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Richmonders with an interest in Richmond's evolving downtown master plan will be convening periodically in the coming weeks at various presentations to the planning commission and City Council as this blueprint for future development takes final form.

But one design challenge the preliminary draft already stresses is the clear need to mend the gaping holes in the city fabric that are caused by surface parking lots. These unsightly and underproducing spreads of real estate are scar tissue resulting from the demolition of the city's historic fabric throughout the years.

From Jackson Ward to Monroe Ward and in other downtown districts, collectively there are acres of underused land downtown. We locals may grow immune, but rare is the out-of-town visitor to downtown who doesn't ask, "What's with all the parking lots?"

Another question we might ask is how should we build on those spaces so that new structures actually improve on the voids? Solutions aren't necessarily obvious.

In Shockoe Bottom, near the intersection of North 19th and East Grace streets, there's a unique oasis of old and mostly restored residential properties clustered around or near the historic Adam Craig House. But recently a cluster of eight new homes has added needed density to the neighborhood. Sterling Row Condominiums, designed by Richmond architecture firm the Johannas Design Group, is a handsome, understated and ultimately pluperfect example of how infill architecture can respect the past while serving the present and future.

Situated at 110 N. 19th St., the new structure looks so at home you might have to look twice to notice it. The row re-establishes a strong urban wall by visually linking a very early 19th-century double townhouse at the corner of 19th and Grace streets with a modest and severe Gothic Revival structure midway down the block. Two of the Sterling townhouses actually front the street; six open only onto the courtyard. All of them are built atop individual parking garages. But somehow, the three-story homes have enough heft that a balance has been achieved between the louvered garage doors and the overall facades.

The inner courtyard is reached by foot or vehicle through a broad but low-pitched brick arch that serves as an attractive welcoming element. In such European cities as London, Budapest and Zagreb, there's a long tradition of connected housing units opening onto an inner courtyard. (The concept of shared outdoor living space is rarer in this part of the world.) But Sterling Row is an example of how attractive and practical the concept can be, particularly in deep urban lots.

The attached townhouse units are built in red brick facing the street with wooden walls toward the rear. The brick facades of Sterling Row are punctuated with porches and balconies in strategic places. These soften the structure, proclaim that this is a residential place and, importantly, offer attractive and unusual entertaining spaces for the residents.

The bulk and massing of the structures, particularly the pitch of the roofs, was inspired by nearby historic buildings. Even so, there's not a grain of sugar in any of what Johannas has designed here: The buildings are solid, tailored and thoroughly contemporary in spirit.

The overall design is fresh without shouting modernistic. It's reminiscent of Philadelphia's elegant and old Society Hill townhouse district that saw the infusion of significant infill in the 1960s: It's clear what is old and what is new. Unfortunately, in Richmond, that hasn't always been the case where it's often difficult to distinguish new infill from what's old, especially in Oregon Hill, Carver and Church Hill. Is it deep-seated insecurity that makes us cling too much to the past in the design of our new buildings?

Inside, Sterling Row's various floor plans, which include about 2,500 square feet per unit, are unabashedly contemporary. Open space and high ceilings on the main living level should allow flexibility on the part of the occupant.

A special treat are the large windows that allow urban views of the Bottom. Because the primary living spaces are elevated on the second and third floors (above the garages), there's both a feeling of security and commanding vantage points from which to enjoy the unique urban panorama -- the walls and rooftops of buildings ranging from the 18th century to the present.

As Richmond's stockpile of buildings awaiting restoration (and the attractive tax credits that come with them) dwindles, developers increasingly are looking at the economics of infill construction. They would do well to examine the aesthetics of Sterling Row. It is, well, a sterling example of how to do things boldly yet sensitively. S





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