Visitors to the James River Park System could eventually see additional parking options, expanded trail networks and more public transportation to access points, if recommendations in the park system’s master plan become reality.
After 10 public meetings, countless maps drawn and more than 50 years gone by since the last one, the James River Park System on Wednesday unveiled a draft of its plan to an audience of about 150 parkgoers and supporters.
The plan is an 80-page document created by land development group VHB and landscape architecture firm Hargreaves Associates through funding from Friends of the James River Park.
It encompasses proposed improvements to everything from conserving the natural resources of the park system in Richmond to acquiring new lands, both public and private, to add to the park’s existing 600 acres, which stretches from Huguenot Flatwater to Ancarrow’s Landing.
VHB Principal Chris DeWitt presented the eight overarching sections targeted by the plan: shoring up the park’s operations and maintenance, preserving natural resources, expanding transportation and access, expanding trails and greenways, creating more water-based activities, improving park buildings, promoting the user experience through park activities, and expanding the park. Each section also included recommendations.
To create the areas of interest and recommendations, plan developers walked through the park’s territories, made observations and incorporated public feedback through meetings held in every Richmond City Council district and a survey that received about 2,300 responses.
“Typically on a project like this, I am thrilled if we get 200 responses,” DeWitt said. “2,300 blew me away ... and it really shows how important this park is.”
Themes that came out of the survey included the importance of protecting the park’s wildlife, increasing trail connectivity and, above all — the top issue respondents said they faced in relation to park access — fixing a lack of parking.
Now, the group needs to decide which recommendations should be prioritized. Another survey asking participants to name their top priorities for the park based on the draft master plan has been sent out, and the results will be transformed into an action plan that will factor into the final master plan, DeWitt said. He expects the final plan to make it to the City Council by September.
Though the plan has more than 50 recommendations, it will be constrained by budgetary availability. Therefore, the plan recommends six focus areas where funding can be immediately directed and will be asking survey respondents to choose their priorities.
Kirt Rieder of Hargreaves presented those focus areas — expanding transportation access, creating greenways at Pump House and Reedy Creek, creating a Pony Pasture Education Center, refurbishing the Reedy Creek Welcome Center and rehabilitating Pump House Park.
Greenway creation at Pump House and Reedy Creek is a priority for many. The plan proposes potential routes to create a Pump House greenway, accessible to bikers and runners, that connects to Dead Man’s Hill and then Williams Island, a difficult endeavor because any path would have to skirt railways, highway bridges and city water facilities. The Reedy Creek greenway would attempt to create paths with a goal of connecting Reedy Creek to Crooked Branch Ravine Park and the Interstate 95 bridge over the James River, which would connect parts of the South Side and Pocahontas State Park to the JRPS.
Bert Waters, a Richmond trail runner who often runs along the North Bank and Buttermilk trails, said a Pump House greenway would open up new running possibilities for him.
“I’m really interested in the greenway from Pump House to Huguenot Bridge — that’s something new I hadn’t seen and it’s really exciting to us,” Waters said. “We do a lot of running, so that would really change the loop. ... This would really open us up so that we could go across Huguenot Bridge back down. So that’s really a big one.”
Tim Bath, who recently moved to Richmond and enjoys trail running, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding in the park system, also said new greenways would join previously unconnected trails to create an accessible network for runners.
Bath and his wife, Mary, also expressed support for the restoration of Pump House Park. While the Gothic Revival-style Byrd Park Pump House has long been a target of restoration efforts, the JRPS master plan recommends modifying site pavements and restoring the surrounding area as a trailhead in addition to revitalizing the building to make the area “a premier destination within the park,” Rieder said.
“I quite like the Pump House restoration,” Mary Bath said. “It’s a piece of history.”
Fixing the park’s transportation issues also resonated with many attendees at the Wednesday meeting.
“There’s a theme through what we have talked about — how important parking is on the user experience, on your ability to get to the park as well as everybody else’s,” Rieder said. “It’s clear that this is a huge issue. Think of how difficult it is to get to Pony Pasture on a summer weekend.”
To that end, the plan recommends using existing offsite parking structures and lots, both private and municipal, in order to ensure there is space for parkgoers without bringing more cars close to the river. Creating a shuttle system transporting people to and from offsite parking, likely starting with a small loop that could include one to two new parking areas, is feasible, Rieder said.
The plan also aims to increase multimodal transportation to the park to reduce vehicular trips, which the survey indicated is the primary way people access the parks. Options include charging nonresidents for parking, identifying planned bike lanes and roadway crossings, and increasing GRTC service to the park.
Stephanie Lynch, a Democratic candidate running for City Council in the 5th District who attended Wednesday’s meeting, said implementation of the recommendations will hinge on the council’s ability to actually fund the plan and whether or not advocates in government can hold the city accountable to it. Calling the draft master plan “amazing,” she said she would be committed to funding the priorities that the public identifies from the recommendations and ensuring Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration will enact the plan’s priorities.
“The river and the James River Park System run through the heart of the city and the 5th District, and I really think it’s the gem of our city,” Lynch said. “It’s such a great resource and asset, not only to our economy, but to our schools, to our kids. It’s so important that we wholly fund the maintenance of the park.”