Pending approval by the City Council, Richmond appears poised to build a road from South Second Street to Tredegar Street with an open-bottom culvert to preserve the possibility of passage along the historic James River and Kanawha Canal.

The Richmond Planning Commission on Tuesday approved a final design for the estimated $1.3 million Second Street Connector despite concerns that the culvert may be too small to allow boats to pass if water flow could someday be restored to the canal.

"The purpose of the canal is to float boats. If we're going to float boats on this canal, they've got to be able to pass this constriction," said Jack Pearsall, who is trying to reignite interest in restoring a functional canal system stretching from Great Shiplock Park to Maymont.

Pearsall, who served on a Historic Richmond Foundation committee that studied the idea more than 20 years ago, estimated that the culvert would be about 12 feet high with only about 6 feet of clearance if water flow were restored. That means typical canal boats wouldn't be able to pass, he said.

Jeannie Welliver, a project manager for the city's Department of Economic and Community Development, said the culvert has been designed to preserve the integrity of the canal bed, not to ensure that boats could pass. She assumed a water level of 4 feet, which would leave 8 feet of clearance, if flows could be returned to the James River and Kanawha Canal as they are on the nearby Haxall Canal, which is at a lower elevation.

The Second Street Connector is designed to provide additional access to the riverfront as well as to Dominion Resources Inc.'s corporate headquarters on Tredegar. The city is jointly funding the project with Dominion on land being donated by NewMarket Corp.

NewMarket also is proposing to donate adjoining land to Venture Richmond, which organizes events to promote downtown, for a park and possible amphitheater. A proposed agreement for the project is expected to be introduced to the City Council in the first quarter of 2012, Welliver said.

If approved, the road could open before the Richmond Folk Festival is held along the city's riverfront in October. If that schedule is too aggressive, construction would occur in time to open the road before the festival in 2013, Welliver said.

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