Thursday, February 12, 2015

14th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)

Opinionated as I am, I was born to be part of a charette.

After happy hour with Prosecco/tequila cocktails and an old friend from out of town, I set my sights on the Virginia Center for Architecture's panel discussion, "Reprogramming the City," based on the fascinating new exhibit there.

I'd already written a piece on it for Style Weekly, here, with my own suggestions for utilizing the ideas in the exhibit but tonight was about listening to savvy panelists explain macro and micro ideas for using Richmond's infrastructure to improve the city.

Stewart Schwartz gave us an overview of the D.C area's mistakes and successes in creating walkable urbanism, followed by a look at Richmond's efforts. Incredibly knowledgeable about development, he stressed the importance of the public in planning a city's future (that's where I want to come in).

Next came Jim Smither who teaches at VCU and used images of projects done by urban planning students to re-imagine parts of Richmond.

Although I have no interest in the suburbs, the plan for redeveloping Chesterfield Town Center mall looked like a huge improvement with a clock tower, parks, an arch with a rooftop cafe, a library, post office, hotel and apartments breaking up the existing block of stores.

Turns out it's in response to a demand for more public space in the suburbs. Who knew they wanted that?

Far more compelling was another project proposing redevelopment of the old bus station at Robinson and Cary Streets. There, the students had struck a balance of preserving the historic trolley sheds and infilling with retail, residential and a parking garage.

But it went further than that. They'd laid out a plan for pocket parks, a sculpture garden, a rain garden, a playground and even managed to find a place to put one of the old trolleys on display for historical reference, all within the block where the sheds sit.

Where Robinson Street crosses over the Downtown Expressway, they'd envisioned pedestrian walkways, crosswalks and lamp posts with flags to make the bridge a gateway to Robinson Street.

Best of all, everything was done in the scale of the existing neighborhood, so nothing looked out of place, just more welcoming.

When the moderator brought up his fiscal conservatism in the face of these plans, Smither explained that a project like this was a 20 year plan that would need to be broken into phases.

He even brought up another student's project in Jackson Ward, one I knew well since I'd been a part of it. A group of neighbors had met over four consecutive weeks to reimagine the triangle at Adams and Broad and while we had no money to implement our ideas, a few of them had been accomplished with sweat equity as proof to the city that they were not only possible but a major improvement to the neighborhood.

It was through that project that I'd discovered how satisfying it is to be part of a charette and collaborate on a vision for development.

As the audience began asking questions, it became clear which topics are high on everyone's radar. BRT (bus rapid transit) was one, with Schwartz emphasizing the importance of making people want to live near the bus stops and how people need to have a positive experience - exciting, interesting, appealing -when they get off a bus to make it successful (see: D.C.).

We talked about the over-abundance of parking garages downtown and how they're privately owned and aren't shared, making them useless too much of the time. "If we want a vibrant city, we have to get a handle on parking," he insisted.

Apparently during the downtown master plan charettes a few years back, there was talk of making the Leigh Street connector more attractive by adding a green median and better bike lanes. Having just walked it today and picked up two bags of trash along the way, I couldn't agree more that it needs a face-lift

But the idea that grabbed me, thrilled me most and the one he said should be an even higher priority than the bridge park currently being planned was for Mayo's bridge.

In order to knit together Shockoe Slip and Bottom to Manchester, he said, Mayo's bridge should be closed to traffic and made a green space with bike lanes, wide sidewalks and places from which to fish. A loop would be formed with a park on Mayo Island.

It's so easy to imagine because the scale of that bridge is so unlike the others that cross the James. It's low to the river, it's only one lane in either direction. It's a bridge scaled for people, not cars.

A traffic study has already shown that the paltry amount of traffic using that bridge could easily be shifted to the Manchester bridge seven blocks away leaving that old, historic stone bridge to become a pathway from one downtown neighborhood to another.

It's by far the best idea for reprogramming the city I've heard. And in case anyone's taking names, I want to be part of the charette that works on such a brilliant idea.

Let me be one of the voices giving feedback to the designers and the city about the best way to walk from one neighborhood to another. I'd say I'm pretty close to an expert on that subject.

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