Revisionist Future 

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The new glow of the proposed downtown master plan reflects the politics at play -- at the expense of the greater good.

The ballyhooed downtown master plan, shepherded by a determined planning department, driven by the vox populi, crafted by the planning firm of Dover, Kohl & Partners and, ahem, vetted by major and influential property owners and developers, recently won unanimous approval from the Richmond Planning Commission.

Next stop is the final blessing by City Council.

It's important to remember that the plan will be a playbook, not a rule book. But the fervor generated by broad discussions from a range of audiences during the past year speaks volumes about the sophistication of the citizenry and its belief that downtown is unique and holds tremendous potential.

It's to the credit of city officials and their consultants that such institutional and corporate landowners as the Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Dominion and parties owning once-industrial -- now wildly coveted -- frontage near and along the James River focused with laser intensity on the formulation of the document.

And these landholders certainly had their say. Compare the document's earlier draft language with the most recent wording. Their tweaking reveals some hypersensitivities on the part of these heavy-hitters.

Addressing recent VCU development along West Broad Street on its Monroe Park campus, the original document posited: "Although a majority of this infill is appropriate, such as ground floor retail, there are inconsistencies such as superblocks." The latter is a reference to the university's penchant for closing certain blocks to vehicular traffic for large buildings or pedestrian walkways -- both of which soften the urban grid. The sunny, revised text reads: "VCU and private development have added vibrancy to this section of Broad Street with new ground floor retail." Vibrancy!
On often testy town-gown relations with Oregon Hill, an earlier draft suggested: "VCU has expanded into Oregon Hill in recent years, which has created concern by many residents." The sanitized version: "Oregon Hill residents have had a strong voice in VCU development as it has affected the neighborhood." Power to the people!

The verbiage on the future of West Hospital on the MCV campus was softened to the point of imploding. The heading of an earlier draft was bold: "Preserve the West Hospital." The current heading, "The Future of West Hospital," is decidedly mushy. Text that read "The University, Commonwealth and City should work together to save the West Hospital" has been massaged. Now, those entities "should work together to explore all options for the future of the Hospital." 

Such positive, revisionist spin could make one dizzy.

Regarding the mostly privately owned Mayo's Island, which the plan wisely envisions as a critical link between the south and north banks of the James River, an early version read: "Mayo Island should be acquired by the city, physically overhauled, and promoted as an open space." Later wording is quite different: "If the island is not acquired for public use, any redevelopment of the island should include significant open space components ?Ý allowing for public access to the James River."

And did the Commonwealth of Virginia use its editing pencil? You bet. Yes, it has moved mountains in recent years in restoring many of its aging downtown office buildings, but it also has blood on its hands by demolishing the Eighth Street Office Building (for which the new federal courthouse was designed as a companion piece). An earlier version of the document called them on this: "No additional historic buildings should be demolished for new construction." The softer version: "The Commonwealth and the City should continue to work together to evaluate both public and private development and redevelopment projects that affect the image of Capitol Square and the context of the surrounding historic area." Let the kumbaya moment begin.

Such hypersensitivity on the part of the big boys would be amusing if it wasn't so revealing about the way they apparently see downtown -- as something to be carved up into fiefdoms and developed as they see fit. The greater good be damned!

Since the passing of downtown's once remarkably vibrant retail days there's been no viable pedestrian life (with the exception of the financial district and GRTC transfer points along East Broad Street). Most downtown workers drive into parking decks or the complexes where they work and stay sealed up until its time to head home. A Balkanization has occurred downtown. Where there once was ebb and flow, there are now numerous suburban-like districts that do nothing to reknit the downtown fabric.

Consider the cocoon that Philip Morris has woven for itself architecturally and with an over-the-street walkway in the bio-tech district. The Federal Reserve Bank is a post-9/11 armed camp. The Capitol must be entered underground. New Market is a preserve atop Gambles Hill, which was once a public park. Dominion has a police car stationed regularly on Tredegar Street lest anyone set foot on its verdant riverside corporate retreat. On VCU's MCV campus entire blocks have disappeared with massive buildings blocking natural light and important vistas (actually, the master plan stopped short: It should have suggested that VCU begin long-range planning to leave Court End for another urban site. When you start building in the street, it's logical to assume it's time to move).

The downtown master plan must serve many masters and constituencies -- property owners, environmentalists, preservationists, public officials -- and each has differing priorities. But if the larger players don't understand their role in stitching together a vital downtown, then it can never operate as the spectacularly dynamic marketplace of goods, services, ideas, culture and research it could be.

Richmond's downtown is relatively fragile, so it behooves those who have vetted -- and weakened -- the master plan to tread more lightly and relinquish their sticks.
Is it a good plan? Yes. Is it needed? Absolutely. But gated communities or corporate, institutional or governmental principalities need to be dissolved and the attitude that creates them must be given a time-out. S

Senior contributing editor Edwin Slipek Jr. has been Style Weekly's architecture critic for 17 years. He teaches courses in architectural history at Virginia Commonwealth University and architecture at the Maggie L. Walker Governor's School for Government and International Studies.


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