Shortly before 9 a.m. on Friday, Fifth Street in downtown Richmond was noticeably quiet.
Bellhops pushed a tourist’s belongings inside the Hilton Downtown Richmond. Across the street, two taxi cab drivers sat in front of the Richmond Marriott, one smoking a cigarette while the other scrolled through his cellphone, each earnestly waiting for their next fare.
Up toward Clay Street, at a time when rush hour is still in motion around the city, the roads and sidewalks around the Richmond Coliseum and Greater Richmond Convention Center lack foot and vehicle traffic.
These addresses are opportunities for downtown revitalization. The financing is complex. Richmond’s history of incomplete projects is a cause for concern. But after meeting with city and NH District Corp. officials, RTD Opinions begins its survey of the coliseum project proposal with open eyes and a basic question: What is the lay of the land?
As generations of all ages adapt to an economy prioritizing experiences over things, it’s worth thinking about. In July 1998, the Harvard Business Review described the term “experience economy” through the “evolution of the birthday cake.” In agrarian times, it was made from scratch. Then the industrial economy brought brands like Betty Crocker, providing bake-from-home items for a few dollars. Then the service economy established grocery stores as a top choice, at $10 to $15 for premade options.
But the late 1990s birthday party at a Chuck E. Cheese or Discovery Zone took the entire cake and memory away from home. Twenty years later, the experience economy is still going strong, through plans for an aquatics center at a suburban mall, or renderings for a downtown entertainment complex.
In front of the old coliseum are remnants of moments the city and its private-sector partners hope to revive and improve. Banners for the Richmond Roughriders arena football team still hang on lamp posts. What’s different about the new project is the vision for a stand-alone entertainment facility to an integrated, year-round community that reconnects the street grid.
Some components that have our attention are:
Clay Street as a pedestrian centerpiece, with ground-floor retail and apartments wrapping around a parking lot between Seventh and Eighth streets. The search for a meal or a cup of coffee would expand beyond Broad and Grace streets, or the lobbies of downtown hotels.
A re-envisioned Blues Armory — a 110-year-old city asset still loaded with potential — as a multilevel entertainment venue rehabilitated with private dollars. An urban grocery store on the ground floor, a live music hall on the second floor and a ballroom on the third floor can offer experiences other than a sellout concert with high ticket prices.
A new 541-room hotel connected to the armory. It could strengthen the appeal of our convention center, which already is the largest in the state, for multiday events.
A new GRTC transit center, which can serve community members without the means for or interest in spending on leisure activities. Planned between Eighth, Ninth, Leigh and Clay streets, the 65,000-square-foot plan brings 12 bays for buses and an interior space with concessions. It’s a considerable upgrade from the current row of vehicles idling in front of a decrepit public safety building.
The emphasis on including diverse, affordable housing options spread throughout multiple blocks of the project’s landscape, with possible partners including the Better Housing Coalition and Richmond Regional Housing Authority.
The grandeur of Friday night coliseum sellouts is captivating. But the arrival of big-time concerts or NCAA tournament basketball is no everyday occurrence. We encourage readers to take a walk around Navy Hill and assess what the project could bring 365 days a year.
The need for other city investments, led by better schools and roads, is without question. But the presence of a dormant 48-year-old building with weeds and standing water also is unsuitable.
The city and NH District Corp. need to provide transparent answers to the many questions surrounding this proposal. In the months ahead, members of the Richmond City Council have their work cut out as they begin to delve into this planned $1.5 billion project.
— Chris Gentilviso