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The elegant 400 block of East Grace is too important to downtown's fabric to lose. 

Saving Grace

When art directors of "Love-Struck," a TV flick which aired recently on the Family Channel, scouted locations for a shopfront, they found their set in the 400 block of East Grace Street. If the cameras had panned the entire block (one block west of the Miller & Rhoads building) they would have captured an architectural tour de force as refined as any retail enclave in the nation.

But a cloud looms over these pedestrian-scaled 1920s buildings with their irreplaceable tilework and classical detailing. City officials are eyeing the site for a 1,000-room convention hotel. This handsome block, like the entire Grace Street retail corridor — Miller & Rhoads included — is too important to the overall physical, historic and psychological fabric of downtown to lose. During the past quarter century, north-of-Broad has already been transformed (if not deformed), by government-sanctioned building projects. Now those forces want to penetrate southward.

"Where will it end?" read a flyer recently distributed by highly concerned advocates of saving historic Grace Street.

The block in question not only sparkles architecturally, but contains a healthy urban mix of activity. On the corner of Fifth Street, at 422 E. Grace, the sandstone-clad Crestar bank building rises two stories and is capped by a band of alternating blue and green glazed tiles. These ripple along the roofline like sunlight on ocean waves. Next door at Shields Shoes, highly delicate exterior details — swags, floral motifs and Corinthian columns — are as elegant as any facade on New York's Fifth Avenue. The former Foster photography studio at 404 is so convincingly Venetian, you wouldn't look twice if a gondola wafted by. These and the block's other buildings were all built during the exuberant decade of the 1920s just prior to the Great Depression. Like the opulent Carpenter Center (the former Loew's Theater) two blocks to the east, they evoke the suaveness of Jay Gatsby and the aesthetic excesses of William Randolph Hearst.

Across the street, Centenary Methodist Church, 19th-century Gothicism realized in brick, serves a thriving congregation. The former Cokesbury building, as perfect as a Medici palace, has found new life as apartments. A former Signet bank is now a restaurant and Boom, a high-style nightspot. All this testifies to the buildings' resiliency, the deep commitment of many individuals and organizations to city life and proof that it's possible to make a buck downtown.

To sacrifice the north side of the 400 block of Grace makes no long-term sense. Simply put, what's the point of building a convention hotel to bring people into town if the downtown environment is robbed of the very places that make it unique? If the goal is to destroy the existing architectural fabric — and every bit counts — to create something new, why not move the convention center to the suburbs where there is expansion room?

To attract citizens and visitors downtown — and having them want to come back — opportunities for real experiences must be available at every turn. Those opportunities take place outside generic hotel rooms and off cavernous convention floors. The sights and sounds of a New Orleans, New York or San Diego are what keep convention-goers returning to those cities. It's the physical and intangible attributes of those places — rivers, ocean breezes, block after block of buildings, distinctive streets, eateries, sense of history, legends and memories that provide a backdrop for one's own experiences and add heightened meaning. Only in Las Vegas do conventioneers return home extolling hotel and convention spaces. People love New Orleans, New York and San Diego because of the immediate energy, color and texture they feel when they hit the sidewalks.

Richmond can be like those places. But only if we stop demolishing the places that give our town texture.

There's no reason why the existing buildings of the 400 block of Grace and Broad Street cannot be worked into the overall structure of a new hotel. Better yet, why does the hotel have to abut the convention center? The Jacob Javits Center in New York and the convention center in Washington, D.C., are not ringed by hotels. Do we want to make it that easy for tourists to park, register, dart across Broad to the convention center? Of course, if we keep tearing down key pieces of Richmond and destroying the links that connect districts, then watching TV in one's hotel room might be the best option. Why not build the hotel — or a number of slightly smaller hotels — on already existing vacant lots? They abound, at 8th and Broad, 9th and Broad, 10th and Broad, 8th and Grace, 7th and Franklin, 4th and Grace ... we could go on. Why not marshal forces to accelerate renovation of the 600-room John Marshall Hotel?

There are dozens of options short of demolishing one of the city's most architecturally elegant blocks on a potentially handsome retail thoroughfare. Grace Street should be saved to once again become an upscale shopping district. But nothing can happen if the buildings aren't there.

It's distressing that there has to be a preservation dogfight every time the city moves ahead with development. A city as historic and handsome as Richmond ought to assume that none of the historic fabric will be sacrificed unless there is an overwhelming, really overwhelming, reason to do so. This is elementary. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), no one is knocking on our door, panting to invest hugely in downtown. Therefore, we have the luxury of moving and growing at a pace that accomplishes the wisest development. Preservation of our existing building stock is paramount. Not just the landmark buildings — like the Carpenter Center and the Jefferson Hotel, but every piece of the surrounding neighborhoods. It is in these smaller spaces where people can make homes and small businesses can percolate.

Fortunately, the people who live and care about downtown blew a whistle when they saw threats to East Grace Street. Wisely, city officials are reconsidering options. If Hollywood, which thrives on picking the right images, picked out the 400 block of East Grace as a quintessential block of shopfronts, surely we can recognize — and enhance this stash of urban
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