Guest Commentary: Downtown’s front door is a civic embarrassment

The Greater Richmond Convention Center and the downtown Marriott sit at the intersection of Fifth and Broad streets. (BizSense file photos)

An overnight junket took me earlier this month to our nation’s capital, a place I know passably well from frequent visits to friends and family there. This time I lodged in the city’s West End, a neighborhood I’d never heard of much less spent a night. The beautifully maintained pocket is wedged into downtown north of Foggy Bottom and the George Washington University and medical center, southwest of Connecticut Avenue and DuPont Circle, and east of Rock Creek Parkway. Its well-kept sidewalks are lined with architecturally crisp, glass-enclosed office complexes and well-designed condo buildings.

On the morning after the event I’d attended, I eschewed hotel room service and headed outside in search of breakfast and a taste of the immediate environs. What struck me immediately were numerous luxury-class hotels, especially since neither major museums and historical attractions nor the Washington, D.C. convention center are nearby. There was the Park-Hyatt hotel surrounded by densely-planted tulip borders that screamed red and yellow if not Amsterdam. Across the street was the Ritz-Carlton, where expensive cars disappeared and appeared to and from an underground garage. I passed a Westin and saw a Marriott. Upon leaving the cheerful Chef Geoff’s cafe where I had coffee, eggs and bacon, I realized the bistro was housed in a Hilton. And while I saw no old churches or synagogues, a sprinkling of sturdy, brick 19th century townhouses still fronted the sidewalks, evidence that this had been a middle-class neighborhood.

But why the plethora of swank hotels?

Back in Richmond, I did some digging and found that the redevelopment of the West End resulted from efforts by the Washington, D.C. Department of Planning and Management from the early 1970s through the 1980s. The D.C. Metro system was under construction then and planners sought to increase the number of residential units (and related increased ridership) at a time when many households were heading to the suburbs. The neighborhood had previously housed light industry and a mostly African American population (jazz great Duke Ellington was born there in 1899). But when a quirk in the ’70s city code counted hotel rooms as residences, developers built hotels seeking a steady cash flow and enhanced profits. From what I saw, the 1990s and 2000s have brought continued prosperity to the West End.

A few days later, as I walked along Richmond’s East Broad Street downtown to the intersection of North Fifth Street, I thought: this place looks dreadful. Visions of D.C.’s spiffy West End were on my mind. It’s too bad that this busy intersection, fed by vehicular traffic from Interstates 95 and 64, is many visitors’ first impression and only experience here.

The old Sixth Street Marketplace has remained shuttered for years.

The crossroads’ northwest quadrant is marked by the architecturally underwhelming design of the Greater Richmond Convention Center. The behemoth has no major entryways from Broad and a digital sign flashes the word “Pepsi” and occasionally “Help Wanted” notices for jobs at the center. Worse, the Marriott hotel across the street has an exterior that appears to be faced in a derivative of Styrofoam. The hotel fills the entire 500 block of East Broad but is set too far back from Broad to establish a strong urban wall. It is undistinguished further by the mishmash of vehicles clogging its motor entrance. Parked cars and trucks all but encroach on the city sidewalk. The exterior parking situation across Broad at the Hilton, which occupies the former Miller & Rhoads Department Store (in a clever adaptive reuse), is equally messy. There, the vehicular drop-off is indistinguishable from the sizable surface parking lot it bleeds into. Two small cherry trees and a low brick wall along the property line hardly rate as landscaping.

Meanwhile, the wide earthen Broad Street median strip that runs between the hotels is devoid of any living thing (OK, worms maybe). I guess we can rejoice that the thick, fresh mulch sprouts no weeds this early in the spring, but hey, doesn’t Historic Garden Week in Virginia take place this month? Couldn’t the City of Richmond and hotels have sprung for a colorful thick blanket of tulips, irises or impatiens here?

At the fourth corner of Broad and Fifth sits an unsightly, block-long surface parking lot. The narrow city sidewalk on its western edge at Fourth street has become the front yard for residents of the 11-story Grace Place Apartment building at Fourth and Grace (that was recently cited for code violations). Between 10 and 30 folks congregate here throughout the day and evening. Can park benches be placed here for their convenience and comfort since pedestrian flow is challenged when convention goers are walking from Broad to the theater or casual and fine restaurants that now define East Grace from Foushee to Sixth streets?

Richmond’s “front door” at Broad and Fifth is a civic embarrassment. Thousands of visitors pass through here en route to the hotels, performances at the Dominion Energy Center, a convention center event, or other destinations. Need we also mention the pad-locked Coliseum that is encircled by a chain link fence, or the shuttered and graffiti-stained food court of the defunct Sixth Street Marketplace? As we shift our attention to developing the Diamond District, can the mayor’s office, city planners, Venture Richmond organization, convention center staff, hoteliers, and Commonwealth of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University officials join forces to create a “Welcome to Richmond ” zone and turn this eyesore into a worthy point of arrival?

Imagination and commitment are key. And parking will be critical. A large residential structure is reportedly envisioned for the surface parking lot in the 400 block of East Broad. Can this complex be designed with ample public parking that’s sunk deep into downtown’s bedrock?

It would be nice to return home and not dread this unsightly downtown crossroads.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
22 Comments
oldest
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bruce Milam
Bruce Milam
16 days ago

Congress created the National Capital Planning Commission many decades ago to oversee the redevelopment of so many unsightly DC communities. It hasn’t been more than fifty years since the District had slums that rivaled any in the nation, and the Foggy Bottom community Slipek calls the West End was a raucous dangerous area at nighttime. I played there! In contrast, Richmond’s growth has been piecemeal redevelopment efforts and the leadership in the City has been on the verge of dreadful. I’ve seen positive changes over my 25 years as a city resident, but the City hasn’t had the advantage of… Read more »

Frank Smith
Frank Smith
16 days ago

Until city leadership realizes that money comes from visitors, noting will be done. “Let’s find a replacement for the Coliseum,” is always countered with, “But, we need to educate our children.” So the Coliseum is forgotten (again), and the sad part, is that education doesn’t improve either.

A change of leadership at the top would be a good start to bringing Richmond back to the blight it’s headed for.

Lynn Morris
Lynn Morris
16 days ago

Yes! I loved reading this article with a smile on my face and nodding my head in agreement. It is clear someone is lining their pockets and not fixing this eyesore I work in, thank God I don’t live here. This is what I’ve always thought about Richmond. It has to do better. Period.

Jackson Joyner
Jackson Joyner
16 days ago
Reply to  Lynn Morris

I have yet to encounter a reasonable statement that ends with “Period.”

Michael Schewel
Michael Schewel
16 days ago

Slipek’s criticism misses the big point: the mayor and City planners put forth the Navy Hill project to, among other things, address the very issues Slipek complains about. I usually enjoy Ed’s architectural critiques. This one identifies a problem that mayor Stoney identified several years ago and tried to fix. Mr. Slipek is rather late to this party.

Lynn Morris
Lynn Morris
16 days ago

Stoney and those before him have had plenty of time to fix what Slipek is complaining about. Kudos to Slipek for putting it out there. Maybe they will do something now. Stoney’s best feature is running his mouth, but even that is just hot air.

Michael P Morgan-Dodson
Michael P Morgan-Dodson
16 days ago

Broad St had beautiful (albeit often weed filled) bed with crepe myrtles, bushes, lily’s, daffodils and other landscaping down Broad in this area. It was all TORN out by the City for the UCI 2015 Richmond race and the City has never put anything back.

Ed Christina
Ed Christina
10 days ago

Navy Hill had so many problems that what it fixed would not have been worth it.

Matt Dolan
Matt Dolan
16 days ago

Downtown Richmond, which is indeed the first impression many visitors to the city receive, is and has been in my 25 years of living here an embarrassment. I fully agree. In 25 years I can only recall cosmetic changes to Monroe Park and a redesigned Shockoe Bottom Farmers Market space as the only City Government led accomplishments. That’s rather pathetic. That makes the continual rejection of potential transformative projects all the more frustrating. Holding out hope for the current City Center plans though if history repeats itself is difficult to imagine getting city leaders, city council and the populace on… Read more »

Scott Burger
Scott Burger
16 days ago
Reply to  Matt Dolan

Monroe Park is an unseen, unspoken disaster. Privatization, many old-growth trees gone, ugly signs, no restrooms, Conservancy deep in the red. Neighbors feel unwelcome and appalled at what has happened to it. Corporate media won’t really cover the situation because they are afraid of VCU administration’s ire.

Michael P Morgan-Dodson
Michael P Morgan-Dodson
16 days ago
Reply to  Scott Burger

Add to Scott’s comments that Monroe is a disaster AND 17th has no vendors and almost no usage. No fountain/splash pad was never built, no sculptures or public art, and very limited furniture was installed. As for the comments the dead beat owners for the most part are still one developer whom the City worked to get them the properties back in the Wilder Administration and have done little enforcement for code violations.

Todd Woodson
Todd Woodson
16 days ago

The two huge issues in Monroe Park are the big “E’s”: Exclusion and Environment. The City, with a $3 million enticement, leased the park to a “conservancy” that proved to be so profoundly incompetent and so steeped in racial profiling. Black VCU students are frightened by stories of conservancy officers swinging at innocent black students. Sierra Club Falls of the James Group called the “renovation” an “environmental disaster”. At a recent celebration of the 200th birthday of Frederic Law Olmsted, both the Mayor and the Director of Parks thanked and lauded the Monroe Park Conservancy while students that had marched… Read more »

Scott Burger
Scott Burger
16 days ago

So many bad proposals, corporate welfare, and idiotic projects lead to this mess. Hopefully this part of downtown can be redeveloped without more public money wasted. PUT SCHOOLS FIRST though.

Ed Christina
Ed Christina
16 days ago
Reply to  Scott Burger

Anyone who puts “Pretty downtown” before “good schools” has badly misplaced priorities

Brian Ezzelle
Brian Ezzelle
13 days ago
Reply to  Scott Burger

Wasnt it RPS’s own incompetence that caused the much cried about Fox Elementary School fire to be a lot worse than it could have been had been?

Ed Christina
Ed Christina
10 days ago
Reply to  Brian Ezzelle

What does that have to do with anything?
There are a lot of people intentionally starving public schools so that they will die, and then throwing the hands that just choked public schools out, up in the air saying “Oh look what a surprise the failed, we need to fund my partners private/charter school.”

Connor Matthew
Connor Matthew
16 days ago

I am very grateful that Edwin Slipek has an outlet. His articles in Style were always my favorite.

Rick Bishop
Rick Bishop
16 days ago

Good article. City leadership needs more focus on this type of issue. Neat, clean, attractive does not have to cost much but needs priority and continued commitment.

Jeff Ensley
Jeff Ensley
16 days ago

City Hall either needs to follow through with their obligations to maintain and improve our City or step out of the way of non-profits and businesses that want to tackle the tasks at hand. That our government is actually a burden and hindrance to development and improvement is the real embarrassment here.

Arnold Hager
Arnold Hager
15 days ago

The Richmond Chamber of Commerce (does it exist?) could include in their advertisements special instructions for visitors to use the Belvidere exit. Notify GPS to guide visitors to other exits, as well. Just tell visitors to avoid downtown altogether. If you must go, tell them to look for beautiful murals/graffiti in this art mecca known as Richmond. Much cheaper to just close the 5th St. exit to save this great American City from embarrassment.

Shawn Harper
Shawn Harper
15 days ago

Hmmmm…. finally a “Guest Commentary” here I (sorta) agree with. Yes, Richmond, from the time first saw it stopping here on Spring Break from college in NYS in 1990, has always seemed less impressive than it actually is because of some rather uninspiring gateways — and, it’s the “big” areas that people tend to check out first. Yet… I don’t know about the fairness or even sanity of comparing it to DC — heck, why not compare it to PARIS like some commentor did recently while we are at it??? DC’s development despite its comparable history of bad management and… Read more »

Leo Melvin
Leo Melvin
15 days ago

Fill in the canal, burn the trolleys, and take down all the statues. The self-loathing crowd controls everything in Richmond. Why would anyone want to visit a city that aspires to be a pathetic DC knockoff?