Ongoing Developments | Arts and Culture | Style Weekly

How can the passage of forty years be read through the lens of spaces and places that have both changed and invigorated Richmond’s streetscapes and skyline?

The adaptive reuse of old structures has created homes for a new generation of urban dwellers. Virginia Commonwealth University continues to spread its campus across downtown and the lower Fan district. And thinking and policy has evolved on how public housing can be provided.

The past four decades have delivered excellent examples of urban design and architecture. But other needs and projects are still being ignored, even after several decades. Here are five opportunities from the public and private sectors that still await resolution, and ten projects that warrant kudos, if not celebration.

Downtown arts district

It’s a loose collection of galleries and theaters, but the arts district stretch along Broad Street, between Fourth and Belvidere streets, has become a popular destination for restaurants, shopping, and entertainment. There’s even a Quirk hotel. What made this transformation possible was the collection of surviving mid-sized commercial buildings and the use of historic preservation credits.

Kitchens at Reynolds

2500 Nine Mile Rd.

Our city can boast few modern structures that are visual knockouts, but the 1968 Markel Building near Willow Lawn is a mid-century classic. More recently, Richmonders Kathie and Steve Markel (his father was behind the flying-saucer-like structure) have underwritten the architecturally heading-turning Kitchens at Reynolds in North Church Hill. The building, designed by O’Neill McVoy Architects, houses the culinary programs of J. S. Reynolds Community College. A new neighborhood grocery store nearby is an essential part of the development package.

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The Locks at Haxall Point

Byrd Street at 12th Street

Richmond does little to acknowledge its intriguing and rich industrial past; consider the rise and fall during the 1990s of the sprawling Valentine Riverside complex at Tredegar or tepid attempts to restore the James River and Kanawha Canal. But at the Locks development, the restoration of an Italianate-style tobacco building, a former 20th century Reynolds Metals aluminum plant, and the construction of residential buildings gel together to deliver a prime example of combining past and contemporary.

Capitol Square

The 18th century public square looks like the third ring of hell these days, as a tunnel connecting the Capitol with the new General Assembly Building remains under construction. But the Capitol itself received a brilliant restoration and underground expansion in 2007. Meanwhile, new monuments to the civil rights movement, indigenous peoples, and Virginia women of note – along with the removal of Senator Harry F. Byrd – have refreshed the once Confederate-centric story line.

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Altria Theater

Corner of North Laurel and West Main streets

This glamorous and architecturally exotic auditorium has undergone a number of renovations since its construction in 1929. But the intelligent makeovers in recent decades of the luxurious-looking interior have returned the theater to its original glory. However, what happened to the mighty Wurlizer organ?

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Brown’s Island

The formation of this central public park commenced when the city swapped acreage of its Gambles Hill Park with Ethyl Corp. for Brown’s Island. The now-restored Tredegar Ironworks buildings house the American Civil War Museum and a U.S. National Parks Service visitor center. The island’s greensward and immensely popular T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial pedestrian and cycling bridge make this a jewel in the region’s recreational and cultural crown

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Capital Trail and Low Line

Despite a Richmond visit by their majesties, the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip, the 400th anniversary in 2007 of Virginia’s settlement by the English was an underwhelming occasion. But a lasting monument inspired by the observance was the linking by a pedestrian and cycling roadway of Virginia’s three state capitals, Jamestown, Williamsburg and Richmond. The 52-mile Capital Trail, which mostly runs parallel to Route 5, is a world-class project. The overlaying 5.5 -mile Low Line is the handsomely landscaped urban connector of the trail with Capitol Square.

Monroe Park

The lower Fan district

Much of Monroe Park’s character has always been provided by the architectural quality of surrounding buildings. These include the Altria Theater, Grace & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Sacred Heart Cathedral, the Prestwould condominiums, and various newer VCU buildings. The park itself, however, was a wretched situation for most of the past few decades until recently. For a few years now, it has been an elegant centerpiece of the campus. Thoughtful landscaping, light curation, activity areas, and well-lit pathways combine to create an almost Parisian charm.

The Valentine

1015 East Clay St.

The Valentine, a museum and center for local history located in the heart of downtown’s VCUHealth complex, perhaps better than any organization, exemplifies positive resilience during the past 40 years. Blessed with invaluable collections (including the print and photo archives of this paper) and a long history of service, the privately owned and funded organization attempted a highly ambitious physical expansion in the 1990s when it developed a second campus near the riverfront at the former Tredegar Ironworks. When this failed magnificently, Valentine’s leadership faced questions about economic survival. But the place not only survived, it flourished.

Many of the region’s museums and cultural organizations are doing superb and important work during the fraught, current period of re-evaluating the cultural and historical landscape, but the Valentine regularly punches above its weight.

Maggie L. Walker

Governor’s School for Government and International Studies

1000 N. Lombardy St.

Richmond’s once all-Black Maggie L. Walker High School was a beloved institution from the 1930s until closing in the 1970s. Then, for more than 20 years, the building sat empty and contributed psychologically to the decline of the Carver and Newtown neighborhoods. In 2001, the dramatically restored landmark was reopened as a regional public high school for gifted students. Its presence is not only an important center of learning for the city, but it has sparked rejuvenation of the surrounding area.

In Need of Attention

Richmond public housing communities

Including Creighton, Fairfield, Gilpin and Mosby courts

The executive suite at the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority has been a rapidly revolving door during the past four decades. Meanwhile, as local rents and home prices rise, social, economic and racial justice issues surrounding public housing heighten [and national media has taken notice of disparate health outcomes in overheated areas of Richmond that lack trees, shade and air conditioning].

As RRHA seeks to shrink and redistribute the populations of these communities, it should incorporate stronger environmental design standards into the new residences. For 40 years, there’s been a dearth of landscaping or meaningful outdoor living space


Defined by Semmes Avenue, the James River, Maury Street and Cowardin Avenue

No local neighborhood has been all-but decimated, and then rebuilt so dramatically during the past 40 years. The floodwall is visually brutal and new housing structures exude the charm of stacked shipping containers. Too little thought and monetary out-lay has gone to traffic and pedestrian infrastructure, green spaces, recreation outlets, and historic interpretation of what was once an independent city.

Richmond Coliseum and Arthur Ashe, Jr. Athletic Center

The Diamond is apparently going to be rebuilt. The Richmond Kickers have brightened up weathered City Stadium with coats of paint and savvy soccer promotions. But why was the Richmond Coliseum, a grand facility with a dramatic interior and terrific sight lines, shut down suddenly some years ago? Wasn’t it essential as a convention lure? And didn’t we once enjoy Elvis, the P. T. Barnum and Bailey Circus, Tina Turner and Elton John here? Across town, folks aren’t sure who has authority with the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center. Am I missing something? Who decided that major in-town public sports facilities are dinosaurs?

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The Blues Armory at 600 E. Marshall St. "shows a lack of civic pride and common sense that the exemplary landmark hasn’t been at least cleaned up." - SCOTT ELMQUIST

  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Blues Armory at 600 E. Marshall St. “shows a lack of civic pride and common sense that the exemplary landmark hasn’t been at least cleaned up.”

Blues Armory

600 E. Marshall St.

It’s a disgrace. The fortress-like, architecturally-distinctive, 122-year old Richmond Light Infantry Blues Armory, which once served as a fire station, and the food court and offices for the former Sixth Street Marketplace, is shuttered and choked by chain link fencing. This rusting sight greets thousands of visitors to downtown hotels and the Greater Richmond Convention Center. It shows a lack of civic pride and common sense that the exemplary landmark hasn’t been at least cleaned up.

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Greater Richmond Transit Company Transfer Plaza

North Ninth Street between Marshall and Leigh Streets

Much is made of the GRTC Pulse route that runs from Rockett’s Landing to Willow Lawn. Still, while riders may transfer to other buses along the route, precious few locals ride the bus by choice. This has much to do with the lack of such rider amenities as signage, shelter and benches. The downtown central transfer point, preposterously called a “plaza,” is currently being relocated to a North Ninth Street surface parking lot. Expect little.

Editor’s note: Edwin Slipek was a former Style weekly senior contributing editor and wrote architectural criticism for 32 years.

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