The T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge, which later this year will connect Brown's Island to the Manchester climbing wall, both connects the city's public spaces and becomes a new one itself. (Photo by Justin Doyle)
In October, I invited you to a conversation. It was the launch of The Valentine history museum’s annual series (this was the fifth year) of conversations around the city’s past, present and future. Community Conversations started, the museum’s director Bill Martin tells me, around the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. The vision was to connect the story of Richmond then to the story of Richmond now because this is what the Valentine does: collect and share this city’s stories through as many different means as it can conceive. Storytelling is an ongoing act of construction and (little r) reconstruction, and each series since has sought to bring something new to the understanding of the Richmond we have come to inhabit and are now shaping.
Richmond magazine partners with the museum in the conversations, and so, as part of this year’s theme — ReRVA - Revitalizing,Recycling and Reimagining — I have had the opportunity to write Sunday Stories introducing discussion around public transportation, housing, historic preservation, urban farming and recycling. The conversations, all of which take place at The Valentine, all of which begin with an illuminating slide show drawn from the museum’s vast photo archive, have brought together an interesting mix of long-timers in the region and newcomers, city dwellers and suburbanites, all with a keen interest in what makes Richmond Richmond.
The session at 6 p.m. Tuesday at The Valentine is your last chance to participate in the current series. This final conversation is on public spaces, a topic that speaks to the heart of our identity — how we see ourselves, how others see us, how we want others to see us. That makes it rich with conflict – and with collaboration. We are talking about the shared spaces of a city, the places to which we all have some claim and in which we can encounter the public Richmond -- not just on a physical level, but an emotional and, even spiritual, plane. This is the nature of public spaces. They are thresholds to an experience. Some inform. Some embrace. Some challenge.
The museum and its partners planned this year’s topics a year ago, Martin says, and “little would we have imagined the conversation going on now around the Maggie Walker statue and what should happen with that public space, or the conversation around Monument Avenue and its statues, and, really, the conversation about public art, in general, as the public art commission works on the master plan for the city.
“If we think about public spaces in Richmond, there have always been contested spaces, whether it’s who has access to Capital Square or what activities are appropriate for Monroe Park. These are questions that continue to be asked about the spaces that we share.”
So, in preparation for Tuesday’s conversation, let us travel today to the northern bank of the James River just off Brown's Island where Justin Doyle awaits. Doyle is the community conservation manager for the James River Association, and will be a panelist for this conversation, which has a distinctive bent toward our much-prized recreational public spaces. Joining Doyle on the panel is Beth Weisbrod, executive director of the Virginia Capital Trail foundation, and John Sydnor, the executive director of the Enrichmond foundation.
Doyle and I meet on at the foot of the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge, one of the most spectacular new public spaces under construction in the city. The bridge, 10 feet across, 1,1700 feet long and closer to the river than any other city bridge that spans it, will connect Brown’s Island to Manchester. It is expected to be finished later this year, and will be open to all modes of transport except those involving a motor. The bridge rests on concrete piers that are the remnants of a power plant dam that operated for 80 years on the spot, until about 1980. In 1992, Venture Richmond converted a portion of the dam into an interpretive Civil War exhibit and observation platform. The bridge will pick up from there and cross to the base of the Manchester climbing wall, which used to be the southern abutment of the old Richmond and Petersburg Railroad. And this is how what is old is made new again and how a city story is constructed and then reconstructed.
The bridge is part of the city’s 2012 Riverfront Plan, which envisions broader access and new connections to the prize that is the James. The James River Association is a key player is seeing that vision fulfilled and when I ask Doyle how it balances exploitation of a public space with protection of it, he says the word I should be thinking about is “leverage.”
“That’s the word we like to use,” he says. “What the Richmond Riverfront Plan is attempting to do is leverage the natural asset that is the James River and enhance public spaces along the river through the city limits from Belle Isle down to Rockett’s Landing. This bridge is one of the critical connections between public spaces on the riverfront … And it will also serve as a public space itself because it will have four bump outs along its course where people can enjoy the river.”
This is a $9.5 million project, paid for largely through city general obligation bonds.
That pays for the bridge to span the river to the climbing wall, but Doyle says that’s about $1.8 million dollars short of what’s needed to create a universally accessible path up the old railroad earthworks and embankment to complete the link to Manchester. It will cost millions more to implement the rest of the Riverfront Plan.
And that is the challenge in the creation and maintenance of recreational public space, particularly in a cash-strapped city with competing spending priorities.
Doyle has no trouble making a case for it. This plan is transformative, he says, it will connect more neighborhoods to the river and to each other. It continues to turn the city into a walkable, bikeable place. It will draw more visitors, which makes a social investment an economic one, as well. And, Richmond is growing again, and with more people comes the need for more public spaces.
“We need to accommodate the recreational needs, throughout the region, so we’re not overcrowding our beloved James River Park System, which had 1.3 million visitors in 2015,” he says.
Public spaces, like all public investments, are an answer to the questions that help define a city: What do you value, and why?
The conversation happens at 6 p.m. Tuesday at The Valentine. I hope you will join us.