Downtown master plan returns city to timeless tradition

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by Dom Nozzi

Until the advent of the auto age about 100 years ago,  the imperative for developers was to make people happy. This tradition led to design that was pedestrian-oriented, human-scaled, compact and ornamental.

Since that time, however, the focus has changed. Development is now oriented toward making cars, not people, happy. Because car-based design nearly always creates barriers for other types of travel, it creates a growing, self-perpetuating vicious cycle. After decades of using this car-oriented model, we now find that it is nearly impossible to go anywhere without a car.

Yet the terrible tragedy is this: Cars and people have vastly different needs. Cars require wide, high-speed highways and enormous parking lots (preferably in front of buildings). When not in cars, people are repelled by such design. But because of our dependence on autos, almost all of us are compelled to become our own worst enemies, calling for development that makes car travel easier.

Unintentionally, then, our quality of life is in a downward spiral of our own making, as the car-oriented world we’ve advocated has created an increasingly unpleasant community. As we expand our communities for cars, the world for people shrinks.

Downtown Richmond, like downtowns across America, has suffered from this problem. After working as a senior city planner in Florida for 20 years, I recently relocated to Richmond and was immediately struck by what has happened to downtown. Vast amounts of downtown now consist of deadening, sterilizing off-street surface parking, and massive, high-speed highways.

To be healthy, a downtown needs to build on its competitive strengths: compact, walkable, charming, romantic design. A crucial aspect of this is leveraging “agglomeration economies.” That is, a healthy downtown benefits from a compact concentration of offices, retail, civic buildings and residences.

Yet our single-minded efforts to facilitate our cars is a powerful dispersant. Offices, shops, government buildings and homes scatter to outlying areas, leaving an abandoned, scary, unhealthy downtown.

Because a person in a car consumes 19 times as much space as a person in a chair, cars devour an enormous amount of space, which subverts the walkable compactness that downtown needs. The resulting “gigantism” (huge parking lots, monster highways, endless sprawl) has undercut the livability of downtown Richmond.

The key for a revitalized downtown is to return to the timeless tradition that was abandoned a century ago. Richmond is therefore fortunate to have hired Dover, Kohl and Partners to prepare an update to its downtown master plan.  This firm is nationally celebrated for skillfully restoring this compact, walkable tradition.

Dover Kohl’s plan for downtown Richmond contains essential recommendations: Convert most one-way streets to two-way operation. Reduce the stifling dominance of off-street surface parking. Emphasize buildings and density that activate the streets and sidewalks. Small (and slow) is beautiful.

Not coincidentally, the recent Crupi Report assessing Richmond’s future reaches similar conclusions: “focus on … walkable, two-way streets … human scale … people-friendly … [design].”

The report cites Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom as good starting points: “space that brings people together …construction using traditional design … charm and sense of place that comes with more classical architecture.”

Downtown Richmond is rich in history and should leverage that asset by retaining and celebrating its ornamental, historic buildings. City officials also should consider restoring some of its cobblestone and brick streets — an excellent way to induce civic pride.

In my work, I have come to learn that quality of life is a powerful economic engine. Downtown Richmond should take advantage of this by returning to the tradition of designing for people, not cars.

The Dover Kohl Downtown Master Plan is an excellent place to start. 

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