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In Support of Pear Street

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 expressive massing, contextual 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 Jacobs¹. 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 this question. It asks 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. Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Reprint ed. New York City: Random House, 1992. 35. Print.

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.



  • Tess

    Hi! Love your blog, and appreciate this level-headed, honest opinion on the issue. The “view that named the city” is actually looking along the river eastward from Libby Hill Park, though. If you go to the park and read the sign (facing southeast) that shows a similar view of Richmond-upon-Thames, it’s the river progressing east from Libby Hill that matches it. Just wanted to point that out. I’m all for development most of the time, but I think in this case, keeping the view clear is more important.

    • architecturerichmond

      I understand the opposition and appreciate the passion people have for such a great public space. Thank you for sharing it here and reading ArchitectureRichmond.

    • Shane

      The development would make a mark on the Libby Hill panoramic, but its located SSW of the park. The southeast view toward Rocketts Landing and beyond would be preserved.


    Everyone loves itt when folks get together and share views.
    Great site, eep it up!

  • va011101

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of the Pear Street development and although I disagree with some of the points in the post, I do agree that looking at the project in a larger context is important (as opposed to a narrow aesthetic or “spoiling the view” perspective). To that end, I would like to offer a few observations (and perhaps raise a few questions) in response.

    Firstly, as your post points out, the developers of the Pear Street project are seeking a Special Use Permit (SUP) to allow residential development on a site where residential uses are not currently permitted. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with seeking and granting a SUP, prudent planning would suggest that “spot rezoning,” or changing land use policy in a capricious manner for an individual site, should be avoided. Rather, the planning authorities responsible for the review of a project should look at the “big picture” as represented by existing planning documents, namely, Richmond’s Downtown Plan of 2009. If a given project is consistent with the provisions of the relevant planning documents, then there are sufficient grounds to consider the land use policy change of the SUP, since presumably, the existing policy is on a trajectory to be more consistent with the plan.

    Unfortunately, the proposed Pear Street tower is not consistent with the urban design criteria of the 2009 Downtown Plan, which calls for “Urban Center” character for Shockoe. Urban Center generally features buildings with no more than four stories and infill buildings that are consistent with the surrounding structures. This would suggest that any new residential buildings on the Pear Street site would be built with compatible size and mass as the surrounding warehouses. Because of this, it is troubling that Richmond’s Planning Commission chose to ignore the clear direction of the Downtown Plan, recommending approval of the SUP for Pear Street. I believe that the Planning Commission violated its responsibilities in taking this action.

    Nevertheless, the author of the post makes a case that the Pear Street tower is a sustainable design and an enhancement for the urban life of Shockoe. This assertion is worth contemplating. It is certainly conceivable that even though the Downtown Plan was created by one of the preeminent urban design firms practicing in the US, certain provisions could be flawed, outdated or fail to take into account localized conditions. If any of things are the case, then action may be warranted to change the plan through a public process, not though special permitting. If Shockoe should have towers, then let’s have that debate in a public forum through an organized process with a consensus document as a result. Right now, the consensus document in force clearly indicates otherwise.

    As an aside, I certainly agree with the author’s endorsement of Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” concept, hinging on a certain threshold of residential density. However, I would contend that an appropriate residential density for vibrant urban life can be achieved within the limits dictated by the Downtown Plan, i.e. “Urban Center” defined above. Furthermore, Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” was specifically referencing direct community engagement (line-of-sight) with the street that is only possible in low and mid-rise development. I would encourage the author to research the relative social merits of low-rise versus high-rise urban housing. Charles Montgomery in his recent book Happy City cites measurements of perceived quality of life (happiness) of residents in Vancouver and found that those who live in the podium level apartments (low to mid-rise) with connections to outdoor public space and a sense of community were significantly happier than those who live in the towers above.

    The other issue that the author of this post fails to address is the concept of public welfare as embodied by Libby Hill Park. It is tempting to dismiss the concerns about the views from the park as petty criticism from a vocal minority that is resistant to change. However, the parks and other public spaces are the heart of civic life and Libby Hill was specifically created to provide a vista of the entire panorama of Richmond. Placing the residential tower in the proposed location with the proposed height unequivocally harms the public interest and welfare of those who use the park, as defined as unimpeded views. This issue alone should compel the Planning Commission and City Council to reject the SUP, the variance from the Downtown Plan notwithstanding.

    On this point, the blog post author and I do agree: it is refreshing to have a debate of this type about urban design in Richmond. The author is correct that two decades ago, no one was even contemplating anything of this scale in Shockoe Bottom. However, I firmly believe that new infill structures can be designed to create vibrant urban communities without violating the character of our neighborhoods. And, if the definition of character needs to be debated or changed, let’s do so in a public, inclusive and comprehensive process, not parcel-by-parcel.

    Andrew B. Moore, AIA
    Director of Urban Architecture
    Glavé & Holmes Architecture, PC

    • va011101

      Postscript: a colleague pointed out that the Pear Street parcel is actually just outside of the boundary of the 2009 Downtown Master Plan, a puzzling omission. Although this erodes the letter of the planning process argument I made above, I stand by the spirit.


      • architecturerichmond

        Mr. Moore,

        Thank you for one of the most insightful and informed comments we have seen on ArchitectureRichmond. While we don’t see eye to eye on a number of issues, you have helped me appreciate the logic of a broad planning-based argument against the development. I think your argument would find strong support in the community as well.

        I tend to think that Richmond’s planning processes, improved though they are from previous decades, have not gone far enough in securing a sustainable and, frankly, dense future for the city. Participation by relevant stakeholders may or may not be higher in the master plan forum than in case-by-case hearings on SUPs, but I am not prepared to say that a site specific approach to public involvement and planning yields poor results. Nor do I necessarily subscribe to the notion that these types of planning issues should be decided by the public. Theoretically, the reason the nation operates on republican democracy rather than a more direct approach is to outsource these types of decisions to experts: in this case, the Planning Commission.

        While I am interested by the Vancouver study which you cite, it is difficult to apply to this situation. For one, the finding may be a correlation rather than a direct cause. Living in a high rise residence connotes a wide variety of socio economic factors. Furthermore, Vancouver’s residential high rises reach more than 60 stories. The Pear Street development might well be classified as a mid-rise by comparison. Jane Jacobs spoke specifically to the success of buildings of this scale and higher in enlivening public spaces in her street analysis of the Lower East Side and her lauding of Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. I think arguments against mid and high rise buildings erode further when considered in a variety of of socio economic, cultural, and spatial conditions. Still, I admit that it is not hard to see why structures like these have negative associations for many. One need not go further than Downtown Richmond to see where they might have been drawn from.

        In any case, thank you again for your insights. I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts not only with me but with the other readers. I hope my brief response clarified my views as well.

        I encourage you to keep reading and commenting on ArchitectureRichmond. Our site would be much improved by having people like you participate.


        Don O’Keefe

  • va011101


    Likewise, thank you for the intelligent debate. A couple of comments to your reply:

    On the subject of public input, it was not my intention to promote the idea that “planning issues should be decided by the public.” Rather, I am promoting the idea that planning issues should be decided in the context of a comprehensive public planning process. Granted, the site specific SUP process does have opportunities for public input, but the process is also supposed to be guided by a larger planning framework (e.g. the Downtown Plan), as interpreted by experts (e.g. the Planning Commission) for an exceptional condition, where the public interest is not harmed by granting the SUP. In this case (and in other SUP cases that I am aware of), the exigencies of a specific interest seem to be causing one group of experts (Planning Commission) to ignore the officially adopted position of the City to protect the public’s interest, as represented by the Downtown Plan. By the way, the Downtown plan, though subject to a great deal of public input, was ultimately the work of “experts” – the reputable firm of Dover Kohl.

    On the subject of density, I wholeheartedly agree that Richmond is generally not dense enough to support the kind of urban vitality Jane Jacobs and others have described. I also agree that an example from Vancouver may not apply to Richmond. And, all things being equal, I would be supportive of increasing density for any project in Richmond. However, I have learned to appreciate that density as an end in itself is not the key to civic life and I am skeptical of the one-dimensional argument for urbanism based on increasing it.. Rather, the quality of the public realm, coupled with a contextually appropriate level of density, leads to the sense of community that we love. It is this notion of the public realm that I believe is being threatened by the proposed design and I firmly believe that goals of increasing urban vitality in a sustainable manner can be met with other design approaches.

    Best regards,


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