What’s The Future Of James River Park? Planners and Advocates Want Your Ideas | Community Idea Stations

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What’s The Future Of James River Park? Planners and Advocates Want Your Ideas

The City of Richmond is undertaking a new master plan for the James River Park System. As the 600 plus acre park becomes increasingly popular, advocates are asking residents for their input on how to protect, access and enhance this “crown jewel” of Central Virginia. WCVE’s Catherine Komp reports for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find details on upcoming James River Park Master Plan district meetings and an online survey in English and Spanish. A city-wide meeting is planned for March 6, 6-8 p.m. at the Virginia War Memorial. Listen to WCVE's coverage of the James River Invasive Plant Task Force, a volunteer-powered effort to tackle invasives in the park.

Transcript:  

The last master plan for the James River Park System was put together in 1968, before it officially became a park. It called for preserving the banks of the river and historic infrastructure, like the Kanawha canal. It also suggested a ranger-type police patrol and a large pool on top of Belle Isle, with cantilevering sun decks.

Alarmed residents wrote to the Richmond Times Dispatch in January 1969 with concerns about development in the park “killing freedom” and proposals for “absurd, oversized, concrete architectural monstrosities.” But these visions, including a monorail and marina on Belle Isle, didn’t pan out. Today you’ll find plenty of nature and some 40 miles of trails along the water where people hike, jog and meander with their dogs all year round.

Nathan Burrell: Nothing beats staring out the window and watching eagles hunt from the sycamore tree here...

Facility Maintenance Manager Nathan Burrell admires the view from the James River Park headquarters at Reedy Creek. They’ve seen minks, otters, and deer swimming across the river.

Burrell: It’s kind of a magical thing ‘cause you’ll be sitting in a meeting and all of a sudden an eight point buck comes swimming across the river!


Nathan Burrell is Facility Maintenance Manager for the Richmond Park System and is helping lead the James River Park Master Plan Process. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)


The Park System is now undertaking its second master plan, the first in 50 years.

Burrell: This is a tremendous deal not just for James River Park System but for our city and our region quite frankly.  

Friends of James River Park raised $250,000 for the master plan. The process started in late January with the launch of online survey and community meetings across the city. At the 7th District’s monthly meeting, design consultant Chris DeWitt with VHB (Vanasse Hangen Brustlin) stood behind one of four large maps of the park.

Chris DeWitt: We’re using these framing questions, on each of these signs.

One focus area, says Dewitt, is transportation and access: how do you get to the park? How do you move around once you’re in the park?

DeWitt: What obstacles they face in terms of getting to the park and accessibility within the park?

They’re also asking about wildlife, critical habitats, if there are areas that should be restored.

DeWitt: And in terms of activities, what do you enjoy doing at the park? What are locations you typically go to? What are there things you’d like to see changed? What do we definitely need to preserve?

DeWitt: What obstacles they face in terms of getting to the park and accessibility within the park?

They’re also asking about wildlife, critical habitats, if there are areas that should be restored.

DeWitt: And in terms of activities, what do you enjoy doing at the park? What are locations you typically go to? What are the things you’d like to see changed? What do we definitely need to preserve?


The James River Park System has 14 distinct sections, including Floodwall Park which connects to the Manchester Climbing Wall and the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)


Safely getting to the park is important to Trish Bernal. The Richmond Tree Steward has been working on how to improve the bicycle and pedestrian connections from Church Hill and Fulton to the river.

Trish Bernal: It’s very difficult to get down from Libby Hill park and across to the river because of the variety of traffic and other issues, whereas coming through to Gillies Creek that pops you by near Stone and there are other better, ways to cross that are safer to get you down to the riverfront and the Capital Trail.

Newer resident Tom Haines would like to see more outreach and awareness about the park.  

Tom Haines: Particularly if you’re not a local, if you didn’t grow up here. Or people come to visit, where can you take them on a nice day or even a bad day? We can go down to the park, but if you don’t know about these things. It’s a well-kept, but poor secret.

Haines usually goes to Great Shiplock, Belle Isle or Texas Beach. He had no idea about Pony Pasture.

I think they need a lot more direct signs, saying get off on this exit to go to this park. It’s less intuitive than I would prefer. Like the wetlands, I didn’t [know] this was a park, didn’t know anything about it.

The park has been steadily attracting more visitors, up to about 2 million visitors in 2018. A VCU study also estimated the park has the potential to bring in more than $33 million a year in tourism revenue.  

Justin Doyle: This map is showing resource protection areas and resource management areas as well as the 100 and 500 year flood plains…

Justin Doyle with the James River Association. He’s also on the steering committee for the Park’s Master Plan process.

Doyle: And it shows how environmentally sensitive the James River Park System is. 280 acres are protected in a conservation easement which is great but the park system is approaching 600 acres in size, so some of the park system isn’t as protected as it could be.

As the City’s population grows, planners will need to anticipate how this might affect James River Park System.

Doyle: Ideally we want to have plans for the future of the park and possibly plans for the expansion of the park to create more space for our residents to enjoy the system.


On the northside of the river, James River Park System offers the Pipeline walk, Great Shiplock Park, Pumphouse Park, Texas Beach and the Northbank Trail. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)


Besides better access, Trish Bernal says the park might benefit from a few more restrooms, but she’s cautious wanting too many amenities.

Bernal: I’m not sure I want a ton more formal activities in terms of development. It’s such a wonderful natural resource and I think most of us want to keep it that way, at least I hope that’s what this survey will show.

James River Park Master Plan meetings continue all month. Nathan Burrell says they’ll be gathering input in less formal ways too, like pop-ups.

Burrell: We're really looking to get input from people that wouldn't traditionally come or be able to make it to one of these community meetings. So, look for these pop-ups at bus stops, at community events, recreation events, Kanawa Club meetings. So hopefully there’ll be a presence at each one of these and we'll really be able to get input from all of our citizens.

James River Park System has a Spanish-version of its Master Plan survey online. A city-wide meeting is scheduled for March 6 at the Virginia War Memorial. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.