The Groundwork 

Keys to success for a Shockoe Bottom resurgence.

click to enlarge feat31_groundwork_200.jpg

Shockoe Bottom is a long-distance runner. It has survived wars, the industrial age, railroads, highways, floods — and more recently, a multi-use development-cum-baseball stadium that was scarily out of proportion to the pedestrian scale of our city's oldest and historically most evocative neighborhood.

Yet somehow it still possesses tremendous architectural character and authenticity. While sophisticated restoration, adaptive reuse and, to a lesser degree, infill have occurred there during the past decade, the valley between Shockoe Hill and Church Hill offers tremendous economic potential.

Since its beginning the Bottom has been a dynamic, mixed-use neighborhood of industrial, commercial and residential activity. The challenge is to maintain and intensify this urban quality. Let's make the Bottom Richmond's portal, the place we lay out the welcome mat. Here's what future plans should consider:

• Precision. Any development should be incremental and surgically delicate, respecting the limitations of this flood-prone district where Shockoe Creek flows underground and deposits of slavery-era archeological treasure lie inches beneath asphalt and soil.

• Buses. The Bottom is a relentlessly traveled vehicular crossroads — railroads, an interstate highway and federal routes 60, 360 and 250 crisscross it. Considering the heavy traffic imposed upon the 18th-century street patterns, developing Main Street Station into a GRTC downtown transfer point should be a top priority.

• Existing Treasures. The railroad station (whose head house has recently undergone an eye-popping renovation) and neighboring 17th Street Farmers' Market are both major underutilized commercial and cultural assets. The Bottom's future will ultimately depend on how intelligently these assets are leveraged.

• Infrastructure. Improve the area's look and deepen its texture by exposing the underlying cobblestone streets and alleyways. Remove unsightly overhead telephone wires — particularly on Main Street — because they distort the neighborhood's intimate scale. Retain existing structures large and small because they're mostly historic and contribute to the Bottom's unique character. Encourage new construction to plug gaping holes in the streetscape with residential, retail and other business spaces. And don't be afraid of contemporary design — let what's 21st-century-built look like it came from an era that had something to contribute architecturally.

• A Gathering Place. Develop the Main Street Station train shed as a visitor center and a destination for family entertainment. It's large enough to serve both audiences, which sometimes overlap. There are no downtown venues programmed for ongoing recreational activities. It might offer a cinema, bowling alley, roller rink, miniature golf and/or a skateboard park. The train station itself — a movable feast with freight trains and Amtrak slinking through — would be a recurring star of the show. How about a small rail museum? Or a satellite of the Valentine Richmond History Center?

A visitor center here would be convenient to interstates 95 and 64 and the airport. And after orientation, tourists could march out on foot to Church Hill, the Canal Walk, Capitol Square or Court End. Tourists could easily avail themselves of half a dozen bus lines that already scale the hills running east-west routes along Broad and Main streets.

Importantly, with a visitor center in Shockoe Bottom, guests would begin their Richmond experience in the oldest and one of the most intriguing parts of our city. Authenticity is important, as visitors from afar seek something different from increasingly homogenous experiences nationwide. Of course, tourists also would discover Shockoe Bottom restaurants and shops, providing a welcome and needed daytime customer base.

• History. The restoration and interpretation of the slave-era sites in the area would add critically important elements to telling Richmond's full story, as would presenting the history of early Jewish settlement. The Poe museum already is a must-see on any visit to Richmond.

• Young Visitors. What could be inserted in Shockoe Valley's vacant lots? A modest-sized, moderate-priced hotel or a youth hostel (the city has a considerable college-age population) and modestly sized office buildings. All new construction could be built one level above the sidewalk with parking underneath.

• Biotech Growth. On the north side of Broad Street, with its stash of industrial-scaled structures, larger Virginia Commonwealth University medical and biotechnology facilities could expand — again, with buildings built up on pilings.

• Open Spaces. Two adjacent vacant blocks, bounded by Broad, Franklin, 17th and 18th streets, could be retained as landscaped open spaces with grass. This would provide passive recreational space for area residents and a picnic spot for tourists.

Edwin Slipek Jr. is senior contributing editor and Style Weekly's architecture critic.

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