The $28 million Canal Walk needs a lot more attention. Here's what we must do. 

Hey, Where Is Everybody?

How many of you have ever taken a leisurely stroll or boat ride along the much-heralded $28 million Canal Walk downtown?

How many of you have done it more than once?

Therein lies the problem, and the pity. Having seen it or sailed the canal one time there is very little reason, two years after the canal opened, to return. Putting it as kindly as possible, unless some event is underway on nearby Brown's Island there is almost nothing happening there.

While it is encouraging to see the new Turning Basin Building take shape (earning the Ukrop family even more civic-leadership points for committing to downtown by putting First Market Bank's corporate headquarters literally on the waterfront), most development along the canal is still in the planning stages.

The Richmond Riverfront Development Corp., under Executive Director Jim McCarthy, is working on a boffo overall plan for permanent exhibits and commercial development — a plan we can only hope will one day soon turn downtown Richmond on its ear.

And I do mean soon, because the real danger for the canal's future in this MTV era of shrinking attention spans is that two years out of the public spotlight are the same as an ice age of inactivity.

So while we wait for commercial development to take shape, what's critically needed right now, even more than buildings, is an attitude adjustment that focuses on the canal as ground zero of good times in Richmond.

I say all this from the perspective of someone who grew up in a city where the downtown was literally transformed and defined by the fact that a river runs through it. I am a son of San Antonio, and I watched that meandering little stream morph from having nothing on its banks but one mediocre Mexican restaurant into a hugely successful enterprise that today draws — are you ready? — more than 7 million visitors a year down to the river bank.

But here is the critical difference between the two cities, a difference Richmond must address immediately: Long before there was anything to do on the San Antonio river besides eating bland enchiladas, the people of that city had developed the habit of flocking to the river's charming banks for their own celebrations. The idea of being on the river was a part of the city's lifestyle and mind-set from the get-go. San Antonians have a long-standing affinity for their river. They are proud of it and love to talk about it.

By contrast, Richmonders don't yet seem to have any identity with their new canal. It's not on their mental radar screens — many don't even know where it is, a condition the city has done very little to correct. If you are headed into the city on the Downtown Expressway, try finding directions to the canal among the various blue and green city signs pointing the way to Belle Island, Festival Park, Theater IV, Jackson Ward or the state Capitol. There's not a word or an arrow indicating the way to the canal.

Other intersections around town do have a few signs marking the route, but it is all a very timid kind of recognition and direction. If the canal is our new pride (a big if), where are the banners and signs and flags boasting about it? Where is the sense that we have something wonderful to see and celebrate? If it was worth spending $28 million to build, surely it is worth spending a little more to promote in a big way.

And here, it must be said, the idea of visiting the canal and its environs needs to be seen as something perfectly safe to do. It's time for many West Enders to shake off their paranoia that it is not safe to go downtown, especially after dark. This bogus notion must be faced head-on by pointing out that the canal is an easier area in which to impose and maintain safety than many other parts of the city — witness the recent rapes/shooting at two West Broad Street shopping-mall parking lots.

The old Protestant hymn "Shall We Gather at the River?" had more to do with baptisms than bacchanals, but finding a reason to whoop it up on the canal is exactly what the canal needs right now. Doesn't Richmond have anything in its storied history (obviously not including the Civil War) that all its people can celebrate along the waterfront? In the spirit of turning our attention in the river's direction, a few thoughts on what might be worth considering:

1) Give it a name: Rename Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom area the Canal Zone, or at the very least, the Shockoe Canal Zone. Launch the official name change with a street and canal festival full of good food and good music from the area. Doesn't it sound more appealing to suggest "let's go down to the canal" than "let's check out the bottom"?

2) Strike up the band: San Antonio has river parades all yearlong, and almost any theme will do: St. Patrick's Day, Texas Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Is it too much to suggest that the Richmond Christmas parade might be more fun on the water than traversing a depressing route along Broad Street? Despite Virginia Commonwealth University's construction efforts, Broad Street is still pretty much a visual wasteland. Bands could play along the riverbanks as everyone waits for Santa to come round the bend on a waterborne sleigh.

3) Bring on Santa: If not the big Christmas Parade, why not welcome the Miller & Rhoads legendary Santa with a barge parade, dropping him off at the Turning Basin where it is easy for crowds to assemble. And why couldn't the Maymont Flower Show or Garden Week in Virginia be kicked off with a floral parade along the canal, with prizes for the most original and creative entry?

4) Connect the dots: Any talk of barge activity along the canal does run afoul of one really horrendous problem.

As currently constructed, the Canal is not one but two separate waterways divided at midpoint by the lock canals and the Reynolds building at 12th Street. With the James River & Kanawha Canal on one side and the Haxall Canal on the other, the two waterways are separated by a 10-foot difference in water levels that would require intricate lock canal operations to open up both ends of the canal for navigation.

It boggles the mind to think that this expensive waterway was constructed without a determination to find a way to make both canals navigable from end to end. The RMC's Jim McCarthy points out that any effort to create a continuous water passage could cost nearly as much as the original $28 million spent on the new canals. True, raising that kind of money would be a hard sell. But it could be the best investment the city ever made in its future if the canal could then become a fully navigable life force, bursting with traffic and commerce.

If connecting the two canals is an engineering impossibility, then every effort should be made to complete the next phase of construction that will open the James River & Kanawha canal a half-mile further east to the great ship locks, thereby creating a parade route worthy of the name.

5) All that jazz: The San Antonio River is home to a famous jazz club called The Landing, which is featured in an hourly broadcast every week on National Public Radio. Think about the attention that draws to the city. With all due respect to my hometown, San Antonio is much more about mariachis than jazz, and this is the kind of program that should be coming from Richmond at some great club called Jazz on the James. (We even have the alliteration going for us!)

6) Art, art everywhere: One of San Antonio's earliest river gatherings was a two-week River Art Show featuring the works of hundreds of local artists. Richmond is chockablock full of talented artists and craftsmen whose works could and should be displayed along the canal every year. Downtown Presents already sponsors some art- and music-related events along the canal, and an annual major art exhibit showcasing Richmond talent would be a huge draw.

Richmond Symphony conductor Mark Richard Smith said in Style recently that he wanted the symphony's concerts to "kick ass" with the public.

What better way than to have outdoor concerts at the Turning Basin, either on the terrace under construction adjacent to the new Turning Basin Building or along the canal itself, where space could be made available. San Antonio has a marvelous river theater with outdoor seating on one side of the river and a stage on the other. The Turning Basin has an area in which permanent concrete seating could be built facing the water where a floating stage could be temporarily anchored for concert performers.

7) A beautiful venue: And now to really go out on a limb. The proposed new downtown performing-arts complex would be much easier to get excited about if it were going to be housed in some grand new building or reclaimed building (the old Virginia Dominion power plant?) along the canal. The canal and the arts center should be irrevocably linked.

As things stand now, the arts complex is projected to cost $70 million to $100 million and still leave the Richmond Symphony and Virginia Opera relegated to an old movie house of dubious artistic and questionable acoustic merit.

Philip Davidson, chairman of the Alliance for the Performing Arts, emphasizes that a new symphony hall is in the planning for future expansion of the arts center. Why not put those tens of millions of dollars into something architecturally dramatic and daring? Why not something with a large glassed-in lobby overlooking the waterway or even the rapids of the James? Richmond is, after all, the only city in America with whitewater rapids roaring through its downtown. How much more fun would it be to take an intermission break for a drink along the water's edge than staring out at the lack of traffic on Grace or Broad Street?

And how uniquely Richmond would something like that be? Whether we like it or not, most American cities with a thriving downtown are cities attracting lots of tourists and convention business to even such high-minded things as the arts. No national media is ever going to applaud our vision for enlarging the backstage of the Carpenter Center or putting a new theater where Thalhimers once stood. And let's not kid ourselves. That kind of national applause does make a difference.

8)Bring on the boosters: What the canal needs now even more than shops and restaurants is friends, lots of them, people who are willing to get together and lobby government and private groups to make us all think in new and creative ways to occupy the canal. No benefit or corporate gathering should be planned without first asking: Is there a way to do it downtown on the water?

When my wife and I moved to Richmond four years ago one of the phrases we heard most often from friends and neighbors was talk of their regular visits to " the rivah." It took a while to figure out that there was more than one river covered by that generalization. Maybe now is the time for Richmond to get excited about the "rivah" we created so recently.

Shall we, shouldn't we, gather at the

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