Category Archives: Significance

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.

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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.

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.

Top 10 reasons the Shockoe ballpark is a bad idea

At this point, we all know that Mayor Jones wants to build a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. He’s doing his best to convince us that it’s a good idea for Richmond. Here are 10 reasons why I think he’s wrong:

1. Baseball parks are disposable. Baseball stadiums don’t last. Even Yankee’s Stadium, “The house that Ruth built,” was demolished for something bigger and better. Here it is in all its glorious ruin:

Yankee Stadium

In the case of Shockoe Bottom, we are planning to build more developments alongside our stadium concourse. Do we have a plan for how we’re going to retrofit the concourse when the stadium is out of date? Honestly, how long will this stadium last. 50 years? 100 years? I bet Main St. Station will be standing long after the ballpark has come and gone.

2. The team could ditch us. Contracts can always be broken. If the team leaves, the league has apparently agreed to cover the cost, but what will we do with the space at that point? Last fall, the Atlanta Braves announced they have received the government approval to build a new stadium in nearby Cobb County. They recently released stunning designs for this new stadium complex that they are hoping finish by the 2017 season. If they move forward with the plan, Atlanta will start scrambling to find a new use for Turner Field:

turner field

3. Stadiums are only good for one thing. It’s not good to devote so much valuable urban land to one single use. Urban areas are dense and integrated with housing, businesses, institutions, and public space all nearby. These areas of cities are best for many uses (at a park you can picnic, host a concert, play basketball, organize, or do yoga). In contrast, ballparks are PERFECT for the suburbs where everything is already spread out, huge and single-use. One example is Ranger’s stadium in Arlington:

Rangers

4. Stadiums don’t add value to daily life. Stadiums are used for about 164 games each year. Even on those days, they are only full for the 3-5 hours that visitors spend on the premises. The other 201 days they are mostly empty aside from practices and sports camps for kids. For the majority of their lifespan, stadiums are empty. In contrast, some of the most-visited places in the world are places that simply enhance the daily life of residents and tourists for generations:

Brooklyn

Even intersections can become 24-hour tourist attractions:

Times square

5. Baseball stadiums are not public space. In the middle of almost every admirable city there is open, public space (see two photos above). Public space can be integrated into the fabric of the city: alongside railroad tracks and highways, next to rivers, and across from businesses. Here are a few more:

Copenhagen
PortlandDresden

6. Richmond doesn’t want a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. Mayor Jones and his advisers are the sort of politicians that believe they know what’s best for their citizens. There will never be a public vote on this plan because Jones knows that it would fail. He also wouldn’t put to a vote because he doesn’t care. This attitude is particularly offensive as someone who thinks that Richmond is a pretty smart and sophisticated place. I honestly believe if Jones had engaged a group of knowledgable citizens in the process, the final plan would have been incredible. Maybe we would have ended up with something like this:

bryan park

Notice all the shops and cafes nearby? Bryant Park is an asset to many businesses  in the area and is connected to the nearby New York Public Library. It’s also a model that could be emulated in Richmond. The park is maintained by a publicly-funded private entity, the Bryant Park Corporation. According to Wikipedia, “… BPC is now funded by assessments on property and businesses adjacent to the park, and by revenue generated from events held at the park.”

7. Richmond is the River City. If Mayor Jones wants to build a signature development, he should focus on something that is quintessentially “Richmond.” He should invest in something that is unique and timeless:

James

I know the mayor has plans to continue the riverfront redevelopment plan, but I don’t think he realizes the ballpark could begin to outweigh the river in our public image. Richmond could be known as a city of timeless architecture and natural beauty. The ballpark is neither of those things.

8. The ballpark is destined for mediocrity. Why do we want the crown jewel of Richmond to be a stadium for a minor league baseball team? As we improve our image locally and nationally, we should strive to keep our most valuable assets in the center of the city. I love The Squirrels and I think their games are fun and easy to love. I just think we can do better for the center of our city. Many people have mentioned the need for a slavery museum. There has been a backlash of people saying that museums are boring, but I think a museum could be world-class, free, and could encourage a spirit of learning. Unlike a baseball team, local history isn’t going anywhere. Also, we would have an easier time seeking donations for something historically significant. Maybe something like this:

Bilbao

Bilbao is a city of 350,000 people in northern Spain. This museum cost $89 million through a partnership with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Richmond is a city of 201,000 people. We’re planning to build a minor league baseball stadium for $50 million without any international partnership. Which project is worth the cost? The whole world knows about Bilbao because that city dared to do something world-class. Even Roanoke turned heads in 2007 with the construction of a museum that set a new design standard for the region.

9. We’ve tried this before. The city of Richmond has funded and subsidized many single-use, large-scale venues in the past. These include the Richmond Coliseum, the Greater Richmond Convention Center, and the Carpenter Center. Each of these was built or renovated with the hope that they would help revitalize the area around them. The results have been mixed. I personally love the Carpenter Center and I think that it has been the most successful example in conjunction with grants extended to business on Grace St. More recently, efforts to encourage development on Broad have had incredible results. These have come from the hard work of citizens and government employees. The large-scale developments may have played some small role. That sort of revitalization will come with a more small-scale, intensional reinvestment program.

10. Richmond deserves better. It’s really irresponsible to spend our time and precious resources on something that will eventually be outdated. We can’t devote valuable land in the center of our city to the construction of a building that will be used for 70 days out of the year by a minor league baseball team that could leave. Even if they leave after 30 years, we’ll still be scrambling to find a use for the space. But there is no other use for the space because stadiums can’t be retrofitted or rebuilt. We can’t afford to ignore the rest of the city and try, once again, to revitalize Richmond with a big, flashy project downtown that is being celebrated as the future of Richmond.

If we must have a big project, we should at least build something that will be historically, architecturally, and culturally significant as well as something that is relevant to the place and people of Richmond.

“World-class cities are not built on a foundation of minor-league ideas.”

Minor League City

The mayor of Richmond has plans to build a new baseball stadium in the historic neighborhood of Shockoe Bottom. It’s been called, “the best ballpark in minor league baseball.” In the past two months, this plan has provoked fierce debates in Richmond. Part of the opposition has been to the planning process. The Mayor chose to develop the plan without meaningful public input. Furthermore, there are reasons to believe the plan itself does not meet the full potential of this land in the heart of our city. Here is what it would look like:

Jones Plan

Of all the ways to present this plan to the people of Richmond, Mayor Jones chose what I call the “blitzkrieg method.” That’s where politicians attempt to stun the public with a fully developed plan without getting any public input. This also happens to be the method that Richmond leaders chose when first planning I-95 straight through Shockoe Bottom and Jackson Ward. This method is the most “efficient” on the front end, but results in bad ideas down the road because there is so little information being shared. Mayor Jones and his team followed this planning model because they knew that Richmonders didn’t want a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. They knew that there would be no chance for constructive criticism.

Rather than listen and seek to understand the opposition, Mayor Jones had people put together this plan then he threw a party for himself to celebrate:

New Ballpark

Here’s a link to the complete RTD coverage of the story if you’re interested.

When I first saw the “LovingRVA” plan I was definitely impressed. I thought it was beautiful and coherent. I was amazed that the footprint of the ballpark could somehow miss all the slave auction sites in Shockoe Bottom. I didn’t understand how the stadium actually fit, but it seemed to make sense. Also, I was pleased that the designs included other elements that I could get more excited about such as this “Slavery and Freedom Heritage Site” over Lumpkin’s Jail:

Slavery-Freedom

The plan also includes a grocery store, a hotel for visitors, and even more apartments to bring people to Shockoe Bottom. It seemed like they thought of everything.

And that’s when I realized I’d been blitzed.

As I followed the story and talked with others I realized the flashy plan simply wasn’t ready.  Mayor Jones had “thought of everything” in a paternalistic way because he didn’t want public input. Mayor Jones feared it would be immediately rejected by a vocal community of people that care deeply about the past and the future of this city.

But that’s an area of disagreement because Jones seems to believe that the future of the city is this baseball stadium. So Jones is trying to push the plan through.

Mayor Jones and his allies seem to have a short-sighted concern for the present. In 50 years, he most likely won’t be around to help the next generation of Richmonders figure out what to do with another old, dilapidated sports arena. And he doesn’t seem to care.

People in favor of this “ballpark + hotel + grocery + heritage site plan” seem to have very little patience for the planning process. Proponents seem to have very little patience at all. And proponents also seem to think that bad ideas become good ideas after a few years of sitting on the shelf. There is an unbelievable excitement for the plan, almost a greed, that has clouded our logic. This perspective can be seen in a post a friend left on my Facebook page:

“… while this may not be the ideal, it’s a good plan with a lot of stake holders, public and private, that want to see it work. No, I don’t like how it was put together any more than anybody else. But this is the best, most workable plan to resolve the seemingly never-ending stadium debate that I’ve seen in 6 1/2 years I’ve lived in Richmond.”

In a recent article in the Richmond Times Dispatch, Mayor Jones said something similar:

“Jones said the city needs to act swiftly in order to have a new stadium ready by 2016 and because others are ‘eyeing’ the $11 million that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed in the state budget for the slavery commemoration.

The mayor also said it’s not good for the city to have a prolonged debate involving ‘people who are anti-growth and anti-economic development.'”

Ok, we’re all tired of the ballpark debate. But is the best response to just say, “Forget it, let’s spend $80M on this plan so we can be sure we won’t ever have to hear about it again.”

Proponents of the Jones plan are acting like this is the first time we ever had pretty plans drawn for our city. They tell me this is the best thing for Richmond. They argue that this is going to put money into Richmond’s schools and pave our streets. They say they are “loving” RVA.

So anyone who opposes the plan hates Richmond, wants to defund the schools, and hopes the city spirals into ruin and shame. And that’s what’s so ridiculous about the rhetoric in this ballpark conversation. Most reasonable people believe the benefits to the tax base will be marginal. There are new businesses and apartments being built in Richmond every year. Each has made a small contribution to the city’s tax base. The impact of the Mayor’s project will not be any more significant.

Of course, it will be publicized 10x as loudly.

And besides, every added bit is just a ruse to distract us from the baseball park. Jones knew that it would be politically divisive so he loaded the ballpark down with a “something for everyone” patchwork plan to make it more acceptable to a wide audience. A week after the ballpark plan came out, I joked to some of my friends that I would actually prefer the ballpark plan if we simply removed the ballpark. The smaller elements seemed to properly fit the neighborhood and also fill a need.

The ballpark itself is just a shortsighted, small-town idea. I remember when I was a sophomore in college the city of Richmond floated the idea of a ballpark in Shockoe and it was generally opposed. Those opponents (along with a host of new allies) are still not impressed. To them, it’s not about a flashy or beautiful plan. It’s about determining the best use of valuable, urban space. And they believe that baseball in Shockoe is fundamentally a bad idea.

In response, they have drafted this plan:

Shockoe

Here’s another view from above:

new shockoe vision

This alternative plan fits the street grid. It honors the natural features of Shockoe Valley. It provides for a full museum devoted to the history of Richmond and the city’s role in international trade of enslaved people. It’s still very preliminary because they haven’t been given much time, but it’s a move in a new direction for Shockoe Bottom and the city of Richmond. This plan allows Richmond to accurately and adequately tell a story that is globally significant. This history is not just a “black eye” for Richmond. The era of slavery is quite possibly Richmond’s most important moment in global history.

One vocal supporter of the Jones plan told me this new option is “ridiculous.” He told me the private investment will never agree to the plan without the ballpark. But it seems like he and others are too distracted by $125 million and projected future revenue to think critically about other options to this plan. We’re all acting as if we’ve never seen this kind of money before. Fresh Market just built within the Richmond tax base. Our universities have been flooding the local market with construction projects every year. The $30 million First Freedom Center in Shockoe Slip is projected to bring “162 construction jobs, 76 hotel jobs, and $930,000 a year in tax revenue for Richmond.” The McGuire Woods building currently under construction “represents a combined investment of more than $110 million.” The new VCU children’s hospital up the hill is costing an estimated $168  million and, when completed, will provide numerous year-round, entry-level jobs to residents of the city and nearby East End.

Clearly, we don’t need to build a baseball park just to convince a little private investment. Without the baseball stadium, they say, no one will want to build in a flood plain.  So why don’t we encourage more development on the many hills of Richmond where we don’t need the ballpark concourse in the first place?

Have you seen the old Gamble’s Hill neighborhood lately? There are nearly three full city blocks taken up by parking lots and it’s located directly adjacent to downtown Richmond. Not in a flood plain. Also, what about the old Murphy’s Hotel location at 8th and Broad? Or the half-block space by Center Stage? What about Manchester? Is there any comparative analysis of these locations to determine their potential for generating more tax revenue for the city?

Richmond desperately needs more tax revenue. We don’t desperately need a new  minor league baseball stadium. The two seem to be getting confused.

I’ve heard a lot of people talking about “private investment,” but I haven’t heard many people getting creative about the many sources of funding at our disposal. To build something great, Richmond could allocate tax revenue, apply to federal/state/foundation grants, ask the universities to pitch in, and seek out private donations from the wealthiest Richmonders down to the average citizen. Below are two world-class projects that were paid through generous donations from citizens, corporations, foundations and local tax dollars.

Millenium Park in Chicago:

millenium

And Klyde Warren Park built directly over a highway in downtown Dallas:

Klyde

These are not examples of what we should do necessarily. These are examples to say, “If we build something that people are excited about, they might be willing to pitch in.” There are many wealthy Richmonders and foundations who would consider signing onto a plan for Richmond that is both world-class and enduring. The ballpark would be neither.

I also don’t trust the statistics that are being used to convince me that the ballpark is a good idea financially. I worry that we’re putting too much hope in the projections of tax revenue and not spending enough time developing the project itself. Instead of building an “OK” project with the hope of later economic vitality, we should build something that is world-class so that in the worst-case scenario (where overall tax revenue changes very little) we will at least still have something that is world-class. This is simply an argument for making the most of the variables that we can control rather than pushing through something less-than-stellar to get to the variables we can’t necessarily control. Also, if it’s a good idea it should be able to stand for itself.

That brings me to my closing thoughts on the idea of a ballpark in Shockoe.

Richmond should leverage assets that are world-class and significant to the identity of Richmond. If we’re going to spend over $80 million on a project, why don’t we spend it on something that people will visit from more than 10 miles away? Why don’t we build something timeless?

I love the Flying Squirrels. I don’t believe they are integral to the success of the city of Richmond. Richmond is made up of artists, businesspeople, state and local governments, universities, entrepreneurs, historic buildings and neighborhoods, the James River rapids, and many incredible institutions that are more pervasive and invested than a baseball team that has been here for a couple of years. Together, those assets could become world-class.

Minor league baseball will always be minor league. At this point in the debate, it actually makes me sad for Richmond that our leader is putting all of his political clout behind this plan. When you take a step back from the glitzy designs and ancillary projects you realize that it’s just a minor league baseball stadium.

At first, I couldn’t tell why I was so annoyed by the Jones plan. Was I just another development-averse history buff?

No. I realized it’s because I am embarrassed for Richmond. I have come to love this place that educated me and gave me my first job. I’ve travelled the world and I believe that this city could become something truly noteworthy. I think that Richmond could make national or international news for a project that is unique and inspiring.

We could make a statement that is thought-provoking. We could shift a trend or start a conversation. I want the rest of the world to wish they had been here sooner. I want them to feel like they missed out. I want Richmond to be one step ahead.

And minor league baseball is not a step ahead of anyone. In fact, it’s more of a step behind. By investing millions of dollars into a feeder team, we are simply reinforcing the second-rate status of our city to the major league team that we serve. Furthermore, by continuing to grovel for minor league baseball we are giving more and more legitimacy to the world-class cities where baseball has long been king. We did the same thing with the Redskins training camp. I know the Redskins camp is cool, but it basically says: we’re on the outskirts of greatness. As an institution, baseball is the same way. It has nothing to do with Richmond. It is not “our best side.” It’s not “ours” at all. And yet every few years one of our leaders gets the idea that it’s our ticket to fame.

Somehow, we have begun to believe that our city will be saved by the construction of a temporary stadium for a team that’s not even formally connected to our city. Baseball doesn’t make cities great. Great cities make for great institutions.

For the past 60 years, the leadership in Richmond have sliced and diced our city’s most historic core. In an effort to save these places, they’ve destroyed them. With broad brush strokes, the current mayor and his allies are fighting for more of the same. Instead of restoring the oldest neighborhood in Richmond (one of the oldest in Virginia), we want to dig it out and haul it away.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Jones took city council and the press to Durham to learn about their baseball stadium and to talk about how local leadership managed to sidestep democracy during the planning process. Jones and others got all excited about what they learned there just like they did in Denver and Norfolk and everywhere else. But I’m so tired of Richmond leadership going to other cities to find the answers to our problems. If they had to drive somewhere, they should have driven two hours north to D.C. where locals are developing world-class ideas and feeding world-class aspirations.

And I don’t want to hear about the Nats stadium as an argument in favor of a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. The stadium in D.C. is tucked away in the southeast corner of the city. What’s at the center of D.C.? The Mall:

Sky-View-national_mall-

The center of New York is Central Park:

central park

Boston has the Boston Common and Emerald Necklace, San Francisco has Golden Gate Park, the list goes on. Great cities have at their core beautiful, timeless spaces where people have been congregating daily for centuries.

What about cities with ballparks downtown? Detroit:

detroit

Charlotte:

Generial aerial views on uptown / downtown / city center Charlotte skyline

I know everyone loves Charlotte right now, but look at how much land is taken by highways, parking lots, and the stadium. These were once neighborhoods where people lived, shopped, worshiped and recreated. Not to mention that some of these developments went through the heart of the city’s black community, Second Ward. That neighborhood was cleared starting in 1963, paved, and later sold and developed because “no one seemed to want it.”

I contend that the urban stadium is not a symbol of progress, but an admission of defeat. It’s significant that few thriving cities have a stadium at their core in the way that Richmond is proposing. In contrast, these cities have consistently committed to improving the quality of daily life from transportation to housing to public art and institutions of learning to public spaces and recreation. That is what makes a city worth visiting. That is what makes a great city great: connecting valuable assets with efficient and beautiful public investment.

And this is why I get angry every time I hear that phrase, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” That statement is said to people like me who don’t support the ballpark, a “nice thing” I apparently “don’t deserve.” There is so much wrong with the comment, but the most clear response is that Richmond deserves nicer things. In the instance of this ballpark plan we have set our sights so sadly low.

But this was not always the case. When Rachel Flynn was Director of Planning and Development, Richmonders passed a thoughtful and comprehensive plan for downtown that, if enacted, would finally unite the core of this city in a way that is sensible and beautiful. It would transform Richmond.

The plan was democratically developed, it was given a thorough review, and I’m guessing Jones hopes it will remain forgotten like every other world-class idea that Ms. Flynn gifted this city. Two years after this plan was passed she was demoted and run off by our small-town politics. She has since worked for Otak, and she is now the Director of Urban Planing in Oakland, California. I guess she’s better off without us, but Richmond will never know how much it has missed by losing someone so brilliant who loved Richmond so well.

Here’s a page from the downtown plan published in 2009:

Richmond Downtown Plan

For the rest of the plan, click here.

The Richmond Downtown Plan was guided by seven core principles:

  1. Variety and choice
  2. Traditional city
  3. Urban architecture
  4. Green
  5. River
  6. History
  7. Mixed-income

These are principles that sought to make Richmond a more livable, historically relevant, and desirable city. This plan would enhance Richmond’s world-class assets without being over-bearing. It would create a city that is accessible and integrated. In contrast, Mayor Jones’ primary goal seems to be generating more tax revenue. But he has missed the point: people invest in cities when they invest in themselves. Sidewalks, street trees, parks, bike lanes, public art: These are a few ways that Richmond could continue to make itself more attractive to private investment.

Large single-use projects such as the Coliseum, the Greater Richmond Convention Center, City Stadium, and the Redskins Training Camp (even the Siegel Center and Robins Stadium) have moments of vibrant activity connected by long stretches of nothing. Small businesses nearby rarely benefit from their proximity.  Visitors come for events then leave without stopping nearby. Everything, from food to entertainment, is provided “in house.” These big venues serve a valuable function in the city, but should be relegated to the edges where no one will notice their vacuous presence.

The center of a city should exist to facilitate and enhance residents’ daily lives.

***

In a few weeks, the Richmond City council may vote to construct a stadium so insignificant it will never be written about in any noteworthy international or national publication or be visited by leaders from beyond our state. It will exist for approximately 50 years and then it will surely be destroyed.

At that point I suppose the people of Richmond will once again be given a chance to discuss the value of their history and identity to the rest of the nation and the world. Perhaps at that point Richmond will look to rebuild the baseball stadium elsewhere and restore the historic urban grid laid out by William Mayo in 1737. We might replace it with something that is uniquely “Richmond.” Until then, I suppose we’ll have whatever our elected officials decide is best for us.

If the stadium is constructed, many people will try and claim that it has resulted in great advancements for our city. It will not take much for this project to be deemed a success. But we will never get the chance to know what the space could have been. Richmond never got the chance to dream.

If we want to build a new centerpiece for Richmond. If we want a “crown jewel” development for our city, here is my advice:

Build something that will still be relevant in 100 years.
Build something that people will travel more than 10 miles to visit.
Build something that will be open to visitors all hours of the day.
Build something connected to the history and identity of Richmond.
Build something that will make generations of Richmond proud.
Build something that will turn heads.
Build something that is architecturally innovative.
Build something that is innovative in general.
Build something that is environmentally integrated.
Build something that is thoughtful.
Build something that is the first of its kind.
Build something that is truly world-class.

We are living in the midst of a renaissance in Richmond, but the guy at the top seems to have completely missed it. Some might say that my hopes are too lofty for Richmond. Maybe I’m the deluded one. Or maybe I’m just worried that we’re moving in the wrong direction.

World-class cities are not built on a foundation of minor-league ideas.

The Detroit Institute of Arts

When people ask me why I planned a vacation to Detroit, I think about my night at the DIA:

A Bonjour concert

I do my best to talk about my experience, but it’s hard to describe this setting in words: 1920s Beaux-Arts building, 1930s Diego Rivera murals, and an experimental stringed ensemble from New York led by French expat Florent Ghys. It was everything I’d imagined Detroit could be: cultured and complicated.

Built in 1927, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is a fine example of Detroit’s grand past and it’s one of the few world-class institutions in this city that has maintained its status. The building itself is a beautiful example of twentieth century beaux-arts and the American City Beautiful movement. It’s a symbol of a time when wealthy residents and cities boldly invested in their culture and their future. In the spring,  you might find tulip trees  blooming and the sun shining on manicured lawns.

This is not how most people picture Detroit:

Of course, I immediately fell in love. When we first walked in, my dad and I ate dinner at CaféDIA then settled into our seats in Rivera Court just past the main entrance to the museum. Every Friday night, the DIA exhibits a musical guest for a free live performance. For us, the museum hosted the modern stringed music of Bonjour. In this old stone hall of Diego Rivera murals, the New York chamber music ensemble played Thursday Afternoon and other innovative stringed arrangements.

The museum, in large part funded by the wealth of the automobile industry, has also fiercely defended the Rivera murals which depict faceless humans and infinite assembly lines.

The infinite assembly line and anonymous worker

It’s one of the artist’s greatest surviving works in America and it’s ironic to be associated with the family and fortune of Henry Ford. Ford, the icon of the American automobile revolution and Rivera, a Mexican artist associated with communism and the revolutions from below. The murals are both grand and subversive. In Detroit, they’re perfect.

Today, the future of the DIA is in question. When the filed for bankruptcy, creditors began eyeing the art at the DIA and scheming its potential sale. Everything that is great about this museum also makes it one of the city’s most valuable assets. If all the art were seized and sold, it would certainly be a chilling moment in museum history. What’s incredible about the current spirit of Detroit is a “nothing to lose–nothing to hide” attitude. Unfortunately, in the case of the DIA, the city does have something to lose. The question is whether to hold onto an institution from the past or fully embrace a new and more innovative future.

The future of the DIA is the future of Detroit.

For more, check out my “Places” tab for Detroit.

Dust in the Light

Light illuminates dust played through the air as everyone goes everywhere. It’s golden hour in the Charlotte airport.

Staring into that playful dust takes me to my playful past. A son drapes his arm over his dad’s shoulder. A woman walks by talking on her cellphone. The world draws me away from by book then back into my mind.

Book. World. Mind. Journal.

I’m amazed by the depth of our diversity. Where are we from? Who do we love? Where are we going? The dust in the air turns day into dream. Conversations, beeping shuttles and rustling feet fade to the background as I, entranced by that light, sit and rest like a silent protagonist monologue or a string of thoughts tangled and blended together.

The sun is now shining on my entire body from the window across the room and I can feel it when I close my eyes. When the sun begins to set you wonder where you’re going to rest your head, and with whom.

I first wrote this as a journal entry in May, 2013.