Richard Macdonald / New Media Systems photo
It didn't seem like an earth-moving moment in July, but it was. City Council's unanimous vote on the Richmond Downtown Plan signaled the completion of a two-year process that the city had never seen before.
Beginning in the summer of 2007, city residents, officials, developers and consultants joined together to hammer out a vision that is expected to transform Richmond's downtown into a revitalized urban center.
A More Livable City
Not everyone followed this process as closely as Buttermilk & Molasses blogger John Sarvay or Sheila J. Sheppard, coordinator of Partnership for Smarter Growth. That's why we've chosen, in a question-and-answer format, to recap the developments here and to explain changes that are on the way in the next five years, and beyond.
What exactly is the Richmond Downtown Plan?
The Richmond Downtown Plan is a detailed outline of recommendations that will guide the city's improvements to infrastructure, housing, transportation and economic development. It covers a large portion of downtown Richmond, encompassing Shockoe Bottom to the east, Interstate 95 to the north, Virginia Commonwealth University's Monroe Park Campus and Oregon Hill to the west. It also includes the Manchester and Blackwell neighborhoods on the South Side and covers the James River downstream of the Lee Bridge to Rocketts Landing and Ancarrow's Landing.
Is the downtown plan just a bunch of feel-good PR, or does it actually signal progress on the city's part?
"The past plans — I've looked at a lot of them — were simply pro-forma plans, not questioning some of the best uses of spaces. Second, those were all homages to big projects," says North Side resident John Sarvay, who followed the downtown-plan process on his blog, Buttermilk & Molasses. He estimates that he attended at least 80 percent of the public meetings related to the plan over a two-year stretch.
What made the city's approach different this time, Sarvay says, was the public's ability to contribute ideas and feedback. "The charrette process was not a gathering of the usual suspects. … There were a lot of new faces."
Even some of the region's power players worked within the charrette process rather than seeking to exert influence from outside, says Sheila J. Sheppard, coordinator of Partnership for Smarter Growth, a group that advocates sustainable development throughout the region. "Jim Ukrop rolled up his sleeves at the very beginning of the process and got involved," she says.
Says David Herring, director of Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, one of the groups that closely followed and participated in the planning process: "It was a paradigm shift in the way that Richmond operates."
Why do we need a downtown plan?
Under state law, the city of Richmond is required to have a master plan for the entire locality, an official policy document that determines how public and private investment should be directed in the city. It determines where new schools, parks, development, redevelopment, roads and utility upgrades should happen. Virginia law also requires that plan to be updated every five years. By crafting a detailed plan for downtown, the city was able satisfy its five-year update to the Master Plan.
How did the city come up with this downtown plan?
For starters, the city hired a consultant with 20 years' experience in urban design and planning — Dover, Kohl & Partners of Coral Gables, Fla. To gather public input, Dover Kohl's team scheduled a series of meetings known as a "charrette" process, which allowed collaboration from various "stakeholders" in the city's future — residents, community leaders, developers, property owners, business owners and more. "Our job was to synthesize the ideas," says Margaret Flippen, a project director for Dover Kohl. This open-planning process lasted about a week and involved the input of about 800 people who helped brainstorm specific ideas for improving Richmond. Many of the widely agreed-upon ideas helped form the basis for the vision of the downtown plan.
With the public's wish list in hand, the Dover Kohl team and city staff continued to draft the concepts of the plan. Members of the Dover Kohl team immersed themselves in the details of downtown Richmond to learn more about its history, its businesses, its daily ebb and flow, its traffic patterns and more. At the end of the charrette process, Dover Kohl presented a draft plan for public review and comments. In November 2007, the plan was handed over to the planning commission, where council representatives and private developers began to share their input for changes to the plan.
In May, blogger Sarvay took issue with the lengthy process on the political side, especially after public groups and Dover Kohl readied the plan in about four months. One proposed mixed-use development for the eastern riverfront, known as Echo Harbour, generated some controversy when the developer argued for plans to build a 10- to 12-story building on the river. ACORN and Partnership for Smarter Growth joined other vocal groups in arguing that a building of that size would obstruct views for points overlooking the river, particularly from Libby Hill Park. The downtown plan limits buildings at that part of the river to four to six stories. Before moving any further on its plans, Echo Harbor will need a special-use permit, which it has applied for.
Did it cost taxpayers anything to generate this plan?
Yes. All told, the city of Richmond paid urban-planning consultants about $350,000 to direct the process and to produce the final plan approved in July.
Does the downtown plan require the city do anything?
In a word, no. "At the end of the day, this is a guide. It's not etched in stone," says ACORN director Herring. But even though it's not a legally binding document, it offers concrete steps that the city can take to transform downtown into a more thriving, livable community. The public's connection to the plan also ups the ante for local officials to take action and to get it right.
"We believe there is real citizen ownership in this plan, and we believe it's now our obligation to follow up with the implementation steps," says Rachel Flynn, the city's director of community development.
What kinds of changes does the downtown plan recommend?
The downtown plan is based on seven "foundations" necessary to develop the city to become more livable and functional.
The foundations include:
- Variety and choice . The city's plan summarizes, "Cities are naturally mixed-use, mixed-income and multi-modal." This means a variety of buildings, spaces and modes of transportation.
- Traditional city . "Pedestrians and transit riders thrive in traditional cities," according to the plan, so actions should be taken to encourage walking and public transit.
- Green . In short, more trees, more access to parks, and smarter buildings and infrastructure that keep the environment in mind — particularly the James River.
- River. It's been called "Richmond's Central Park." The plan focuses heavily on protecting and showcasing the James.
- Urban architecture . New construction should respect the city's historic fabric and also allow more interaction between people with more street-facing windows and ground-floor businesses.
- History . In some cases, the plan notes, the city can show its historic character by simply uncovering cobblestone streets that have been paved over. But the plan also calls for a more concerted effort to develop history trails, museums and interpretive sites that tell the city's story.
- Mixed-income . "Healthy cities cater to economic diversity," according to the plan. This means a variety of housing and nearby businesses that cater to all income levels.
What are the specific changes that we'll see as a result of the plan?
Over the next one to five years, many of the recommendations in the downtown plan are expected to come to life, Flynn says. The plan suggests the city should do the following:
- Convert one-way streets downtown to two-way streets.
- Plant trees in the 500-plus empty tree wells downtown.
- Improve bike routes and walking paths on bridges and install more bike racks to open the way for transit and recreation.
- Purchase key parcels of property — Mayo Island and the Lehigh Cement Factory are two near-term targets — to provide better public access to the riverfront and to accommodate cultural and historical points of interest.
- Generate a design plan for riverfront properties downstream of the Lee Bridge on both sides of the James River.
- Create and install uniform signage that allows visitors and tourists to find key locations and points of interest within downtown Richmond.
- Encourage city residents to have their neighborhoods designated old and historic districts, such as Oregon Hill.
- Secure more support for affordable housing through available programs such as the Affordable Dwelling Unit and the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
- Develop and implement a "form-based" zoning code, an approach to developing a community that puts an emphasis on design. Conventional zoning simply designates how land should be used, while form-based coding prescribes attributes of how buildings should look and function in a space.
What will be the first concrete steps to implement the plan?
They've already begun. In June, the city initiated a potential rezoning of the Manchester district with a "kickoff meeting" to seek more public input on the development of the district. Since the downtown plan recommends the creation of a form-based code — a new way of regulating development to designate how city buildings should be arranged and designed — city planners are first considering using a "test" of the approach in limited districts, such as Manchester and an eastern part of Broad Street.
In July, as the City Council approved the plan, it also allocated $2 million so the city could buy riverfront property owned by the Lehigh Cement Co. and use it for public access. In addition to providing some open park space on the river, it will accommodate a stretch of the Virginia Capital Trail to connect through downtown.
The city took further action when, on Sept. 11, it advertised its intent to hire a consultant to analyze economic strategies for developing Shockoe Bottom. The next day, city officials met with residents and business owners in the first of several public meetings to hammer out a vision for that downtown district.
Peter Chapman, the city's deputy chief administrative officer of economic and community development, says research into the Bottom's economics and demographics will outline the best practices for channeling private and public investment.
"Why can't we just move to development right now?" Chapman asks. "Well, the downtown plan was about laying out tone and direction. It was not an economic-redevelopment, market-driven feasibility analysis that looked at specific concepts and market testing."
Chapman says the analysis will focus on the supply and demand of goods, services and real estate in the Bottom. The information gathered in that process will help the city make specific moves with regard to tourism, business, public space and commercial and residential real estate, among other moves.
Meanwhile, Flynn points to a similar project the city will tackle with the riverfront. "We're supposed to start sometime shortly in the next six months on a detailed [eastern] riverfront plan so we can say, ‘OK, here's exactly what it's going to be. Here's where the promenades are going to be. Here's where the open spaces will be. Here's where the walking trails will be, how much it will cost. And then here's the plan to build it over the next five years, over the next 10 years, over the next 20 years.' So when you have those definite designs, those definite cost amounts and those definite milestones, then my experience has been that it really encourages cities to follow through and implement."
A third downtown-plan recommendation that should soon come to life, Flynn notes, is a study of downtown traffic to plan phased conversion of one-way streets into two-way streets.
"We believe there is low-hanging fruit," Flynn says. "There are streets we could easily convert today."
She adds, "Down in Shockoe Bottom there are several [one-way] streets that only have stop signs. So we're talking about some paint on the streets and new, additional stop signs. Also, on Grace Street the old traffic lights are still there when it was two-way, so we believe that would be another easy conversion back to two-way."
Does the downtown plan have any impact on people who live outside the city?
Of course, those who work or play in the city — but live elsewhere — are certain to reap some benefits of the city's push for improvement. For those who rarely set foot in the city limits, however, the plan's rewards may be more indirect.
Sheppard, of the Partnership for Smarter Growth, says that by completing a new plan with serious public participation, the city sends a message to other localities and regions around the state. "The message is that a vibrant city helps everyone and a vibrant downtown — and an urban core that is fully utilized — is so crucial to regional success," Sheppard says.
"That message is particularly true in Richmond where we have had a divide between the counties and the city. "
How much will the plan cost?
Because recommendations in the plan are broken up into digestible action steps over one to five years, there is not one lump-sum price tag that the city expects to pay. But still the city hasn't tallied up exactly what all of those various steps would cost. "That piece of due diligence has not happened yet," Chapman says.
Flynn explains that many of the items will be incorporated in the city's annual budget for capital-improvement projects.
But the plan does spell out estimated costs for many of the steps. For example, planting trees downtown is expected to cost $250,000 per year for one to five years. A new signage system for downtown: $40,000 annually over the same period. Installing more bike racks and improving walking and biking paths on bridges could cost the same as signage.
What's the most lasting and important part of this plan likely to be?
Says Flynn: "I hope that it will be that we will really link our riverfront to downtown."