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 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.