Spatial Affairs Bureau
A controversial new development has been proposed in the East End. The development, commonly known as Pear Street, is sited in Shockoe Bottom at the eastern terminus of Tobacco Row, a street of large tobacco warehouses which has been converted into a mixed use neighborhood. The site is currently zoned for industrial use so the residential development requires a special use permit from City Council. The proposal recently received a recommendation for approval from the Richmond Planning Commission but some East End residents stand in opposition. As such, its fate at City Council remains unclear. This article provides a positive perspective on the Pear Street development and its implications for the city.
I will begin by addressing common concerns voiced by those in opposition to Pear Street. It seems the most common concern is the building’s height. Depending on who you ask, and likely what side of the issue they are on, the building rises 13 or 16 stories. From the Main Street frontage the tower is 13 stories, but the site falls away steeply to the south revealing 3 stories of semi-underground parking. The building would rise only around 45 feet shy of the neighboring Lucky Strike Smoke Stack, making it the tallest habitable building in the neighborhood. The development sits near the base of Libby Hill Park, a popular urban green in Church Hill known for the “View that Named Richmond.” That view, which faces east from the park, will remain unaffected by the development but the larger panorama for the which the park has become known will not. While some oppose the building’s height outright as being incongruous with the neighborhood, most are concerned with the effect it would have on this exceptional view.
I believe that Pear Street will have a positive visual impact on the view from Libby Hill. The building will improve the view from the park by adding a vibrant and modern vertical punctuation to Tobacco Row, one which maintains a dialogue with the adjacent Lucky Strike tower. Few renderings and drawings have been made widely available but those that have show a building with an interesting massing and material choices and window details which respect the character of Tobacco Row without being derivative. Details aside, I think the mass of the tower has been greatly exaggerated by those who would see it undone. A panoramic rendering of the view might show just how slender a footprint the development has in the overall view shed. I don’t know why such an image is not widely available as it would, in theory, illustrate the point of either side.
Beyond and above such aesthetic concerns lie the Pear Street development’s planning implications. Pear Street’s strong vertical density represents a sustainable direction within the overall context of development in the metropolitan area. By concentrating residential units, mid and high rise buildings use less land and require less infrastructure than their horizontally sprawling counterparts. This translates into less urban runoff and habitat destruction. The more “urban” the project (the closer its proximity to a high density of other functions), the more cost effective and environmentally friendly non-automobile transit is. If sufficient density is achieved in the Bottom increasingly intense forms of public transit, such as street cars and light rail, will become more feasible. Density will also make walking and biking more viable by increasing the capacity for retail in an existing area. The proposed building would have a direct and positive impact on the city’s sustainable growth, promoting a pedestrian oriented retail culture in the Bottom.
Pear Street would also contribute to the success of the planned redevelopment of Great Shiplock Park. As the Richmond Riverfront Plan is realized, Great Shiplock will be of increasing importance as it forms the eastern capstone of the central riverfront park system. Pear Street, a residential building, would provide a healthy boost to Great Shiplock park’s user base as well as desirable informal ‘citizen monitoring’ in the mode suggested by Jane Jacobs (1). According to Jacob’s “eyes on the street” principle, the new residents should also help change the reputation of the Bottom, an area known for occasional crime and frequent ‘hooliganism.’
While Pear Street can be viewed as a discrete issue, it is important to tie the development into a larger narrative. I am optimistic about this building and the new phase of American planning which it represents. The fact that people of means might be ready and willing to live in a mid-rise building in Richmond, in Shockoe Bottom no less, would have been mind-boggling to many two decades ago. As the momentum of urban renewal grows, a future of well cared for townhomes and tasteful neighborhood shops is increasingly secure. While the trend has played an important role in shattering the de facto suburbanity of America’s middle classes, I often wonder what might lie beyond it. Are the city’s people open to continual growth or will we set a developmental ceiling somewhere around the current state of, say, the Fan?
Pear Street poses just such a question. Developments like this ask whether Richmond is a city in which urban development means rehabilitated town homes or new multi-family buildings, quaint eateries for the weekend or “real-life” retail for the days in between, or a few bike racks for the young and adventurous or diverse transit for just as diverse a populous. We are likely to face these questions with increasing frequency as the number of pre WWII buildings left unrenovated dwindles. I am proud of what Richmond has accomplished since the failed course charted in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, but I feel simply returning to bygone planning is unacceptable. In my view, Pear Street represents an opportunity to move beyond recapturing lost ground to a new developmental high water mark.
ArchitectureRichmond writer Ed Slipek recently covered this issue in a recent article for Style Weekly. Slipek’s piece took a critical perspective on the proposal. Another article by the Richmond Times Dispatch can be found here.
1. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961. Reprint, New York: Random House, 1992), 35.
June 24th. Note: A typo in a previous version of this article stated that the View that Named Richmond faced west from the park, not east.