Canal in Richmond VA in danger with proposed development!

VC&NS Trustee, Dr. Bill Trout submitted this article for everyone to read since the canal in Richmond is in danger! The following article was published in the Richmond Times Dispatch and we are re-posting it here in the public interest:

Save Richmond’s canals,  again

Our historic canals should be saved so their future development can put Richmond on the map, as in San Antonio and Georgetown. But this opportunity could be mooted by well-intentioned pending schemes, which injure the canals in five places. There need not be this choice between canal and improvements.

In 1988, a canal committee of leading citizens designed a waterway for tour boats from the James River at the Great Shiplock to Maymont. The navigable James River & Kanawha Canal would be spliced with the millrace Haxall Canal. Renowned architect Carlton Abbott prepared plans and cost estimates.

Thanks to smart planning, much of the restoration was accomplished as part of the city’s Combined Sewer Overflow project. The rest remains unfinished, but possible.

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The committee proposed a link from the Haxall Canal up to the JR&K Canal east of the Tredegar buildings. A series of locks up the hill was one alternative, to be powered by pumps that would make a rapid (and exciting) lift. A mechanical railway to pull boats up was also considered. The canal would then sweep above the Tredegar buildings as in many old illustrations.

The existing canal bed can easily be refilled with water by removing the plug west of the Lee Bridge. The rainwater standing in the dry canal is evidence of that.

To hear that the canal should be blocked by the new Second Street and an amphitheater is dismaying. The city Planning Commission has decreed that the new street should be built over an open-bottom culvert, arch or bridge, allowing passage of the canal. If an arch is built as part of street construction, it will be much cheaper than trying to tunnel through later.

But the proposed arch may be too short for replicas of old packet boats to pass. If the arch is built slightly wider, passing under a higher section of the new street, the canal could be bent to pass there in the future.

NewMarket Corp. has generously agreed to donate the land west of the new street to Venture Richmond for an amphitheater, mainly for the Folk Festival. This amphitheater could function with the canal running through it. Sight lines down the hill are not blocked by the canal, if fill is made just above the lip of the canal instead of the slight dip that now exists.

The result would be a two-level theater, with orchestra below and balcony above the canal. When big events are staged, both bowls could be used. Audience members could pass over the canal between the two bowls on the sidewalk of the new street.

At the other end of the system, the 1988 committee proposed linking the JR&K Canal with the Haxall Canal down 12th Street.

The committee also considered bringing the canal from the Reynolds lock diagonally under the Reynolds Brown building, avoiding any conflict with 12th Street and the sewer — and making an easier turn for boats. The depth would be at or below the basement of the building and would not disturb it. A canal passing under a building has been accomplished in San Antonio, where new canal extensions were deliberately sought and incorporated in the atriums of new buildings.

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The Reynolds North developers are to be congratulated for plans to open the JR&K canal by demolishing the building over it and donating the canal to the city, but City plans propose a handicap ramp inside the Reynolds locks.

These locks are the last original structures of the canal in the downtown. The ramp would block boat passage in the future as well as obscure the very landmarks it is trying to showcase. The new bridge proposed east of the demolished Reynolds building also will block boats and the view of the original and newly exposed 13th Street bridge.

Even if boat passage from the Great Shiplock to Maymont never comes to pass, at this site boats could be brought from Virginia Street into the locks, then lifted up both locks by the water to demonstrate how locks work — how much more exciting and instructive than simply allowing people on a ramp to pretend they are in a boat. Or if close view of the locks is desired, all water could be removed from the locks, allowing people to walk into the lower lock.

The handicap ramp could instead be located over the existing sidewalk on the south side of the locks, from 12th Street down to the old 13th Street bridge, and then down to the Canal Walk in the space to be uncovered by removal of the building.

Most developers would welcome a water feature on their property, particularly one maintained by the city. If no one sees this now, planning should reserve the opportunity for the future. No one expects the city to spend its $62 million RMA repayment on the canals now, but the possibilities of George Washington’s canal becoming the “it” project for the city should not be foreclosed.

Jack Pearsall is a Richmond attorney.



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