Learning from Richmond

December 12, 2007 6 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Although Richmond has not put it all together, it has valued the concept of historic preservation. Focusing heavily on working with the existing building fabric to bring back downtown and its urban core neighborhoods.


Richmond Population 2006: 192,913 (City); 1,194,008 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1737)

Jacksonville Pop. 2006: 790,689 (City); 1,277,997 (Metro) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); Richmond (230,310)


Brief Description:

Richmond was founded in 1737 and became the capital of the Colony and Dominion of Virginia in 1780.  During the Civil War era it served as the Capitol of the Confederacy and a major southern industrial center.  In 1900, the city was the most densely populated city in the Southern US with 85,050 residents living in five square miles.  Like many old cities, Richmond has had its ups and downs during a long process to recapture its magic. 


In recent years, Richmond has been attempting to revive its downtown. Recent downtown initiatives include the Canal Walk, a new Greater Richmond Convention Center, and expansion on both VCU campuses. Despite numerous controversies related to excessive employee salaries and wasteful spending of public tax money, a new performing arts center, Richmond CenterStage, will reportedly open in 2009.


The River District:

In 1999, the City of Richmond completed its canal walk project, a refurbishment of a 1.25 mile segment of the Haxall Canal and the James River & Kanawha Canal that had fallen into disuse. Developed as a tourist destination, the area surrounding the Canal Walk was branded by The River District Alliance (RDA) (a 501(c)6 public/private organization) as "The River District.".

The actual boundaries of the River district are not defined, and include some businesses commonly thought to belong to other districts, like Shockoe Bottom and Shockoe Slip.



Shockoe Slip:

The name "slip" refers to the canal boat slips nearby where goods were loaded and unloaded.  Richmond entered the twenty-first century in the process of undergoing several redevelopment initiatives, including the removal of asphalt to expose the historic cobblestone streets.

The city completed a $52 million restoration of the James River and Kanawha Canals, as well as the Haxall Canal, in 1999, which included a Canal Walk designed to attract businesses such as restaurants and nightclubs to the area. The riverfront project has brought the 1.25-mile corridor back to life, with trendy loft apartments, restaurants, shops and hotels in old tobacco warehouses along the Canal Walk, along with canal boat cruises and walking tours.




Shockoe Bottom:

This historically industrial area, just east of downtown along the James River and separated from "the Slip" by I-95, became a major nightlife, dining, and entertainment center during the 1990's. After centuries of periodic flooding by the James River, development was greatly stimulated by the completion of Richmond's James River Flood Wall in 1995. Ironically, the next flooding disaster came not from the river, but from Hurricane Gaston, which did extensive damage to this area in 2004, shutting down many businesses. The city of Richmond has had serious discussions about moving the Richmond Braves baseball stadium from its current location at The Diamond to Shockoe Bottom or Tobacco Row.


The Fan:

This district's name comes from its fan-like street grid which spreads out from downtown on the city's westside.  A majority of the district's development was strongly influenced by the City Beautiful movement.



VCU / Broad Street:

The eastern part of the Fan (known as the "Lower Fan") is home to Virginia Commonwealth University.  VCU is the largest university in Virginia with 30,381 students.  VCU's recent expansions have centered around the struggling Broad Street corridor.  Broad Street was the city's first major commercial corridor.




Jackson Ward:

This historically black neighborhood at one time was known as the "Harlem of the South. " A center for black commerce and entertainment, it was frequented by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and James Brown.

Jackson Ward was also home to Maggie L. Walker, the first woman to charter and serve as president of an American bank. The Maggie L. Walker House is now a U.S. National Historic Site. Jackson Ward is home to the Hippodrome Theater.

During the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate highway system in the 1950s Jackson Ward was split in two, much to the detriment of the neighborhood.

In the early 2000s, the Greater Richmond Convention Center and Visitors Bureau was built at the western edge of Jackson Ward, which may help in the redevelopment of Jackson Ward.



Carytown is a residential and commercial area that generally consists of 1920s era homes and privately owned shops, clothing stores, cafes, and restaurants along Cary Street. The Byrd Theatre, located in this district, is a historic 1920s era movie palace that shows second run movies and that offers periodic performances of its Wurlitzer organ.



Church Hill:

The historic district of Church Hill encompasses the original land plot of the city of Richmond. There, Patrick Henry gave his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech in St. John's Church. Chimborazo Park occupies the former site of the largest American Civil War Hospital. Church Hill is notable as one of the largest extant 19th century neighborhoods in America, with many fine examples of period architecture. This area has undergone significant gentrification in recent years.



What can Jacksonville learn?

Richmond is a city that has done some great things, but still lacks connectivity despite having the building fabric to do so.  It is a city, like Jacksonville, that would really benefit from having a streetcar line to better connect dense inner city neighborhoods such as The Fan, VCU, Shockoe Bottom and Union Hill with downtown. 

Nevertheless, what we can see from Richmond is the value of a city's history and creating a future vision by marketing that history.  Shockoe Bottom, Shockoe Slip, Carytown, the Riverfront, and Canal Walk have all become regional destinations due to the preservation of building fabric and incorporating a mix of uses in a setting that can't be replicated in newer suburban shopping centers, PUDs, or DRIs.