Businessman leads forum on future of riverfront

A private businessman with a public role has created a new forum for shaping public access and private development on Richmond's riverfront. Elliott M. Harrigan, a Richmond businessman and chairman of the board of commissioners at the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority, engaged a New York-based nonprofit venture for a 90-minute presentation last week on how to create public places that will draw people to attractions along the James River.

A private businessman with a public role has created a new forum for shaping public access and private development on Richmond's riverfront.

Elliott M. Harrigan, a Richmond businessman and chairman of the board of commissioners at the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority, engaged a New York-based nonprofit venture for a 90-minute presentation last week on how to create public places that will draw people to attractions along the James River.

Harrigan said he was acting as an interested city resident rather than as board chairman when he invited the Project for Public Spaces to talk about how to build the riverfront vision outlined by the new downtown master plan. He even paid the bill for the organization, though he prefers not to say how much.

"I offered to do it because I felt very strongly that this could help the city in the next step in the process," he said.

The forum, conducted Thursday morning at Plant Zero in Manchester, focused on 13 principles for creating a great urban waterfront, such as creating destinations for the public, connecting them with parks and other uses, and focusing on ways of getting there other than by car.

"We find the waterfronts are really the face of the city," said Ethan Kent, vice president of Project for Public Spaces.

The initiative was organized by the Richmond Department of Community Development, whose director, Rachel Flynn, called for a truce in the often-heated debate over development so that a broader look can be taken at the city's goals for the riverfront.

"We wanted to step out of the politics of all this and get back to the visioning," Flynn told an audience of about 130 people.

The forum drew an array of developers, public officials and power brokers, including First Market Bank Chairman James E. Ukrop and Richmond's new Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Peter H. Chapman, who oversees economic and community development.

The audience also included advocates for parks and recreation, such as Champe Burnley, president of the Richmond Area Bicycling Association and a member of the board of directors of the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation.

"I'm really glad to see this going," Burnley said after the presentation.

The presentation also made a positive impression on George T. Ross, developer of the proposed Echo Harbour condominium project along the riverfront east of downtown. The project has stalled because of political opposition, both in City Hall and parts of the community, but Ross was hopeful that Richmond officials are more open to using private development to improve public access to the river.

"If people want to be reasonable, I think something could come of this," Ross said.

That was the aim of Harrigan, who hopes that public planners and private developers came away from the presentation with a better understanding of what works and what doesn't on urban riverfronts around the world. In his view, "the attractive, appealing and successful waterfronts are those where the buildings are set back with public spaces."

"When it comes to real estate and real estate development, you only have one chance to do it right," he said. "If you make a mistake, you have to live with it for generations."


Contact Michael Martz at (804) 649-6964 or mmartz@timesdispatch.com.

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