1 of 2
On Jan. 25, 1975, near Canal and Sixth streets, the Downtown Expressway’s rupture was underway. The Imperial Tobacco Building, left and behind the crane, was demolished for a parking lot. (Photo courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection/The Valentine)
2 of 2
As seen on July 29, 1975, the expressway cut into Gamble’s Hill, on which the Ethyl Corp. (NewMarket) headquarters sits. (Photo courtesy Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection/The Valentine)
“Byrd Park Lumberjacks,” the caption of a painting in a December 1973 exhibition of work by artist John William “Uncle Jack” Dey, expressed the sentiments of many in Richmond about the rupture of an expressway cut into Idlewood Avenue and east of Belvidere. The piece showed trees felled for the road building, with the subtitle, “The Birds Don’t Like It, the Animals Don’t Like It, the People Don’t Like It.”
The Downtown Expressway’s construction demolished 700 residences through eminent domain and buyouts, uprooting 3,150 people from the neighborhoods of Randolph, Sydney and Oregon Hill. The dig cast out 150 businesses.
Richmond’s prolonged affliction of highway building started in the first master plan devised in 1946 by St. Louis consultant Harland Bartholomew. The 1949 dismantling of the 61-year-old privately run electric streetcar system — the world’s first — signaled a capitulation to the automobile and exacerbated road congestion.
“Planners in Richmond devoted more attention to the highway issue between 1946 and 1956 than to any other element of the master plan,” writes Christopher Silver in “Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics, and Race.” The process devoted scant attention to the distress inflicted on neighborhoods by the highways.
After considerable deliberation on the courses of both the Richmond stretch of Interstate 95 and the Downtown Expressway/I-195, the municipal leadership threw the matter into the General Assembly. A state mechanism called an “authority” allowed for a quasi-governmental entity to maintain the road and pay off bonds through tolls. The Richmond Metropolitan Authority (1966) received the charter to administrate the Richmond Expressway System, comprising the Powhite Parkway, Beltline Expressway and Downtown Expressway.
The Main-to-the James Development Committee was created in 1970 to oversee redevelopment of the city between East Main Street and the James River. The body comprised state and local representatives and business leaders. The expressway, as planners saw it, needed to wedge into downtown and avoid the Ethyl Corp. (now NewMarket) headquarters and the then-Virginia Penitentiary. The committee favored a route east of Belvidere, between Canal and Byrd streets. The proposed expressway split downtown from the river and destroyed almost four miles of the filled-in James River and Kanawha Canal.
The “Main-to-the James” committee in 1972 hired the Philadelphia-based urban planning and landscape architecture firm of Wallace, McHarg, Roberts and Todd. Rather than a below-grade expressway forming an asphalt moat between Main Street and the James River, the Wallace group suggested converting it into a boulevard, similar to the present four lanes and median of Leigh Street behind the Science Museum. They advocated restoration of the canal. A rift ensued, and the committee denounced the consultants’ work as sketchy, unscientific and with weak justifications.
In 1973, a residents group, James River and Kanawha Canal Parks, Inc., led by former Byrd machine state Sen. Eugene R. Sydnor, Jr., filed suit in U.S. District Court to delay the project for environmental study. They wanted the expressway to end at Fifth Street, or perhaps at Belvidere, with no downtown extension to I-95. They also opposed the tolls. Sydnor likely didn’t know the principles of the feng shui design-for-living philosophy wherein moving water is an attractor of positive energy. But he knew the importance of a water feature.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Jan. 10, 1973, editorial page warned that thwarting the expressway constituted a mortal blow against a downtown struggling against the powerful suburban drag. The accompanying cartoon illustrated expressway opponents as tire-puncturing spikes.
Vice Mayor Henry L. Marsh III provided vocal opposition to the expressway and for a time, he and flamboyant council member Howard Carwile sought to unite the white Oregon Hill and black Randolph neighborhoods against the highway. Marsh, however, did an about-face and endorsed the RMA on Jan. 15, 1973. “The expressway can’t be stopped, anyway,” he said. “It’s a question of whether the citizens of Richmond are going to be left holding the bag.”
Federal Judge Robert L. Merhige on May 8 delivered a 51-page decision against the parks group on account that not enough federal funds were being used to merit an environmental study.
The Downtown Expressway, along with the I-195 connector, opened on Feb. 3, 1976.
The RMA’s responsibilities grew to building parking decks downtown and in Carytown, operating the Boulevard Bridge (1969), and collaborating with regional partners in the 1985 construction of the Diamond, which it transferred to the city in 2014. In 2011, the RMA restructured its debt and paid Richmond $62.4 million — the $20 million that built the expressway, plus interest. Mayor Dwight Jones marked the funds for riverfront improvements, schools and deconcentrating public housing projects. The big payback means the RMA will keep its tolls in place until 2041. Also in 2014, the group’s directorship grew from 11 to 16 with five members each from from Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield, and one member from the Commonwealth Transportation Board. The name changed to Richmond Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which marks its 50th anniversary this year.