Virginia is forever connected to England, as the commonwealth was founded by colonialists first sent over by King James I in early 1600s. And Richmond, the capital of Virginia, is forever connected with England’s Richmond upon Thames. Nearly 150 years after the colony was formed, a planter named William Byrd II stood in what is now Libby Hill Park astounded by the similarities in the view of the river below with the view from Richmond upon Thames he had seen in his youth. As a result, he named the new town he founded Richmond, and, in honor of the king, the river became the James River. Today, we can enjoy the same view, said Leighton Powell, head of Scenic Virginia, in a tour organized by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TLCF) as part of their What’s Out There weekend, because of the dedication of her organization and others, who must continuously guard it from encroachment by developers. The View That Named Richmond is a Scenic Virginia “endangered viewshed,” as well as a Preservation Virginia “endangered historic site.”
In 2012, Scenic Virginia was helped by the Virginia Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, who completed a full “cultural analysis of the view” as part of ASLA’s year of public service. As one can see, this gorgeous old park, which opened in 1851, is worthy of in depth study.
The Virginia Chapter, working with the University of Virginia, created a new mapping software that enables one to visualize the potential visual impact of development. This kind of effort is critical given Scenic Virginia recently had to wage a fight to keep a 15-story luxury condominium tower, which would have been out of synch with the existing scale of Shocktoe Bottom, from being put up right at the base of Libby Hill Park. The supporters of the tower said it would have worked well with the bus rapid transit (BRT) route expected to come in on Main Street. Denser housing plus public transportation could have spurred more sustainable transit-oriented development.
While some may disagree, Powell and others argued that the building would have conflicted with the downtown master plan, which was approved in 2009. The plans for the luxury condo were approved by the planning commission, an important advisory group, but eventually stalled in the city council when three council members said they couldn’t support the project. Powell said the condo project has been withdrawn by the developer but could come back in the future. The group, by the way, supports a five-story development as recommended in the Downtown Master Plan.
The primary continued threat to the view remains a high-rise development project on the sole privately-owned riverfront parcel east of downtown. Powell said: “While both the downtown master plan and riverfront plan (approved in 2012) note that the preferred use of the parcel is parkland, the city has not yet acquired it. Scenic Virginia and others want the City to work with the owner, which happens to be the development arm of the Unification Church, to negotiate for its purchase.” Powell argued that “the parcel sits in a floodplain and floodway, so there are limitations to what can be built there. A park would work very well. We want to help raise the money to buy the parcel. The developer needs to name a fair price.”
With the recent announcement that Stone Brewing will take over the vacant Intermediate Terminal building for use as a beer garden and restaurant, Powell says “the idea makes more sense than ever.” Along with providing valuable riverfront access, a new park could include playing fields for soccer and other sports. “I can envision people going to playing a game match and then having a beer, all along the riverfront.”
Richmond’s plan to dramatically improve pedestrian and bicycle access to the James River, which was created with landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates, will also lead to further improvements in the view. Soon, the large Lehigh Cement company silos, which mar the pastoral nature of the view, will be pulled down. Powell laughed, “we are thinking about a raffle for who will get to pull the lever to destroy them.”
Powell hopes goats, which apparently love to eat kudzu, will soon be unleashed on this area to deal with the problem. According to Powell, the Richmond parks department have already used goats earlier this year to clear the land for a new urban orchard in Chimborazo Park.