Better Block project inspires a better RVA

This weekend event wants us thinking about redeveloping the city…block by block.

The weekend, two blocks in Church Hill will become a microcosm for what corridors in Richmond could one day be: a walkable, bikeable, vibrant area bustling with vendors and residents. That’s the goal of Richmond’s first Better Block project, which runs Friday and Saturday on N. 25th Street between P and Carrington streets.

“It’s like a temporary demonstration of what a neighborhood could be like with renewed investment,” said Max Hepp-Buchanan, Bike Walk RVA Director for Sports Backers, and one of the event’s organizers.

Better Block is the name of an organization founded in 2010 to help cities redevelop neglected corridors through bike lanes, cafe seating, pop-up businesses, trees, and other features to give residents a tangible look at how areas can be economically and socially developed.1

The idea for bringing a Better Block project to Richmond sprang from a March 2013 national bicycle summit that Hepp-Buchanan and Sports Backers’ executive director, Jon Lugbill, attended. While there, the two watched a presentation from Jason Roberts, one of the founders of Better Block.

Here’s a TED talk Roberts gave in 2012:

“We thought it was a really cool idea” to bring Better Block to Richmond, Hepp-Buchanan said. The only issue: where do you put it?

Sports Backers ended up discussing the idea with Bon Secours. In 2010, Bon Secours sponsored an East End Visioning Process, a week long charrette to discuss ways to improve the Church Hill-Nine Mild Road corridor. Bon Secours and Sports Backers agreed that the East End corridor exemplifies what Better Block projects strive to change.

“This is almost an extension of that process that occurred in 2010,” Hepp-Buchanan said. “And we’re really trying to put to life a lot of what was talked about in the week-long charrette, and show what it would all look like on the ground if we actually started mobilizing people and putting pieces in place.”

One aspect local organizers will focus on is multi-modal transportation. “We’ll be putting in temporary bike lanes and crosswalks where there aren’t crosswalks so that people can walk and bike around the area easily and comfortably,” Hepp-Buchanan said.

To highlight the potential of economic development, Better Block organizers have cleaned-up four vacant storefronts in the area to host pop-up businesses. “At the same we’ll be showcasing new businesses…and they’ll actually be able to do business over the weekend out of those vacant storefronts.”

Hepp-Buchanan estimated that about 20 vendors total will inhabit the Better Block area. “We’re [also] closing off a couple of side streets to create new public space where there wasn’t space before, and those will be public plaza areas with a number of vendors with tents.”

“In the long-term, we hope this will spur renewed investment in the corridor and that the City of Richmond will work to make Church Hill North an even more pedestrian and bicycle friendly place for everyone.”

Read our Q&A with Max Hepp-Buchanan

Capital One has donated $8,000 in micro-grants for local businesses to improve their facade and landscaping. Storefront for Community Design has provided free consultation to those businesses on how best to spend that money.

The Better Block project will also feature local artists creating temporary murals, as well as musical performances by NO BS! Brass Band and Chicken Grease on Saturday.

On Friday night, Bon Secours is sponsoring a “Movie in the Park” at N. 25th Street and Nine Mile Road. “That’ll be a fun place for kids and families to gather outside where they probably didn’t before,” Hepp-Buchanan said. On Saturday at 9:00 AM, Sports Backers will host the Better Block 5k walk/run, “which is very community-oriented and will highlight some of the historical parts of the Church Hill and Union Hill neighborhoods.”

Hepp-Buchanan thinks this weekend’s Better Block project is only the beginning. “We really feel like this is in the nature of what Richmond is all about and hopefully there will be more Better Block projects down the road,” he said.

There’s also the permanent changes that Better Block could leave behind. “Things don’t happen overnight after Better Block projects,” Hepp-Buchanan said. “But in other projects across the country, there’s been immediate action to change zoning requirements so that you have mixed-use development at the street level.” He said Richmond has several locations that could use that attention. “There are a number of corridors in Richmond that do need renewed investment and could become very livable, fun places to live and visit.”

Hepp-Buchanan wants attendees of this weekend’s Better Block to see the amount of passion Richmonders have for building great communities. “I want them to see what things could be like if we did put in this renewed investment and actually started transforming areas that have the potential to be some of our great places,” he said.


photo of 2012 Better Block project in Kansas City by zflanders

  1. Cities across North America and Australia have completed Better Block projects. Here are photos of past events. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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