Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Richmond City Center proposal calls for focus on sustainability

A large, boarded-up building sits behind a fence
Scott Elmquist
VPM News
The Richmond Coliseum, built in 1971, is slated for destruction in Richmond's City Center plans.

City’s RFO asks firms to emphasize pedestrian infrastructure, renewable energy generation.

The city of Richmond is accepting proposals for the City Center redevelopment project, specifically asking developers to design a sustainable, resilient part of town.

The Economic Development Authority and the Greater Richmond Convention Center Authority asked four design firms to respond to a request for offers, after eliminating a local firm from the running earlier this month. The RFO includes a long list of assumptions based on the project’s goals. Developers must use those to guide their offers and cost estimates.

Throughout the list are several environmental and sustainability considerations. Developers are asked to emphasize pedestrian and shared-use infrastructure, save space for solar panels and other renewable energy generation, and generally design a space that will adapt to an increasing number of extremely hot days and torrential downpours. Developers also are being asked to meet sustainability standards for buildings and the site as a whole.

Project manager Maritza Pechin said the RFO follows the Richmond 300 master plan, which includes recommendations to improve air and water quality, reduce the number of Richmonders getting around in cars and ensure all residents have equitable access to greenspace.

“The master plan attacks sustainability in many different ways because it is a very multifaceted challenge,” Pechin said.

She said the RFO includes a range of tactics to “improve the built environment in order to adapt better to a changing climate.”

The RFO calls for updating road, sewer and water infrastructure in the area, developing a hotel to support the adjacent convention center, and finding a new use for the historic Blues Armory.

It also renews the effort to tear down the Richmond Coliseum. Navy Hill, a larger redevelopment project that also would have included the Richmond Coliseum, was voted down by City Council in 2020. The city intends to break up the mega-block that the arena currently sits on into four smaller blocks.

But instead of turning those new streets into familiar, car-centric lanes, the RFO identifies several other ways to utilize the space. It asks developers to prioritize walking and biking paths, and target turning East Leigh Street and North 6th street into “flexible festival streetscapes.” It also encourages transforming North 7th Street into a transit mall designed to streamline transfers between bus routes.

Plus, the city plans for the long-developing Fall Line Trail — which is mapped out to run from Petersburg to Ashland — to cut through City Center, providing shared-use access to the James River.

These assumptions have sustainability and accessibility in mind: Jenny Roe, an environmental psychologist at the University of Virginia, said those concepts are deeply interconnected.

“I sense in some American cities ... that a lot of these interventions are driven by the sustainability agenda,” Roe said. “And that is admirable. But at the same time, these green infrastructure interventions can have a huge impact on people’s health and well-being.”

Roe’s led a range of research to better understand, with experimental data, how the built environment can support health. She hopes to use that data to encourage policymakers in Virginia cities to develop and redevelop land for pedestrian access and enjoyment. She’s currently working with Norfolk to do just that.

“Any strategy that can increase walkability — make that experience more comfortable, more pleasurable, safer — will have a direct impact on the health and population of that city,” Roe said.

That’s not just a conclusion drawn from anecdotal evidence — new research on the subject is always surfacing. Roe pointed to a recent study that suggests a daily 11-minute walk can reduce the risk of major nontransmittable diseases like diabetes and heart disease. The study concluded the benefits could reduce the risk of early death by about 25%.

“The effects of greenspace in our environment [are] really huge. It affects a lot of aspects of our physical, our mental and our social health,” Roe said.

Roe said she was unable to comment directly on the RFO without reviewing it further but reiterated that efforts to reduce single-occupancy vehicle traffic — and the noise and air pollution associated with them — are good for public health.

“We know it’s about clean air. We know it’s about reduced noise pollution. We know it’s about greenspace. We know it’s about access to water. We know that color and murals and all the kind of things that you have in Richmond and do very well, make a big difference to people’s mental health,” Roe said.

Another assumption of the project: 1% of the budget should be set aside for public art. The RFO states it can be interactive and “inclusive of local artists where feasible.”

Of course, it’s not clear how each of the developers will respond to the RFO — or its assumptions of sustainability-minded development. But Pechin, the city’s project manager, said the Richmond wants to be clear about its goals.

“We want people to be thinking about that as they first start putting pen to paper, not as an afterthought,” Pechin said.

Capstone Development, LLC, City Center Gateway Partners, Lincoln Property Company, and Richmond Community Development Partners all indicated interest in developing the City Center project last year, and were invited to submit formal offers this month.

The four design firms have until April 20 to submit their offers.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.