A proposal being pondered by the City of Richmond could have Carytown closing off to car traffic in the coming years.
While the idea to make the retail corridor a pedestrian-only thoroughfare has been floated casually for years, it has gained traction of late through an ongoing online survey conducted by the city and resulting social media chatter.
It’s one of 140 ideas being considered by the department of public works for Richmond Connects, a strategic transportation improvement plan in the works.
Other major proposals in the Richmond Connects plan open to public feedback are a microtransit zone for Southside, work on the city’s stretch of the Fall Line Trail and reconnecting Jackson Ward with a bridge deck over I-95.
Kelli Rowan, a consultant for the public works department’s office of equitable transit and mobility, said her team is preparing to release a draft of an action plan this fall based on a combination of the survey results and a policy guide called Path to Equity, adopted by City Council last year. The action plan would then at some point be placed on the council agenda for discussion.
Currently, the city is circulating a survey to gather public input on the recommendations, which came from a multitude of sources, including public outreach, public works and other regional planning bodies.
Each proposal would meet an “equity-centered need,” Rowan said. Once the survey wraps up in a few weeks, they’ll narrow down the list by at least half, Rowan said. Ideas will be categorized into different timelines: immediate, 0-5 years and 5-10 years.
As of Aug. 4, Rowan said, the survey had over 6,200 respondents – almost 70 percent of those for the area that includes Carytown. At that time, roughly 83 percent of respondents supported the proposal for a car-free Carytown and 17 percent opposed. Participants also marked it as “most important” when asked to pick their top projects.
Since it’s still early in the process, Rowan said there aren’t set details yet on what a car-free Carytown would look like – such as which streets would be affected, how traffic would be impacted and potential parking solutions. The survey question outlines a nine-block stretch between Thompson Street and Arthur Ashe Boulevard for exclusive pedestrian and bicycle use.
Most Carytown business owners haven’t made up their minds on the issue yet. Kelley Banks, the city liaison for the Carytown Merchants Association (CMA) and co-owner of Merrymaker Fine Paper on Cary Street, said a representative from the city attended CMA’s Wednesday meeting to inform business owners of the proposal.
“I think they are interested and not necessarily just opposed to changes, but they are certainly kind of concerned about some of the more practical issues like parking, like truck delivery,” Banks said of other businesses in the neighborhood.
Parking seems to be the biggest holdup for business owners, who say some customers are already hesitant to visit Carytown for that very reason.
“We already have enough people not wanting to come because they’re worried about where to park,” said Bonnie Patterson, owner of Bonnie’s Boutique at 3009 W. Cary Street. “Now they really won’t want to come.”
The CMA, while undecided on the street closure idea, is considering advocating for other measures to improve pedestrian safety on Cary Street, such as widening the sidewalks, more clearly demarcating crosswalks and reducing the speed limit. Banks said they’re looking at lowering it from 25 to 20 miles per hour.
Closing all of Carytown off to cars permanently isn’t the only option. Some merchants are in favor of doing it on a trial basis or making it an event, in which Carytown could go pedestrian-only for a day or two each month.
Erin Bottcher, who co-owns Bev’s Homemade Ice Cream at 2911 W. Cary Street, said she likes the once-a-month event idea but said it would require signage, informing residents and other hurdles. She’s unsure as to how her business would be affected by a street closure.
“I think maybe it could be positively impacted if we were to make it more of a single-day event,” Bottcher said, noting that many Carytown customers are tourists who drive to town. “I think making it permanently closed, like the whole street, would probably negatively impact because I think people would just not come to Carytown anymore.”
Bottcher said she’s also noticed a desire for more outdoor seating options along Cary Street and would like to see a permanent sit-down space set up for the community.
Banks said she favors another idea she’s heard chatter about – a nearby park. With the I-195 downtown expressway already sunken below-grade, Banks said, she’d like to see the city build a park on top of the highway by Carytown.
“That’s the kind of thing that I think the area really needs, is more green space, a place for people to sit down, something close to Cary Street that could kind of serve the business district as well but also be a neighborhood amenity.”
Banks said the CMA is in conversations with the City of Richmond to get the neighborhood classified as a business improvement district – or a special assessment district, as they’re called in Virginia – that would open up Carytown to more funding for events, marketing, landscaping and other resources.
Venture Richmond, the nonprofit that runs the services for such districts in Richmond, announced last month that Manchester has been added to Richmond’s service district.
Rowan and Dironna Clarke, another public works administrator working on Richmond Connects, said Carytown is far from the only recommendation on their list and isn’t a high-priority item for the city. They said the plan aims to focus on improving equitable transportation for areas that aren’t tended to as often or have fewer resources.
Most survey respondents also tend to support the survey’s other major recommendations: construction of the city’s section of the Fall Line Trail, which will be a 43-mile, $266 million multi-use trail stretching from Ashland to Petersburg; the Reconnect Jackson Ward project, which would build a bridge deck over I-95 between north and south Jackson Ward; and the microtransit zone for Southside, which would be a small-scale, on-demand rideshare and public transportation service run by GRTC.
Rowan noted that other smaller recommendations have received overwhelming support, such as improving bus stops and sidewalks.
“While not as ‘flashy’ as big projects, these are included to let policy makers know how the public would prioritize funds,” Rowan wrote in an email to BizSense. “It’s pretty clear that bus stop basic infrastructure, adding or improving sidewalks, and improving pedestrian safety are emerging [as] the most important to the everyday person and funding priorities should reflect that once it’s all said and done.”