“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Thursday, December 5, 2013


Richard Worsham, Proposed First Market fountain, thesis, Notre Dame, 2011. 
"Even as places like Austin and Seattle are thriving, much of the country is failing to adapt to the demands of the creative age. . . . They pay lip service to the need to "attract talent," but continue to pour resources into recruiting call centers, underwriting big-box retailers, subsidizing downtown malls, and squandering precious taxpayer dollars on extravagant stadium complexes. Or they try to create facsimiles of neighborhoods or retail districts, replacing the old and authentic with the new and generic---and in doing so drive the creative class away."    Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class
At Urbanismo, we have been putting our heads together this week, sounding out the best way to respond to the Mayor’s announcement of the proposed redevelopment of the 17th Street Market area as the setting for a new baseball field. We have championed the market for years, bought our produce and handmade Christmas wreaths there for decades, and researched its history in considerable detailWe have even adapted it for a master’s thesis towards a degree in architecture. Most recently, we developed a design for its full rehabilitation as a major civic asset, in response to a request for proposals from the city, although our proposal was not selected from among those submitted. All of this attention should have made us feel a little possessive of the currently “down at heel” district, were it possible to “own” a public space that holds such potential for the entire city’s benefit. 

Detail of proposed Shockoe Bottom project, showing the historic Market Square as a redesigned "promenade,"
 a long esplanade leading to the ball park and filled with a meandering "water feature." 

We have decided to focus our attention here on the Market Square itself, rather than the totality of the baseball diamond project, which is already the subject of much contention and  critical attention. This ill-conceived land deal will transform the heart of a gritty, vital urban district into what will be, in essence, a shopping mall development, and an economically risky one at that. It seems to us that the Market Square is the most vulnerable part of this long-contested area known as “Shockoe Bottom.” 

Detail of the "Promenade" to replace the First Market Square
 from the city's official proposal for the Shockoe Bottom Development.  

When the city's intention for First Market Square was described by Lee Downey, Richmond's director of Economic and Community Development as "establishing a 'Shockoe Promenade' that links Main Street to Broad Street," we realized that the city has been approaching the project from exactly the wrong direction all along. The goal of making the "square" into a pass-through to the ballpark is just what is illustrated in the renderings shown above. The new "promenade" represents the transformation of a historic square, with its inimitable textures and special character, into yet another extended suburban-style pedestrian mall. 

The Market Square as polling place in 1865, after the Civil War's end.   

What is remarkable about the Market Square is the astonishing layering that characterizes its historic associations. Only a few of the buildings that define its edges actually date from before 1880, yet the square embodies over 300 years of built history. It has been the scene of celebration, petty crime and public shaming, political rallies, riots, public announcements, parades, and, most of all, the highly regulated sale of the foodstuffs required to feed the households of a city. While the market was not directly associated with the selling of slaves, a function which was mostly carried on, out of sight, a few blocks away, it is, nevertheless, intimately associated with every aspect of Richmond’s history, both good and evil. 

Historic paving at Arch Alley Seen from the Market Square
As part of the rich, bottom-up, market-driven development that has characterized the area along Shockoe Creek since the late seventeenth century, the area around the Seventeenth Street or First Market is an increasingly vital neighborhood in its own right. Most of what is significant about the market area is embedded in its street layout, its pavement, and its shape. The curbing, street pavement, and sidewalks carry its history as strongly as the buildings that surround it. 

While it is very likely that the designs published for the proposed ball park do not accurately represent the final appearance of the Market Square, it is clear that the project's planners treat the square simply as a corridor leading to the ball park. It isn’t acceptable, however, to treat the square as if it was just a link in a grand scheme seen from a privileged, bird’s eye perspective. There are subtle formal and historical distinctions that must be made in order to take full advantage of the gifts this valuable civic resource offers to the city.

Market Square, Richmond, boundaries, 150 x 300 feet, 1793.
The Market Square is made up of at least two parts. The earliest part of the present square is the southern half. Its legal boundaries laid out in 1792. It contained the two-story building that served as the market house, municipal building, assembly hall, records office, and seat of justice. This building was later rebuilt and expanded to the north as far as Franklin Street. Most importantly, its two main sections were linked by a central archway in the form of a tower that spanned “Arch Alley” midway along the market, permitting movement from east to west across the square. The elongated form of the now-vanished market buildings is defined by the cobbled streets and the granite curbing, each of which dates to the heyday of the market in the nineteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, the market extended all the way to Grace Street in a series of shed-like buildings that diminished as they moved north.

Market Square in 1889 from Sanborn Map. Note the archway corresponding
to Walnut or Arch Alley.
The square did not evolve as an open piazza. While the edges of the square are formed by building facades on the south, east, and west, there is no closure at the north. The square was meant to be filled with architecture. This does not mean that it cannot be adapted for use as a piazza designed to serve the civic good. It is, however, long and narrow and “leaky” at the corners. Without careful handling, it will appear merely as an unusually wide street running uninterrupted from Main to Grace.

Market Square from Beer's Map of 1876.
We suggest that, if the project isn't going to involve our preferred option, rebuilding the Market Hall, the following points should be considered:   
  • this place has been at the heart of commerce in Richmond for over two hundred years. This area with a growing population should retain a market function, preferably with a number of permanent stalls.
  • it is essential that cars and trucks be, at least during the daylight hours, able to travel along the existing streets through the square. As the recent Richmond Downtown Master Plan indicates, areas without traffic do not feel safe, seem empty, and suffer commercially. 
  • “pedestrianization” sounds humane, but, except in certain high density areas, can be deadly to an area. Cars underline the activity in the area and parked cars even make visitors feel safer on the sidewalks. Keep the cars! 
  • retain existing pavement, not only in the square , but along the adjacent streets that, in some cases, is the principal reminder of the historic context. 
  • pave the central part of the Square to match the granite street pavers and curbs in color, so that the square visually flows from sidewalk to sidewalk. A central granite walkway from north to south could represent the central aisle that defined each of the three previous market halls on the site.
  • keep the brick sidewalks to help define the edge of the square in Richmond's traditional manner, reinforcing the continuity of the city and the square. Paving with one flat plane from one side to the other will look just like Short Pump Mall! 
  • widen the sidewalk in front of the restaurants along the east side of the square, where the street is too wide for comfort. 
  • don’t “brand” the Market Square with aggressively stylized benches, trash receptacles, or light fixtures. Use historic lamp standards less than ten feet tall in order to meet a pedestrian scale.
  • the Market Square is the site of the first public water fountain in Richmond, fed by pipes from a spring on Church Hill. Consider adding a well-designed, substantial, traditional fountain in an off-center location, but not any other sort of “water feature.” 
  • avoid filling the Market Square with franchise restaurants, as is typical in many similar downtown rehabilitation projects (see downtown Chattanooga). Go out of the way to make the Market Square friendly to owner-operated small businesses.  

Shopping yesterday for a Christmas wreath with Lucille Allen (seen at right above) and her son. 
With her sister, Rosa Fleming, she has been selling home-grown vegetables and
hand-made Christmas decorations on the market for more than fifty years. 
In short, by treating the project with the care it deserves, the Market Square can become, once again, as flexible, serviceable, and exciting as any American public square or Italian piazza of today. 

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