December 01, 2010 News & Features » Cover Story


Unlocking the Canal 

More than a decade after the $52 million Canal Walk was completed, will redeveloping the former Reynolds plant revive the city's waterfront?


IT'S DUSK ON the Canal Walk, the week before Thanksgiving. Inside the hollow, bunkerlike, preserved remains of the century-old hydroelectric plant at the eastern end of Brown's Island, three ITT Technical Institute students huddle over a camcorder screen. They're framing the next shot of their hypothetical movie, “Left for Dead.” Actually, they're shooting a one-minute trailer — a visual communications class assignment — for the nonexistent film. Working within this relic of Richmond's industrial heyday, they race to catch the fleeting daylight.

“This place is amazing, it's so cool,” says Jake Barrett, 21, of the gloomily evocative space. The Chesterfield County resident gestures skyward and to the walls of the now roofless, concrete enclosure. It could easily accommodate two basketball courts, with change left over.

Co-director Patrick Ferguson chimes in. “It has some really deep shadows,” he observes. His fellow budding Spielbergs nod in agreement as they step aside to avoid an oncoming jogger.

The runner bounds out of the eastern end of the classically detailed power plant. He disappears beyond a large ash tree whose golden leaves are suddenly illuminated as the sun drops over the James River. A damp chill wafts up from the rapids.

Meanwhile, some yards west, it's happy hour at the BlackFinn restaurant in the Troutman Sanders Building. Amid the convivial din and a sea of competing TV screens, Brent Timberlake and half-dozen colleagues from Troutman Sanders, a law firm upstairs in the office tower, cluster at the bar. Often for lunch, Timberlake says, he and others at the firm leave the confines of Brown's Island, cross the Haxall Canal and trek the few blocks to Shockoe Slip or the financial district for other options, but BlackFinn is perfect for after work: “This is a function of convenience.”

The canal district is intriguing and possesses all the makings of a great urban place — dramatic natural geography, historically significant and architecturally muscular structures, plus its prime if somewhat isolated location is on the edge of an active downtown business district. When the city completed the $52 million Canal Walk in 1999, city and civic leaders envisioned a bustling waterfront retail and restaurant district, a signature downtown attraction and tourist draw.

[image-2] But there's long been a barrier, an obstacle that's kept the Canal Walk from becoming a true pedestrian and retail thoroughfare — the downtown Reynolds Packaging industrial plant, which splits the canal, creating an obstacle course of stairs and foot-bridges around it.

Despite considerable and steady infusion of major infrastructure in the canal district for almost a quarter century — landscaping, bridges, interpretive displays, public art, not to mention reconfigured waterways that recall parts of the old James River and Kanawha Canal — successfully melding these elements with the river, existing buildings, and vestiges of the original canal to generate linkage and a cohesive sense of place has been elusive.

That might soon change. By this spring, major puzzle pieces should begin falling into place. After the Reynolds aluminum plant closed in the spring of 2009, developers took over, proposing a $40 million mixed-use project — combined restoration, demolition and new construction — that is scheduled to begin next year on a narrow, 6-acre site running from 10th to 13th streets along a meandering Byrd Street.

FOUR FORMER INDUSTRIAL buildings will be restored and one new structure added to collectively contain 225 apartments. There will be limited retail and restaurant space at sidewalk level. The project is a venture of two Richmond-based companies with ongoing, major adaptive use projects nearby: Fountainhead, which has rehabilitated a number of buildings in Manchester, just across the 14th Street Bridge, and WVS Companies, the developer of Rocketts Landing downstream.

“At six acres the Reynolds properties represent the largest accessible undeveloped property tract in downtown,” says Richard Souter, vice president of WVS Companies.

Not unimportantly, the development comes at a time when a new generation of residents and visitors is coming of age or moving here. Many of these folks have no memory — therefore suffer no communal grief — of a time when storied department stores, upscale retailers and half -dozen cinemas gave downtown, especially East Broad and East Grace streets, special Aclan.

“This part of town needs rooftops,” Souter says emphatically. Two condominium high-rises along the Canal Walk, Vistas on the James and Riverside on the James, have recently brought 300 condos to the area. Souter says that without a solid residential base downtown, retail doesn't stand a chance of returning in any significant way. “To pretend you're going to turn this into a shopping destination is wishful thinking,” he says. “You're not going to turn this into a Stony Point or Short Pump.” 

The four former Reynolds buildings will be financed using historic preservation tax credits and other funding through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Critical to the overall success of the project, and still to be determined, those close to the project agree, is when and how the city steps up to the plate to fund needed infrastructure improvements — upgrading the streets and alleys as the buildings are transformed from past industrial, manufacturing and warehouse uses to residences, retail shops, and other cultural and recreational uses.

Also important is linking the canal district, now separated from downtown by the Downtown Expressway, to the financial district, Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom by improving access on foot and by car, parking options and establishing critical sightlines for better orientation.

While no money is currently in the city budget for public improvements to support the upcoming WVS and Fountainhead project, Rachel Flynn, Richmond's director of community planning, is optimistic. “It doesn't have to cost that much and it would all pay off. You've got to spend money to get money, to make retail work, to make tourism work,” Flynn says. “If we don't do it, all this private investment is not going to be maximized.”

[image-3] For a generation now, since 1987 and initially spearheaded by the former Richmond Renaissance, a consortium of civic, business and public officials, local leaders, planners, property owners and developers have worked to recondition the canal district, an area defined as south of the Downtown Expressway and stretching from Belvidere to 14th streets, with the goal of making the area downtown's premier residential and retail destination. The success of the River Walk in San Antonio has been the guiding inspiration, if not the paradigm, in the backs of many local minds.
In some ways, Richmond's waterfront development opportunities far outshine what that Texas attraction had going for it. It is, after all, at the falls of the James that Virginians — and Americans by extension — began their push westward. But in the late 20th century the sad reality of a narrow and environmentally abused, but architecturally evocative, brown field with an interstate highway looming overheard was mitigated by a picturesque riverfront of great natural beauty, a dramatic terrain where the elevation can shift some 60 to 100 feet within a span of a few blocks. There's compelling industrial history including the remains of Tredegar Ironworks, other fascinating old buildings and the stolid, granite canal retaining walls themselves. The district's industrial uses — iron works, tobacco factories, flour and paper mills, power plants, printing operations, and rail yards — had moved elsewhere or ceased, thus creating tremendous reuse potential for the technological information age.

Beginning in the early 1990s, under the auspices of the Richmond Riverfront Corp., landscaping of the western end of Brown's Island and the area near the Lee Bridge was undertaken. The rehabilitation of the Haxall and James River and Kanawha canals was facilitated financially at this same time when a federally mandated sewer pipe was laid in the canal bottom.

The Canal Walk, from Shockoe Bottom to the Lee Bridge, was completed in 1999 as the pedestrian spine of the ongoing development. The western end of the urban parkway has been broadly embraced by the public. A suspended, innovative pedestrian bridge carries thousands of visitors annually to the wilds of Belle Isle. And Brown's Island's lawns and open areas are seamlessly convertible to serve as major entertainment venues. This was proven again this fall when the widely acclaimed Richmond Folk Festival lured nearly 200,000 people to the canal district.

Altogether, private investment has followed public infrastructure to the tune of some $300 million in private real estate development. This has added 1.6 million square feet of new construction to the district, including the new MeadWestvaco headquarters — and, yes, rooftops. A combined 300 upscale residential units are contained within in the high-rise Vistas and Riverside on the James condos, both overlooking the Canal Walk.

Despite the construction of these complexes at the more densely built, eastern end of the Canal Walk, in the vicinity where it crosses the Haxall Canal and runs parallel to parts of the James River and Kanawha Canal to 14th Street, development has been slower.

Cordish Development of Baltimore has stalled on developing the 25,000-square-foot former Virginia Electric and Power Co. hydroelectric plant. In fact, it walked away from a $1 million inducement the city had tendered if work had gotten underway by a certain date.

“It's a beautiful place, but it's not an active place,” says Jack Berry of much of the eastern tip of Brown's Island and nearby parts of the canal district. Berry is executive director of Venture Richmond, the entity into which previous riverfront development and marketing organizations have merged, including the former Richmond Renaissance. Venture Richmond oversees and has significant sway in the canal district's development.

Berry applauds the upcoming development of the Reynolds site but says additional infrastructure is essential. Making sense of what is a currently a crazy quilt of uses, traffic patterns and visual barriers is key, he says.

Standing at 12th and Byrd streets, Berry points eastward past two inoperative locks of the canal and toward the turning basin: The potential vista is currently marred by one of the nondescript Reynolds factories slated to come down next year. “It's going to really be important to see the canal boats from this vantage point,” he says of the canal boat operation, putting himself in the shoes of the uninitiated pedestrian or tourist.

And the Canal Walk is still far from accessible for disabled persons. He says that an additional walk on the north side of the canal could improve that. Walking toward the impressive, Italianate-styled factory that will be a centerpiece of the next phase of redevelopment, Berry says that construction of a low bridge across the Haxall Canal will be important to making the area attractive to pedestrians. Berry winces as he looks upward toward a high bridge that serves as a parking deck ramp.

The economic potential of synchronized development can be significant: “There could be a lot of [tax revenue generated for the city], a lot of taxes out of once was an industrial river and an underused industrial area,” he says.     

The New “Rooftops”

[image-4] [image-5]


This architect's rendering shows an proposed apartment development between South 12th and South 13th streets along the Tidewater locks of the former James River and Kanawha Canal.

IF CONSTRUCTION STARTS this spring the first phase will include the conversion of four historic buildings and the construction of a new apartment building on the footprint of where a Reynolds building now stands. The average size of the 225 units will be 840 square feet. The developers have unofficially dubbed this phase the Locks.

1 While South 11th Street between East Byrd Street and Haxall Point on Brown's Island is now a little more than a block long, it will become the a hub of the new development. “This could be a sweet little street,” city planning director Flynn says. The four historic buildings connect in various ways on this all-but-forgotten stretch that currently culminates as a bridge to the Troutman Sanders Building.

Visitors and residents will be greeted at a small, three-story building on 11th Street that will serve as the rental office and de facto main lobby for all the buildings.

2 The brick White Canal Building (1886) is the oldest of the buildings and has four stories. The stepped gable roof on the eastern facade recalls the profile of dozens of warehouse and commercial buildings that were built along the Richmond waterfront in the 19th century. The elevation drops about 20 feet, or two stories, on the Haxall Canal side of this structure, which should offer some interesting landscaping possibilities.

3 The White Byrd Building, also brick, at the southwest corner of 11th and Byrd streets, was built in 1900 and has a simple, prominent face on Byrd. The architecturally insignificant structures immediately west of this building are scheduled for demolition to create parking for the Locks.

4 What developers are calling the Italianate Building was constructed on 1901, initially serving as a factory for Union Envelope Co. and later as the Richmond plant of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The ghost of the old sign is still visible on the building's south side. It already is the lively, architectural focal point of the overall complex and the most elaborately detailed building along the Canal Walk with deep-set windows, pier columns, rustication on the first floor level, quoins running up the building's corners and a distinctive, central tower facing south and the Haxall Canal. It would look at home in any New England mill town.

At ground level, on the north side of the Italianate Building, a swimming pool will be constructed. Facing the Haxall Canal, on the south side, a restaurant is envisioned. While this could be operationally challenging — how to accommodate deliveries and patron parking — Souter says such problem solving makes adaptive reuse projects like this intellectually interesting. “It's not how things are done at the mall, this is how cities work,” he says.

5 The Brown Building (1910), stretching across the full north side of the Byrd Street block bounded and 11th and 12th streets, is the largest of the old buildings in the project. This simple building with handsome modernist leanings in its clean lines and large window openings was designed by Richmond architect Charles Robinson (he is known for decidedly more elaborate buildings such as University of Richmond's Canon Chapel, Thomas Jefferson High School and First English Lutheran Church). The brown, concrete structure will be repainted and its windows cleaned of multiple layers of paint to perhaps reveal itself as Richmond's first major modernist building. Stay tuned.

6 The new 13th and Byrd Building, running parallel to the former James River and Kanawha Canal locks for a block between 12th and 13th streets, will be contemporary in design. On the building's north, patios and balconies will open directly onto views of the canal. Although modernistic in design (Walter Parks Architects is the designer with Commonwealth Architects as consultant), the building will have a stepped gable at its 12th and 13th street fronts, a nod to mill buildings that once stood in the area and a stipulation of restrictive covenants that dictate federal-style architectural references. Apartments on the south side of the building, which are up high enough to clear the nearby flood wall, will have views overlooking the river. Covered parking will be incorporated on the ground level. The rooftops are coming. 

Weaving It All Together

WITH THE FORMER Reynolds buildings being added to the canal district mix, infrastructure improvements must follow. “It's almost as if all these investments have been in silos — the Canal Walk, the Vistas, everything is pretty isolated. Everyone is acting on their own,” Flynn says. “The city's role is to add linkage, connecting to bring this together. They need to be interlaced so that each separate entity can work and complement the other.”

The development, when completed, Flynn says, will draw more tourists and retail, which will also raise property values in the area.

“Currently it's not very inviting, it's a series of dead ends,” says Flynn of approaches to Brown's Island and the canal. “You can't see the canal and it's cut the public off from seeing the river. Our intent is connecting to all the areas with all modes of transportation. We're trying to keep a balance with the pedestrian and the car. Currently, cars are king. When pedestrians have equal rights to the streets, cars have to crawl through.”

Crawl is hardly what cars are doing now as they careen eastward from the Manchester Bridge and the vicinity of Ninth Street and take a curved left turn from Byrd onto 12th Street. This is the uppermost point of pedestrian access to the James River and Kanawha Canal Park and where the new 13th and Byrd Building will be built with street level retail. Currently, “Byrd Street was designed as a highway,” Flynn says.

Traffic can be calmed if Byrd, currently three traffic lanes heading east, becomes a two-way street. She also envisions Byrd Street intersecting with 12th at a T rather than the current banked curve.

There is also space to widen the sidewalks along the south side of the 1100 and 1200 blocks of Byrd Street, which the White Byrd and Brown buildings face. Permanent on-street parking along here would also serve as a traffic calmer.

“The Canal Walk must be extended on the north side of both the Haxall and James River and Kanawha canals so that the eastern end of the walkway links up with the MeadWestvaco and Federal Reserve Bank campuses,” says Jack Berry of Venture Richmond. The spaces through which theses routes pass are each contiguous to the new residential developments scheduled to start in the spring. This will also make the Canal Walk more compliant with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

[image-7] With the renovation of the Italianate Building, vehicle access would be enhanced by removing the current monument to the 1607 landing of the English at the falls of the James River. This monument was unveiled in 1907 on Gambles Hill, was moved to Shockoe Slip and more recently was placed near Byrd and 12th streets. Perhaps it could be moved to the nearby, grassy, riverside slope south of the flood wall. Also, a pedestrian footbridge, linking the Italianate Building with the Troutman Sanders Building across the Haxall Canal, would create linkage and visually soften the overbearing vehicular bridges overhead.

Finally, access to the river's edge is an obvious amenity that still eludes the canal district. The open, undeveloped area immediately south of the flood wall, and sloping down to the water, from 13th Street to the Mayo Bridge could be developed into a simple but beautiful park establishing a welcome stretch of green to a brutally built-up area. The commemorative cross might provide an exclamation point.

What will this cost? While nothing is currently in the city budget for these improvements, Flynn says the money is there if the will is there. Too often in this community, she says, “we have a pauper's mentality.”

“There's always the notion that we can't afford it. Well, we can't afford not to. It's hurting us,” Flynn says. “These connections would open this area up for retail. If the planning director can't find her way around that area, can you imagine what a tourist encounters? We need to open this area up.”

Brian Fowler, a lawyer with Troutman Sanders who works in the firm's Brown's Island tower, says the area has long suffered from a “chicken and egg situation.”

“I'm a big believer in urban infill and taking advantage of being in the city. This area is the future of our city,” Fowler says, adding that the Reynolds project may be the boost the canal district has long needed.

“It's unfortunate that this is taking place during one of the biggest real estate collapses in history,” he adds. “But there is huge potential.”


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