Can Richmond embrace the James without loving it to death?

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by Nicole Anderson Ellis

The view from Greg Wingfield’s office serves as a daily reminder of what’s at stake.  Eight floors down, on the north bank of the James River, bulldozers shape the site of MeadWestvaco Corp.’s new headquarters.  On the far side of the falls squats a multi-acre office park.  Lined up to the east are new towers of river-view condominiums.  And below it all splash the wild rapids of the James. 

As president and CEO of Greater Richmond Partnership Inc., Wingfield promotes the region to new businesses.  For the past 15 years, however, Wingfield also has served on the James River Advisory Council, a group charged with guarding the health, beauty and varied assets of America’s Founding River.  With these two roles, Wingfield embodies the challenge facing Richmond:  Can the city find a way to tap the James as an economic resource without ruining it?  “While I’m a pro-growth and development guy, it’s a balancing act,” says Wingfield.  “The number one asset we should embrace and protect is the river.”

Appreciation for Richmond’s urban river has recently exploded.  Highly publicized business and municipal reports call the James River Richmond’s Central Park.  The James River Park System, voted “Best Urban Park” in 2004 by the readers of Blue Ridge Outdoors, is now breaking attendance records with upward of 500,000 visitors a year.  And in the midst of a nationwide housing downturn, Richmond’s mixed-use riverfront development continues to boom.  Projects include the $90 million Riverside on the James, $50 million Vistas on the James and $500 million Rocketts Landing, 50 acres of construction stretching a mile and a half along the James’ north bank.  “The river is definitely our golden goose,” says Richard Souter, vice president of WVS LLC, Rocketts Landing’s developers.  “And to date it’s been vastly underutilized.” 

That’s changing, but overdue attention on the James has given rise to concerns that the city can’t get many more golden eggs without killing its proverbial goose.

In July, elected officials, business leaders and more than 700 Richmond residents gathered for a weeklong kickoff for the city’s new Downtown Master Plan.  A poll of participants showed 92 percent felt “protecting the James” was a priority. The resultant draft ranked the city’s best assets “from a market perspective,” and the river came in No. 1 based on “significant opportunities for both public access and private development.” Such passion is only appropriate, says Richmond City Council President Bill Pantele. “That’s not just a river,” notes Pantele.  “It is the river.  Those are the rocks where Chief Powhatan and Pocahontas and John Smith stood.” 

People have settled at the falls of the James River for roughly 1,400 years. Yet during the past century, appreciation for the river waned.  Industry flocked to its banks, but pollution chased people and wildlife away.  “Richmond turned its back on the river,” says Bill Street, executive director of the James River Association.  “It was treated as a disposal.” 

By the mid-1900s the once-wild flow had became torpid and rank with raw sewage and industrial waste.  At its worst, says Street, “inoculations used to be required for city employees who had regular contact with the James.”

Recent transformation

Then, in the 1970s, things changed.  The Clean Water, Clean Air and Endangered Species acts, along with outcry over the infamous Kepone pesticide dumping disaster in Hopewell, prompted a cleanup of the James.  Healing was slow, but by the turn of the 21st century the city’s river had transformed from an open sewer to a wild oasis.

The rockfish returned, luring anglers.  Bald eagles came back.  Colorful rafts, canoes and kayaks colonized the white water, and suddenly the “Only U.S. City with Class IV Rapids” was on every tourism brochure.

“It’s a tremendous attribute,” says Jon Lugbill, five-time world champion in white-water canoeing and executive director of Richmond Sports Backers.  The group’s regional athletic events include the annual James River Adventure Games, a two-day extravaganza of open-water races, kayak and canoe rodeos, wake boarding and a “boatercross,” a full-contact white-water kayaking race.  Last year the event, hosted in conjunction with Xterra’s regional mountain bike racing championship, drew 2,400 participants and 12,000 spectators.  In one weekend, says Lugbill, the games generated an estimated $1.7 million in spending in the Richmond region, $250,000 of which was from tourists.

Such figures, says Lugbill, only hint at the true returns from the James.  “It’s a real symbol of the high quality of life we have here in Richmond,” says Lugbill.  “When people see a job advertised in Richmond they say, ‘Wow.  I’d like to live there.’”

This point is central to the Crupi Report, a 2007 study by Texas-based consultant James A. Crupi. Business leaders commissioned the report to provide a guide toward growth and economic prosperity for the Richmond region.  The James tops the report’s list of “metro strengths,” beating out Virginia Commonwealth University, the region’s historic resources and the state Capitol.

Balancing interests
While there appears to be consensus on the river’s economic value, two key hurdles complicate the push to tap its potential.  The first is balancing public and private interests. “Richmond’s downtown population is going to grow,” warns Victor Dover, urban land planner, architect and principal at Dover, Kohl & Partners, the Coral Gables, Fla., firm that produced the new master plan.  “That high density is going to put pressure on park space.  There’s going to be a real need for public land.”

Concerned Richmonders already are filling master plan review sessions, City Council meetings and editorial pages urging support for expanded riverfront parks and limits on construction projects that might block long-loved views. 

Also vocal are real estate investors, upset to find that the Downtown Master Plan and Crupi Report deem their high-dollar riverfront land best-suited for parks.  “The Master Plan is way too specific and way too detailed,” says James Theobald, an attorney with the Richmond law firm Hirschler Fleischer.  He represents the hopeful developers of a $160 million project on a 5-acre parcel on the east edge of downtown; a parcel labeled “green” in the draft plan. 

City officials are caught in the middle.  Encasing the river in a concrete-and-chrome canyon would spoil the draw of downtown, says Pantele.  But many riverfront properties still are zoned industrial, limiting the city’s influence.  “They can build a factory or an apartment building 300 feet high, by right,” says Pantele.  “Should they be able to do that?  No.  Are they allowed?  Yes.”

In the past few years Richmond’s City Council has tightened riverfront restrictions, but the process is slow and faces frequent opposition. That’s to be expected, says Dover.  “Government leaders are going to be criticized because the payback is big, but it doesn’t come instantly.”

As an example Dover cites New York’s Central Park.  During planning and construction the 843-acre project was protested as expensive and unnecessary.  Today it is tourist mecca that also elevates the value of adjacent real estate and businesses.  The park has paid for itself in spades. 

“There’s more than one way to generate the tax revenue that Richmond so desperately needs,” says Leighton Powell, executive director of Scenic Virginia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the commonwealth’s natural beauty. Powell cites money as a key motivator when she advocates preserving green space and viewsheds (or vistas of particular scenic or historic value).  “It’s about tourism.  It’s about drawing residents to the area.  You can get your business and your conservation,” says Powell.  “It doesn’t have to be one or the other.” “We don’t disagree,” says Wingfield of the Greater Richmond Partnership. “We believe it is an economic development win/win.”

Souter, the Rocketts Landing developer, also is a believer in blending public and private space. “The fundamental philosophy of the project is public access to public water,” he says, noting the inclusion of a linear riverbank park in project plans.

Even so, reaction to Rocketts Landing has been mixed, demonstrating the complexity of Richmond’s river issue.  The Crupi Report criticizes the project for failing to work “in concert with nature” while the James River Association’s Street is pleased with its design. “We are very supportive of redevelopment,” says Street.  “If we think about the alternative — those developments going out into fields and forests out of the city — the impact would be significantly worse.”

The threat from overuse
Of course Street is concerned with all 340 miles of the James, not just Richmond’s falls.  And though the river has recovered notably, challenges remain.  The James River Association’s 2007 State of the James report gave the river an overall “C” grade, and certain areas, such as the shad population, continue to decline.  One reason?  Overuse.  “We’re loving the river to death,” says Street.

This is the second hurdle.  Whether on public land or private, a growing population puts the river at risk. “It’s a double-edged sword,” explains Street. “The more people that access the river, the more they’ll want to protect it.  But increased activities also have a toll; both recreational activities and commercial development.”

Yet for the first time in Richmond’s history, minimizing that toll appears a common goal in the once antagonistic camps of conservation and business.  “I’m pro-development,” notes Wingfield, “but I’m also selling the region and the quality of life for the next generation, too.” 

“Keeping the river clean is to everyone’s benefit,” agrees Souter.  “When you actually have people living on the river they’re going to take real ownership.  If they start seeing litter or pollution they’re going to be holding the city and others accountable.” 

To minimize its own impact, Rocketts Landing has incorporated green roofs, dual runoff filtration systems and other river-friendly features into its design.  “It’s just responsible development,” says Souter.

This attitude toward urban development is the way of the future, says Dover.  “Being green is a good story to tell.  River preservation generates a special attractiveness and increased value.”

To Dover, whose planning clients range from Istanbul to Atlanta, Maui to Miami, Richmond’s economic growth hinges on a willingness to bank on long-term returns.  “There’s going to come a time when future generations are going to say, ‘Richmond was so smart,’ or, ‘What were they thinking?’” 

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