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Thoughtful design can make even a parking deck an important piece of architecture. 

Mending Urban Fabric

Glancing at the 1990s through the rearview mirror will show that major building projects changed downtown Richmond from a retail and manufacturing center into something else — an information-age workplace, a vibrant neighborhood and an entertainment and cultural destination. The Riverfront Plaza and Martin Agency complexes, the conversion of Tobacco Row warehouses and above-the-store spaces on West Broad Street to apartments, and establishing Mayo Island, the Canal Walk and The Library of Virginia as venues for fun and learning exemplify the transformation.

One of the first architectural projects of the next decade should be the reestablishment of Main Street Station as ... well, a train station. Having Amtrak stop at Main near 17th Street a few times a day will bring energy, commerce and connectedness to the financial district, Shockoe Bottom and the Slip. Add access to other modes of travel — cabs, limos and buses — and the integrated transportation hub should be a winner. Applause, applause to city, state and federal officials who've been in the trenches smoothing out details of the plan.

Until recently, one of the stickiest questions was where to park state employees' vehicles. Current and coveted spaces will be lost when construction of the transit hub begins. But a solution has presented itself. It calls for relocating the state's Consolidated Laboratories Building on 14th between Main, Franklin and 15th streets, demolishing this unlovely hulk and constructing a huge, new parking deck with some 1,000 spaces. Presumably, train passengers and revelers headed to the Bottom and the Slip would also use the facility.

From an urban design standpoint, the project presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seriously mend a frayed section of urban fabric. The site's location, the prominent crossroads of 14th and Main, is in need of help. The situation is this: Main Street, running westward up the hill, is a densely built canyon of sophisticated buildings, both medium- and large-scaled. Shockoe Bottom, immediately east of the concrete daddy-longlegs supporting Interstate 95, is a historic, funky mix of low-rise buildings, overhead power lines and considerable urban texture. Between the farmer's market, nearby fruit and vegetable wholesalers, the river and the memory of pungent tobacco, the district smells like a city. To the southwest, the Slip is equally layered, if more immaculately tailored.

Trouble is, there's a major disconnect at the point where the three sectors converge — at 14th and Main. The unsettling width of 14th Street, a surface parking lot at the southeast corner and the unsatisfactory setback of the laboratory building conspire to dissolve any sense of urbanity. What is missing — and what the proposed parking deck could do — is glue that holds these three physically different but interdependent parts of downtown together.

What to do? It's not complicated.

First, build the parking garage out to the sidewalk with no setbacks. This way, the building will fill its sloping site as densely as buildings on neighboring blocks. Strong urban walls create an important sense of continuity as one moves through a city.

Secondly, the capacity for commercial space at street level should be built into the plan. This places pedestrian, human activity on the sidewalk and stacks the cars upstairs. Virginia Commonwealth University has done this somewhat effectively at parking decks on both its medical and academic campuses.

Currently, a pedestrian can walk down the north side of Main from 12th Street to Main Street Station without having any access to retail activity. This is deadening in any downtown.

Finally, since 14th Street charmingly zigzags its way up and down Shockoe Hill, the new building's design should reflect the dramatic topography at this location and the fact that 14th is one of the few downtown streets that doesn't conform to the city's regular grid street pattern. It shouldn't attempt to "square off" its irregular site as the unfortunate James Monroe Building does on an adjoining block.

For more than 200 years, 14th Street has been a service road linking Mayo Bridge with Broad Street. But with the opening of the Canal Walk and new retail stores and restaurants in that area, and the proposed First Freedom Center at 14th and Cary, this winding, historic street is gaining presence.

Serious thought to the design and execution of this 1,000-car parking deck will contribute mightily to whether 14th Street is an attractive, hilly, urbane road to the river, or remains a visual afterthought.

Downtown won't succeed only as a series of isolated "attractions." It must be a continuous visual and physical experience. Most great cities are built densely enough so that random events can occur — surprises, delights, sights and sounds. We can reweave our downtown in such a way that such things have a chance. The financial district, the Bottom and the Slip are terrific urban districts in their own right. Think how spectacular downtown would be if the three areas were linked. The new parking deck could do
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