The ambitious BridgePark project recently completed its Vision Stage. The design team went back to work, community meetings started back up, and the vaunted BridgePark architectural model went back on the road. We now have a plan as prodigious as ever and are in the process of sharing it with each of you in every way we can. So what is it?
BridgePark is a proposed linear public park that would span the James River and connect the riverfront experience to the city center on both sides of the James. The park would transform 9th Street and Commerce Street (including a portion of the Manchester Bridge over the beautiful James River) into a world-class destination for biking, walking, art, education, events, and community engagement.
The non-profit Richmond BridgePark Foundation proposes connecting downtown neighborhoods to the riverfront and each other by a series of park spaces, with a linear greenway acting as connective tissue. The park system aims to bring the wonderful James River experience to the city level of downtown and to neighborhoods far too long separated from this amazing natural wonder, creating key access points to viewsheds of the James, and pathways to the James River Park.
In total, the path of the park travels two plus miles from Leigh Street in the north, descending south along 9th Street, across the Manchester Bridge, and traveling on Commerce Street to Hull Street and beyond. The route represents a key north-south spine in the heart of downtown, with a goal of promoting related connective parks and paths along its way and at its edges. Discussions are already underway related to other community spaces the plans may prompt.
The currently proposed path includes VCU’s downtown campus, the John Marshall House, the State Capitol, Kanawha Plaza, Brown’s Island, the Manchester Climbing Wall, and the fine grain of the South side’s historic streets. In total, the route passes five national historic landmarks, and is within a short walk of five more. The park would also stitch the two sides of downtown together, effectively linking both the downtown business district and the historic neighborhoods on each of its edges to the river, and to each other, giving us an entirely new way to experience the City. At the park’s center is the soul of the city, the James River.
So, how does this work? In large part, the plans merely call for a rethinking of existing infrastructure. The Manchester Bridge, and much of the street grid on either side, is overbuilt and underused by motor vehicles. The plans envision a sharing of that space with bicycle and pedestrian paths and park spaces, employing a “road diet,” whereby traffic lanes are redone to accommodate multiple modes of transportation. In so doing, transportation options could be separated from one another by physical barriers, while at the same time bringing park features like plantings, benches, public art, and canopies for shelter. The system would both meet the multi-modal needs of a modern city and match our values as a river city defined by outdoor recreation.
Further, opportunities at Kanawha Plaza and the parking lot at 7th and Semmes could be leveraged to create large gateway parks to the river, essentially transforming those places from separated, sleepy spaces into connected, activated river-related parks. Finally, the underused and awkward concrete path in the middle of the Manchester Bridge would make quite a bicycle expressway. A point of emphasis for the project is making greenspace and the James River a “city-level” experience.
While the James River Park System is a spectacular and unparalleled experience, downtown itself lacks sufficient greenspace and a sense of physical and spiritual connection to the river. There is a jarring difference between how the river looks and feels versus parts of the city that are yards away from it. This feeling is the result of overbuilt roadways and inaccessible sidewalks at city level and the fact that the city sits five to seven stories above the river at the center of downtown. BridgePark aims to create new city-level views of, and paths to, the beautiful James. Similarly, stark parts of downtown with excess concrete would be rethought as green avenues to the river, in a nod to the way the watershed once was.
The plans propose public gathering spaces on both sides of the Manchester Bridge that would bring spectacular views of the river, serve as places of education, contemplation, and celebration, and emotionally and physically connect visitors to the river level. Thus, both city and park-level users could “choose their own adventure,” with, for example, all of BridgePark, Brown’s Island, the Potterfield Bridge, the Belle Isle pedestrian bridge, the Manchester climbing wall, and flood wall within their sites. We believe, wherever you are in downtown Richmond, the beauty, tranquility, and energy of the James should serve you.
BridgePark is first and foremost a park for the community by the community. To date, we have involved a wide array of Richmonders with intention, favored stewardship over speed and thoughtfulness over ease. Similarly, this series seeks to inform the public and create a dialogue that improves the project. We ask you to read and respond, and, in so doing, continue to help us elevate RVA.