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Opinion: Shockoe Bottom Plan

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.



  • Architecture Richmond Editorial: Pro Revitalization Plan - RVANews

    […] of two editorials that will take a look at the Mayor’s Shockoe Revitalization Plan. The first opinion is pro-plan and a counter opinion piece by Ed Slipek is to […]

  • Donna

    Here, here! What he said!!

  • SR

    As much as I admire AR and the information I find in it, the reading of the proposal for Shockoe Valley seems hugely naive. “I am at peace with the City and collaborating developers, architects, and planners push to move forward.” Reliance on “the City” and the collaborating developers (like one notorious ex-con with a track record of manipulation of tax credit law, for example) is the same sort of almost child-like faith that gave us the monumental failure of the Sixth Street Marketplace. In classic fashion, we have forgotten our past and are now apparently condemned to repeat it.

    Let’s put aside the oddly grim determination of our Mayor to make this plan happen despite the misgivings of many in Richmond, a determination that has apparently led him to even bring race into the discussion – the last thing this city needs. As to his personal motivation, I can’t imagine that anybody believes it is from pure civic altruism, but perhaps his real reasons will one day be revealed.

    Let’s also put aside the idea of building an entertainment venue on top of a site that saw one of the great tragedies of American history enacted. In contrast, the very view shed of Civil War battlefields are fiercely protected. In Richmond, never mind the view shed – we want to obliterate the very ground where these events took place.

    Let’s ignore the murky economics of the entire project and the apparent link to The Diamond site. The famous peace-inducing plan that AR has come to terms with also ignores the collateral damage to existing historic structures and sites. These include many antebellum homes and businesses, all of which will be seen in a new (glaring, sodium-vapor) light as the developers we trust so much now cast their eyes around Shockoe valley for new opportunities. You state, “this great amount of infill development will involve the destruction of very few buildings.” Sure, on the footprint of the development, but what happens to the rest of the area? You know what happens.

    This is a terrible plan if only for the traffic conditions this vast mess will generate. AR sounds almost child-like in the statement “I see the increased density as an avenue towards greater use of and investment in pedestrian and public transportation infrastructure.” AR, here’s the news: we live in an automobile culture and waiting for enlightened societal changes to provide the buses, trams, monorails, bike paths, hovercraft or whatever the hell it is you imagine people coming to Shockoe Valley will use could take decades, especially in Richmond. A recent study stated 2500 automobiles will descend on this area for a baseball game, never mind the literally hundreds of vehicles from the apartments, hotel and stores that are proposed. Where will they go? Down one exit from I-95? Down Broad Street? Through the centuries-old grid of streets along Main? In that illustration above, the baseball game has started and twenty or thirty well-spaced cars move stately along the adjoining city streets – yeah, right.

    AR states “Residential density and mixed uses are the life blood of neighborhoods and are sorely needed in the Bottom.” That may be, but to be successful this change happens organically, not delivered in one fat PDF which imposes a design where it was neither wanted or needed. We need look no further than Carytown as an example of a friendly, visually interesting and highly successful urban area which transitioned from residential to mixed use. Ever been to Kanawa Plaza downtown? Me neither, but I have seen Richmonders scurry across it in a hurry to escape its oppressive space. That is the sort of design, imposed on our city like the overwrought public spaces that surround the proposed baseball park of a sort that only Albert Speer could love.

    I bet somewhere there is a description and illustration of the Richmond Convention Center showing the happy Richmonders walking down Marshall Street, enjoying vendors, the festival flags flying, children holding balloons, visitors marveling at the delights Richmond offers. Instead what was once the tree-lined streets and Italian row houses of Jackson Ward have been transformed into a cement and steel canyon that is the most soul-crushing experience in this city. I see the proposed development in Shockoe Valley as the same thing: a dead, concrete monument to the excesses of egomaniacal politicians, developers who smell blood in the water, and the naiveté of well-intentioned bloggers.

    • architecturerichmond

      Thank you very much for your comment. I’m pleased that ArchitectureRichmond could serve as a forum for this discussion. I also would like to take the opportunity to reinforce that the views above are my own and not that of the site as a whole. I encourage you to check back in the next few days when a counter-piece by venerable critic Edwin Slipek will be posted. I suspect that you will agree with much of what he says.

      You have made many interesting points and I cannot respond to all of them without writing another article or two. It was difficult to just write the above piece when the subject is so multifaceted. Rather than make a counterargument, I will make a couple of brief admissions which might shed some light on my perspective.

      First, I am something of an anti-preservationist. I also consider myself a technological and developmental optimist. Though I do not perceive my own views as such, most would probably think of me as a “radical urbanist.” Given the above, I tend to think of the current state of American planning is dire and, frankly, abysmal. As such, I believe that decisive action is merited in the urban realm. I tend to think such action should include intense scalar juxtaposition, swift alterations to transportation infrastructure, and eventual reduction of the footprint of settlements.

      I state the above because I do not think we simply disagree on how best to reach a shared vision for the future of Richmond. Rather, I think it is possible that we have radically different notions of the what constitutes an ideal urban environment.

      I hope that puts my views into context somehow. There are other, more explicitly political views which make me think the plan should be allowed to move forward regardless of my opinion on it, but that is yet another topic which I do not have the space to cover here. If the plan does move forward, I hope for both our sakes that you are wrong about its deadening impact.

      Again, I really appreciate you reading ArchitectureRichmond and please share your thoughts often.

      Don O’Keefe

  • Michael

    I was most confused by this sentence: “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.” I’d really like to know, do you mean the philosophical centerpiece (i.e. the most important section) or the actual centerpiece by some other measure (financial, spatial, cultural, social).

    • architecturerichmond

      Cultural and philosophical, I suppose. I also think that it is the institution and the building which is the most likely to retain significance over time. It isn’t hard to see the ball park being redeveloped again someday, for example. I don’t have the knowledge to say whether or not it is the financial centerpiece but I rather doubt it. I hope that clarifies what I was trying to say.

      • Michael

        Definitely! And I agree with you. It’s exciting to see what they’re hoping to do with the heritage site. Have you seen the images for the museum design?

      • architecturerichmond

        Yes I have. As I touched on in the article, Burt Pinnock is leading the design and I do think he is perfect person for the job. Of course, the project will materialize in more detail as time goes on. If you haven’t, take a look at ArchitectureRichmond’s interview with Pinnock:

        You can also in find it in the “interviews” tab above. I’m glad we both feel that the recognition of these sites and the history which they represent is a big win for Richmond. Thanks for reading, as well.

        Don O’Keefe

  • Various opinions and information regarding the proposed Shockoe Redevelopment plan ‹ CHPN

    […] Don O’Keefe at ArchitectureRichmond weighs in, calling the plan “a surprisingly sensitive recipe for neighborhood revitalization”: […]

  • architecturerichmond

    A clarification on the above article. I have been informed that the image of the redesigned 17th Street Farmer’s Market is indeed a stand in only. The actual design will be carried out by Burt Pinnock of Baskervill who, as mentioned in the article, is responsible for the design of the new Slavery Center as well as the existing Richmond Slave Trail.

  • Michael

    For some reason I can’t reply to your reply, but I saw Burt present last week and I loved the designs he’s put together. Haven’t seen them anywhere publicly so I wan’t sure if they were finalized when you interviewed him. I’m a little concerned with how rushed everything has been. Hopefully they’ll be able to make the kinds of connections they’ll need to set the place up for future success.

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