Tag Archives: RVA

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.

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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.

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.

Generations of Mentors

You know that brief moment in “Tarzan” when he is flying through the air between vines? That’s basically been my life for the last five years.

Like many of you, I left my family and friends to start college in Richmond. My first night in town, I had dinner with a student named Dan and listened while he shared his story. He became my first friend and connection to this place.

The next day, he introduced me to a few of his friends and his favorite professor. We laughed, they made fun of each other, and I began to imagine that life on this campus might actually work. In some small way, I was closer to home.

I had no idea how fast time in college would move. I especially didn’t know how significant those first few friends would be in providing me with advice as I made my way through the maze of classes, programs and professors. Without their help, I might have never found that sneaky second vine.

Looking back, I wonder why I listened at all. I could have disregarded their advice and found my own way. But for some reason I appreciated their experience and trusted strangers in a strange place.

Lesson #1: When life gives you strangers, hear them out. At the very least, you’ll have a story to tell. At best, you’ll have a new guide to show you the way.

These new friends told me which classes to take (and which not to take), welcomed me into their community and drove me to the ER when I fell out of a tree and broke my arm. That’s right, this Tarzan metaphor just got real.

Not much has changed from those early days in Richmond. If I’m honest, the vines just feel farther apart and the fall much farther below. The only difference is that I now have faith that someone will introduce me to someone who can show me the way.

I’ve also matured a little since then. I certainly appreciate people more than I used to. While I usually took advice from others, I also regularly took it for granted.

Appreciating our mentors doesn’t mean we have to become our mentors, but it does mean that we have to give some effort. We have to be willing to say yes to something new and outside of our comfort zone.

Lesson #2: Receiving advice means humbling yourself long enough to actually listen.

I’ve also learned (many times over) that being mentored isn’t simply about receiving advice. Mentoring is not a product to consume or even a loan to repay. It’s also not supposed to make me feel good about myself or confirm what I already know. At its best, mentoring is a truth and a challenge. Mentoring first says, “I think you can do it,” and then, “Here’s what it’s going to take.”

Being mentored then becomes more about making choices than discussing ideas. When you receive wise counsel, it’s not a hypothetical in a book; it’s wisdom applied to your life. Receive it and say, “Thank you.”

Lesson #3: The more often you ignore someone else’s advice (for no good reason), the less likely they will be to share it.

When we commit to being mentored, we become a part of generations of mentors who have been acquiring and passing down wisdom for years. Open yourself up to wise counsel, prepare to be honest, and be willing to be wrong. Then, if you really want to be stretched, you can become a mentor yourself.

You may think that you’re not patient enough to mentor or that you don’t have enough time. But that is exactly why you should do it. If life gives you a chance to grow in a new (and uncomfortable) direction, shouldn’t you take it?

You can become more patient and eventually learn how to make time for the relationships that matter most. You can have the chance to pass on what was taught and the advice you have been given. And, for what it’s worth, I think you’d make a great mentor.

This article first appeared in print on January 30, 2013, in The Collegian.

Start at the Edge

As a resident of Richmond for the past five years, I have had the privilege of living through an exciting and dynamic season of change. It seems that after about 60 years of condescension and loss, it’s becoming a good time to be an American city. It’s a good time to be Richmond.

So, with that in mind, I was a little surprised when I read three editorials recently published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch addressing the “issue” of the view of Richmond from the highway. As I read each article, I felt that importance had been placed, not on the city, but on the opinions of passersby. This editorial is a response to those articles and perhaps generations of similar articles that have come before them. I believe that before we have a conversation about Richmond, we need to have an understanding of how the city changed during the twentieth century and more importantly what changed about the way we talk about cities in general.

My undergraduate education on the urban crisis in America presented changes in the city as a process of politics, prejudice, and technological advancement. More recently, I have come to understand the urban crisis as a gradual shift in investment and perception that took the American city, a source of pride, and turned it into a mark of shame. Furthermore, I understand the urban crisis as a rhetorical war between old and new. The goal of the war, as with any, was to frame the other as “backward” and the self as “progressive.” While Richmond attempted to maintain dignity, new technologies seemed dissatisfied with older cities: You’re too compact, too dilapidated, too prone to riot and rot.

As each new suburb was developed it became yet another statement to the American people pointing toward the promise of new, more civilized places with room to roam and play. Within this promise there was also a clear distinction being made from the archaic, dark city where most Americans at the time resided. As with all major shifts, the new way of doing things had to work to undo the more traditional ways of life. Many believe that the post-war zeitgeist of modernization, on a national level, did much to shift popular opinion. But on a local level, citizens of the Richmond metro-region still had to prove to residents that there was a more abundant life to be lived on the other side of the city limits.

This was accomplished through a series of events: The celebrated opening of Willow Lawn Shopping Center (1956), the construction of the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike (1959), the failure of plans for consolidation with Henrico (1967) and other semi-related moments along the way. Each of these also had their corollary effect on the life of the city exemplified by events such as the closing of Miller and Rhodes/Thalhimers, the destruction of urban neighborhoods, and the political isolation that conclusively trapped and humbled this once-proud American city.

As money and people continued to migrate to the suburbs, local officials turned their attention from annexation to urban renewal. “If we can’t have the suburbs,” I imagine them thinking, “we have to do something about this city.” But rather than invest in what already existed, they fixated on dreams of what could be. “We get it” they tried to say “and we’ll fix it,” just don’t move your family to the suburbs.

As Silver writes, the city then “embraced urban renewal with a sense of urgency unprecedented in Richmond … Consolidation would have afforded vast new areas for growth and would have enabled the city to continue its policy of neglect toward inner-city areas” (254). Now left to embrace the demands of reality, Richmond’s city fathers sold out and destroyed much that today would protected as historical. They were always looking to what the city could be rather than accepting the city as is.

To me, this moment of urban renewal was a sign that the suburbs had won the war. This was the point in the story where it was finally decided that new was in fact better than old: Look! Even the city hates the city. In the decades that followed the tumultuous 60s and 70s, much has been said of the potential of cities, but almost all of it with the understanding that cities have something to prove. To this day, the standard to which Americans hold their cities is strangely high while their commitment to funding urban institutions and infrastructure is remarkably low. As Kunstler might argue, this is because we are no longer a nation of citizens; we are a nation of consumers.

Additionally, it seems that many of us have a powerful aversion to cities because we’re still trapped by the negative stigma established all those years ago. While local boosters proclaim, “Richmond is a city of art and great food!” critics reply, “Parking lots! Potholes! Prostitutes!” And regardless of their merit, these conversations do little to change the paradigm.

In this sadly familiar conversation, the subject is always “the city.” The place that needs to change is the city. The place that we want to love is the city. But this is not the perspective of an insider. Instead, we need to recognize that this critique is one of suburban condescension. The suburbs are still trying to prove their worth and their legitimacy and they are still quick to do so by orienting themselves against the “corrupt” and ” inefficient” locality they are ashamed to call neighbor, but delighted to visit for a basketball game.

We cannot have a productive conversation about Richmond until we move past the negative stigma that outsiders have placed on the city and begin to see Richmond as good once again. We should welcome visitors to come and enjoy themselves in the city, but our ultimate concern must be with the needs and desires of existing residents. Developments in Richmond should be for the city, not at the city’s expense, because that is what we can sustain and appreciate. And no longer should we consider developments for someone else to enjoy.

We have nothing to prove and everything to gain.