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.

 

 

 

Celebrate America on July 4

Virginia is a great place to celebrate Independence Day. We have authentic Americana and historic sites galore. Here are some of the best places to visit for July 4:

  • An American Celebration, Mount Vernon – Fireworks, military re-enactments, a naturalization ceremony, birthday cake and a visit from George and Martha Washington are highlights of July 4th at this American history museum.
  • Independence Day Celebration, Yorktown – Enjoy a 5k/8k run/walk, parade, U.S. Coast Guard band, concert and fireworks.
  • Independence Day at Patrick Henry’s Red Hill, Brookneal – Featuring a speech by Virginia’s first governor, Patrick Henry, and fireworks at dusk, this is a unique, family-friendly Fourth of July celebration.
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  • Fourth at the Fort, Fort Monroe – A flag ceremony, food, live music and a fireworks display mark the Fourth at this historic fort near Hampton.
  • Independence Day at Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg – Readings of the Declaration of Independence take place throughout the day, alongside musical performances, hands-on activities for the kids and an evening fireworks display.
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  • Independence Day in Historic Port Royal, Port Royal – Special appearances by George Mason, Dolly Madison and Harriet Tubman, performances of period music from the Revolutionary and Civil War areas, pipes and drums and free surrey rides.
  • 4th of July Concert and Fireworks, Dogwood Dell, Richmond – Long-running local favorite featuring a patriotic performance by the Richmond Concert Band and a fireworks display at dusk.
  • Stars and Stripes Explosion, Virginia Beach – Enjoy live music performances throughout the day and end your evening with a bang at the massive fireworks display.

Fire, Flour & Fork’s Carnaval Latino

This year’s Fire, Flour & Fork food festival brought chefs, food personalities, foodies and “the food curious” from across the country to the Richmond, Virginia region to explore the best of Richmond’s food culture and history. The Carnaval Latino, a street festival held on the block of East Clay Street in front of the Valentine Museum, as well as inside the museum itself, showcased the region’s Latino heritage. From food and drinks to music, dancing, fashion and history, this event was a delicious and fun-filled evening.

First, let’s talk food. Some of Richmond’s best restaurants serving Mexican and South American specialties were represented, including Pao’s Bakery, Bocata Latin Grill, Shelly’s Comida, Flora Restaurant, Empanadas Market and more. From shrimp ceviche to lamb tacos and the most delicious tres leches cake I’ve ever had, the food was the star of the show!

There was also plenty of wine from Spain and other regions, as well as Steam Bell Beer Works, which had a delicious stout brewed with Mexican spices.

The entertainment was varied, from traditional dancing of Mexico to Colombian salsa dancing. A fashion show from a promising fashion designer who is only sixteen years old was a highlight! The Valentine Museum also had an exhibit of Latino heritage in the Richmond region, which was filled with unique artifacts and history.

My mom and I attended the Carnaval Latino to celebrate our birthdays (hers is two days before mine at the end of October), and it was a festive night out with plenty of great food and entertainment. I hope Fire, Flour & Fork does another Carnaval Latino at next year’s festival.

Fire, Flour & Fork is Coming Up!

Richmond’s annual festival “for the food curious,” Fire, Flour & Fork takes place November 2-5 in and around the city. This fun and informative festival highlights the city’s and the region’s food history and local ingredients. From signature dining events to classes and discussions, there’s plenty to discover as we celebrate the Richmond region’s cuisine.

This year’s festival features a wine tour and luncheon at Barboursville Vineyards, a “Liquid Launch” sponsored by the Richmond Beer Trail, a Street Art and Street Food Tour and much more. Local chefs and food experts like bbq master Tuffy Stone of Q Barbecue, John Maher of The Rogue Gentleman and Yaki, Jason Alley of Pasture and Comfort and many more will be cooking and discussing foods and beverages from around the world and from right in our backyard in the Richmond region.

If your interests lie in Richmond’s booming craft beverage scene, you won’t want to miss Sake at Yaki, the Gathered and Grown Cider Dinner with local restauranteur Joy Crump at Blue Bee Cider or Mezcal: Time, Place & Family at Flora on Friday, Nov. 3. Saturday’s Turning Tea on its Head at The Jefferson features tea cocktails, and Sunday’s Put a Shine on Your Holiday Cocktails with Belle Isle Craft Spirits will show you how to class up your festive drinks. Sunday’s Bartender Battle at Brenner Pass is a can’t miss event too!

The Third Annual Dabney Dinner, honoring the legacy of 18th century Richmond caterer, restauranteur and barman John Dabney, features remarks from Michael Twitty, culinary historian and author of The Cooking Gene, an exploration of food, family history and the history of the American south.

Saturday’s class pass offers a kickoff talk from James Beard award-winning chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton, then splits into concurrent sessions divided into Fire, Flour and Fork. Sessions on corn as an ingredient, Ethiopian spices, heritage grains, specialty breads and much more fill out the packed schedule.

Tickets for some of the most popular signature events have already sold out, so be sure to get your tickets early. Special “signature event and class pass” and other combination options are available this year.

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Midtown State Fair

On July 16, the kids and I headed to Libbie Mill for Fire, Flour & Fork‘s “Midtown State Fair.” Held behind the Libbie Mill Library, this fun, family-friendly food festival had plenty for us to do, from great eats to crafts to cooking demonstrations and more.

When we arrived, the Virginia heat and humidity made King of Pops gourmet popsicles a necessity.

Next, we checked out the tent area, full of local specialty foods and activities for the kids. They got to spin a prize wheel and make crafts, and we all sampled some of southern-favorite Birdie’s Pimento Cheese, Nate’s Bagels and more.

 

There was a petting zoo where my kids enjoyed petting the goats, and a booth from Wandering Cow Farm with goat-milk soaps and other natural body care products.

The highlights of the day were the Filipino folk dance demonstration and the old-fashioned cakewalk.

The event was put on by the team behind the Fire, Flour & Fork food festival. Tickets for this year’s FFF, to be held in the beginning of November, go on sale August 1. Some of the events will sell out quickly, so get your tickets early!

Red Cap Patisserie visit

Recently I stopped by Red Cap Patisserie’s shop on Meadow Street to try out the croissants and pastries. The shop is small, with only a little space for seating, but has plenty of display space for their sweet and savory pastries, including pain au chocolat, kouign amman, scones and more.

The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, and the pastries are delicious.  I can’t wait to return and try more of their treats, including some of the savory ones.

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Summer Food Events in Virginia

Summer in Virginia is a time for festivals, and the best festivals celebrate the foods the Commonwealth is known for. Here are some of the best:

*Gordonsville’s Famous Fried Chicken Festival – Saturday, May 20, 11 AM-5 PM, Gordonsville Fire Company Fairgrounds – Celebrate the “chicken-leg center of the universe” and Gordonsville’s long history of fried chicken-making with fried chicken and pie contests, a wine garden and arts and crafts vendors.

*Broad Appetit – Sunday, June 4, 11 AM-6 PM, Richmond’s West Broad Street between Henry and Adams Streets – Try $3 mini dishes from some of Richmond’s most renowned chefs and restaurants. Africanne on Main, Casa del Barco, Comfort, Graffiato, Pasture and more will create small plates to try. Beverage options from across Virginia, including beers, wines and ciders, plus local dessert makers will round out your meal. Live music and cooking demos will make this a fun day for the whole family.

*Father’s Field Day – Sunday, June 18, 11 AM-6 PM, Early Mountain Vineyards, Madison – Enjoy a variety of local food, including barbecue and various local desserts while tasting some of Early Mountain’s best wines and taking in live music and views of the Blue Ridge foothills from the patio.

*Hanover Tomato Festival – Saturday, July 8, 9 AM-4 PM, Pole Green Park, Hanover – This celebration of the juiciest, most delicious tomato in the world offers rides, games, a petting zoo and local vendors plus more tomato dishes than you can shake a fork at.

*Pork, Peanut and Pine Festival – Saturday, July 15, 10 AM-7 PM and Sunday, July 16, 10 AM-5 PM, Chippokes Plantation State Park, Surry – A barbecue cookoff and local food vendors share what Southern Virginia is best known for: pork, peanuts and pine. A petting zoo, rock climbing wall and inflatable slide mean the kids will have plenty to do and see too.

*Henricus Discovery Program Days Program Series: Food of the 17th Century – Thursday, July 27, 10 AM-1 PM, Henricus Historical Park, Chester – Learn what breakfast, lunch and dinner would have looked like for a colonist or a Powhatan Indian. This program is perfect for kids ages 3-10 and includes a take-home craft.

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Get out there and have fun exploring this summer! What are your favorite places to visit in Virginia (or your state)?