Illustration by Jared Boggess
While all eyes in Richmond focused this past November on 17 acres between Leigh Street and the Science Museum of Virginia — where Bon Secours Richmond Health System had recently agreed to front about $6.4 million to build the Washington Redskins' new training camp — it was the long view from the top of Church Hill that dominated the horizon for the Catholic hospital group.
"It's very telling about where our city and our folks are focused," says Dougal Hewitt, senior vice president for mission at Bon Secours Richmond, somewhat bemused by recent headlines that have focused almost exclusively on the controversial deal that gave the hospital group possession of the old Westhampton school property at Libbie and Patterson avenues.
What the accompanying news articles mentioned as only a footnote was a triangular spit of land — 1.34 acres, bounded by Nine Mile Road, 27th and T streets — that was also given to Bon Secours as part of the Redskins deal. Located across from Bon Secours' Richmond Community Hospital, a modest facility of just 104 beds, this land is no less essential to making the entire deal work. "It's certainly one of the more interesting and one of the more hopeful parts of our arrangement," Hewitt says.
It was nearly three years ago when Bon Secours CEO Peter Bernard and Mayor Dwight C. Jones announced the East End Initiative, an ambitious plan to revitalize the East End from a health and a community perspective. That plan has been slowly rolled out through a series of entrepreneurial grants to small businesses, various health-care initiatives and efforts by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to mend broken windows.
But this overlooked part of the deal has the potential not only to make real Bernard's desire to create walkable, mixed-use communities both in Church Hill and in the Westhampton area, but it also has the potential to establish an early toehold for the hospital group in an emerging market bounded by Route 5 and Interstate 64.
Varina is Richmond's frontier, a vast area of undeveloped farmland and forest that continues nearly unbroken to Williamsburg, and Church Hill is its last urban outpost. Henrico County leaders and East End residents have wrangled for years over planning for growth in Varina, an area with about a fifth of the county's population, but about half of its total landmass.
"It seems like that's where a lot of the development is heading," agrees Mark Ryan, a doctor whose family practice focuses on urban areas of the city. "I'm also curious to see if, as [development] continues to expand east, if Sentara [Healthcare] expands this way. There's no reason to think Sentara might not look around and say we can start … funneling people down toward Williamsburg."
Outgoing Henrico County Manager Virgil Hazelett says that in the short term, Bon Secours' East End expansion clearly has far more to do with the city than it does with the potential for growth in Varina. The overall economy, he says, has slowed to the point that rather than granting 800 or more residential building permits each year, it's down to "fewer than 100."
But Hazelett, who knew nothing of the Redskins deal before "reading about it in the paper," agrees that Bon Secours has the ability to take the long-view approach to its strategic planning. "That's really the only remaining portion of the county with vacant land," he says. When development does occur, it's likely to be on a grand scale along Route 5. Already on the planning books are major residential subdivisions like Tree Hill Farm and Wilton.
In the meantime, there is Church Hill, north of Broad Street. In the past decade, this neighborhood, long one of Richmond's most economically disadvantaged areas, has seen the beginnings of a hopeful turnaround, partly fueled by church-affiliated organizations like CHAT (Church Hill Activities and Tutoring) and the EasEnd Fellowship, a nondenominational group that meets at the renovated Robinson Theater. Restaurants and bakeries have begun cropping up, and Richmonders are changing their views of the neighborhood. It's an opportunity for Bon Secours, which has a mission to foster the health of residents and communities, says Hewitt.
"We are the largest of the employment anchors there; at least in Church Hill, the hospital is the largest employer," Hewitt says. "It employs people not only from the neighborhood, but it still is the largest economic institution in that neighborhood." It is a prime candidate to become the anchor for the sort of New Urbanism vision that Bernard has in mind, Hewitt acknowledges.
The medical community is a huge employer. Hospitals require doctors, but also nurses, housekeepers and maintenance staff. And then there are the patients; seniors and those requiring continuous care, in particular, want to be close to their caregivers. If they're given the option of living in a sustainable community within walking distance of the hospital, they very likely will.
It's a model that's been tried and tested in Florida, where New Urbanism got its start. And Florida, by way of Louisville, Ky., is where Bernard began his fascination with New Urbanism nearly 25 years ago. In Louisville, he sat in on community meetings around a project designed by Florida-based architects (and New Urbanist pioneers) Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andrés Duany.
It's no accident that Duany and Plater-Zyberk helped envision a hospital-anchored community that is planned for St. Francis Medical Center in Chesterfield. And it's no accident that they were involved in the East End Initiative that envisions a massive facelift for Richmond Community Hospital, transforming the austere facility into a welcoming building that would greet people exiting I-64 at Nine Mile Road.
The East End project is different from a typical New Urbanist concept, says Hewitt; rather than creating a replica of an urban village, that walkable, workable, livable community already exists in its raw form in both Church Hill and along Patterson and Libbie.
What makes Bernard's vision powerful is the idea that a hospital represents something that's been long missing from New Urbanism projects tried in the Richmond area — an employment-generating anchor tenant.
The Rev. Donald Coleman, a Richmond School Board member and co-pastor of the East End Fellowship, says the idea of upward mobility for residents in the vicinity isn't just a theory. "I literally know a young lady who got a job [at Richmond Community] working in the cafeteria, and now she's an assistant manager," he says, adding that she was able to move out of public housing as a result.
And Coleman fully expects Bon Secours' charity mission to mean greatly improved health care in the community. The property being given by the city will be home to medical offices and a wellness center.
"I'd have to say that Bon Secours, if not the key, is one of the key corporate citizens in the East End," Coleman says. "They're engaged and involved in what's happening in the East End. It's how they make sure their hospital is more than just a hospital."
And Charlotte Perkins, vice president for marketing at the hospital, says both West End and East End residents will benefit in the long term from Bon Secours' investment in their communities. "We don't just want to serve people by treating them while they're in our hospitals."