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The contrasting beauty of RVA

RVA is a juxtaposition of contrasting beauty.

The natural bounty of the James abounds. Shad, sturgeon, osprey, herons, and eagles live here.

Industrial grit noisily squeaks and squeals over steel and concrete bridges as the trains and trucks motor through. Commerce and manufacturing happens here.

VCU Students invade and leave the city like a mighty tide as the semesters ebb and flow. Education happens here.

Art is woven into the fabric of our city and challenges us on a daily basis. Art is made here.

Business and Government rules our downtown skyline. For better or worse, deals are cut here.

We as residents luckily soak it all in as we work, walk, pedal, paddle, dine, drink and live amongst it all. Richmond’s beauty exists in the stark, sometimes jarring, yet wonderful contrasts that mix in the giant cauldron of interaction we know and love as RVA.

This brings me to the recent proposal to build multiple 16 story towers on the river at the foot of the Mayo Bridge. If done correctly, this “South Canal” project could be yet another juxtaposition that adds to the contrasting beauty of RVA. In fact, it could help bring downtown across the James to the city that Richmond once forgot, but is now remembering. I am talking about Manchester of course.

Richmonders who want an elevated view of it all will pay handsomely for this commanding view. And developers, Fountainhead Properties in this particular case, will step up with the vision and meet the latent demand. But stepping forward into the unknown always comes with a tradeoff. Another memory of Manchester’s industrial grit will be lost. And the natural element will have to deal with the towering humanity upon its front doorstep.

We have been debating the South Canal towers project all weekend at the Hild household. And in full and fair disclosure, my better half remains skeptical and not wholly convinced of the merits of the proposal. To get a firsthand look, we decided to hike the Manchester flood wall today and check out the exact spot where the towers are proposed to be built.

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And what was our first observation? Well, the area is mostly forgotten. It is nothing short of an industrial ghost town. It only took a short few steps across the Manchester Canal footbridge to be reminded that this area doesn’t see much foot traffic. We were immediately greeted by a northern rough green snake slowly crossing our path. It was as if he was taking his sweet time and reminding us we were on his turf, not the other way around.

Only a short hike later we reached the steps to the flood wall so we could get an elevated view of the area where the towers are to be built. The area in question is an abandoned manufacturing relic. Only graffiti, vagrants, and memories of manufacturing prowess remain. And set below the flood wall, the existing industrial structure is an Atlantis like sunken reminder of times past. But there is beauty in decay. And Manchester has a hard time embracing polished, shiny new things. We are more of the rusted iron variety. That is just who we are.

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But there can be beauty in the new. Especially if it is done in a respectful and soothing repetitive fashion that contrasts with the natural. One only need walk a few hundred yards to the west along the flood wall to see an example. The underside of the Manchester bridge is a beautiful contrast of new vs. old, industrial vs. natural. It is an authentic, brutalist framing of a small, yet important section of the river city.

I get the sense that the South Canal cake is already baked. And it will likely get approved by City Council without the developer submitting a single rendering of what the project will look like. Well fair enough. Fountainhead has demonstrated a track record of doing good projects, so they have earned the city’s trust. But let’s hope that whatever they build…it is another beautiful, yet stark contrast that winks to our past, while gazing forward and upward to our future.

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