To make good on a commitment made to its corporate partners on a road project, the city of Richmond is planning a $53,000 fence to keep the homeless from getting under a bridge near the James River.
In 2013, the city teamed up with Dominion Resources Inc., NewMarket Corp. and Venture Richmond to build the $1.4 million Second Street Connector, which was subsequently named Brown’s Island Way. The road, which connects Tredegar Street to South Second Street, crosses an arch over the remains of the historic James River and Kanawha Canal.
As part of that agreement, the city approved plans for a security gate or fence that could keep people from trying to camp under the bridge, and the final design of that fence is coming back to the city for approval this month.
The design calls for a 42-foot-wide, 11-foot-high metal fence that would be attached to both sides of the bridge over the canal.
“It needs to be secured so that people can’t live under it,” city engineer Doug Mawby told the city’s Urban Design Committee on Thursday.
City officials have portrayed the fence as a straightforward security measure that was agreed to years ago, but the idea was not without controversy when it went before the design committee this week.
“It’s not only mean-spirited, but it’s entirely unnecessary,” Oregon Hill resident Charles Pool told the committee at Thursday’s meeting. Pool has pressed the city to keep the canal clear in the hopes that it can one day be refilled with water.
Though some object to the mere existence of a fence, city officials said the only question left is how it should be designed.
“This was a concession that needed to be made to get everyone to buy into the bridge in the first place,” Mawby said. “I agree it’s not perfect. But it needs to be done.”
NewMarket Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Hazelgrove said the company was previously cited by the city for having homeless people living in what was then an overgrown area along the canal. He said the idea of the fence was a collective solution when the project was being planned.
“This is nothing new,” Hazelgrove said.
Jack Berry, executive director of Venture Richmond, said he understands why the other partners in the road project might want to complete everything that was agreed to, but he agrees with Pool.
“I think it’s an unnecessary expense, and I have no position on whether the city should build it or not,” Berry said.
The committee voted 7-2 to approve the fence proposal but suggested several conditions that the committee thought would improve the idea. The committee suggested tweaking the fence design to better align with its surroundings, mounting the fence under the bridge rather than on the side, and adding landscaping to deter would-be campers.
The issue is scheduled to go to the city Planning Commission on Jan. 20.
Mawby said that even if other measures were taken to prevent camping, such as steepening slopes or adding rocks, people would still be able to get under the arch to tag it with graffiti.
The fence would cover both sides of the culvert, and the cost would be split evenly between Dominion and the city.
“The gate has always been a part of the project, and the city agreed to this in 2013,” Dominion spokesman Ryan Frazier said.
Pool also questioned whether anyone would ever be able to camp under the bridge because of the water that’s already there.
“This is so wasteful,” Pool said.
A few committee members also voiced concerns about the proposal.
“It’s a horrible solution,” said Doug Cole, a design committee member who also serves on the city Planning Commission.
Vaughn Garland, another design committee member, called the location a “really weird” place to put a fence.
The city and Dominion shared the cost for the road and arch, proposed as a more convenient way for Dominion employees to access the energy company’s headquarters at the end of Tredegar Street and to improve visitor access to the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar and the river.
NewMarket, a chemical company whose headquarters sits near the new road, donated about 4 acres for the road and Tredegar Green park, now home to an amphitheater that serves as the main stage for the Richmond Folk Festival.
Cole said he didn’t recall hearing that the fence was meant to keep out the homeless when the project was first approved, adding that he wished he could go back and change his vote.
As originally envisioned, the fence would have been more akin to a large gate that could be opened to potentially allow boat traffic on the canal. The current proposal has a much smaller pedestrian gate, which would presumably remain locked.
Design committee member Chris Arias said it seemed the fence had transformed from gate to barrier.
“To me, the design has shifted significantly,” Arias said.
Officials said the fence was designed specifically with the canal in mind.
Installing a swinging gate across the canal would likely require building foundations in the canal bed, an impact officials said they want to avoid. Instead, the proposed fence would be suspended from the bridge, officials said, and could easily be taken down if the city decides to restore the canal.
“At some point in the future, we just take it off,” Mawby said.