This article addresses the development proposal in Shockoe Bottom unveiled by Mayor Jones in November of last year, which has been headlined by a new baseball stadium. A counter opinion article from Ed Slipek to follow will address the negative aspects of the proposed plan. More information about the Shockoe Bottom plan can be found here:
To begin with, the proposed plan for the redevelopment for Shockoe Bottom is not principally a baseball stadium plan. It is more far reaching, encompassing large scale residential and commercial development, alteration and expansion of public space, and a new National Museum of Slavery which will anchor the existing Richmond Slave Trail. I will address it as such. I will evaluate the plan in terms of its urban form rather than economic impact.
Prior to the introduction of the plan, I had been an advocate of the rarely discussed third option for the stadium, Manchester. Between the Boulevard and the Bottom, I would have put myself in the former camp as well. Of the three areas, Shockoe Bottom is the closest to becoming a functioning urban core of its own. Given the City’s penchant for insensitive and anti-urban developments (I-95, Downtown Expressway, Coliseum, 6th Street, etc.) I thought it would be best if they did not meddle in the area. A careful examination of the rendering and plan presented by the City changed my opinion and, while I think there are some key issues which need to be resolved, I am at peace with the City and collaborating developers, architects, and planners push to move forward.
Perhaps the most positive thing about the new development is the inclusion of a proper Slavery Museum and the protection of the Slave Burial Ground. I see this as the centerpiece of the plan. Architect Burt Pinnock, one of Richmond’s most respected designers, has headed the preliminary design. Pinnock is the perfect person for the task, having already designed the RIchmond Slave Trail. Some critics of the plan dismiss the funds for the museum as a token gesture by developer and officials. To me, their motivation seems irrelevant. Governor Wilder has attempted for years to create an institution of national significance to address this topic and has been so frustrated by the climate in Richmond that he tried to move the project to the relatively insignificant town of Fredericksburg. If there is any place in the nation that should have an institution which presents slavery and its effects, it is Richmond. 30 million dollars have been promised for this effort including 11 million from the state already locked in. If they can make good on this promise, which I believe they can, it cannot be regarded as mere gesture.
Beyond the museum, the development includes 700 residential units, a hotel, a grocery store, and additional retail space. What is more, this great amount of infill development will involve the destruction of very few buildings, a fact which highlights just how desolate the existing sea of surface parking is. Residential density and mixed uses are the life blood of neighborhoods and are sorely needed in the Bottom.
Some have brought up increased traffic as a problem with the plan. This concern seems shortsighted. I do not think a plan which is primarily about urban renewal should make broad accommodations to what is a suburban form of transportation. I see the increased density as an avenue towards greater use of and investment in pedestrian and public transportation infrastructure.
The one thing I have yet to address is the stadium itself, which I have been trying to frame as a smaller part of the plan than many think. Stadiums, because of their large footprints, can break urban areas. Street closures are particularly devastating. At first skeptical, I have come to think that, amazingly, the plan situates the stadium in the most sensitive way imaginable for the site. Because the stadium flanks rail and highway infrastructure to the west, there is no restriction of east-west auto or pedestrian traffic beyond the existing condition. Aside from that, the only significant street closure is 17th Street which carries little traffic in any case. Also, of any street in the neighborhood to limit traffic on, 17th is the best as it runs along the pedestrian oriented market. Most importantly, the stadium does not consume its own super block and deaden the street edge. Mixed use space is wrapped around the stadium, reinforcing the ground floor retail norm in Shockoe Bottom.
I see two significant issues with the plan as proposed. The first is the redesign of the 17th Street Farmer’s market which truly looks like something out of a suburban shopping mall. The second is the gas station and open space on the north side of the stadium. This space should be built on to completely wrap the stadium and maintain an urban wall on Broad Street, if not at the plan’s outset, then down the road. If these concerns are dealt with, it will bolster my opinion that the plan is a surprisingly sensitive recipe for neighborhood revitalization.