Thursday, July 24, 2014
It was with no small sense of pride that Timothy Smalls  arrived at Richmond City Hall for his swearing-in ceremony to the city’s Aged and Disabled Advisory Council this past November.

Rubbing shoulders with Richmond City Council he felt respected — but all pretense of dignity evaporated at the door to the City Hall bathroom door.

“I came in, in a shirt and tie, and I excused myself … to go to the bathroom and freshen up,” says Smalls, confronted by his first indignity as he tried to access the first-floor restrooms. A sign near the door pointed him to the basement and to City Hall’s renovated accessible facilities.

“That was strike one,” he says.

Strike two greeted him at the entrance to the basement restroom. With the door open, there's just 27 inches of clearance space for him to enter. With a wheelchair that's roughly 30 inches wide, there was simply no way for him to use the facility. He ended up doing his best to straighten his shirt and tie in the narrow hallway outside the restroom.

Returning to the second floor for the swearing-in ceremony, he caught up with Alexander Rawles, the city’s boards and commission administrator, and gave him a piece of his mind.

“I told him, this is No.1 on my agenda,” Smalls says. “This is not acceptable.”

Returning home, Smalls’ frustration found an outlet in a Nov. 14 letter penned to his city councilwoman, Kathy Graziano. He waited for a reply.

“No text, no email, no phone call, no paper letter,” Smalls says.

Nevertheless, Graziano says she supports Smalls' call for renovation to the city’s restroom facilities. “It becomes more and more obvious that the city is not ADA accessible,” she says, suggesting that current renovations taking place at City Hall may well present an opportunity to rectify the issue.

Smalls should have had a very different experience, based on past city efforts. In 2006, a news report on City Hall restrooms led the city to acknowledge the problem and remove signs designating accessibility for the handicapped on restrooms on the first through fourth floors of the building.

After renovations — during which people with disabilities were advised to use the facilities across the street at the Library of Virginia — City Hall’s basement restrooms were reopened with handicap access signs.

In order to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, restroom facilities must have doors at least 32 inches wide to allow for wheelchair access. The minimum space between doorways leading into a restroom is 48 inches, in part to allow wheelchairs to turn. Smalls, a large man, uses a bariatric wheelchair designed to support his weight and height.

Richmond Chief Administrative Officer Byron Marshall expressed surprise at learning the basement restroom was 5 inches shy of compliance with ADA. Shown a video (below) of Smalls trying to enter the restroom, Marshall declined comment, instead indicating he would be contacting Richmond Department of Public Works Director James Jackson about the problem immediately.

Earlier this week, building management was directing visitors in need of accessible bathrooms to use a restroom on the 14th floor. That bathroom has wider doors, but currently lacks a power-assist automatic door, meaning it does not meet ADA guidelines.

City Council President Charles Samuels says he applauds efforts to bring City Hall into compliance with ADA, but adds, “We are an old building and we can try to retrofit, but the rules were different then [before ADA] than they are now."

Smalls  hardly is alone in his experience, and others dependent on proper wheelchair access say they’re equally frustrated by City Hall’s lack of accessibility. 

Brian Montgomery began attending City Council meetings early this past fall in an unsuccessful bid to prevent a council vote to raise prices and curtail services on GRTC Transit Co.’s CARE Van paratransit service.

“That’s a pain,” says Montgomery, descending from his chair, stretching to reach the automatic door opener to the basement restroom and then doing a shimmy crawl into the restroom, which poses a second surprise to wheelchair users. A small foyer area features a tight turn to the right through a second narrow door. The turn, Montgomery says, is too tight for his chair to negotiate.

“I don’t care what size your chair is, you couldn’t make this corner,”  says Montgomery, who uses a standard-size chair.

The indignity hardly stops with his hand-over-hand crawl across the bathroom floor. A loose railing behind the handicap toilet prevented relief during one recent bathroom visit, and nearly led to a court summons.

“I had to pee on a bush outside of City Hall,” says Montgomery, who predictably was stopped by a passing police officer. “He said, 'I’m going to have to write you a ticket.' I said, 'No you ain’t, or I’m getting a lawyer.' ”

Montgomery ended up taking the police officer with him to the basement restroom to show him the offending facilities and the problem with accessing them.

“He just walked away,” Montgomery says. This video shows the difficulties that Smalls and Montgomery encountered in trying to access the basement restroom.

As if the economic arguments for and against moving baseball to Shockoe Bottom aren’t plenty confusing, the history of the area may well be the most perplexing aspect of the can of worms opened this past Monday with Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ unveiling of a pomp-and-circumstance-bedecked downtown baseball proposal.

“We have a complicated history in America and perhaps no place in America knows that as well as Richmond, Virginia,” Jones said in his opening remarks at Monday’s well-attended presentation in a parking lot at the intersection of 17th and East Grace streets. That singular statement was among the last that Jones uttered during his speech that didn’t somehow court the divide between Shockoe baseball detractors and supporters.

Nearby, mylar balloons depicting baseballs bent low in the breeze. Each balloon bouquet included a balloon shaped like a number — one, two and three — representing the infield bases placed where they’d be once the stadium is built. Jones’ place at the podium was home plate.

When baseball was just decades old 150 years ago, the Shockoe Bottom area remained dotted with businesses representing all aspects of that Peculiar Institution of slavery, which remained defiantly strong even in its waning days. Richmond, during the preceding 30 years, had grown along with the domestic slave trade, prospering as the center of the commercial side of the business.

Richmond’s ascendancy came after 1807, when importing slaves was banned but when slavery in the Deep South was at its peak. Most slaves bred and raised in the upper Southern states were sold through Richmond and then transported to the Deep South where they were sold to plantation owners.   

But Jones’ — and Richmond’s — own knowledge of what happened here in Shockoe remains as confused as nearly all of the arguments and claims both for and against Shockoe baseball.

During his presentation — often interrupted by the shouts of protesters — Jones referred to the site of nearby Lumpkin’s Slave Jail, an historic property now preserved in a parking lot about two blocks from his unveiling event. He told the crowd that “about 10 minutes' walk from here is a place called the Devil’s Half Acre.”

Meanwhile, protesters — and a next-day news Reuters news report carried by the New York Times — claimed the baseball stadium was to be built “on the site of a former slave market and cemetery.” No city maps from the Federal or Antebellum period suggest any burial grounds inside the area of the proposed development.

But in the war of words over Shockoe, everyone claimed facts of history to be in their favor.

“You’re not telling the story right!” protesters shouted as Jones recounted the history of Robert Lumpkin, the slave dealer whose wife, Mary, was black and a former slave. At last Jones seemed to lose his cool.

“You need to stop right now,” he growled back, angrily addressing his tormentors and beginning his own narrative that brought him to Richmond to attend Virginia Union University, a historically black college founded originally on the site of Lumpkin’s Slave Jail.

“I won’t let anybody take that from me. Because I lived it. I know it,” he said, defiantly.

Jones also acknowledged he doesn’t know enough to say what is or isn’t under the site of the proposed stadium.

“We are looking forward to getting accurate historical data to commemorate what happened in this area,” Jones told reporters after his speech. He’d left the protection of the dais and mixed unperturbed amid the crowd that had heckled him minutes earlier. He waved around him, drawing attention to what has otherwise remained a barren parking lot and called his plan, which includes a “slavery and freedom” museum, “the first time something concrete has been done to commemorate the story.”

So, the question of what happens when backhoes and spades begin digging in this area that protesters called “hallowed ground” and turn up artifacts remains as an uncomfortable uncertainty for city officials and proponents of the plan. Del. Delores McQuinn, the former Richmond City Councilwoman who has championed the cause for a slavery museum as the longtime leader of the city’s Slave Trail Commission, spoke after Jones in favor of the stadium proposal.

“I’ve prayed over and over and over again that God would send help,” McQuinn had told the crowd in her own remarks. “This is not just our story. It’s America’s story.”

She and her supporters say they see this most recent downtown baseball proposal as the best and least destructive compromise toward their goal of fittingly commemorating Shockoe Bottom’s important history in the story of America’s domestic slave trade. McQuinn helped lead opposition to two past proposals.

Now is the time for pragmatism, McQuinn said.  

“The fact is that you’re going to have to give something to get something,” said Charles Willis, a supporter of McQuinn and a longtime black activist in city politics.  

And if those backhoes do dig up the remains of another slave jail like Lumpkin's?

“Then I think we’re going to have to pause ... as we bring in professionals,” McQuinn said after her own uncomfortable pause of reflection. “As is everything on the Kambourian map, it is evident that there is stuff all through here.”

McQuinn was referring to an 1809 map of Richmond now archived at the nearby Library of Virginia. That map was first reexamined by Elizabeth Cann Kambourian, a local amateur historian, in the 1980s. She was the first person in modern times to call attention to the “Burial Ground for Negroes,” a site designated on that map but then absent from later city maps.

Kambourian also did the initial research to identify more than four dozen sites in and around Shockoe that today are associated with the slave trade as well as some of the earliest modern research into Gabriel Bingham, or Prosser’s Gabriel, whose 1800 slave rebellion reshaped slave history in Virginia. Prosser was hanged at the burial ground and while Kambourian believes he was buried there, modern historians debate the matter.

McQuinn doesn’t debate Kambourian’s findings — much of the Slave Trail Commission’s work is based on Kambourian’s. But McQuinn does struggle with whether the need for archaeology should slow or halt baseball stadium construction.

She says she’s contemplated the possibility that disturbing what she calls “hallowed ground” might reveal a site similar to Lumpkin’s Jail, but says she hasn’t yet made up her mind whether it would cause her to withdraw her support from the project:

“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know if it would be a deal changer.”    

Let’s face it — the 300 block of East Broad Street hasn’t seen much love during the past several decades. A few blocks to the west, a retail and artistic renaissance brings monthly throngs to bask in the cultural reawakening of the First Fridays art walk, and while the imposing anchors of City Hall and the State Capitol have helped prop up the stretch to the east, the lonely wasteland of the 300 block languished amid fried fish, pawn shops and open-air drug deals.

Things may well begin looking up after this weekend, with the arrival of more than 100 volunteers, a few dozen cans of paint and something organizers are billing as the Broad Street Block Blitz.

“We’re shutting down the whole block — the 300 block — and we’ll have lifts out there going up three stories and repainting whole facades,” says Scott Garnett, a member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and an organizer of the blitz. “There are a couple of downtrodden vacant storefronts, and we’re going to reactivate those.”

The event, which begins and ends this Sunday, will be a whirlwind of paintbrushes, flower planters and power washers, says Garnett. But when it’s over, the hope is that this long-desolate stretch of Broad will have the same fighting chance at revitalization that already has begun taking root all around it.

The project, Garnett says, was necessary since the problems in that block simply were too deeply rooted to keep pace with revitalization around it.

“Ask the cops — ask everybody — they just don’t feel safe there,” he says. “It has to do with [it being] rundown, with drug deals on the streets. Some of the goals behind this are brighter lights, better looking storefronts.

Geraldine Duskin opened Ghostprint Gallery at 220 W. Broad St. with her daughter, Thea, in the days when the now-vibrant Downtown Arts District looked much the same as the area of East Broad that the Broad Street Block Blitz aims to jumpstart. She says the lack of improvement down the street is a lingering concern.

“We opened our gallery downtown because we are committed to downtown,” says Duskin, who is naturally skeptical of boosterism that’s not backed by business plans. “The more that happens, that’s a good thing — not only for us, but for the whole city. I just wish some of these places that were just dead had active retail in them. I want to see something indicating that this is the Arts District. Driving down Broad, you wouldn’t have any idea that that’s where you are.” 

After Sunday, there won’t be any new signs indicating the district’s boundaries, says Garnett. But there will be some significant enhancements, including median flower planters,  facade improvements on many of the buildings, new bike racks and enhanced street lighting.

“The city is actually going to change out the light bulbs on that block and use it as a pilot program,” says Garnett, who a few years ago talked the city into switching the street light in front of Lift Coffee Shop, which he owns, from a sodium vapor bulb to a brighter burning metal halide bulb. “It makes a difference — people walk to a brighter light because they feel safer.”

The planters actually are part of another project that will run concurrent to the Broad Street Block Blitz. Venture Richmond, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and various financial partners plan to install about $100,000 in flowers, planters and landscaping as part of the broader RVA Arts District Beautification Plan.

“We’re getting maximum impact,” says Garnett, who’s not involved in the planter effort, noting that the facade project comes with a far smaller price tag. 

So far, Garnett says, the total raised, not including the volunteer labor, is just about $20,000 to $30,000. As for volunteers, in addition to more than 100 who’ve pledged individually, Virginia Commonwealth University and Altria also plan to send help.

“And there are architects, there are builders,” says Garnett. “The goal is to make it a portable model we can shift to other blocks. The goal of this event is to move it around — once people see it’s a success, it’ll be easier to go out and get more corporate sponsors — and labor. I’m not worried about labor. People are jumping all over this.”

Both the Broad Street Block Blitz and the planting program are part of a longer term strategy, according to people involved in efforts to reactivate a long-dormant Broad and Grace street business association. “This is kind of a kickoff to that,” says Garnett.

Another part of that kickoff is the establishment of what amounts to a mini-city hall planning department in a building on loan from Virginia Commonwealth University for the purpose.

The long-vacant building at 417 W. Broad St. has been talked about as a possible future home for a relocated Anderson Gallery once the new VCU Institute for Contemporary Art facility is built at the corner of Broad and Belvidere streets.

Meanwhile, Richmond has hired two representatives to man a desk there for the purpose of fast-tracking business services like building permits and enterprise-zone tax credit applications. The facility also will be the new headquarters of the First Fridays art walk and the Downtown Neighborhood Association. Talks also are underway to share the space with the Richmond 2015 committee planning for the UCI World Road Cycling Championships.

But all this progress is meaningless, Garnett acknowledges, if what’s left is a thin veneer of revitalization, which is why the second phase of the project seeks to place businesses in vacant spaces in the area.

“We’re trying to do some pop-ups in November and December,” Garnett says.

The intent is not unlike a similar effort on Virginia Street last year with the Virginia Street Gallery. That gallery took a long-vacant office space and converted it to an artist’s retail co-op during the holiday shopping season. Within months, the revitalization led to a paying tenant.

As for Broad Street and the Arts District, it’ll probably be a late Christmas present as Broad Street business leaders and city officials unwrap the numbers to determine the success of their efforts.

“I’d think after December we’d have a better idea,” says Garnett. “If one vacant place is rented off of this, what’s the value of that? This would increase tax revenue, help increase property values. If crime can be diminished, what’s the value of that?”

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It started as an insurgency campaign — a rebellion against business and developer interests — in the rural Varina district of Henrico County. Now a loose-knit collection of environmentalists, measured-growth advocates, birders, history buffs and passionate community leaders is having its day, feted at the Virginia State Capitol and invited to the table as plans are drawn up to permanently preserve the historic Route 5 corridor all the way from Williamsburg to Richmond.   

On Friday evening, members and founders of the Route 5 Corridor Coalition, previously known as the Newmarket Corridor Coalition, will don formalwear for Scenic Virginia’s 2013 Scenic Awards ceremony, co-hosted by Virginia House Speaker William Howell. The coalition’s Scenic Tourism Award marks a first.

“Several years ago, we started giving an award for scenic tourism,” says Leighton Powell, executive director of Scenic Virginia. “But this is the first time we’re giving the award to something that’s not finished.”

Not finished in that it was only last year that the Route 5 Corridor Coalition managed to stop in its tracks a regional government effort to eventually widen the winding, tree-lined vistas of Route 5 to four lanes and to promote it not for its existing rich resources, but as a future commercial route into the city.

“But what started as a very small project opposing a road widening in Varina has turned into creating this whole scenic corridor from Williamsburg to Richmond, and going after national Scenic Byway designation,” says Powell, whose own organization has since joined as a member of the coalition, adding weight to the next phase of its efforts.

Scenic Virginia was tasked in 2003 under the administration of then-Gov. Mark Warner with seeking the same designation for four other major scenic roadways in the state: the Colonial Parkway, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive and the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Success with that effort tapped a flow of hundreds of thousands in federal dollars for promotion, and translated into millions of dollars from tourists.  

Powell says that Route 5, which begins in Williamsburg at an intersection known as “Confusion Corner” at the head of Duke of Gloucester Street and ends at Main Street in Richmond, has all the makings of an historic byway.

“Just a list of the assets along this corridor … archeology, scenic, natural, it’s pages and pages and pages,” says Powell. “It makes no sense to four-lane a scenic byway. I could see a whole corridor based on tourism and agriculture, which are Virginia’s two biggest industries.”

That’s exactly what Nicole Anderson-Ellis, one of the founders of the Route 5 Corridor Coalition saw when she and her family moved to the area more than a decade ago, and it’s exactly what she saw ending up roadkill if the four-laning plan had been allowed to move forward. Anderson-Ellis, who serves as an elected official on Henrico’s Soil and Water Conservation Board, is among the honorees at Friday evening’s gala, but by no means is she alone. And the list of people involved in the coalition — and thus a co-recipient of the award —grows daily to include legislators, business leaders and local elected officials in Richmond and Williamsburg as well as Henrico, Charles City, New Kent and James City counties. 

“I’ve never been involved in an issue in my life where everyone says, ‘Oh my God, that’s a great idea – I want in,’ ” Ellis says. “It’s an economic development idea, it increases our tax base, it increases property values, it increases the quality of life for residents and it does all this by drawing attention to what the region already has.”

In that way the plan is a net-net proposition, attracting investment dollars and federal tourism dollars, while costing little or nothing to local government — all the while preserving and promoting scenery and historic sites along a roadway that once was traveled by the likes of Pocahontas and George Washington. 

“There are opportunities — to learn about Pocahontas growing up here, or for businesses … to cater to tourists,” Anderson-Ellis says. “What we need, what will bring tourists to this area, is already there. It’s the scenic beauty, it’s the bike trails, it’s the farms, it’s the river, it’s that on one end, you have Williamsburg and on the other, you have Richmond.”

And that bookending of the nation’s early history is what now makes the coalition’s efforts so attractive to so many who before sought its widening.

“It’s never been marketed this way,” says Anderson-Ellis. “And everybody says, ‘Oh my God, how did we overlook this?’ Everyone — from city to the Virginia Tourism Corp., our elected representatives — everyone is on board.”

In addition to honoring members of the Route 5 Corridor Coalition, this year’s Scenic Virginia awards banquet also honors three newly state-designated scenic rivers, the Dan, the Bannister and the Meherrin rivers. This year’s Scenic Vistas and Lands Preservation award goes to Bob and Lynn Ripley, owners of property that once was the site of Werowocomoco, the capital city of the Powhatan Indian empire in present-day Gloucester County. The property was put into a conservation easement by the Ripleys earlier this year.

Former Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Tayloe Murphy and his wife, Helen Murphy, will be honored with the Scenic Hero award. Murphy’s past contributions include his efforts while a member of the Virginia House of Delegates to promote a plan to reclaim the industrial brownfield of Rocketts Landing. His efforts, along with those of developer Bill Abeloff, led to the current redevelopment renaissance of this once blighted area.

“What comes up with these awards is how aligned Virginia’s history and agriculture and industry are with its scenic beauty,” says Powell.   

Photo courtesy City of Richmond
It’s been nine months since city leaders said major renovations to the 17th Street Farmers’ Market — including the likely demolition of the familiar green tin-roof canopies — could begin at any time.

As of October, those renovations remained in the “could” phase. “The city has had several community meetings in an effort to move this project forward and gain community input,” writes Mike Wallace, a spokesman for the city administration, referring to the two RSVP-only meetings planned for Tuesday and Wednesday (Oct. 1 and 2) at Main Street Station.

The marketplace facelift is to serve as a complement to a planned $31.5 million transformative overhaul for the adjacent Main Street Station and its train shed that was long ago enclosed as part of a failed mall project. The Main Street Station renovation includes replacing the train shed’s second-story metal sidewalls with glass panels, as well as a plan to bulldoze the old entrance to the mall project, which blocked Franklin Street from 14th to 18th streets, and to reopen that as a throughway.

The city solicited bids for the project some months back, in keeping with its originally proposed schedule for completing the renovations to the 112-year-old facility. But all that work is going to cost money, and while city officials initially thought they had the tab covered for the station overhaul, that now appears not necessarily to be the case, says Tammy Hawley, the mayor’s spokeswoman.

“The bids came in a little higher than the economic-development staff anticipated,” Hawley says, indicating that the cost of steel and other materials and the “quality of the type of construction” likely accounted for the higher bids.

Since receiving this news, the city also has suffered a second setback in pressing forward with the project, she says. Economic-development officials had applied for a grant, hoping that it would make up the difference in cost and allow them to press forward with the project, even at the higher cost.

“They didn’t get the grant,” Hawley says, adding that economic-development officials only recently shared the bad news with administration officials in the mayor’s office, where there is now discussion of possibly seeking an additional fund appropriation from City Council to fill the gap.

“It’s a very fluid situation,” she says. “There’s no decision on what the next step will be.” But it will be soon.

The Main Street Station renovation will transform a portion of the facility into the city’s new visitors’ center and, as the city is expecting quite a few of those for the 2015 UCI World Road World Championships, there’s a sense of urgency about staying on schedule. “If we’re going to stay on the timeline, we need to move the project forward,” Hawley says, not discounting the possibility of scaling back the project to fit the tighter budget.

Before that option, though, a budget appropriation amendment could be before council as soon as its first October meeting.

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