Building a ‘Better Block’ in Church Hill

Pray chalk sharrows at the Better Block in Norfolk. Credit: Max Hepp-Buchanan

Spray chalk sharrows at the Better Block in Norfolk. Credit: Max Hepp-Buchanan

My first hands-on experience with the Better Block project came this last November in Norfolk. I had heard about Team Better Block through the grapevine, and had even seen Jason Roberts – one of the founding partners – speak at a conference about a year ago. I still didn’t really know what it meant to “build a better block,” so I drove down to Norfolk to check it out first-hand.

Within minutes of arriving at their Better Block project site on a sunny afternoon, I was put to work as a volunteer. Three hours later, I had built a shiny new crosswalk where one had not existed before – and I built it out of a dozen rolls of white duct tape.

About an hour later, what had been a fairly desolate and neglected stretch of W. 35th Street was transformed into a bustling businesses district for that Friday night and into the next Saturday afternoon. People were flocking there on foot and by bike to purchase food and merchandise from dozens of “pop-up” shops – restaurants and stores that popped up about as quickly as the crosswalk I had build out of duct tape.

Team Better Block is lead by a couple of guys – Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard – out of Dallas, Texas, who decided to create a movement to improve our public spaces without dealing with zoning ordinances, traffic engineering regulations, or other typical bureaucratic roadblocks. The Better Block project is designed to cut through that red tape and transform – albeit temporarily – a city block into a walkable, bikeable, vibrant place for people to gather, shop, eat, and socialize. While these demonstrations are gone after a weekend, there is a lasting focus on what can be made permanent in the short term to make the block more livable and attractive to businesses, residents, and developers.

Team Better Block does its thing in Norfolk. Credit: Max Hepp-Buchanan

Team Better Block does its thing in Norfolk. Credit: Max Hepp-Buchanan

Richmond’s first Better Block project is coming to North Church Hill on June 13-14 of this year. An initial partnership has formed between the Sports Backers, Bon Secours, the City of Richmond, Groundwork RVA, Storefront for Community Design, Partnership for Smarter Growth, and about a dozen community leaders to bring this experience to N 25th St between P Street and R Street. This partnership continues to grow, and any and all Church Hill businesses, residents, and organizations are encouraged to play a role in making this a success.

The first kick-off event in the several-month process of planning the North Church Hill Better Block project is Wednesday, March 12. Team Better Block will guide the community on a walk-through of the project area, starting at the corner of N. 25th Street and Venable Street at 6 p.m. The walk will be followed by a presentation and discussion at the Robinson Theater (2903 Q St) at 7:15 PM.

The Better Block at dusk. Credit: Max Hepp-Buchanan

The Better Block at dusk. Credit: Max Hepp-Buchanan

People who are interested in learning more or participating in the North Church Hill Better Block project can visit the Richmond Better Block webpage and click “volunteer” to sign up, RSVP for the March 12 Community Walk + Talk on Facebook, or email me (Max Hepp-Buchanan) directly. It’s going to take a whole community to pull this off, and everyone is invited to participate. We’re looking forward to building a Better Block in Richmond this summer!

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Monument Ave. 10K shaping up to be huge again

For years now the Monument Avenue 10K has been the sign for me that spring is here. It’s always held a week or so after the first official day of spring, and the weather can be all over the map, but there’s just something about seeing 40,000 people out being active that gives me that springtime itch.

Last year 38,685 people entered the 10K. That’s below the 2011 record of 41,314 but still a huge number and enough to make it the 8th-largest road race in the country. This year, registration opened on Dec. 1, and as of Monday (Feb. 3rd), according to Jackie Stoneburner, the Sports Backers head of PR and marketing, they had over 24,500 participants registered, putting it on pace to be just below the 40,000 mark.

By contrast, in 2000, the race’s first year, just 2,462 people entered.



For the first time this year, the Sports Backers are pushing to bring on board 10,000 new runners. Stoneburner said they typically see about 8,000-9,000 newbies every year, so “we thought if we publicly announced a goal of 10,000, it would get people to start thinking about friends and family that may need that push to get started.”

The biggest new thing for this year’s 10K, she added, “is hosting the Collegiate Running Association’s 10k Road Race National Championships. This means we are doing away with ‘elite’ athletes. The prize money — $10,000 total — will be given to the top college runners.”

According to a Sports Backers’ press release: The only requirement for those interested in competing in a Collegiate Running Association national championship— for road racing, trail racing or mountain racing— is that the participant must be currently enrolled in at least one college course at any level, freeing runners from various restrictions such as maintaining a full-time status and competing only during a four or five year window. These eligibility requirements provide the first opportunity for a true national championship that transcends college divisions to exist.

Click here to sign up for the 15th running of the Monument Avenue 10K. The cost is $40 if you sign up before before March 1. After that, the price jumps to $45. Walk up registration is $55.

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The Rise of the Brown’s Island Dam Walk

The current Vepco Levy Bridge, will be reborn as the Brown's Island Dam Walk. Credit: Phil Riggan

The current Vepco Levy Bridge, will be reborn as the Brown’s Island Dam Walk. Credit: Phil Riggan

On a sunny, cold Saturday morning in late November, Tyler Potterfield gathered a group of young urban policy and planning professionals and set out on a guided bike tour of his opus, the Richmond Riverfront Plan. We were standing on the Brown’s Island “bridge to nowhere” when Mr. Potterfield described his vision of what will soon become the Brown’s Island Dam Walk. I liked what I heard.

Picture, if you will, crossing the James River on foot or by bike in the comforting embrace of a protected bridge that you don’t have to share with swarms of speeding cars and trucks. Imagine walking a direct line from the north bank to the south, just mere feet above the rushing James. There is no pressure to hurry across and no need to be hyper-vigilant as you make your way. In fact, there are several spots along the span of the Dam Walk that invite you to stop and stare out over the water, and just be there.

That is what crossing the James River on the Brown’s Island Dam Walk will be like.

Tyler Potterfield, a thoughtful and devoted urban planner with the City of Richmond is about to leave his legacy on the city’s riverfront. The Brown’s Island Dam Walk is a top-priority project identified in the Riverfront Plan, adopted by City Council in November of 2012.

Most of the 1,500-foot bridge is already done, but it will need significant upgrades.

Most of the 1,500-foot bridge is already done, but it will need significant upgrades.

Just over $4 million has been allocated by City Council for the Dam Walk and some terracing and trail work on nearby Chapel Island (also a top priority in the Riverfront Plan). The 1,500-foot Dam Walk is proposed to complete the “bridge to nowhere” on Brown’s Island and provide a dedicated connection for bicyclists and pedestrians across the James to a landing adjacent to the Manchester climbing wall on the south bank.

The general Richmond community was scheduled to get a full briefing on the Dam Walk at Tuesday’s public forum at the Virginia War Memorial. Unfortunately, a late-arriving but nasty winter storm thwarted those plans, and the meeting was postponed. At this community meeting, Mr. Potterfield and the consultants would have presented this project to the public in full and asked for feedback. The meeting will be rescheduled but a new date and time have not yet been announced. Schematics of the Dam Walk can be viewed on the City’s Riverfront Plan webpage.

Some have said – and more will say – that the proposed paved trail configuration at the southern landing of the Dam Walk is too circuitous. And that’s fine, because it is circuitous. But Mr. Potterfield and his team are committed to keeping the slopes manageable for all potential river-crossers, not just the ones who can walk, bike, or jog steep grades, and that requires some winding of the path.

It’s also important to remember that this is not just any river crossing. Walking or biking across the Dam Walk will be nothing like crossing the Manchester or Mayo Bridge. It is not meant to be the most efficient route in every way possible. In fact, the Dam Walk is only the first step in opening an important experience – the “Richmond Riverfront experience” to so many more of our residents and visitors. People who commute by bike or on foot will at long last have a safe, comfortable, and direct crossing of the James. And families with young children or elderly relatives will get to experience many aspects the river up close and personal without trepidation.

Credit: P. Kevin Morley/Times-Dispatch

Credit: P. Kevin Morley/Times-Dispatch

I know what some of you are thinking. Don’t worry – the riverfront will still maintain its wild, adventurous, and sometimes dangerous side for those who tread off the beaten path to seek the thrills the James has to offer. But for so many more, the river is about to become more than a landmark – it’s going to become an attraction.

For more information about the project, visit the City’s webpage. To be informed of opportunities to support the Dam Walk and other bicycle and pedestrian projects, sign up for Bike Walk RVA email updates.

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RVA runners embrace ‘Tacky Lights’ spectatcle

As if we needed more evidence that everything the Sports Backers touch (or create) turns to gold, the week after Thanksgiving they announced that they’d filled all 5,000 spots reserved for the inaugural CarMax Tacky Light Run this Saturday evening.

Screen-shot-2012-11-30-at-1.41.50-PM“It’s the biggest first-time event we’ve ever had,” said Jackie Stoneburner, the Sports Backers’ PR and communications manager. She said back in 2000 the first Monument Avenue 10K drew just under 2,500 participants (which is kind of amazing to think about now, when it regularly draws 40,000).

The Tacky Light run is now the group’s fourth-most popular event, after the 10K, the Half-Marathon and the Marathon. And who knows how large it will grow to in future years.

“We had an inkling that it would take off like it did,” Stoneburner said. “With all these theme runs…we thought that this would have the same effect. We knew it would draw in a lot of first-timers and a lot of families because it is non-timed and not competitive at all, but it’s also bringing out the avid runners who want to come out and have a good time and do a fun run.”

Richmonders certainly love their Tacky Lights. That’s always been true. And Midlothian’s Walton Park neighborhood, where the Tacky Light Run winds through, is the epicenter of gaudy Christmas luminosity.

“It’s a really festive neighborhood,” Stoneburner said. “There are 13 cheer stations along the course, and that’s all just neighborhood block parties. There is one woman hosting a singles Meetup. There are 65 people coming, and there’s a waiting list. There’s another RV group…Just this big tailgate party. The support we’ve gotten from the neighbors is just out of this world.

“I don’t want to say there are no other events like this around the country…but this is the largest one we know of.”

While the 5,000 paid entries are all full, a limited number of charity entries to benefit Kicks & Wheels are available for $250 through Wednesday, December 11 at 11:59 p.m. Click here to learn more.

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Richmond’s bike future to be discussed

Partnership for Smarter Growth and Bike Walk RVA (a program of the Sports Backers) will host A Look into the Richmond Region’s Bike Future on the evening of Thursday, September 26, 2013, at the Science Museum of Virginia.  At the forum, attendees will learn from keynote speaker Jim Sebastian, Manager of the Active Transportation Branch of the Washington, D.C., Department of Transportation, about how our region can encourage bicycling as a daily transportation practice through infrastructure improvements. The forum will also feature a panel of guest speakers representing local public works and planning departments who will provide updates on bicycle and pedestrian planning in the Richmond region.

Bike infrastructure in D.C.

Bike infrastructure in D.C.

“A Look into the Richmond Region’s Bike Future” follows the June 25 fact-finding day trip organized by Bike Walk RVA to Arlington, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. for 50 of the region’s elected officials, transportation planners, community advocates, and stakeholders.  The purpose of the trip was to experience first-hand the pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure that Arlington and D.C. have developed over the past several years and to hear directly from the planners and officials responsible for those changes.  
This examination of the Richmond region’s bike and pedestrian infrastructure comes at a significant time. Biking is booming in the Richmond region – more people are biking for recreation and transportation each day, infrastructure improvements have been made to better facilitate biking as a viable means of transportation, and nearly half a million people from around the world will visit the Richmond region in 2015 to watch the UCI World Road Cycling Championships.  However, despite the a burgeoning bike culture and planning efforts in the right direction, the region has only 18.25 miles of bike lanes and a bike commute share of 1.6 percent. 
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