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Virginia Currents: Richmond Prepares to Transform Neighborhood Through Better Block Placemaking Event

On June 13th and 14th, a section of Richmond’s North Church Hill will be transformed as community members redesign the area with temporary improvements. It’s part of a nationwide effort led by the group the Better Block to help residents revitalize their neighborhoods. In the first of a two-part series, Catherine Komp reports for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Follow Better Block RVA on Facebook and find out more about Better Block's work, applications for pop-up shops (deadline 4/29/2014) and the June 13 and 14 events in Richmond's Church Hill neighborhood. In Part 2 of our series, we'll look at changes in Norfolk, one year after their own Better Block event.

Transcript:

At the intersection of 25th and Venable in North Church Hill, there’s a police station, a vacant lot, a state-run liquor store and a corner market. A number of boarded up storefronts hint at a more vibrant past, when there was High’s Ice Cream, a late-night hamburger stand, a bakery and a shoe repair shop.

Today, more than 50 people gather here for a walking tour led by Jason Roberts, from the Texas-based organization Better Block.

Jason Roberts: We’re going to get started here in a minute and just walk around look at the area. This is how we start every one of these projects, we’ve done these now all over the country, now all over the world.

Speaking through a megaphone, Roberts encourages participants to think about what is possible:<

Jason Roberts: Start looking at corners here, these are the nexus of the neighborhood, where you want to spotlight the identity, kiosks, things like that, maps that talk about the community, murals, identifiers, things like that.

Better Block facilitates the process of placemaking, in which urban spaces are redesigned through a bottom-up, community-centered approach. In order to avoid red tape and bureaucracy, Better Block projects use what’s called “tactical urbanism” which incorporates small, inexpensive or temporary improvements that make places more social and inviting.

Andrew Howard: It’s a bit of improv that we do with a street and the idea is to stop talking about it and actually get out there and try it and use a bit of scientific method to see what works and what doesn’t.

Andrew Howard is part of the two-person team behind Better Block.

Andrew Howard: This is what we look for, an area that has a lot of vacant spaces that we can use pop up shops in, that we know we can make safer, that already has great things going for it, like this storefront that’s been installed here and some good property owners that are cleaning up their buildings and so we already have great traction and now we’re just inviting the community to take more of a part in it.

Come June, this intersection will be transformed for 48 hours. The look of the street will change with borrowed landscaping and seating. Vacant storefronts will be cleaned up, and pop-up shops will operate inside. All temporary, but with a goal toward long-term change driven by the people who live here. This block is already seeing some activity. Inside one of the storefronts, Anthony Flemming has been hard at work renovating this former cleaners and beauty salon.

Anthony Flemming: I know a lot of people now since they call me Mr. Carpenter: “Hey Mr. Carpenter, how you doing? Can I come inside?”

The building has a lot of potential, including a large, red brick courtyard that could be used for outdoor dining or entertainment. Michael Wynn is the property’s manager.

Michael Wynn: You could see progress slowly coming anyway down the street, so it was a matter of time. I’m glad it’s coming to this side, it’s never been on this side, development has always been on the other [side]. So it’s welcomed. This is a very historic neighborhood, it needs a revamping. It’s a very vibrant community and it’s very diverse, the only neighborhood where you’ll see family members and everyone else hanging out.

Wynn says the plan is to begin with a coffee shop, then work-up to a sit-down restaurant, something sorely needed in this part of Church Hill.

Michael Wynn: It’s real good to see the neighborhood coming back, it’s been a long time.

Partners of the Better Block project, including Sportsbackers and Bon Secours Richmond Health System, are providing support during the short, two-month planning stage. They’re accepting applications for pop-up shops and helping residents network so they can borrow and build as much as possible. As with many placemaking projects, the process - bringing people together and building social capital - is often just as important as the end result. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.