Landscape architect Kenneth Higgins and James Park of the City of Richmond Planning Department on Jan. 30, 1967. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch
On May 22, 1970, the Virginia Commission of Outdoor Recreation approved and recommended partial financing for a longstanding plan to create a series of interlocking parks along the James River. The decision followed years of bureaucratic wrangling, piecemeal land acquisition by "river rats," a four-year court battle with Southern Railway and the stubborn refusal by Old Dominion Iron and Steel Co. to vacate its 13-acre tract on the eastern end of Belle Isle.
The James River Park System's origins date to the skinny-tie Mad Men era. The first phase was slated for a 16-acre, 2,800-foot stretch on the river's south bank, from 25th to 42nd streets. But the property owner, Southern Railway, proved unmoved by the park's concept. The railroad in 1960 had intended the property for a train-marshaling yard.
On Jan. 9, 1961, City Council declared that "a public necessity exists for the establishment of a public park" and directed for purchase of the land. The rezoning wound up in court, and the argument went twice to the Virginia State Supreme Court.
In a November 1964 ruling, Justice Harry L. Carrico wrote, "The key point in the case is the long history of the city's planning, acquisition and development of land in the area for parkway and park purposes."
The city won. Then nothing happened. Or so it seemed.
In 1966, Louise Burke and Reuben B. Young founded the Scenic James Council to oppose a planned highway along the south side of the James. Burke held a 1967 "Farewell to the River" hike with her Girl Scout troop while newspaper reporters tagged along. This jolted the public understanding of what stood to be lost. Burke allied with some 35 garden clubs, the Audubon Society, the Junior League and others to thwart the expressway. This led to the conservation of the present park's Pony Pasture Rapids and Huguenot Flatwater sections.
During this period, Jack Keith and Joe Schaefer advocated for a riverfront park, purchasing small islands and plots they later ceded to the city for James River Park.
On Oct. 1, 1966, in a Richmond News Leader article headlined "Plan for Park Gathers Dust," writer Hugh Robertson asked planning director A. Howe Todd if the city had bought the contested land after its 1964 court victory. At first, Todd said he needed to check, adding, "If it hasn't, it should've been."
It hadn't been purchased.
Another challenge was Old Dominion's refusal to move. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had cleared the way for future park expansion with a July 3, 1968, grant of $278,851. Those funds couldn't be used to buy the Belle Isle lands with Old Dominion there. Todd sought a land swap, with possible relocation of the firm to Deepwater Terminal.
On March 18, 1970, Richmond received $73,889 from the Virginia Commission of Outdoor Recreation for park creation on the north side of the James. The official designation was Phase II of the James River Park Master Plan, and it called for creating parking lots, riverbank access, a visitor's center, and trails and footbridges to islands. The city matched this amount, and soon the Federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation gave $149,779.
Williamsburg-based landscape architects Stanley and Carlton Abbott had been hired to create a $6 million master plan. This vision contained some ideas repeated through the decades, including a conference center and auditorium around a large fountain on Belle Isle; the transformation of the vacant Byrd Park Pumphouse into the gateway for Three Mile Lock, along with a museum and dinner theater; and boat rides from Maymont Park to downtown. A proposed monorail to Belle Isle would've required private funding outside the budget. Stanley Abbott envisioned the ultimate re-opening of the downtown section of the James River and Kanawha Canal.
Nature makes sport of man's plans. On Oct. 11, 1970, the park's first section opened to the public amid fanfare, but the one-two weather punch of Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Agnes in 1972 dissuaded the city from elaborate riverfront development. The Agnes damage also hastened Old Dominion's move to Chester.
The Richmond Metropolitan Authority abandoned its plan for a riverside expressway in 1972. That same year, the General Assembly passed the Historic Falls of the James Act, creating a nine-member advisory committee to act as stewards of the river, with five members appointed by City Council and four by the
Shortly thereafter, John Pearsall Sr., co-founder of what is now the James River Advisory Council, partnered with other riverfront property owners and supporters to form the Historic Greenbelt Corp., employing restrictive covenants to prevent development.
In May 2009, Richmond and state officials signed an agreement designed to forever protect 280 acres in the James River Park System, which now encompasses more than 550 acres in the city's center.
Park naturalist Ralph White, hired in 1980, ended his more than three decades of service on Dec. 22, 2012. A month earlier, City Council had approved the much-brooded-over Riverfront Plan that calls for linking a 2.25-mile stretch of the James between the Lee Bridge and Rocketts Landing on the north bank and Ancarrow's Landing on the south. It foresees more than $60 million in capital projects paid for with public and private money, including terraced steps to the water, launches for canoes and kayaks, tunnels, and other features. It also sets development guidelines for riverfront properties.
White observes the future of the river with a mixture of enthusiasm — "Otters! Bald eagles! Herons!" — and caution: In his view, the proposed paths are too wide in certain sections of the park. "The park at its narrowest point is 100 yards wide, yet there's enough for you to think that you're in the wilderness. It's illusion. It's theater! Why deprive people of that?"