Illustration by David Busby
Bill Martin is looking for signs.
"We have all of these rich cultural attractions, and no one can find them," the director of the Valentine Richmond History Center says, a little exasperated, as he drives around town.
Martin, along with other museum directors and cultural stakeholders, has been working with the city — pleading, actually — to implement a long-burning plan to update Richmond's road signage, which would better direct visitors to attractions such as the Valentine, the Virginia Historical Society, the Landmark Theater, Maymont and many others. And it would appear that, starting this month, there will finally be movement on the issue, coincidentally timed with a $21 million, federally funded overhaul of the city's traffic-light system.
As it stands now, confusion reigns. Cruising along in his Ford Focus, Martin notes a group of people standing near the Convention Center, all of them looking with crinkled eyebrows at a large map. "You see that around here all the time," he says. "They look lost. Once you get there, to the attraction, you are fine, there are signs, but it's the getting there."
Conversations addressing the problem began in 2007, and new markers were supposed to arrive last year to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. "But it's not just putting up signs," says Norman Burns, the Maymont Foundation's executive director. "It's getting rid of all of the old conflicting signs and making the city's way-signing program more consistent."
It's been nearly two decades since the last update. As Martin drives around the city, he sees sporadic road markers to attractions such as Battlefield Park, St. John's Church and the Black History Museum; many of them are rusted, broken or hidden by telephone poles.
There are also anomalies: There are no signs to Carytown, the Poe Museum or CenterStage (just to name a few). When you consider the emphasis that Richmond officials place on drawing in tourists and bringing back white-flight suburbanites, it's a little ridiculous that interstate off-ramps — especially on the Downtown Expressway — have so few indicators to city attractions.
Driving around Shockoe Bottom, Martin notes a marker for Lumpkin's Slave Jail. "That's a Ralph White sign," he says, turning around.
White, the director of the James River Park system, became so frustrated at the state of signage that he began putting up his own placards, directing commuters to parks and historic sites and paying for the signs through the James River Park Fund. Similarly, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has gotten around the problem by making and installing its own signs around museum entrances.
How did we get to this point? It turns out that no one knew whose responsibility it was to replace and renew city markers. "The old blue and white signs were funded by Downtown Richmond Incorporated [which is now defunct]," Martin says. "Once Venture Richmond was formed, there wasn't anyone put in charge of updating the signs."
After the problem was identified and task forces were formed, progress was also interrupted a few times because Richmond's cultural community was not in lockstep. "This has been part of the ongoing struggle for Richmond to gain an identity for itself," Burns says. "In the end, we had to stay very basic with the design of the signs because no one could agree on the [Richmond] brand."
"The process took a detour, but a very productive detour," confirms Jon Baliles, who was the point person for the city when he was assistant to the Richmond director of planning and development (he quit his job in June to run for City Council, but he still volunteers his time to the project). "The design company from New York who did Charlotte's system, Two Twelve, was brought in, and they've been phenomenal to work with," he says.
The planned overhaul of Richmond signage reportedly will cost more than $3 million, with $750,000 already squirreled away to start. The first phase will address only "vehicular signage," Martin says, with pedestrian markers coming later. Road signs along the Boulevard corridor are to be installed first, with a tentative fall completion date.
Baliles says that the new system should also help make parking downtown a whole lot easier. "People will know where to park so that they can visit several attractions and institutions at once. A new city parking-lot standard will be implemented along with all of this." The more complicated downtown part of the way-signing initiative is slated to be finished by next spring.
In August, prototypes are to be tested in and around the Boulevard, and various stakeholders and city officials, including the mayor, will do drive-bys to assess the new signage. It can't come soon enough for some.
"We don't need to build anything else around here," Martin says, pointing out a blue and white sign so faded that he can't read it. "Instead, we need to better promote what we already have."
UPDATE: The initial testing phase for Richmond's waysigning project has been pushed back, possibly to September or October. According to Mark Olinger, the city's director for planning and development review, the contract for the sign manufacturing has expired, and the job needs to be re-bid. Olinger adds that the Boulevard phase of the project is now expected to be completed by the end of the year.
NOTE: This article has been corrected since publication.