Riverfront development without the big price tag

March 5, 2012 · 3 minute read

Now that leveraging the James River through downtown Richmond is at the foundation of the city’s tourism and economic development strategy (a.k.a. the Master Plan), we need to consider the best means of implementation. No, this isn’t another article debating for or against development of Richmond’s waterfront…a continually worthwhile topic, but that kitchen doesn’t need another cook in it. This article is about taking low-cost and no-cost steps to enhance the entertainment value of the canal and Brown’s Island areas.

The public conversation on this topic has been dominated by big plans for new roads, bridges, terraces, redevelopment of Mayo Island, etc. I have no issue with the potential of those plans, if done right — adding value to our waterfront without having adverse environmental or quality-of-life impacts. Likewise, I think scaling the infrastructure in the Brown’s Island area, while  not sexy, can be very prudent in preparing for large increases in use of that section of waterfront. However, a line needs to be drawn separating must-do precursor projects from other big-ticket projects that can wait. Our city and municipal leaders need to break through the mentality that their pay grade and level of power must be reflected in the cost and magnitude of the projects they champion. The way I see it, we, as a city, can undertake a massive “build it and they will come” strategy or a more modest “entertainment drives demand, demand drives capital investment” strategy…or a blend of both.  Again, there are wise, core infrastructure projects to be undertaken with either strategy.  But let’s be careful and transparent about where we draw the line between need-to-have core projects and nice-to-have pet projects. With that line wisely drawn, we should not ignore the low-hanging fruit that will yield quick, substantial entertainment benefits at little or no cost.

A paddleboarder navigates Haxall Canal.

Like what? Like enticing a population of the area’s finest performing artists to take their craft to the streets, for the overwhelming cost to the city of $0.00. It’s hard to believe that, if structured correctly, VCU performing arts students wouldn’t jump at the chance to earn tip money by providing street entertainment in the Brown’s Island and canal walk areas on high-traffic days, at high-traffic times, during the warm weather months. Crazy idea? Not really. Street performers have been adding culture and a draw to the street corners of cities of all sizes, in the U.S. and abroad, for centuries (think Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Times Square, Burlington Vermont’s pedestrian mall, Austin, Asheville, Paris, etc.).

There are also easy, low-cost ways to create a recreational boating and biking outpost in that area that would instantly enhance the scenery and provide on-demand, super-convenient, safe paddling and biking activities to passersby.  Will we see scores of stand up paddle boarders, recreational kayakers and bikers coloring the canal and Brown’s Island areas instantly? Maybe not. But it won’t take long. And when it hits, the amount of energy and commercial potential in that area will speak for itself.  How about food and beverage vendors? If they can’t wait for the crowds to catch on, give them a modest stipend to help them over the hump. Then, once business picks up, they (and other vendors) become paying renters to the city…that’s right, revenue streams for the city.

These are a few of what I’m sure are dozens and dozens of valuable, low-cost/no-cost ideas people have for enhancing the entertainment value of the canal and Brown’s Island waterfront areas.  After all, getting people to the river is one thing. What they’re going to do once they get there is another. The Civil War Center  is a good start, but we can and should be doing more. And we can do more for less.