If you’re wondering what will leave an indelible impression on cyclists, tourists and TV viewers during next year’s UCI Road World Championships, here’s a hint: It won’t be a high-rise condo.
Ponferrada, Spain — in a region that includes ancient Roman gold mines, a 12th-century Templar castle and a 1614 church — is the host of this year’s road race. Last year, the championships were held in Florence, Italy. The two prior years, the venues were Valkenburg, the Netherlands, famous for the ruins of a 12th-century castle, and Copenhagen, Denmark.
Do you detect a theme?
We weren’t chosen for this race because of our riverfront housing stock. Our sense of place and history are what set us apart and what need to be preserved. That’s why a developer’s decision to withdraw the Pear Street condo project on the edge of Tobacco Row is good news.
John Moeser, emeritus professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently returned from vacationing in Switzerland and Northern Italy, where he was charmed by narrow, winding streets, and commons with fountains and statuary commemorating individuals or local history.
“What is also noticeable is the absence of tall, modern buildings that obscure sightlines to beautiful lakes, mountains, the natural environment,” he said.
“If we had been as celebratory about public space, and insisted on a built environment that didn’t overwhelm the citizen, and revered the natural environment as other people around the world, I can only imagine what Richmond could have been.
“While we can’t undo what happened that destroyed much of our history,” he said, “or deconstruct a city that celebrated the private automobile and gave full reign to power, money, and individualism, we can vow that never again will private development trump the public good.”
Moeser, a senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond, called the Pear Street project inappropriate.
“Never again should we limit public access to the James or alter the wonderful vistas we now enjoy of this magnificent estuary.”
You might ask: Who are Libby Hill residents to deprive would-be condo owners of the James River views they themselves enjoy? Then again, do we really need another exclusive tower along the riverfront?
Whatever the motivations behind the argument to preserve the sightlines from Libby Hill, the outcome will benefit all who continue to enjoy an unobstructed view.
No, this condo would not have blocked the iconic view of the James River that supposedly inspired Richmond founder William Byrd II, after he observed the James from Libby Hill and was struck by its similarities with the River Thames in the English borough of Richmond upon Thames.
But a modern 13-story building next to relatively squat, historic tobacco warehouses turned residences, a mile from the high-rises of the Richmond skyline, never made much sense from a standpoint of history or aesthetics.
Rachel O. Flynn, former director of planning and development for Richmond and now director of planning and building for Oakland, Calif., called the panoramic view from Libby Hill “a rare and remarkable asset.”
“There are dozens of vacant lots and parking lots in downtown Richmond where high-rises can — and should — be built,” she said. “They would all have great views, like the Vistas (on the James) does, and would fill a hole in the urban fabric.”
She said the compromise height of five to six stories proposed by Church Hill residents for Pear Street “is appropriate for the site, given the importance of the view shed.”
Richmond has already erected too many barriers to the James, from the wall of corporate headquarters near the riverfront, to the existing residential towers along its banks, to the expressway that severed downtown in half, forming a physical and psychological chasm between us and the river.
The James needs to be opened up to the masses via the wonderful parks envisioned in the Richmond Riverfront Plan. A component of that plan would take down the city-acquired Lehigh Cement Co. plant and silos, which partially obscure the so-called View That Named Richmond. Where vistas of the James are concerned, how would it serve us to replace one view-blotting edifice with another?
We can always build another condo. But development need not represent a trade off with history or rob the larger community of sightlines to our city’s natural beauty.
The best public policy enhances the quality of life for all, not just the exclusive few who can afford premium views.