New Museums for Atlanta and Charleston

In the past year I’ve heard dozens of arguments in Richmond against museums: they’re not profitable, no one cares about history, they’re too expensive. In the past few months, Atlanta and Charleston have told a different story.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta opened a few weeks ago on June 23, 2014. The goal: tell the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s relationship to Atlanta and legacy in the American Civil Rights Movement within the context of global human rights battles being fought today. Here’s a remarkable article on the center from the Bitter Southerner.

The International African American Museum in Charleston, set to open in 2017, will tell a complex cross-continental story of forced migration from Africa to Charleston and the American South. Mayor Riley announced last week that the museum will connect to Gadsden’s Wharf, the actual location where slave ships arrived in Charleston. Although the museum is still years away from it’s projected opening date, it already has a snazzy website promoting the museum and region:

IAAM Website

ArtNet News reports, “The 42,000-square-foot museum will feature interactive exhibits that describe the black experience in America. The displays will be designed by Ralph Appelbaum, who is responsible for the exhibits at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and the new Visitor Reception Center at the United States Capitol.”

Reading about these new institutions reminds me of the life lesson: make choices or they will be made for you. Richmond has a venerable place at the table in terms of historical significance. After all, it was Richmond, not Charleston or Atlanta that was chosen to lead the CSA. It was Richmond that industrialized while the Charleston elite held on to their agricultural society.

And it is Richmond that has spent the last 150 years wondering why.

Vocal residents and politicians in Richmond seem to think that history alone won’t be enough of an attraction for the city. Really, we make excuses to avoid telling the story we were born to tell. And while Richmond thinks, argues, and tosses plans on the shelf, other southern cities are making sense of their story and inviting the nation to drive down I-95 for a visit, passing straight through Shockoe Bottom on their way.

Making Memories

While my 16-year-old sister was at the beach last month, she stopped by the local bookstore and bought me a copy of The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. Amazing. A lot has changed since it was published in 1960, but the main idea is just as important today: we should work to enhance the quality of the experience of each city. Is the city easy to navigate? Is it memorable? Is it hospitable?

Throughout the book, Lynch uses small drawings to explain his theories. Now, instead of practice my signature when I’m bored, I’ve been doodling:

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 5.41.02 PM

This is my idea of the best highway experience. The road travels toward the city, embraces the full broadside view of its beauty, then bends around. In Richmond, there is a reoccurring conversation about the view of Richmond from the highway (especially traveling south on I-95). Lynch’s research gives good context to this and similar, ongoing conversations.

To explain his desire to improve cities, Lynch uses the terms legible and imageable. Basically, does it make sense and is it memorable? If it doesn’t make sense to the viewer then it won’t be memorable. I have to add, you want your city to memorable for the right reasons: beautiful, consistent, dramatic, historic, dynamic, creative, vibrant, efficient.

To describe the “imageable city,” Lynch chooses five elements that he believes make up the urban experience. Each of these can either be completely forgettable or incredibly memorable. Here are some examples from Richmond:

  • Paths (Monument Ave., Grace St., the Boulevard)
  • Edges (the James River)
  • Districts (The Fan, Church Hill, and many others)
  • Nodes (downtown, Carytown, MacArthur Ave.)
  • Landmarks (The Sailors and Soldiers Monument, The Carillon)

Fortunately, Richmond has been blessed with examples that show off the potential beauty of each element. At the same time, there are many issues with the “Richmond image.” To many, it’s a confusing and disconnected city. 

To move forward, we need to find simple ways to turn everyday elements into memorable, quality experiences. For decades, economic development in Richmond equated to wedging large-scale projects in or near the central business district. These projects aren’t going to improve the overall experience of the city. In contrast, improving the most basic elements—paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks—will gradually create what Christopher Silver refers to as the “Good City.”

The real lesson of the book is that urban form is important from border to border. It’s a lesson for us as we work to create the best possible Richmond: a city that is coherent, beautiful, and vital.

Another National Slavery Museum Design for RVA

Somehow I’m the last to know that there is a third (or fourth?) design for a slavery museum in Shockoe Bottom. And, might I add, it’s my favorite:

PA-533_24

It looks like the design was completed by a partnership between the former BAM firm and SMBW then, I assume, it followed Chris Fultz to it’s current home on his website, fultzarchitects.com. The homepage of that site got me planning my next cross-country road trip … until I realized that this Slavery Museum design also won an AIARVA honor award in 2010. A little older than I thought. Then I found an article on this design, “Bridging the Gaps,” published in Richmond Magazine on October 19, 2009. The author of that article writes,

All Eyes on Shockoe, Again
The city of Richmond seems poised to embrace a national museum with a culturally significant subject and create the kind of international profile the region has been so desperate to achieve.”

Of course, five years later, we know that all eyes are on Shockoe again, again. This article was a good reminder of the many hours spent designing plans that were never completed.

I found a more recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article on this design published January 30, 2013. I’m not entirely sure how this design was still newsworthy after four years in existence, but I assume it was either gradually developed or gradually revealed to the public, or both. This article appears to be a followup with more details on the plan. According to the Times-Dispatch:

“The Richmond Slave Trail Commission…released its vision to develop a $100 million to $150 million heritage site in Shockoe Bottom, including a slavery museum, an African-American genealogical center and a glass-enclosed Lumpkin’s Jail archeological site.”

In the past year this design seems to have been generally forgotten and replaced by another less-ambitions (albeit beautiful) design for a slavery commemoration in Shockoe Bottom.

So what happened to the 2009 design? The question was recently posed in a comment on the Style Weekly article “Getting Wilder.” Thomas writes,

“The building Wilder wants for the museum doesn’t even look big enough to house a “National” slavery museum. If you want a grand one on a national scale, start from scratch. What happened to that National Slavery Museum proposal by Fultz Architects? That was the best one. We should have jumped on that one…”

I tend to agree. It’s no surprise that I’d rather Richmond move forward with something exceptional than settle for something acceptable. Besides, there are examples of projects of that scale in this country that were funded by a combination of state, local, and private funds. I continue to believe that good ideas of far-reaching significance energize donors more than anything else.

The story of this design should cause us all to take a step back. After reading through each article I found myself wondering,

How can one city generate so many incredible, unfinished designs?

On the one hand, this is just a factor of the architecture industry. An astounding number of designs are submitted every year that are never realized. But it still seems to point to a deeper issue of governance that prevents us from connecting the plans to reality. Every so often I stumble upon another great idea for Richmond that somehow never found funding or political momentum. And now we have this “economic development plan” for Shockoe Bottom that seems to be moving in the same direction. So what can we do next time to prevent the same results?

I found the best answer to my question in the original Richmond Magazine article from 2009. Christy Coleman, the president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, states that the planning process for a museum of this scale should not begin with a building design. The article continues:

A fledgling museum should begin with a mission statement and a plan of whether it will be a “collecting” institution — one that houses a vast collection of artifacts for display and research — or a “storytelling” institution that strives to communicate knowledge and an experience to its visitors.

“All of these things start coming up that will have an incredible impact on the long-term operations,” [Coleman] says.

We ought to extend this wisdom to any large-scale project brought forward for the benefit of the people of Richmond: start with your mission statement. What is the essential purpose of the development and how will it serve the needs of the city?

As we have seen, there are many architects and firms in the area that are more than willing to turn a good idea into sparkling designs. They might even do it at a discounted rate if they are particularly inspired by the proposal and assured that this time there is a likelihood that the project will actually happen. This city has incredible potential, regional powerhouse corporations, and visionary leaders. Together I truly believe we can make something great.

But first, we need a good idea.

Vision for Detroit, 1807

There was a time when Detroit was in worse shape than today. In 1805, the entire settlement burned. There may have remained remnants of buildings and streets, but for the most part, Detroit was simply a memory.

Just a few years before this fire, America invested in the idea of a completely master planned city: Washington D.C. There had been many American cities planned out of the raw earth, but none compared to the beauty and design of D.C. When Detroit burned, Augustus Woodward looked east for inspiration and found this new vision for the city called Detroit:

Old_map_1807_plan

In the two centuries that followed, this city grew to nearly 2 million residents and has now shrunk to a little more than 700,000. It’s easy to look at Detroit today and marvel at its losses. But we have to remember that fire. When Detroit lost everything, before the world knew her name, one person rose to draw this vision. He found inspiration in another great American city and drew a plan that became the backbone of an empire. It remains mostly intact to this day.

While bulldozers roam the city demolishing abandoned buildings by the 10,000s, as the earth returns to prairie as it was found over 300 years ago, residents of the city are wondering what could possibly become of this place. When I visited in 2013 I met so many people excited to tell me about the recent improvements: new jobs, new businesses, arts and culture. A few months later, the city declared bankruptcy and Kevin Orr took control of the city’s fate.

I’ll be going back to Detroit this summer and I can’t wait to see what has happened in a year: to walk around and experience it for myself. There’s so much to learn in that place: inspiration, caution, fuel for my endless curiosity, and context for the situation in Richmond and other American cities.

Until then, I’ll be wondering how a Shinola watch can cost $950 while this house was recently listed for $100. Until then.

Why pay twice?

Listening to NPR this morning I noticed a quote that struck me as important. Usually, I fade in and out when I’m listening to the radio, but the show, “On Being,” always catches me by surprise and reels me in. Today, Krista Trippett interviewed psychologist Ellen Langer who had this story to share:

“Many years ago I had a major fire that destroyed 80% of what I own. And when I called the insurance company and they came over the next day. The insurance agent had said to me that this was the first call that he’d ever had that the damage was worse than the call. You know, and I thought of it and I thought well gee, it’s already taken my stuff, whatever that means, why give it my soul?

Why pay twice?”

The whole piece is worthwhile and I recommend it if you’re looking for a little perspective and a chance to hear thoughts on loss from someone who cares. Not a bad way to start the day.

Perspective

As I flew out of Richmond last week, I got a rare glimpse of the city at dusk:

River city

I just stared at that settlement on the banks of the James River and wondered what the next 400 years might bring. In the city of Richmond, there is the past, the present and the future. That makes us fortunate and it makes us complicated.

To move forward, we will have to make some sense of ourselves and our story.

In the past few months I’ve travelled all over the country: from Philadelphia to Dallas, to San Francisco. With each trip I’ve found new perspective on this current phase of the development of the city of Richmond. I’ve also found some clarity for myself and settled into four areas of focus for my writing:

1. Current events in context: If I ever write about current events, it will be to analyze and contextualize the story. I spent three years studying the debates in Richmond regarding the construction of the Richmond Petersburg Turnpike. That work left me particularly interested in economic development strategies and plans for improving the American city.

2. Drawings for the future: Like many of us, I’m constantly imagining new uses for old spaces and I’ve decided I’m finally going to get these on paper. I’m actually planning to draw them out. It will probably be pretty ugly at first, but I’m hoping to read a little on technique and improve over time.

3. The psychology of the city: I’ve been noticing for years that the city of Richmond has a certain personality. This personality comes out in furious debates as well as mundane daily life. Since college I’ve also entered the world of cognitive psychology, therapy, management, and organizational behavior. I’ve read books, met with academics, and watched every video I find. Insight from these fields will be my lens for understanding what’s going on in this crazy place.

4. The history of the history: There are so many stories being told about Richmond. I want to take those stories and study them to understand the different ways that we describe ourselves. I’m obsessed with historiography and excited to dive back into that field for a series of posts about the different ways we talk about our past. This is connected to the psychological perspective as well: how we talk about Richmond says a lot about how we think of ourselves.

I want a future for this city that is unique and authentic. I want Richmond to develop a maturity as a place that takes all of it’s qualities and integrates them into a coherent whole. As with personal development, this will require a lot of work. In a way, collective therapy. And all because we believe there is a best possible future for this city and that future must include a coherent, honest, and accepting understanding of the past and present.

As always, more to come.

Baseball at the Heart

The mayor’s proposal for Shockoe Bottom is a bit of a chameleon. When it was first revealed, it seemed like it was clearly a ballpark plan: baseball balloons, Nutzy, Parney Parnell cracking jokes. But as the plan progressed, this central goal became secondary to a host of other justifications for the development.

The phrase, “not just a ballpark plan,” has become popular in this current debate at the same time supporters of the mayor’s plan have proudly placed signs proclaiming, “I support Shockoe Ballpark,” in front yards and businesses. Clearly, we are confused. Like many, I’ve studied the proposal for Shockoe Bottom and attempted to make sense of all the arguments. As always with these sorts of plans, it is necessary to distinguish the certain from the projected.

Beyond all the letters of intent, the promises, and the economic projections, there is a baseball stadium. This stadium project will likely cost around $167M including interest over the next 30 years. We will hopefully finish paying off the debt around 2046. I will be almost 60 years old. These are the certainties of the mayor’s proposal. All other elements of the plan are subsidiary to the ballpark.

Below I have compiled four common arguments (other than baseball) and reasons why they are not substantive or central to the Shockoe plan:

#1. This plan will improve schools in Richmond

Schools argument

This is a photo of a billboard paid for by the LovingRVA ad campaign. It’s simple, it’s clear, it’s exciting. How could any of us say no to a promise like “More $$$ for schools?” It pulls at our heart strings and connects the plan to something we love.

Then I realized: this is not a schools plan. Not a single dollar of this plan is allocated for school maintenance, construction, or modernization. There isn’t a contract that says that our government is obligated to increase school funding a certain amount each year. We also don’t have any idea how much added tax revenue this plan will generate so there can be no sure promise made for future increases.

And yet, we are being promised that this plan is for our schools and our children.

After digging around, I realized the connection from this plan to schools is pretty weak. The most I could find was a quote from Mayor Jones in the RT-D:

“I think that as we continue to negotiate with City Council people and get them on board, that there’s probably going to be some designated streams that go to some various places that people feel very strongly about….”

Wow. Either Jones was badly misrepresented or the mayor did a terrible job convincing me that that this plan will have any meaningful connection to things I “feel very strongly about.” This schools argument  is like playing “seven degrees of the Mayor’s economic development plan.” Where will all the money end up? We have no idea. But I promise there’s definitely a chance you could get a slice.

And I’m particularly annoyed because I do have a soft spot for schools. The need in RPS is incredible. There are countless reports and articles on the financial need and the deteriorating infrastructure of our school system. Our mayor is promising us more money will be sent to schools, but he isn’t saying how much. All we know is if we build the stadium in Shockoe and if it’s surrounded by lucrative businesses and if we can attract huge amounts of private investment on the Boulevard, then we will have more money that might be allocated to schools.

To me, that seems like a lot of “ifs.” If you care about schools, ask the mayor to sign on the dotted line. Anything less is empty promises.

#2. This plan will provide access to good, affordable food

grocery

I’ve heard this argument regularly enough that it deserves to be included in this list. I haven’t seen it on a billboard, but this is the argument that seems to tug at the “food justice” movement in Richmond and the desire for residents to have access to healthy, affordable food.

As a resident of the East End, I think it would be great to have a new grocery store. I think it will provide access to good food for a wide economic spectrum of people. Residents nearby will be able to walk to get their food rather than drive around the corner to Farm Fresh. Many riding public transit will be able to get off 10 minutes earlier than they would for the Kroger on Broad St. I wouldn’t have to drive out to the Martin’s at White Oak for fresh vegetables. Sounds great to me.

I just keep returning to the fact that the grocery store is not a central element of this plan. Honestly, this grocery store has more to do with economic development and the mayor’s revenue bonds financing scheme. I think we would have built anything there if it promised to bring in a certain amount of revenue each year. Also, do we have to build a baseball stadium to have a grocery store? More on that later.

#3. This plan will memorialize and interpret Richmond history

museum 2

The third claim is that this plan has been created in order for Richmond to restore the history of slavery to its rightful place. On the cover of the Venture Richmond “Downtown’s Transformation 2014” document (an unfortunate title), there is a presumptuous photo of the proposed slavery heritage site, an element of the Mayor’s proposed revitalization plan. On the second page of the document there is a photo of the ballpark. For some reason, Venture Richmond chose to promote the heritage site.

Here’s the problem: the slavery heritage site is not funded. We honestly don’t know when or if it will ever be built. To further complicate things, Richmond City Council and the state legislature of Virginia have recently committed funds to the construction of a slavery museum. Is the heritage site enough to fit the specifications of these funds? We don’t know. There are designs for a full museum, but they haven’t been adopted by the city or promoted publicly to my knowledge. If all funds go toward the museum, how will we pay to memorialize the Lumpkin’s Jail site?

Many of us are in favor of building something to commemorate the history of slavery in Richmond. The Washington Post even wrote an editorial in support of a slavery museum back in December. It’s certainly the most historically, culturally, and socially important element of the mayor’s plan, but it’s not the main attraction. This “heritage site” has been tacked onto the ballpark plan to satisfy those of us who care about history, culture, and memory.

It’s a beautiful design and I would like to see it in Shockoe Bottom. But I have to wonder: why do we need to spend $52,250,000 for a baseball stadium so that we can memorialize the history of slavery in our city?

I’m also very concerned with the process by which this heritage site/museum has been developed. When municipalities plan and construct museums or heritage sites, they typically spend years developing a network of scholars, institutions, community members, foundations, and government agencies in order to strategize the future success of the enterprise. If done well, this process results in a site that is ready to receive public school tour groups (where will the busses park?), host educational events (who will coordinate?), conduct relevant research, and curate exhibits to keep the material relevant and interesting for visitors. This sort of strategic planning results in a place that is vibrant and well-loved by locals and out-of-town visitors for generations to come.

If the mayor’s plan were truly a plan devoted to the history of Shockoe Bottom, there would already be a consortium of interested individuals from all over the nation and the world developing potential directions for the space and the building. Right now all I see is a pretty picture.

#4. This plan will stimulate the economy in Richmond

city

The argument for economic development is the lynchpin of this entire plan. Many believe that the “baseball stadium + hotel + grocery store + heritage site + apartments + future development on the Boulevard” plan holds the greatest possible economic benefit for years to come.

I have to respectfully disagree. If maximum economic output were the ultimate goal of this plan, Richmond wouldn’t have a baseball stadium at all. Minor league franchises are mostly money losers. They are highly subsidized franchises with all salaries paid for by their parent major league team and stadiums funded by localities. So it’s counterintuitive to include a ballpark in an economic development plan. Unless by “economic development” you mean “we need to find a way to pay for this darn baseball stadium.”

Also, not only are minor league stadiums expensive on the front end, they usually require renovations 20-25 years after they are built. It’s fitting that our local leaders travelled to Durham in January. A few weeks before the Richmond delegation made their trek, The Hearld Sun reported that the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, opened in 1995, the model for our ballpark scheme, is now planning a $20M renovation. Nineteen years after it first opened.

If it weren’t for the ballpark, Shockoe Bottom wouldn’t even be on the mayor’s radar. This flood plain is surrounded by the many hills of Richmond that don’t require a $20M investment in infrastructure for development to start tomorrow. There are cranes up in Richmond right now already investing in the future of this city. The only reason we’re talking about Shockoe Bottom is because we have this baseball team and we need to find a place to put them that can generate enough money to pay of the enormous sum it will cost to construct a brand new stadium. But if economic development were the goal, we would be saving our future tax dollars for general use rather than for servicing the debt on a baseball stadium for the next 30 years.

So why are we calling this an development plan? The argument is this: the ballpark should go in Shockoe Bottom because it’s best in Shockoe Bottom because it will allow us to 0pen the area to private development so that the lease on the ballpark will be paid for. This is a cyclical argument: we have to spend money so that we can make money to pay off the money that we spent. Also, the word for that is not “free.” The only legitimate argument for economic development is on the Boulevard, everyone agrees on that. But why has there been so little planning done for this site? How sure can we be sure of its success?

You may be asking, “What about all the data that proves the stadium is a good idea for Shockoe Bottom?” Here we have to make a critical distinction between data-driven projects and data-justified projects. Throughout the planning process, our leaders have selectively chosen data that supports their goal: constructing a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. We can be certain this was not an externally vetted process. All the evidence we have seen is simply a case that our leaders have developed to debate and defend their plan. That’s not my idea of leadership.

Regarding this plan for Shockoe Bottom, we can only be sure of the expenditures. The revenue is all projected based on letters of intent and market analysis.

Again, expenditures = contracts. Revenue = projections.

The report put together by Davenport & Co. LLC includes a comparison between developing the Boulevard and Shockoe Bottom. According to this report, putting the ballpark in Shockoe Bottom is a responsible option. But in the low estimate for revenue generated in Shockoe bottom, the debt service (at $4,062,976) is greater than total revenue ($3,874,778) which leaves a projected deficit of $188,198 annually. And everyone has been telling me this ballpark is “free.” Am I reading that wrong? If this project were truly concerned with economic development, it would not include the city of Richmond diverting tax revenue toward paying off the debt service for the next 30 years.

Our leader is convinced the ballpark is our ticket to success when it is actually the ball and chain we will drag, year by year, into our own reluctant future.

***

My final question is, why isn’t Mayor Jones talking about the ballpark?

Perhaps it’s because an estimated 70% of the people that go to the Squirrels games live in Henrico and Chesterfield. Does it matter? I think so. Why should we divert $4.8M in tax dollars each year for the next 30 years to pay for an entertainment facility that primarily exists for county residents? Or why didn’t we wait for a more unilateral deal? In 2003, the counties were planning to pay two thirds of an $18,500,000 ballpark renovation. That proposal was sidelined by a local official that decided he wanted to build a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. The deal was scrapped, Nothing has happened ever since. Now we’re planning to pay 100% by going out on our own.

Mayor Jones seems to only talk only about economic development. Many other leaders in Richmond are excited about the heritage site. Most of my friends are excited about the benefits for local schools. All the while we’re skating around the most controversial elements of the plan: the cost of the ballpark, the lack of public support for the ballpark, and the location of the ballpark.

I’ll leave the last word to Andrew Zimbalist:

“Cities spend millions of dollars to support a variety of cultural activities that are not expected to have positive economic effects, such as subsidizing a local symphony or maintaining a public park. Sports teams can have a powerful cultural or social impact on a community. If that effect is valued by the local residents, then they may well decide that some public dollars are appropriate. However, if the public or its political representatives are trying to make the case that a team or a facility by itself will be an important development tool, then the electorate should think twice before opening its collective wallet.”

Richmond, if we want a new baseball stadium, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about how much we might be willing to invest in a new stadium. Let’s talk about where we would want it to be built. Let’s not allow ourselves to be convinced into needing a stadium for a host of unrelated reasons.