“Redefining Richmond With the James River”
A few months ago, Champe Burnley received a phone call from a friend’s son. “He was
looking for a place to crash,” said Burnley. The kid was on his way to Asheville, NC to look for
a job. When Burnley asked him why he wouldn’t look for a job in Richmond, he replied “I’m not
looking to work in Richmond, I’m looking to work somewhere outdoorsy and cool.”
Champe Burnley, Richmond’s Co-Chairman of the Mayor’s Bicycling, Pedestrian and
Trails Commissionhopes to see Richmond become one of the nations leading outdoors towns.
Like many Richmond residents currently searching for enhanced outdoor opportunities,
Burnley’s glance lies on the storied waters in the cities’ heart. “If we want to compete with
places like Boulder and Portland we need to tell the James River’s great story and utilize it
better,” he said.
The narrative of the James winds much like the river itself, with ups and downs
historically mixed throughout the rapids. The dips in the story have resulted from humans,
because the James suffered for many years from overuse and exploitation. Yet the highest point
of the James’ story may be unfolding now. A steady conservational effort has revitalized the
river over the past 40 years, and allowed it to recreate a dynamic in Richmond that has long
fallen to the wayside. Richmond is poised to redefine itself as an outdoor adventure town, and
leap over the labels it has received as an urban city. The James River is the focal point of that
redefinition, and has once again become an invaluable resource that the city is eager to dive into.
The James River winds for 348 miles, forming in the foothills of the Allegheny
Mountains and eventually connecting to the Chesapeake Bay. The river’s geography varies
throughout the state, and Richmond features some of the most scenic and noteworthy stretches. It
grants Richmond several unique qualities, like being the only urban city where you can enjoy
class V rapids on your lunch break.A recent spur in recreational connection to the James has
earned Richmond national attention. Yet the River’s history paints a less picturesque image,
andled to a restoration effort still underway today.
Historically, the James has been utilized at the expense of its health.One Virginia
legislator proclaimed in 1912 that the James was one of “the God-given sewers of the State.” The
river was essentially used as a dumping ground from the time of the Revolutionary War until the
mid 1970’s. Waste from cannon and munitions factories, dynamite manufacturers, chemical
plants, and raw sewage wound up in the James, plaguing the ecosystem and poisoning the water.
Overfishing ravished the fish population, and by the mid 20th century the river had become so
acidic in places that paint would burn off of boats.
The combination of harmful chemicals and raw sewage depleted the rivers health for the
majority of the 20th century. Terry Dolson, an advisor at the University of Richmond, remembers
the dismal state of the river. “It was like a cesspool,” she said.
Improved sewage drains and the Clean Water Act of 1972 began the revitalization of the
James. They were the first steps in nurturing the river back to health, but were undercut by the
discovery of Keypone in 1975. The Allied Chemical Corporation began developing Keypone, a
toxic, nonbiodegradable insecticide, in Hopewell Virginia in 1966. For nine years it was dumped
into the river, and once discovered caused fishing bans that lingered in part until 1988.
Since the keypone discovery, persistence at environmental protection and conservation
has substantially improved the water quality of the river. The James River Association (JRA)
arose during this time of environmental awareness, and has been an invaluable asset towards the
river’s restoration. “We’ve come a long way,” said Jamie Brunkow, JRA’s lower river-keeper.
From the cockpit of his23-foot Maritime Skiff, Brunkow looked quite frustrated as he
continued to crank the boat’s ignition key. It was a cool day in mid November and the James’
surface vibrated the autumn’s cool, pale-gray sky with its ripples. Brunkow got the boat in the
water astonishingly fast; plunging his trailer into the water as he peered through the back
window of his “Riverkeeper” labeled white pickup. As a river-keeper Brunkow frequently
patrols the James, searching for signs of algal blooms, fish kills, or any other environmental
threat. After 30 minutes of trying to start his 250 horsepower Suzuki engine, Brunkow’s face
relayed the disappointment he felt at having to abort the patrol. But after a few seconds a small
smile underlined his vibrantly blue eyes. “You want to hop into a kayak instead,” he asked.
Adapting to a thwarted patrol embodies what Brunkow feels is the most important aspect
of redirecting Richmond’s focus towards protecting the James. “The first step in protecting the
river is getting people in it,” Brunkow said.
While paddles silently slipped through the water to propel the kayak, large birds
swooping high overhead appeared boldly against the dull autumn sky. The birdswere bald eagles,
and their comeback reflects a period of persistent conservational efforts towards the James. Just
over 35 years ago the birds were virtually extinct here, but with more pubic emphasis on
protecting their river ecosystem their numbers have leapt to around 175 pairs in recent years.
Their resurgence is owed to a support system for the James that has gained attention over the
past few decades, and the JRA has contributed unconditionally to that restoration. “We’re about
halfway towards where we want with the health of the river,” Brunkow added.
The river’s former dire condition has caused people like Brunkow to look at that current
halfway point with optimism. It reflects the city’s success at restoring the water quality of the
James, and indicates substantial room for improvement.
Over the past 40 years Virginia’s capital has cast a view of concern over the James. It’s
allowed the river to once again become a valuable resource for Richmond. But now,the James is
poised to become the focal point of a city trying to redefine itself as an outdoor-adventure town.
Despite national praise, city officials and citizens alike feel that Richmond is underutilized from
an outdoorsman perspective. By land and water, the city seeks to revitalize itself with outdoor
projects. Improved hiking and cycling opportunities are on the city’s radar, but the
continueddevelopment of the James River remains the paramount goal.
In that spirit of development, the Richmond city council passed the Richmond Riverfront
plan on November 26th. Above all else the plan “redefines the city-river relationship,
dramatically expanding both visual and direct physical access to the James River” according to
the document. Throughout its history, the James River has been an invaluable resource to the
people who live near it, but to the detriment of the river itself. Restoration efforts have
revitalized the river so it can be used again, andthe city of Richmond is in the process of
rediscovering a lost and forgotten gem. Opening up access to this stretch of river will attract
investment private and public, commercial and industrial. Who gets their hands on the gem first
remains to be seen.Regardless, the Riverfront plan provides the heartbeat for a city body poised
to redefine itself, providing a sweeping effort to redirect the focus of Richmond back to the
Richmond citizens looking at the city’s progression as an adventure town more generally
share Brunkow’s “glass half full” view. Enhancing the river experience is a priority for people
who feel Richmond can utilize its outdoor resources more actively. Burnley has applied the same
mentality to the cycling scene in Richmond. Currently, the city is in the process of contributing
to the Virginia Capital trail, a path that will take bikers over 50 scenic miles from Richmond to
Williamsburg. The Richmond portion of the trail will run parallel to the James riverfront
Richmond’s cycling potential has earned it the privilege of hosting the 2015 World
Cycling Championships. Florence and Lisbon are among other cities that have hosted the sports
main event previously. The race is comparable to the Tour de France in the cycling world, and
will attract nearly 500,000 onsite spectators according to an economic impact study. The same
study estimates that the Championships will generate over $135 million for the Commonwealth
of Virginia.This honor demonstrates Richmond’s success at developing its cycling opportunities,
but people like Burnley see more room for improvement.
Richmond’s outdoor opportunities earned the city the award from “Outside” magazine
for thebest“progressive, adventurous, and livable river towns” in September. Though this praise
and the privilege of hosting the Cycling Championships indicate Richmond’s outdoor appeal, it’s
what could be done better that has Burnley churning.
In May 2009 the Virginia Department of Transportation announced the completion of the
I-295 flyover construction project. The project cost $67 million and aimed to decrease
congestion at the I-64 Interchange. Burnley noted that for around the same price Portland,
Oregon built over 300 miles of biking trails. “What has that project actually accomplished,”
Burnley asked of the highway construction.“Could you imagine the economic and tourist
stimulation that 300 miles of trails would have,” he added.
Burnley sees decisions like this one as a part of a larger ineptitude for organizations in
Richmond to market themselves properly. On a more refined level, Burnley wonders why
institutions like the University of Richmond don’t market themselves to an outdoor audience. He
sees schools like Appalachian State as model Universities that package their outdoor
opportunities for admittance attraction.
The University of Richmond has tried to develop its outdoor attractions, specifically by
connecting the school to the James River. University officials are struggling with a plan that will
lead students from campus along Little Westham Creek to the James. The path would bring
students to the Huguenot Bridge, where after crossing they’d be beside the river. However, a
dangerous intersection before the bridge has brought the plan to a standstill.
In July a woman biking home from work was struck and killed in that intersection.
Between River Road and the Huguenot Bridge, the intersection offers little room for bikers or
potential crossing students. Currently, the University of Richmond is working with city and state
officials to have the intersection improved.
The University’s desire to improve access to the James underlines the broader
development project of the Richmond Riverfront plan, which passed unanimously on November
26th.The excitement inside of Richmond’s City Council Chambers the night the plan passed was
almost palpable. Boy-scouts and residents dressed in green and blue packed into the chambers,
anxiously awaiting the vote. They sat beneath an oval shaped emblem on the back wall that
features a wave and bridge design in gold. Several citizens spoke in front of the council before
the vote, one of which was Scenic Virginia’s executive director, Leighton Powell. Scenic
Virginia is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the scenic beauty of
the Commonwealth. After urging the council members to pass the plan Mrs. Powell asked the
members of the audience who came to advocate for the Riverfront Plan to stand up. When half of
the audience rose from their chairs she offered the council members a closing remark: “If you
need to hear from all of us you can,” she said.
The Riverfront Plan hopes to reaffirm the James as the focal point of the Richmond area,
primarily through increasing access to it. The plan’s long-term vision sees the Richmond
riverfront as a landscape corridor that seamlessly connects with the James’ upriver and
downriver resources. Though the plan will likely take more than a decade for completion,
passing it has energized much of the Richmond outdoor community.
Jim Hill, the project’s principal planner, anticipated that city council would pass the plan.
Despite his confidence, Mr. Hill was still shocked when the plan actually passed. “It just feels
like this thing has been a long time coming,” he said.
It appears that implementing the goals of the Riverfront Plan will be a long time coming
too. The plan is broken into three phases of priority, each of which will require substantial
funding and manpower. Since the plan passed, the in house city staff team is trying to refine their
focus on the aspects of the project to be tackled first.
The stretch of the James that the Riverfront Plan addresses is between the Lee Bridge
near Belle Isle, and Rocketts Landing in downtown Richmond. By increasing the river’s
accessibility the city hopes to engage more Richmond residents in the watershed. Building
riverside terraces is a plan priority for strengthening the city’s connection to the river.
Developing physical access to the river will feature expanded places for boat launching, and a
new, multi-tenant boathouse built for sculling shells. The plan recognizes unrealized potential for
water recreation downriver, and will provide opportunities near the cycling Virginia Capital Trail.
From an ecological standpoint the Riverfront plan identifies a number of tactics to
continue the restoration of the James. It will transform locations of soil compacted by industry
with soft soil that can help filter storm water. The plan also notes areas where planting can
stimulate the rejuvenation of several depleted plant species.
Though improving access and continuing with restoration are key points of the Riverfront
Plan, some locals feel the plan could accomplish much more. “I think the plan needs to hit
another aspect of the James,” said Mike Ostrander. Ostrander, a local fishing guide and civil war
tour captain, has seen the various ways people have utilized the James over the years. “It’s going
to create more competition for sure,” Ostrander said. He’s seen the fishing guide numbers in his
stretch of the James jump from around five to over 30 in the past 12 years, and anticipates that
number to continue to rise with the implementation of the Riverfront Plan.
Ostrander sees the Riverfront Plan as a tool that could bridge different aspects of the
Richmond experience. Upon its completion, it will certainly enhance the city’s outdoor
opportunities. Yet it could also connect Richmond’s residents in social and cultural ways. “Think
of the opportunities from a business standpoint,” Ostrander said. “What if people could dock
their boats alongside a restaurant or shopping center downtown,” he added.
Ostrander doesn’t consider himself a businessman, though he’s successfully run his own
outfits for over a decade on the James. Looking towards the completion of the plan, he will rely
on his ability to adapt to keep his business thriving. Yet even after the plan’s passing, Ostrander
remains skeptical of its timetable to get underway. “It reminds me of ODU football,” he said.
“Way back when I was in college all everyone talked about was how ODU football was about to
take it to the next level,” he added. ODU football played its first Division 1 game in 2009.
Regardless of the Riverfront Plan’s timetable, it will undoubtedly instigate development.
But the nature of those developments remains to be seen, and is a cause of concern for people
who already utilize the James as their main resource. Scott Williams, the storyteller on
Ostrander’s civil war tours, recognizes the potential tension between commercial development
and public access. “It’s going to be a tug-of-war,” he said.
It appears the tug-of-war for developing the riverfront has already begun. Mayo’s Island
is a pivotal piece of land addressed in the Riverfront Plan. The largest and most vehicular
accessible landmass in the plan, Mayo’s Island could be transformed into public open space. The
plan seeks to construct biking and running trails throughout the island, as well as a concession
stand and recreational equipment-renting center. There’s just one problem: the city doesn’t own
Dr. Fred Shaia is the current majority owner of Mayo’s Island. Though the plan includes
Mayo’s Island as a project, it didn’t forbid development of it under the current industrial zoning
regulations. This means that Shaia still has buy-right privileges for the island. The Shaia family
has expressed interest in developing the island commercially and for public access. “They
believe they have the means to develop the island on their own terms,” said Jim Hill.
While the Shaia family reserves their rights as owners, developing it on their own terms
will not be easy. When a building permit exceeds a certain cost the city council automatically
reviews it. Considering the vision for the Riverfront Plan, it seems unlikely that the city would
allow significant commercial development on the island.
Clearly, the Mayo’s island situation is sticky. The city cannot implement their plans for it,
and Shaia will face obstacles in developing it. Negotiating with private owners like Shaia is a
priority for city officials like Mr. Hill, who are in the process of planning funding for the project.
Gathering funds will be a challenge as well. Fulton Gas Works is a 20-acre structure that
the plan seeks to renovate. Yet the property is contaminated from decades of 19th century
industrial use as a gas works. Since the city of Richmond contaminated the site it is not eligible
to receive federal funding for its redevelopment.
HR&A, a real estate, economic development, and energy efficiency consulting firm, has
mapped out a way for the Fulton site to receive federal funding. Another entity would need to
take on responsibility for the remediation of the property. If ownership shifted, this external
entity would be allowed to receive federal funds to develop the island.
Complications like Mayo’s Island and Fulton Gas Works are part of a funding process
that is developing since the plan passed. The plan will require local, federal, foundational, and
philanthropic funding to get underway. “One way funds could be gathered is by recognizing an
area that will benefit from public investment,” said Mr. Hill. This would spawn private
investment, and create opportunities to generate revenue for ongoing operation and maintenance
of the plan. Collecting sales tax on retail and property tax in these areas would be designated in
the city’s budget towards the Riverfront Plan.
Mr. Hill indicates that the city hopes to have planning for funding finished by the end of
this year. This will allow for the funds to be gathered and the procurement process for
construction to begin. Construction for the plan will be divided between the specific projects it
targets. The city will extend a bid that could become individual or group projects based on
funding. “We hope to have something significant done in the next three years,” said Mr. Hill.
The past few months have featured many developments to attract people like the son of
Burnley’s friend. The riverfront is certainly the feature development, and its timing raises
questions about the true implications of the plan. Individuals like Ostrander have relied on the
river for years to provide their livelihood, but the Riverfront Plan is the city’s project. Going
forward, Ostrander will be forced to develop as the plan does. “The Riverfront Plan is definitely
going to change things. I don’t know how yet, but my success will depend on my ability to adapt
to those changes,” he said.
The JRA has practiced a “let it be wild” mentality for the past 35 years. They’re
enthusiastic about the projects in the Riverfront Plan, they just want to see them done with a
conservational attentiveness. “The key to preserving the river is not stopping development, but
being smart about how it’s developed,” said Brunkow.
At the city council meeting that passed the plan councilman E Martin Jewell
acknowledged that balance as well. The Riverfront Plan’s vision is vast, and encompasses
aspects of improving outdoor opportunities as well as economic growth. Improving access to the
riverfront is a huge part of the plan, but it “cannot be done without commercial development as
well,” said Mr. Jewell. “This plan accomplishes both,” he added.
Like the source of comeback for the bald eagle, the Riverfront plan hopes to make the
James an integral source of livelihood for Richmond. It is a piece of a large shift to redefine
Richmond, labeling it as more than an urban city for those who don’t live there. The specific
name on that label remains to be written, but local outdoor enthusiasts hope to see these
developments create more places like Pony Pasture.
Pony Pasture is a beautiful stretch of the Richmond falls, and perhaps the most beloved
place for Richmond residents who seek the James as their refuge. On a warm Sunday you’ll see
swimmers of all ages climbing out of the water to warm their backs on the smooth granite
boulders that create the rapids. Between the boulders white water churns, and creates slippery
water slides that swimmers launch themselves into to float downriver. Great blue herons prowl
the shallows where the younger children splash about, searching for catfish and smallmouth bass
that dart in and out of caves beneath the rocks. Fishermen shoot flies into the deeper pools,
hoping one of the larger smallmouths will be tricked into biting their hooks.
It is a beautiful place that escaped a proposed Richmond Metropolitan Authority
expressway that would have been built on the most scenic portion of Riverside Drive––the road
that runs parallel with Pony Pasture. In the early 1970’s Louise Lude Burke led efforts to stop the
proposed expressway, which protected the area from becoming a major transit route.
Now, Pony Pasture embodies the type of development Richmond outdoorsmen hope to
see from the Riverfront Plan. It could turn a large stretch of the James into a space like Pony
Pasture, where citizens flock to on the weekends to enjoy the James’ natural beauty and outdoor
activities. On the other hand, it could turn into a major resource for economic industry. Perhaps
the Riverfront Plan will accomplish both, and transform this stretch of the James into a space that
outdoorsmen and businessmen can utilize equally.
The story of Richmond’s portion of the James River is being rewritten, and will certainly
place the River at the center of a city trying to redefine itself. How Richmond writes that
definition remains to be seen.
We’ll have to wait and see which way the river bends next.