Other cities

What should be built on the banks of our “great wet central park”? The mayor’s marina? The developers’ condos? Or the environmentalists’ parkland?

This question seems to vex our politicians, according to the TD.

But the city’s quest for a marina and more parkland along the James River faces scrutiny from a skeptical City Council and developers who have other ideas how to use the land.

Ahh, the cozy warm feelings I get when “City Council and developers” are mentioned in the same sentence.

For grammatical and conceptual clarity, I’d love to know who the “who” is in the phrase “who have other ideas…” Does it refer to the developers only? Or both the council and developers?

Oh the curse of English language ambiguities. And shoddy journalism.

At issue seems to be the Echo Harbor development, which council might support(?), and Wilder apparently opposes.

“We have made it clear that we’re not interested in any of these high-rise apartments on the river,” Wilder said after a recent public appearance.

Really? None? I thought Wilder had bought a high-rise condo unit on the river. So I guess the “any” refers to future riverfront condos? Or just ones where he wants his marina?

Well, whatever our politicians think, I have a suggestion. And I’m confident all my loyal readers will rally around and help change the political discourse in this town, right?

So without further ado, here’s my idea: Build them all. Here’s some pictures from a city that’s done just that.

Vancouver’s Coal Harbour (before being built out).

Notice the strip of green and the little circle of green. Those are waterfront parks. There’s a walkway/bicycle path along the entire length of the waterfront, and a marina. And those 3 high-rises closest to the green space are condos (more have been built since this picture was taken).

Here’s some additional pictures:

One of the waterfront parks with landscaping and public art, photo by mussels.

The marina, notice the walkway/bicycle path along the water. Photo by camera obscura.

All the shiny condos with a waterfront walkway/bicycle path. Photo by mussels.

OK, I know you’re sick of my endless promotion of Vancouver, BC. But as I was reading the TD’s account of political bickering, I thought to myself, why can’t we make everyone happy for a change?

Vancouver’s Coal Harbour was a waterfront industrial wasteland that was turned into a public asset with a waterfront promenade, sidewalk cafes, parks, a community centre, and living spaces. And if you want a piece of that real estate, it’ll cost you more than a few loonies. Check it out here.

Sounds a bit like our own James River- Lucky Strike, Lehigh Cement, Fulton gas works… Now Tobacco Row, Vistas on the James, Rocketts Landing. There’s no reason that waterfront condos necessarily preclude parks, marinas, and public access to the river when planned and built well.

And that’s all I’m saying. I’m not supporting the Echo Harbor proposal (nor am I opposing it). I’m not suggesting we copy Vancouver’s architectural aesthetic.

I’m suggesting that when it comes to developing the waterfront of the James River, it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too.


Portland, Oregon is in the midst of a heated debate about – bike lanes!

Sadly, it’s a conversation Richmond can’t have- as we have no network of bike lanes in the city.

Several tragic accidents have occurred recently in Portland when cars or trucks turned right at an intersection where there was a bike lane. Two cyclists were killed in the month of October.

At one intersection where 2 accidents recently occurred, one fatal, right turns by cars have been banned.

That’s right, cars have been banned from turning! Imagine that in Richmond- I think we’d probably issue an emergency ordinance banning all bikes from the road.

Stories of the tragedies can be read here.

The debate centers on how cars should turn right at intersections with bike lanes. In Oregon, they’re required to stay in their own lane and yield to cyclists. [Click on the graphic for flash animation from the Oregonian newspaper.]


In California, turning cars merge into the bike lane at intersections.


Many cycling activists oppose letting cars into the bike lanes, claiming that “We’ve got to train motorists to respect the bike lane.”

The police, on the other hand, argue, “Motorists have been conditioned for 100 years that no one is going to pass them on the right.” Therefore, drivers shouldn’t be expected to check for bikes passing on the right at an intersection.

Although I’d like to be a purist and claim that motorists need to learn to share the road, when they don’t share, the consequences for the cyclists are severe. So I suppose I’d advocate for changing the law to the California style for the protection of the cyclists.

That’s an imperfect solution, however, as this youtube video from California shows:

Any of you have experience biking in these two types of bike lanes? Which do you prefer?

From nearby Chesterfield Co. to the Pacific Northwest, Americans signaled their dissatisfaction with poorly planned, automobile-dependent, farmland-destroying sprawl. At least, that’s what I choose to believe! Here’s the evidence:

Chesterfield Co. voters replaced 4 of its 5 Supervisors, which, according to the TD, is a backlash against their recent rapid growth:

The dramatic changes on the board can be attributed partly to a growing sense of dissatisfaction with some of the suburban sprawl-like growth that has occurred in Chesterfield in recent years.

And with most of the board changing as a result of the election, some of that growth will be slowed at least temporarily. County policy prohibits action on rezonings by a lame-duck board with a majority of its members not returning.

At least one candidate, Marleen K. Durfee, campaigned on a smart growth platform. Let’s hope they can usher in a new era in Chesterfield Co. with a focus on transportation options- transit, biking, & walking, in addition to the private automobile which currently reigns supreme. That would be real progress.

Outside Virginia

On the West Coast, Oregon voters partially reversed a “property rights” initiative they’d passed 3 years ago because of the sprawl that resulted.

The story here is a bit complex- Oregon has urban growth boundaries which limit where growth can occur. In 2004, voters passed Measure 37, which required localities to either 1) allow development on land outside the growth boundaries, or 2) compensate the owner of the property for “lost” value of the land due to its location outside the boundary.

Of course, most local governments couldn’t pay the claims submitted, so rural lands and forests were developed with massive subdivisions and commercial sites.

Fast-forward to yesterday. Voters passed Measure 49 rolling back the provisions of Measure 37. From the Oregon Bend newspaper:

Under Measure 49, landowners can build as many as 10 houses — or up to three houses on prime or irrigated farmland — but cannot pursue large-scale subdivisions and commercial developments.

They passed this measure by a wider margin than the “property rights” Measure 37 was passed.

In neighboring Washington St. voters rejected a massive transportation plan, Proposition 1.

The ballot initiative was a complicated mix of road and transit funding, requiring an increase in taxes. Politicians hoped that by proposing one initiative with funds for both roads and transit they would create enough alliances to pass the bill. They were wrong.

This was not clearly an anti-sprawl vote- analysts say it was likely a mix of anti-tax, anti-road-building and anti-transit sentiments.

But the Sierra Club and some other environmental groups celebrated the defeat of the proposition because it would not, in their estimation, do enough to break Washington’s reliance on private automobiles and roads for transportation.

So a good election day for anti-sprawl advocates. Let’s hope these votes signal a commitment by Americans to stop our sprawling ways and break our dependence on cars!

I can’t decide which is worse. Crossing the street in Italian cities or here in Richmond.

This video shows exactly what it’s like to cross a street in the two Italian cities I’ve visited, Rome and Naples. For you impatient folks, fast forward to 1:12 (-0.52) for the best example.

Now traffic in Italy is absolutely insane. Scooters zip between cars, dividing lines seem to be mere suggestions, and right-of-way is determined like a game of chicken – whoever’s boldest gets to go. One of my taxi drivers said, “Don’t look” as he pulled out into oncoming traffic. He then shrugged and said “Poetic license.”

However, the chaos pauses- if briefly- when a pedestrian enters a crosswalk, even at an unregulated intersection (i.e. one with no stop light.)

Compare this to Richmond where, even when you have a walk signal at a stop light, turning cars will occasionally unapologetically try to mow you down.

In fact, statistics show that the United States is a more dangerous country for pedestrians than Italy.

United States: 1.63 pedestrians deaths for every 100,000 people.

Italy: 1.3 pedestrian deaths for every 100,000 people.

I think the key difference I noticed is that drivers in Italy expect chaos. They expect pedestrians to walk out in front of them, they expect scooters to sneak between their cars, and they expect other cars to pull out in front of them. Which means they’re far more alert than American drivers, and therefore less likely to run someone over.

More chaos=more safety?

There is, in fact, a school of traffic engineering that is trying to bring this kind of chaos to road design in order to make us safer. According to a 2004 article from Salon.com, European traffic engineers are trying to reintroduce chaos to the streets:

“The busier the streets are, the safer they become. So once you drive people off the street, they become less safe.”…

[E]ducation campaigns from the 1960s onward were based on maintaining a clear separation between the highway and the rest of the public realm. Children were trained to modify their behavior and, under pain of death, to stay out of the street. “But as soon as you emphasize separation of functions, you have a more dangerous environment,” says Hamilton-Baillie. “Because then the driver sees that he or she has priority. And the child who forgets for a moment and chases a ball across the street is a child in the wrong place.”…

“The more you post the evidence of legislative control, such as traffic signs, the less the driver is trying to use his or her own senses,” says Hamilton-Baillie, noting he has a habit of walking randomly across roads — much to his wife’s consternation. “So the less you can advertise the presence of the state in terms of authority, the more effective this approach can be.”

Too radical for the United States, I fear. But in Italy, chaos seems to work pretty well on the streets.

Great neighborhoods can be built around farmer’s markets. In fact, two of the American Planning Association’s top 10 neighborhoods are centered around, and even named after, their farmer’s markets: Pike Place Market Neighborhood in Seattle and Eastern Market in DC.

Pike Place Market

Pike Place Market, the birthplace of Starbucks, ironically bans chain and franchise stores from operating there, though the original Starbucks store with its original topless mermaid logo continues to operate there. According to the APA website, “It is home to nearly 220 year-round commercial businesses, 210 crafters, 100 farmers, and 250 street performers, and an integral part of local sustainable agriculture efforts. The market attracts some 10 million visitors each year.”

Other impressive aspects of the market neighborhood:

Here, those living in upscale condos with views of Elliott Bay mix and mingle with occupants of five subsidized apartment buildings that are part of the historic Pike Place Market neighborhood. The market also houses four social service agencies: a health clinic, food bank, and senior and child-care centers.

Pedestrians rule in the Pike Place Market neighborhood. They have the right of way and, when sidewalks are full, walk without fear down the middle of the street. Those choosing to drive must be willing to creep at a pedestrian pace.

Pike Place Market has been threatened over the years by politicians, developers, and neglect. Grassroots activism, however, has kept the market alive and thwarted attempts to raze the market for parking lots, road-building, and high-rise development.

Closer to home, DC’s Eastern Market also earns a mention from the APA.

Eastern Market

Eastern Market, which recently burned due to neglected maintenance issues, is situated just down Pennsylvania Ave. from the Capitol. The orange and blue metro lines have a stop there, and I highly recommend a visit next time you’re in DC.

The market has permanent stalls open every day, and hosts a farmer’s market, flea market, and various other activities weekly. Like Pike Place Market, Eastern Market is the heart of a residential neighborhood. Again, from the APA site:

The market serves a diverse and broad cross-section of people, promotes community involvement, and operates as a hub for social activity. It easily accommodates the transportation needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers, and transit users, and it meets the needs of its community for a local market

Grassroots activism has also saved the Eastern Market and its surrounding neighborhood from destruction:

Several attempts by the District of Columbia government to close the Eastern Market, most recently in the mid–1950s, spurred residents into action to sustain it… Among [residents’ other] successes was the defeat of a proposal to transform East Capitol Street into a boulevard of federal office buildings and plans to erect the city’s tallest high rise on Pennsylvania Avenue.

So what lessons can we learn for Richmond?

  • Both markets have permanent vendors and are open daily.
  • Both supplement their permanent offerings with farmers and other temporary stalls.
  • Both accommodate non-vehicular traffic.

But most central to the success of these markets, in my opinion, is the civic activism which spared them from demolition. These markets thrive because people deeply care about them and fight to keep them open.

What would make our own 17th St. Farmer’s Market worth fighting for?

Permanent stalls?

A less hostile-to-pedestrians atmosphere?

More housing?

If the experience of DC and Seattle is a guide, answering that question could help solidify the transformation of Shockoe Bottom from abandoned flood plain to thriving mixed-use neighborhood.

Acacia’s closing its Carytown doors and looking for waterfront property, and, according to Style, “it’s not a secret that he’s one of at least three local chefs looking to Rocketts Landing as the next step in destination dining.”

Rocketts is building “a lively riverfront promenade with restaurants and shops right on the James…” according to the development’s website. It would be a great location for Acacia.

Rocketts is a promising project, which plans to mix residential and commercial development to promote a pedestrian-friendly environment.

“[S]tores and offices [will be] strategically intermixed with the neighborhood. People who live and work here will also enjoy conveniences such as dry cleaners, a pharmacy and grocery store all within walking distance.”

If you haven’t been out to the site of Rocketts Landing yet, I highly recommend a visit. They’ve worked an amazing transformation of the old industrial site with a mix of new construction and adaptive reuse of old warehouses. Pictures of their progress are available on their website.

I just hope its not as creepy as some other new urbanist developments. I recently visited “New Town” in Williamsburg which tries to create “a traditional town setting.” There’s Main St., lined with retail and apartments and surrounded by offices and housing. But if you peek behind Main St., there’s acres and acres of parking. It feels like the Truman show, one look behind the facade of the “traditional town” and you see that the “tradition” is purely manufactured. It does nothing to break the impact of our car dependence on town design.

Take a look at the site plan and you’ll see what I mean:


Hopefully, Rocketts will be able to avoid this fate as they build.

Here’s their site plan. It doesn’t look as bad as New Town, but there’s still a lot of room for cars (there’s parking decks that are unlabeled on the map as well as the surface lots):


At any rate, I wish success to any development that seeks to lessen our dependence on the automobile and I hope Acacia and Rocketts Landing can help each other succeed.

The TD ran a story today on Chinese students who are spending a month at VCU. The students are all keeping blogs, which are a rich mine for discovering others’ impressions of our city.

VCU has links to all their blogs, but as far as I can tell, there’s no aggregator- which means you have to look through each of them individually. Quite a task as there’s over 50 of them. I used google’s advanced search features to look for things of interest for my blog.

One theme I found repeated by many was shock at our auto-dependency and its effect on our city- a viewpoint I wholeheartedly share. Here’s some excerpts:

America is regarded as a country on wheels. This is a proper statement to describe this country . I have seen various kinds of automobiles parking of driving around the campus during these two days. And there is little people walking on the street even in the day . The whole town appears a little desolate. This is my first deep impression about the traffic condition around VCU campus. My second deep impression is that though there are various cars on road, the drivers almost do not ring the horn—at least I do not hear a ring. It is impossible in China. Maybe this phenomenon is just the symbol of high civilization of USA. And in my opinion , Chinese drivers should learn from America drivers.
Via blog for luy5

Sadly, the VCU area probably has the most pedestrian activity in town.

On our lack of pedestrians and nightlife:

if Shanghai is a sleepless city,Richmond is a sleep city

Richmond in night looks like a different city. full of cars but no person on the street. Its strange to me becoz its totally different from Shanghai. Shanghai is a sleepless city, the activities of night are varous, compare with Shanghai, Richmond is a quiet city, I heard that the population of Richmond is 80 thousand, its not a small figure, so i wondering, where do the risidents go at night in Richmond?? Stay at home, watching TV?
Via blog for zhuangy

Wow, the population figure’s off by about 110,000 and he’s still shocked at our lack of nightlife!

An incredibly insightful commentary on our auto-dependency:

However, not all the things American are good. There are still something I find impressively unbearable. For example, I find the Americans are lavish. They do not know how to save. They do not know how to save the resources and natural energy. Instead, they are pretty good at saving the energy of themselves. Along the American streets, you can never find a single bicycle. Even if you see a bicycle, it is definitely put on the top of the car. People are inclined to drive everywhere. They do not walk or ride. I think it is part of the reason that why most of them are overweight.
Via blog for liz4

And she’s not the only one making the obesity-driving connection:

It’s our free day today. I decided to go to the Carytown again. I have no car and I don’t want to bother those interns. Thus, I have to walk there, on foot! To my surprise, Carytown’s out of the map, maybe ten blocks away for the GRC [Gladding Residence Center- A VCU dorm]. You can seldom see people walking on the street. Almost all of them drive. Finally I got to the Carytown and I found it was not very far. It’s only about 30 minutes walk. I suddenly thought up with a cause why Americans are fat. Perhaps because they drive too much, sit too long. On one hand, they complain about the soaring gas price, on the other hand, they are so dependent to driving. Instead, if they walk to some places. They will both get jogging exercises and save the gas money. It’s really a bargain!
Blog for Zhang Yi

Try telling some Richmonders “it’s only a 30 minute walk” and see what happens!

Despite the critiques of American culture I’ve highlighted here to advance my own purposes- without exception the Chinese students have positively glowing things to say about Richmond and the US.

On what’s good about Richmond:

At the same time, the wonderful scenery of Richmond is really overwhelming.I love the small bars and restaurants along the fancy streets. I was attracted by the rockiness and wildness of James River. And I was deeply in love with the monuments for the soldiers and sailors who died in the civil war. The most terrific part was the visit to the Virginia Capitol. The house was marvelous and the historic presidents’ stories could not be more significant.
Via blog for liz4

And then there’s the just plain fun of discovering cultural differences, such as impressions of our T-shirt slogans:

Yesterday afternoon we went to Carey Town, which was a place full of shops and stores. Maybe because that China has lots of such shops, I didn’t find it much interesting and attractive. I wanted to buy a T-shirt for my cousin, which were very typical American, but I didn’t find any suitable for him. Some of them seemed too aggresive or radical, maybe. For example, one had a line like “I love your girlfriend” sort of things. If my cousin wears something like that and walks on the road in China, everybody else will probably freak out.
Via blog for wuj4

Thanks to all the Chinese students for visiting our city and sharing your impressions with us!


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