hepp-Buchanan is Venture Richmond’s director of riverfront place-making and is also a member of the Planning Commission. Venture Richmond is a nonprofit corporation that describes itself like this: “We engage business and community leaders in partnering with the city to enhance the vitality of the community, particularly downtown, through economic development, marketing, promotion, advocacy and events.” One would think that community might have been well-served by being included in the meeting.

The Brown’s Island conceptual plan presented by Hepp-Buchanan is painstakingly elaborate, taking up 106 MB of data on the design committee’s agenda page. The cost is somewhere around $17 million, which was described as coming from state and federal transportation grants and Richmond capital improvement funds. The subsequent presentation to the Planning Commission was streamlined considerably with the cost component omitted and private donations added to the funding sources.

Brown’s Island lies within a 100-year flood plain and any proposed plan must be permitted by the Army Corps of Engineers. You may remember watching the James River, enraged by Hurricane Camille, ripping through this gorge in 1969. Hurricane Camille cost Virginia nearly 160 lives and $140.8 million in damages. Hurricane Agnes struck again hard in 1972.

On Monday, Dec. 16, the same conceptual plan was unanimously approved by the Planning Commission, with several members noting the lack of community input. It now goes back through the design committee and the commission and on to City Council for final approval.

Inclusion of the community might have imparted a reverence for the James River, its natural beauty and its existing flora and fauna and offer the suggestion that you might want to rethink the plan’s dynamic lighting. We must be concerned and connected as to how additional light pollution may affect wildlife in this natural resource corridor.

I’d also like to remind our city of the historical significance of the compelling but unrelated planned restoration and re-watering of the James River and Kanawha Canal system from Tredegar all the way west to Maymont Park. The James River and Kanawha Canal, begun in 1785 and championed by such men as George Washington, Edmund Randolph and John Marshall, is a diamond in the rough. This canal was built by enslaved Africans hired from plantation owners living near the canal. The stories the James River and Kanawha Canal has to tell are complex, fascinating and soul enlightening. They deserve to be told.

There are details with this plan that differ from the approved Riverfront Plan that could be improved. The existing helipad is noted as being repurposed as art while remaining functional in the 3north plan. The Riverfront Plan previously reconfigured the helipad as a children’s water play area. We need more amenities for our kids, and this sounds very cool. Its odd that 3north, as a design firm, has a history of removing or replacing child-centric fun features.

The City Council approved Monroe Park Master Plan had an area designated as a children’s resource area with water feature and ice cream stand. This was tragically replaced, by 3north and the Monroe Park Conservancy, with an open area where Capital One can pitch huge tents for luncheon meetings for as long as three weeks. Given the number of city owned venues that could host such luncheons, this is bewildering and disappointing. The loss of historic tree canopy in Monroe Park is heart-breaking.

My hope is that the community can be included in this conversation on how to improve our public parks — Brown’s Island as well as the rest — before City Council makes its final decision on any of them.

It is only fair since these important resources belong to us all.

C. Todd Woodson is an advocate for community and animal welfare issues and longtime member of the American Federation of Musicians and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. City Council gave him the Jesse Reynolds Award in 2005 for community mobilization and his work improving city parks. The Sierra Club’s Falls of the James Chapter gave him the Green Giant Award in 2015.

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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