Developing Richmond’s Waterfront

About 200 Richmonders — developers, elected officials, real estate lawyers, architects, citizens at large — were drawn to Plant Zero this morning by the promise of free coffee and pastries. Oh and also a presentation on Waterfront Development hosted by the City Department of Community Development.

About 200 Richmonders — developers, elected officials, real estate lawyers, architects, citizens at large — were drawn to Plant Zero this morning by the promise of free coffee and pastries. Oh and also a presentation on Waterfront Development hosted by the City Department of Community Development.

At 7:30 the caffeine addicts were disappointed to find none of promised coffee (or pastries for that matter) available.

Around 7:45 Rachel Flynn made a few introductory remarks. Then RRHA head Elliott Harrigan made a few more remarks in hushed tones, before Ethan Kent (VP for Project for Public Spaces) began the feature presentation.

Fully the first half of Kent’s PowerPoint slideshow felt like a sales pitch for PPS’s consultant work, replete with quotes from Winston Churchill and other luminaries, as well as clever photographs showing the value of good place development all over the world.

The second half of the presentation felt like a series of top ten lists.

Around the time Kent first mentioned ‘Waterfront,’ a bearded, doe-eyed barista finally emerged with a single airpot of coffee. For some reason, it made me think of a certain boy willing to share his lunch of bread and fish on the Judean plain. At least the supply of creamer was ample.

Kent taught us about the Power of Ten (i.e. every great developed place offers at least ten ‘attractions.’) He showed us graphics that contrasted good development models with bad development models. He enthusiastically described the nine characteristics of a good waterfront. You get the point.

Granted I’m no expert, but even to my novice ears, eyes, and brain the whole thing seems awfully intuitive. Community involvement and stake-holders (not developers, not politicians) must own and lead the charge in developing public places. Private and public entities must work together. Good management of place(s) is integral after the development is made. Are you listening Mayor Jones?

By this point several other airpots surfaced and the truly addicted were able to get their coffee fix. Although those craving breakfast sweet rolls were still disappointed. (I half expected the Mayor himself to stride daringly into the room, his pockets stuffed with pastries, tossing said pastries to the starving audience.)

One of the more insightful questions (or maybe just the only one that was audible to your intrepid correspondent) wondered about cities that have completed waterfront development projects that might serve as examples to Richmond.

Perhaps it’s a good thing there was no coffee otherwise Kent may have spit his on the front row. He mumbled his way through a garbled answer about every project being unique, not wanting to just copy somewhere else, etc. Excuse us for not jumping up and down about the lessons that Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo, San Diego, and Vancouver offer for Richmond’s waterfront development. A more realistic and relatable example might have helped.

As things began winding down, one was left with the distinct impression that this presentation was but the first volley in the City’s effort to involved the community in re-developing Richmond’s waterfront. I wish I could tell you how it ended. But I had to scoot. Turns out, I needed a cup of Joe.

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Erik Bonkovsky

10 comments on Developing Richmond’s Waterfront

  1. I think it’s kind of strange that the meeting was at 7:30am on a Thursday. What about people who have to go to work? That probably greatly limited the number of people who could attend.

  2. Anonymous on said:

    FYI – the Plant Zero Cafe guy was SUPPOSED to provide the java at 7:30 but “mixed up” the dates for the presentation.

  3. On the positive side the turnout was surprisingly strong. Rachel Flynn deserves kudos for pushing the discussion of planned development in Richmond. I would agree that this is the beginning of a process that hopefully will come up with a more cohesive plan for the Riverfront and downtown.
    On the negative side – apart from the glitch with the caterer not showing up – the lack of a sound system was a real frustration as it was very hard to hear the presentation or the questions. Someone should have had the presence of mind to have made sure that the presentation was audible.
    The slide show of waterfronts was both inspiring and at times enervating. It is hard to believe that we don’t have multiple restaurants in the Lady Bird Hat Building and around the Turning Basin. As with so many things `Richmond’ we are so slow on the uptake. The potential is right in front of us but we continue to fall short of that potential. But now I am waxing cynical.

  4. Community involvement and stake-holders (not developers, not politicians)

    I disagree, developer and politicians are stakeholders.

    Also Project for Public Spaces has a long track record of success. Why not benefit from their experience and the examples of successful waterfront development elsewhere?

    Here is my coverage of the same story.
    Richmond’s Riverfont Marketplace

  5. bcat on said:

    I object to the whole idea. I object to development on the waterfront. I object to waterfronts. Has anyone followed the money? The developers are trying to fleece the city. What about the floodplain? Has anyone considered the floodplain? Suburbanites will never come to a city waterfront. What about parking? Will there be enough parking? This idea is a boondoggle. A farce. A money pit. The bonds will never float. The floats will never bond. What if the company goes bankrupt? What if there’s an earthquake? A hurricane? A waterspout? We need to fix our schools first. We need affordable housing. Will this provide affordable housing? And we need to preserve our historical spaces. I mean, our green spaces. Don’t come crying to me when your property taxes go up.

  6. I’m not even sure what 16 ideas you were trying to pack into that paragraph, bcat.

  7. Scott Burger on said:

    I am sorry I missed the meeting. I could not get up in time. Thanks for the write-up.

    The Richmond Riverfront Development Corporation controls most of the prime riverfront land in downtown that is not under the new James River Park conservation easement. What are their future plans?

    Because, while they are certainly a stakeholder, I have not been overly impressed with that they have done. The City gave a $50 million check to Cordish and I am still seeing a lot of vacant spaces. Toad’s was nice while it was open but what is happening with the Ladybird Hat Factory Building now? Will Dominion Power ever put solar panels on their Enron-style energy trading floor like the architect suggested? Are the motor boats doing the Canal tours making any money?

    Other more far-out questions/suggestions-

    Meeting/intersection of Capitol Trail and East Coast Greenway (
    Environmentally sensitive micro hydroelectric?
    Pro competition paintball field?
    Will sturgeons ever come back to James River downtown?
    River sky tram like Roosevelt in NYC?
    Flea market/food stalls along Canal Walk?

    I would like to see RESPONSIBLE riverfront development that protects historic neighborhood views and public access. Density and height can be a good thing in certain parts of the downtown footprint, very bad in others (protect the views!). Green building (especially green roofs) is a must.

  8. Jason on said:

    Paul, I think the point is that stakeholders beyond the standard ones need to be involved early and intensively because developers and politicians often pursue development in ways that works against the best uses for the public.

    A lot has been made of opposition to the Echo Harbor project. I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think opposition to that project means that everyone is opposed to all development. But the public needs to be involved because the development has to be done in a way that really preserves public access. Dinner on the river would be great, but there should be quality access to the river that does not cost $$, and I think it should be incorporated into the area between Shiplock park and Rockett’s.

  9. Liberty on said:

    the people who best know how to develop the waterfront are govt. bureaucrats who have never developed anything in their lives. People with a track record of developing real estate, who put their own money on the line, who take the risk and hope to make profit by providing consumers with what they want are evil.

  10. Hi. I just wanted to mention that Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden will be providing exactly what you asked: a representative from a city that has been successful in revitalizing part of its waterfront to come in and explain how it was done –on Aug 4-5, we’ll be hosting Green Tonic, Urban Gardening for Health & Wholeness. Drew Becher, Director of the New York Restoration Project, in NYC will be here to talk about various projects including what they’ve done with the waterfront in New York. PLUS we’ll be hosting LaDonna Redmond, from the Institute for Community Resource Development in Chicago and experts from Philadelphia as well.
    We want Richmonders to learn from these success stories, plus we want to acknowledge all of the great things that are already happening here in Richmond.
    If you want to learn more about the symposium (and see a complete agenda), please visit our website:

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