What Richmond needs… and doesn’t

As a lifelong Richmonder who has previously lived and currently works in the city, I like to think I have a good handle on the state of the city’s economic and tourism growth and potential. As happens for many “born here’s,” my thoughts on what direction the city’s planning and development should take are often dismissed as the desires of someone who wants Richmond to go back to the way it used to be. Honestly, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve traveled to many U.S. and international cities, and I’ve seen the way other cities showcase their histories while also valuing innovation and new development. There are ways to balance the two and keep all the residents of Central Virginia engaged and regularly visiting the city. Here are just a few of my thoughts:

Central Market/Food Hall – I cannot, for the life of me, understand what brought the city to want to tear down the last remaining vestiges of the most recent iteration of a farmer’s market, but what now takes up the space at 17th Street is, quite literally, a travesty. There is nothing there. The covered market space has been replaced with concrete and a few scraggly trees. There are no more market vendors, and no plans for future vendors have been announced. The most recent information available from the city is from mid-May, announcing transfer of ownership to the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities.

Compare these two images. On the left is the current 17th Street Farmer’s Market space. On the right is the old First Market in the same footprint. Now take a look at what some other cities are doing:

In Charleston, South Carolina, the historic Central Market is an indoor/outdoor space with food and craft vendors that’s a central hub for eating and shopping. It’s one of the nation’s oldest public markets and is convenient to public transportation and parking.

California’s Anaheim Packing House plays on the region’s agricultural past by converting a former citrus packing building into a dual-level food hall with some specialty retail shops. A free shuttle circulates visitors between the Packing House and other local food and retail hotspots, while paid public transportation brings outside visitors to the neighborhood. Parking is available close by.

The country’s oldest continually-operating farmer’s market, Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Central Market holds a central, prominent location in Lancaster’s downtown. With plenty of food vendors from the surrounding countryside, the market is a thriving culinary and retail hub with convenient, nearby parking.

I find it difficult to understand how city planners could think that removing the building from the site and decimating the livelihoods of the former farmer’s market vendors is worthwhile in order to have an empty, city-run space where you can have an ice rink in the winter and a night market once a month. This space could be a thriving food hall featuring multicultural dining experiences, outposts of some of the city’s best restaurants and a retail hub for local specialty retail shops, artisans and produce vendors. It could be bringing in consistent revenue for the city and providing steady employment. A building reminiscent of the original market could be built on the site and interpretive panels and plaques could be installed to provide a historical context. Public transportation and parking convenient to the market is critical. The city could work to develop partnerships with the downtown parking lots and decks to validate short-term parking tickets with a market purchase and ensure that ample public transportation options are available. In addition, Main Street Station could build out retail space to generate some additional revenue. Even a newsstand and locally-owned coffee shop would bring in foot traffic from downtown workers and would provide convenience for travelers instead of the relatively empty station currently.

Sports Complex in Scott’s Addition – The proposal to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom should be dead and gone. The only people who seem to keep pushing for it are developers. And if you’ve lived in Richmond long, you’ve seen developers who think they have the next big thing be wrong pretty consistently (looking at you, Sixth Street Marketplace!). Any Richmonder knows that the parking for such a stadium would be a fiasco, the traffic would snarl to a standstill with the mass exodus from downtown while baseball fans are trying to come in for a game, and there’s no guarantee we won’t have another tropical storm flood out a field in such a low-lying area, causing untold damage to a field with sod, dugouts, etc.

The Scott’s Addition neighborhood has built itself organically from a blue collar commercial and residential area to a thriving hotspot filled with restaurants, breweries and all manner of fun activities, from shuffleboard to bowling to golf and more. Why not build on the organic growth and develop a sports destination visible from the interstate to draw in traffic? The Diamond needs a massive upgrade – of this I’m well aware after having attended the game years ago where chunks of concrete started falling from the roof. In New Jersey, the NFL’s Jets and Giants built a brand new stadium a few years ago in the parking lot of the old stadium, which allowed the new stadium to be built while the old one was still being used during its last season. At the end of the season, the old stadium was demolished and its footprint converted to parking.

With an existing baseball presence, a soccer and track and field complex, a training complex for an NFL team, the Arthur Ashe Center and the impending vacating of the Virginia ABC headquarters as the authority relocates to Hanover County, the entire area is ripe for redevelopment. A new baseball stadium could be built using the construction/demolition process of the Meadowlands. A stadium design incorporating elements of previous Richmond baseball fields would highlight the region’s proud baseball history, while modern tech and design elements could be incorporated into the new stadium, as well as club-level seating, a kids’ play area, etc. The Arthur Ashe Center could be replaced with a large dual-use arena that could accommodate both a D-league basketball team and ECHL or UHL hockey team, as well as concerts and other events. A free or low-cost shuttle or circulator service could easily ferry sports fans to and from the various sports venues and the surrounding restaurants, movie theater and activity venues. A multi-level parking deck could be built and local artists could design sports-themed murals for the side of the deck that could be seen from the interstate, while the electronic billboards facing I-95 could advertise upcoming baseball, hockey or basketball games or concerts. Even if the city isn’t ready to bring in both a hockey and basketball team, it wouldn’t hurt to build a new arena out with the capacity for both sports as well as live music and other events.

Public Transportation – While we’re on the subject of transportation, I’m just going to assume that GRTC has enough of a partnership with the various electric scooter companies authorized to operate in the city that it has requested heat maps of popular routes taken by the scooters, right? That’s a no-brainer to determine where future bus and/or shuttle routes are needed.

I will offer kudos to GRTC – they finally put in a route connecting the Richmond International Airport with downtown. Now they just need to offer an express shuttle service that skips all the stops in the East End and arrives downtown right near the Convention Center and the hotels in that radius of a couple of blocks. I know if my flight has just landed and I’m attending a convention downtown, I’m not really interested in stopping at White Oak Village or the Henrico Eastern Government Center. Just get me downtown quickly so I can check into my hotel and start exploring the city.

On that note, there are so many new transportation options that would enhance the ability for visitors to the city to get around and explore all the difference neighborhoods that Richmond has to offer. A trolley or shuttle bus service from the Lakeside Farmer’s Market down Lakeside Avenue to Arthur Ashe Boulevard would connect Lakeside, Bellevue and Northside neighborhoods with Scott’s Addition and the Pulse bus service. A similar service could run along Commerce Road to connect Manchester and points south to Broad Street and the Pulse bus service via the Manchester Bridge.

Navy Hill Development – I will just be blunt – no one except developers thinks this is a good idea. I happen to agree with Ben Campbell and John Moser’s column in wanting to see this area develop organically without the massive push of people with big wallets and bigger ambitions. A civics and government focused high school in the area, with partnerships with J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, the Virginia General Assembly and various state government agencies in the city, would offer a world-class education to RPS students. The surrounding area can build small-scale, walkable retail, and could even create pedestrian-only retail corridors, but this shouldn’t be done at the expense of schools or other things the city desperately needs. If parking decks are built anywhere in this area, they should offer validation for purchases at local shops and restaurants to entice visitors from outlying areas to come to the city rather than doing their shopping in Short Pump or Midlothian. Certainly the city could manage multiple smaller retail development projects in this area rather than an enormous bond package with no outs if it becomes a boondoggle. City residents deserve better than that, and based on the past track record of massive development projects in the city, they have reason to worry.

I wholeheartedly agree with Daniel Herriges’ Richmond magazine “My Take” column that Richmond should be cautious about trying to invent a retail/arena/housing/hotel/bus terminal complex in one fell swoop and should instead accomplish the redevelopment of this part of the city over time in smaller increments. Instead of saying “if we build it, they will come,” shouldn’t we be looking at where people are going already, and where there is existing momentum for economic growth? Scott’s Addition, Manchester and the Broad Street corridor are vibrant and growing, with new shops and restaurants opening all the time. The city’s economic development policies and plans should encourage growth of neighborhoods that are already growing organically and reward the small business owners who are the backbone of the city’s renaissance into a nationally-recognized foodie town.

In short, the city needs to focus on fully supporting the existing economic growth of “hot” areas by creating public transport options to, from and within these areas and by incentivizing entrepreneurs and business owners to continue to offer variety and excellent service to tourists and city residents alike. The city shouldn’t look to tear down and start from scratch with every design project, but should look to design cues from the city’s past and historical context markers in new developments to keep the city’s history alive. At the same time, the city needs to look at what things, like food halls, are popular in other foodie destinations and capitalize on those trends while still building for the long term. And Richmond needs to wake up and realize, once and for all, that just because a bunch of developers say something is a good idea, that doesn’t mean anyone will ever want to go there. And with the nearby Jackson Ward neighborhood filled with retail shops and restaurants, the city could offer marketing and incentives to this organically-growing area rather than injecting a bunch of new competition nearby, competition that will surely receive sweetheart deals with the city to locate there as part of the Navy Hill project. Richmond can’t be everything to everyone, but it can be truly great at the things that set it apart from other cities: a vibrant, multicultural region, world-class restaurants, fun and funky breweries, distilleries and cideries and unique, locally-owned retail shops.

 

 

 

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