Illustration by Timothy Cook
Sentiment and nostalgia spanning years likely won't be enough to save the old Huguenot Bridge. The beloved bridge that connects Henrico's West End and Richmond's South Side will come down, despite a heartfelt plea and a plan proffered by two Richmonders in a recent Times-Dispatch guest commentary. But sentiment and sweeping views may prove a powerful enough drive for road planners rethinking how Richmonders access the river.
"It seems to me in this century when we're encouraging pedestrians and walkers, when I heard they were tearing down the old Huguenot, I felt like I had to do something," says Ella Kelley, who served as a town councilwoman in Connecticut before moving here. Kelley co-authored the letter with Mike Hughes, president of the Martin Agency, and created a stir with a proposal to convert the old bridge to a linear park.
"All I'm trying to say is, is there a way to do this?" asks Kelley, who says she was already resigned to the Huguenot's pre-determined fate before writing the letter. "I'm not unaware that there are costs and delays and all kinds of obstructions in the way. But once it's gone, it's gone forever."
Kelley says her editorial idea — she enlisted Hughes to co-sign the letter — elicited a groundswell of support on the Internet.
In the days after the March 11 editorial ran, it was re-posted innumerable times on Facebook and literally travelled across the globe through social media.
Responses arrived from as far away as Israel, says Kelley, who created an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org , to collect support. So far, the account has received more than 120 responses. Most offer support, and many involve offers to volunteer help. Only one or two have been negative.
"People have offered legwork, fundraising, cafés to work out of, and ‘anything at all I can do.' They're still coming in," she says.
Members of the general public weren't the only ones who took interest in Kelley's initial request to save the bridge — or to generally increase Richmonders' access to the river.
Dawn Eischen, a Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman attached to the $51 million project, says the commentary piece got her thinking. VDOT, not the city or Henrico County, is building the bridge, so any changes to the project would come from the state.
"In order to finish constructing the new bridge, we have to tear down the old bridge because the new bridge is double the size of the old bridge," says Eischen, who coincidentally was re-reading the column when she took a call from Richmond magazine for this article.
She said she's extremely sympathetic to the idea of a linear park — Kelley's proposal has tons of creative merit, Eischen says — but likely little room to alter the bridge's course with destiny. Changes to the plan at this point would involve expensive engineering, site studies, purchase of additional rights of way and a whole host of other technical changes that would total in the tens of millions of dollars. Not to mention the delays to drivers anxious to have construction completed.
"We're far along in the process of building the new bridge, and to keep the existing bridge in place would cause us to have to halt construction on the new bridge and possibly not be able to finish it," she notes, harking back to a series of public hearings that took place between 1999 and 2007 as VDOT was preparing for the bridge replacement. "We had at least four [public] hearings, and this idea, as far as I know, did not come up. Once the funds — once construction has begun on a project and the funds have been allocated … changes don't come very easily."
So, the now-decrepit but still architecturally stunning bridge, built in 1949, is slated to come down late this summer or in early fall to make way for construction of the second half of the new bridge being built just a few meters to the west of the old bridge.
But Eischen says that doesn't mean the end of the road for the spirit of Kelley's plan; she plans to explore alternate means to preserve some portion of the bridge — but even this idea faces its challenges.
At a minimum, she said, the old bridge will be commemorated. The plan is to install a commemorative monument on either end of the bridge incorporating the bronze plaques that currently are located on opposite ends of the bridge.
Eischen, inspired by Kelley's ideas, says she hopes more can be done.
"It's an interesting idea and it's great — and people are innovative in Richmond — and the last thing we want to do is stand in their way," says Eischen, who said she'd heard that a similar proposal to create a linear bridge park actually was put forth in the 1970s when the city replaced the Lee Bridge.
It's true, notes Scott Kozel, a former road engineer who now maintains a website, roadstothefuture.com , that serves as perhaps the most exhaustive and complete catalog of Virginia's highway history.
"They never had a plan," says Kozel. "Some people proposed to keep it as a pedestrian walkway, but the city thought it would be way too expensive to try to maintain that. A few citizens may have talked about it, but it was never an official plan."
What is official is the modern Richmond Riverfront Plan, which is a sort of add-on to the city's 2009 downtown master plan. The plan, endorsed by Mayor Dwight C. Jones, includes proposals to convert two existing downtown bridges, the Manchester and Mayo bridges, so that traffic travel lanes will share space with improved pedestrian and bike lanes.
The Riverfront Plan, for which Jones is promising significant funding, envisions some greenery along the bridges as well. It's not quite a linear park, but still an effort to provide a slow-motion view of the James River's impressive vistas.
That's not much different than the scenario today, Kozel says. Any such plan to adapt the existing bridge as a park would come with so many associated expenses as to be impractical if not impossible. "But it's interesting how even a single letter to the editor can get so much attention."
Attention like the telephone conference that Eischen scheduled last month, in which she brought Kelley together with folks from the Huguenot project to explore whether some portion of her idea might still rescue something of the old Huguenot before it's gone forever.
Among ideas to explore, Eischen says, was Kelley's thought that a platform for a park could be added below the new bridge deck, but still high enough over the river to allow park patrons to enjoy the overlook while incorporating those rails.
More likely, there's a chance of recycling pieces of the existing bridge — like the guardrails — and placing them elsewhere nearby. But even that faces a significant barrier before it might become a reality.
"That's something where we probably would have to go into negotiations with the contractor," Eischen says, a note of hesitation in her voice as she explains that those old iron rails currently are slated for the scrap yard, the proceeds going to the contractor as part of his payment. "That was part of the contract. In order to change that, we would need to go into discussions with the contractor to figure out a way to keep portions of the bridge without impacting the contract."
As a road historian, Kozel likes that idea. "It would be interesting if they could save maybe a 100- or 200-foot length of that as a historical thing," he says. "There's that Huguenot Park that's right near the bridge. Maybe they could lay it along the back of the tree line. That would be interesting, to at least save a piece of it."
So long as the bridge still stands, there's always hope. And Kelley says that she's hopeful that some parts of the bridge might be saved, even though the main structure has to go.
"It's a beautiful bridge, and it's an extremely beautiful part of the river, and there's really no way to enjoy it," she says. And if not for this bridge, "maybe, maybe for another bridge in the future."