A Richmond revival?

Bike race, growing downtown population contribute to a new city vibe

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Print this page by Gary Robertson

Richmond is an old city and a river city, lying on the banks of the James.

In the dog days of late summer its humid, subtropical climate makes it a hot box.

These days it’s heating up for another reason: development is booming, and people and capital are flowing into the city’s River District, and into areas beyond.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), anchored by a medical school and the nation’s premier public art and design school, is having its own building boom.

On the sports side, the Redskins are coming to town next year for their training camp, with an eight-year commitment, and one of the world’s most prominent bicycle races will be staged in the city in 2015, drawing upward of 450,000 people from 70 countries to the area.

Meanwhile, national retailer Amazon is furiously completing huge warehouses in two nearby counties, which will create 1,350 jobs and push the Richmond area into the online retail scene in a big way.

Andy Thornton, co-owner of LaDifférence, an eclectic furniture store opened in 1998 at 14th Street across from the turning basin of the city’s restored canal system, believes Richmond is on the cusp of a renaissance.

“I’m astonished,” Thornton says, reflecting on the pace of construction under way downtown, and on the philosophical turn he believes Richmond has taken.
He says the city now is focusing more on its future than on its past.

Swarms of workers and heavy equipment, overlaid with the pounding sounds of construction, signal that much of the city’s future is still coming out of the ground.

At the city’s annual Development Forum this past spring, a tally indicated that developers either were working on or completing projects valued at nearly $1 billion.

Along the river, there’s a gold rush of apartment construction — more than a dozen projects are under way, representing 1,200 apartments. Hundreds more apartments are in the offing throughout downtown Richmond. Last year, about 1,300 apartments came on the market.

During the past decade, census numbers indicate that the population downtown has doubled, from about 5,000 in 2000 to nearly 9,800 now, boosting the city’s overall population to 204,000.
And, more people are coming. “Young professionals, seniors, VCU students, people moving from the suburbs. There’s a sea change under way,” Thornton says.

In the 1990s, Richmond’s commercial core was largely given up for dead after two flagship department stores, Thalhimers and Miller & Rhoads, closed within a few years of each other.
A revitalization project, the 6th Street Marketplace, failed to lure suburban shoppers back downtown and spark urban renewal.

Over the years, the hopes for prosperity and reinvention turned toward the river, and its potential for tourism, business development and recreation. “Richmond has been trying for a long time to find who it is and what makes it tick,” Thornton says.

He believes city leaders may have found their answer on the river, as well as in Richmond’s nascent efforts to rebrand itself as a center for creativity and innovation.

In March, Gallup ranked Richmond as the third best city in the country for job creation. In 2010 Microsoft Certified Professionals magazine ranked it as one of the 10 top cities for IT professionals, according to the Greater Richmond Partnership, a regional economic development group.

As the capital of Virginia, Richmond’s largest employer is the state. The headquarters of the Fifth Federal Reserve District also is here, and the city is home to six Fortune 500 companies.
“Richmond is on the grow,” says Mayor Dwight C. Jones. “People used to tell me what they didn’t like about Richmond. But now people come up to me every day and tell me how much they love it.”

One of Jones’ priorities – despite fights with City Council, he’ll seek a second term as mayor in November with no opposition – is providing access to the James River, which he calls the city’s greatest natural resource. The river runs directly through downtown, sometimes ferociously so.

The James features Class IV and V rapids for urban rafting, and the rocks along its banks are a favorite spot for sunbathing and socializing. “Little by little we’re opening up the river,” Jones says.

Richmond, looking to the global competition of the 21st century knowledge economy, also is striving to become an incubator for the creative class.

For example, Thornton of LaDifférence is a key figure in the effort to create a design district in the city’s Shockoe area, whose cobblestone streets and trendy restaurants already are home to a growing group of creative ventures, anchored by The Martin Agency.

In 2010, Adweek magazine named Martin “U.S. Agency of the Year” and the firm, which currently lists Geico and Wal-Mart among its clients, consistently has been ranked in the top agencies in the country. In mid-August, however, the agency laid off 38 employees, 6 percent of its work force.

A number of other ad agencies and architectural firms reside in the area. In addition, artists have populated the Manchester Arts District across the river from downtown, as well as an expansive and newly created downtown arts district centered on Broad Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.

During the past two decades, Richmond has been struggling to brand itself. In the 1990s, the slogan was “Still Making History.” Then, it was “Historic Richmond, Easy to Love.” After that came, “One City, Our City.”  None seemed to stick.

Venture Richmond, a downtown promotional group, and its allies turned to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Brandcenter, one of the top-tier advertising schools in the country. The group wanted something that would convey what it believed was at the heart of Richmond’s future: creativity and innovation.

The school produced a municipal brand — RVA, pronounced “rivah” —that invited history lovers, artists, builders and all others to contribute their ideas about Richmond’s creative vibe.
FastCompany magazine, a publication that bills itself as the place where “people and ideas meet,” apparently found the effort fascinating. In June, it published a story headlined, “Can The Old South Rebrand Itself? Richmond Tries With A Dynamic New Logo.”

The article has helped put Richmond in front of the creatives it hopes to attract.

The Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce is trying to advance the effort by establishing a new position, director of creativity and innovation. “Richmond is shedding its image as conservative, static, historic and backward-looking,” says Jack Berry, executive director of Venture Richmond. “There is growing recognition that RVA is a very dynamic, eclectic, creative place.  We’ve put a spotlight on the cool, innovative things that are happening here, and folks are beginning to believe it is actually real. They are shedding cynicism for pride,” he says.

He adds that there is a growing trend of people returning to America’s cities, and Richmond is riding the crest of that wave. The biggest challenge, he says, is to find more fast-growing companies so that young professionals who want to be able to live in an urban environment will be able to find jobs.

VCU, a public university of 32,000 students, has long been a contributor to development, as well as an intellectual and cultural catalyst. Under former VCU President Eugene P. Trani, who now heads an independent think tank group called Richmond’s Future, a depressed area along West Broad Street was replaced with dormitories, a sports venue, a bookstore and the university’s School of the Arts. Another hole downtown was filled when the university developed a combined site for its business and engineering schools.

Under new VCU President Michael Rao, the development has continued at a blistering pace, with about $450 million in construction under way, completed or proposed.

The two biggest projects are going up on VCU’s medical campus, including the $158.6 million McGlothlin Medical Education Center, which is set to open in December, and the $160 million VCU Health Systems Children’s Hospital of Richmond Pavilion.

A smaller project, but a highly visible one, will be VCU’s $32 million Institute of Contemporary Art, which will be situated on one of the gateways to the city, Broad and Belvidere streets, off Interstate 95.

“It will read as a benchmark for the new creative spirit that’s happening in Richmond,” says Joseph Seipel, dean of VCUarts, which U.S. News & World Report has ranked as the No. 1 public university school of arts and design in the country.

About $19 million already has been raised for the construction of the building, and Seipel hopes the remaining funding can be raised quickly.

The building’s design comes from architect Steven Holl, who in 2011 received the American Institute of Architects highest award. VCU’s timing couldn’t have been better.

Seipel sees the modernistic structure as a gathering spot for different kinds of constituencies as the city fine tunes its creative vibe. “I hope it will be the CEOs sitting right next to the tattooed scary-hair group — you know, the creative individual right next to the financial people,” Seipel says.

Richmond-area businesses, in fact, already are involved in the arts. Altria, the tobacco giant and one of the city’s biggest corporate donors, recently gave $10 million toward a $50 million renovation of the city’s historic Landmark Theater and won naming rights to the building.

Jones expects the city to finance other public venues and important projects through naming rights.

Even though a variety of cycling events have been held in the city, and mountain bike enthusiasts flock to the trails of the James River Park System, Richmond is not known as a bicycle town. That could be changing.

In 2015, Richmond will have a worldwide audience for its riverfront development and other attractions when the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) stages its Road World Championships in the city.

Organizers believe the nine-day event, to be held Sept. 19-27, 2015, could have an economic impact of $135 million in the commonwealth. Approximately 1,500 athletes will compete.

Lee Kallman, marketing and communications director for Richmond 2015 Inc., the nonprofit group responsible for the organization, management and promotion of the event, says it will be much more than a bike race. “We’re going to have all kinds of events,” he says. “The message will be around health and fitness.”

The event, however, has created friction between the city and surrounding counties. In July, county officials said they were surprised to learn the city wanted their help in covering the $21 million cost of staging the championships.

The area also is making provisions for the Virginia Capital City Trail, a 52-mile paved pedestrian and bicycle trail between Richmond and Williamsburg, to connect in the heart of the downtown area. The trail is scheduled for completion in 2014.

The Richmond area does not have a major league professional team, but it does have minor-league teams in baseball, soccer and arena football.

But next year, Richmond’s sports image will be embellished when the Washington Redskins professional football team establishes a training camp in the Richmond area.

The team’s arrival is part of a deal in which the state will give the team $4 million for eight years to keep their team facility and corporate offices in Loudoun County. Loudoun is providing an extra $2 million, as part of the deal.

Estimates suggest that the Redskins’ camp will generate $5 million to $6 million of economic activity annually in the Richmond area.

Jones said he was recently having a conversation with the city’s economic and community development director, Lee Downey, about the city’s changing fortunes. “We used to have to seek people out to make them interested in us. Now, they seek us out,” Jones says. 

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