When Pony Pasture Almost Became an Expressway…

January 6, 2017 · 3 minute read

After I posted yesterday about the conservation easement two Richmond landowners placed on their properties to protect their riverside land from development in perpetuity, I received an email from Greg Velzy. The local paddling legend wanted to remind me that the stretch of the James through Richmond is a “State SCENIC RIVER (that too few people actually know exists). Here is a brief summary of what folks have been involved with since the late 60’s. The Scenic River Advisory Committee actually meets on a monthly basis, and has been doing so for over 40 years! ….Working to preserve the scenic and recreational values of our hometown gem.”

The James River Outdoor Coalition has a fuller accounting on their website, but here’s a bit of the little-known backstory that launched this group in Richmond. It’s amazing to think that instead of Huguenot Flatwater, Pony Pasture and Williams Island, we almost had a highway.

This seems like a better use for the James than as highway decoration. Credit: Mike Ostrander

On Monday, October 24, 1966, the headline in The Richmond News Leader read “Expressway Opens Recreation Vista.” The portion of the plan that inspired the “Recreation Vista” headline, “Riverside Parkway,” turned out to be a road never built. It aroused significant opposition and launched an organized environmental awareness that led to the designation of the Falls of the James as a State Scenic River and shaped a significant portion of the river dialogue in the years to follow.

As part of the Richmond Metropolitan Authority’s plan for an expressway system, the Riverside Parkway would have created a four-lane, limited access highway along the south bank of the James River. The parkway would have extended into the river for a considerable distance, requiring the removal of part of Williams Island to replace the channel filled by the parkway. It would have had an elevation of up to 11 feet above the current riverbank.

Very little opposition to the Riverside Parkway was expressed during the period immediately following the unveiling of the expressway plans. An early foreshadowing of events to come, however, was a Girl Scout hike in 1967 along a portion of the proposed route of the Riverside Parkway. The organizer, Louise Burke, invited a reporter to join the “farewell to the river hike” and the event and the concern it symbolized were reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

A second note of concern came in the form of a newspaper article in the summer of 1970 by Ken Ringle, an Associated Press reporter assigned to Richmond. It read, in part:

The city of Richmond, in one of those moves that bring environmentalists close to tears, is spending money simultaneously to both celebrate and molest the city’s longtime ecological poor relation, the James River.

At one end of Richmond preparations are under way for the opening next month of the $720,000 first phase of the $6 million James River Park, an ambitious and incredibly beautiful design threading 2,000 acres of tree-arched, wildflowered riverbank with trails and rustic bridges and giving the Richmond public its first legal access to the James within memory.

At the other end of the city, in the newly annexed portion to the west, the city-backed Richmond Metropolitan Authority is preparing to run a four-lane expressway for 2 ½ miles down the south bank, ripping up trees, paving over riverbank and shadowing the boulder-stream rapids with nylon-stilted forays in the riverbed itself.

. . . . the James has been largely ignored for most of this century by Richmond, and only recently in a quest of a civic identity beyond its Confederate monuments, has the city focused attention on the natural asset which was there all along (The Free-Lance Star, Fredericksburg, June 23, 1970 ).