A company teambuilding project to spruce up Shockoe Bottom planted the seeds for what’s become a communitywide effort, culminating this month with a neighborhood cleanup that brought out dozens of volunteers and a helping hand from the city and area businesses.
About 60 volunteers sporting bluish-green T-shirts converged on the neighborhood Oct. 20 for what they called Shockoe Bottom Beautification Day, a one-day cleanup event that accented a months-long effort to coordinate tree plantings, graffiti and trash removal, lighting replacements and other community improvements.
The effort got going over the summer with what Chris Johnson intended as a teambuilding project for The Monument Cos. and Legend Property Group, the real estate development and property management companies he leads with fellow principal Tom Dickey.
Johnson, a member and former president of neighborhood business group Shockoe Partnership, reached out to current president and fellow developer Charles McFarlane, as well as Brian White with Main Street Realty, who offered to chip in funds.
Before he knew it, Johnson said, the project had ballooned to include involvement from downtown booster group Venture Richmond, area businesses such as Shockoe Bottom Clay and architecture firm SMBW, and the City of Richmond’s public works, urban forestry and parks and recreation departments, which provided financial support, supervision and guidance for volunteers.
“We weren’t exactly sure how much we could accomplish just our companies, but then it kind of spread like wildfire,” Johnson said.
Work focused on the two blocks between Main and Franklin streets and between 17th and 19th streets, including Walnut Alley, a cobblestone alley between 17th and 18th that had been littered with trash and graffiti.
By day’s end, the group planted seven new street trees in empty tree wells, pruned existing trees and cleaned and mulched more than 50 other wells, repaired brick sidewalks, repaired or replaced dozens of streetlights, removed trash, replaced old concrete trash receptacles with newer metal trashcans, and power-washed areas including Walnut Alley and 17th Street Market.
The larger effort beyond the day also removed graffiti from more than 20 buildings and funded and added a communal trash enclosure at 17th and Grace streets. The city provided an encroachment to place the enclosure and contributed about $39,000 to the $75,000 cost, the rest of which was covered by Shockoe Partnership.
Johnson said the city’s contribution came from leftover GRTC Pulse corridor funds. He said Monument Cos. built the enclosure at cost, with its in-house Catalyst Design Group providing free design work.
The enclosure contains an 8-yard dumpster for use by area businesses and is equipped to accommodate a trash compactor if demand increases. The group’s funding has covered the first few months of trash removal, but Johnson said a goal is to find a company to provide removal long-term.
Johnson credited the city’s involvement to Rebecca Phillips, a recreation program specialist who oversees 17th Street Market.
“She was able to really help us engage with the greater City of Richmond folks, and man, they stepped up,” Johnson said. “Between the department of public works, urban forestry and parks and rec, it just ballooned to, ‘Let’s have this beautification day.’”
Phillips said the city was glad to get involved upon learning of the grassroots effort.
“This kind of effort shows what can be accomplished when business owners, neighbors and the city come together,” Phillips said in an email. “Shockoe Bottom is one of the most historic areas in RVA and we need to come together as a community to keep it clean and safe.”
Overall, the larger cleanup effort has cost upwards of $91,000, including the city’s contribution. While participating businesses picked up the bulk of that cost, Johnson said it’s been worth it.
“It ended up being a pretty significant investment from the private sector, but I think just getting the trash and the dumpsters out of Walnut Alley can make a really big difference,” he said. “It’s an historic alley, it’s cobblestone. With appropriate lighting and not having dumpsters and trash in there, it could actually become an asset. It spills right out into the market.”
As for the larger effort that grew out of his companies’ teambuilding project, Johnson added, “It ballooned pretty quickly. It’s kind of like you need a spark to get something started and then everybody has a common interest and gets excited about something, and then we were able to accomplish way more than we would have been able to with just our company.”