The Downtown Richmond Master Plan
By Dom Nozzi
Up until about 100 years ago, the imperative for developers consisted of designing to make people happy. This design tradition tended to be 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 travel by transit, bicycling, or walking, car-happy design is a growing, self-perpetuating vicious cycle. As a result, after several decades of using this car-oriented model, we now find that it is nearly impossible to travel anywhere without a car. Understandably, then, nearly all of us urge developers and local government to continue to facilitate car travel.
Yet the terrible tragedy is this: Cars and people have vastly different needs. Cars prefer wide, high-speed highways, and enormous parking lots (preferably in front of buildings). Particularly when not in cars, people are repelled by such design. Yet because we have created a world where it is extremely difficult to travel without a car, almost all of us are compelled to become our own worst enemies by calling for development to make 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 dilemma. After having served as a senior city planner for 20 years in Florida, I have just re-located to Richmond, and was immediately struck by what has happened to downtown Richmond. 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, and residences.
Yet our single-minded efforts to facilitate our cars is a powerful dispersant. Offices, retail, civic and residences 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 downtown space, which subverts the walkable compact-ness that downtown needs. The resulting Gigantism disease (huge parking lots, monster highways, endless sprawl) has undercut the livability of downtown Richmond.
The key for a revitalized downtown Richmond is to return to the timeless tradition that was abandoned a century ago. Richmond is therefore extremely fortunate to have hired Dover-Kohl to prepare an update to its Downtown Master Plan, as this firm is nationally celebrated in skillfully restoring this compact, walkable tradition.
Dover-Kohl’s plan for Downtown Richmond contains essential recommendations: Convert most one-way streets back 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.
Uncoincidentally, the recent Crupi Report assessing Richmond’s future reaches similar conclusions: “…focus on…walkable, two-way streets…human scale… people-friendly…[design].” “Shokoe Slip and Bottom are a good start…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 its history by retaining and celebrating its ornamental, historic buildings, and consider restoring some of its cobblestone and brick streets—an excellent way to induce needed 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.
[A version of this essay was originally published in the January 2008 edition of the Virginia Business Magazine.]
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