A Vision For Downtown Richmond

(Note: the piece below was originally submitted to The Richmond Times-Dispatch to run as an op-ed. Brian Chandler submitted it to the newspaper on behalf of the Shockoe Partnership, which he is a member of the organization’s board of directors.)

By Brian Chandler, president
Eight years ago, I moved to Richmond. While having lunch with some members of a local TV station, one individual said, “I would never go downtown to shop or have dinner. It’s not safe, and there’s nowhere to park.”

The comment was spurred by my recent move from Charlotte, N.C. I asked the question if the city could ever become an attractive destination like what Charlotte is known for. Several individuals attending the lunch had just been to the city for the NCAA basketball tournament andcould see the vision of what our downtown could become, but others were skeptical.
Fast forward to today and there’s a strong momentum building for downtown Richmond and Shockoe Bottom to become a destination.

Capital One Financial Corp. announced recently that it bought a five-story building in Shockoe Bottom at 1717 E. Cary Street to be turned into an incubator for startup businesses. The 36,000 square-foot former tobacco warehouse will provide work space and mentoring opportunities for local entrepreneurs and startups. It will also be an offsite work location for Capital One, drawing employees from Northern Virginia, as well as the company’s headquarters in West Creek Business Park of Goochland County. CarMax also made a partial move to downtown recently from the West Creek Business Park.

Another landmark project for downtown is the redevelopment of Main Street Station. Originally opened in 1901, the station closed for several years because of lack of use. Today, it is back up and running as a hub for Amtrak and about to get busier. The redevelopment of the 100,000-square-foot, 500-yard-long station will include shops, an indoor market and 50,000 square feet of rentable event space, that is already booked beyond January 2018.

There are currently discussions of the state allowing its parking decks to be used for free on the weekends for those wanting to access Main Street Station, which would be an excellent solution to the parking needs that exist downtown. The city’s Department of Economic and Community Development had the vision for it to become Richmond’s version of Union Station in D.C. and Grand Central Station in New York.

Also in the works is the transformation of 17th Street Farmer’s Market into a pedestrian only, open-air plaza, complete with patios for outdoor dining, fountains and trees. There is a vision to connect the Farmers Market to the Virginia Capital Trail, which is a 52-mile paved pedestrian and bicycle trail running from Shockoe Bottom along the Route 5 corridor.

Next in the pipeline is the GRTC Pulse, a modern, high quality, high capacity rapid transit system that will serve a 7.6-mile route along Broad Street and Main Street, from Rocketts Landing in the city of Richmond to Willow Lawn. This cuts to the core of providing solutions to two of the major issues associated to downtown: parking and transportation. The rapid transit is a commuter solution for those traveling into downtown, which would free up more parking.

Speaking of transportation, there was a time in Charlotte when the idea of a light rail from the southern part of the city to its downtown area was considered something that would not meet usage projections. More than 10 years after its completion, Lynx Charlotte has exceeded expectations and runs more than 16,000 trips every weekday. Could you see a light rail line from Midlothian into Main Street Station and the development that could be spurred from a project like this?

Considering the numbers, downtown has experienced a 10 percent increase in population in the last six years going from 206,000 to 223,000 in 2016. This growth rate exceeds that of surrounding counties and is an equivalent reversal in people, not percent, of the most precipitous decline in population in the city’s modern history.

There’s no doubt that the city is headed in the right direction, but who will embrace what it has to offer and how long will it take for the perception of downtown to change? This is an incredibly important issue because as the city becomes a destination, more businesses are attracted, and sports teams, entertainment, cultural organizations, and nonprofits see Richmond as a place they want to be. All of this growth will result in revenue for local businesses, jobs, and tax revenue for the city, opposed to higher taxes. The long-term effect will be better schools, safer communities, more parking and better transportation opportunities: a real vision for the future of Richmond.

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