Creating an economic engine along the Riverfront
The Canal Walk is beautiful, canal boats are full, but has it really been an economic success?
In the 1990’s, the business community and the city worked together to create a master plan for 32 acres of downtown riverfront property. The Canal Walk opened in 1999 and has been a catalyst for more than $390 million in private sector investment in the Riverfront Development area. The private sector development projects along the Canal Walk/ Riverfront include: The Turning Basin Building, Dominion’s Energy Clearinghouse, Lady Bird Hat Factory, Riverside on the James, Vistas on the James, and Foundry Park – Phase 1 (MWV Headquarters, Afton Chemical Expansion).
These private sector development projects have created over 986,000 s.f (or nearly 1 million) of new commercial space (office, restaurant, retail), 1,880 parking spaces and 290 condos. The projects have attracted three restaurants; Morton’s Steakhouse, Southern Railroad Deli and Black Finn Restaurant. In addition, two tourist attractions, The National Park Service’s Civil War Visitors Center and The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar have opened along the western end of the Canal Walk; representing a combined investment of $16.5 million and attracting more than 600,000 visitors since opening.
Two adjacent buildings, Canal Crossing ($15 million) and the Watkins Cottrell Building ($11 million) have also been renovated, representing an additional $26 million of private sector investment. These buildings are home to a number of companies as well as major retailer La Difference and national restaurant chains Stool Pigeons and Buffalo Wild Wings.
“The original economic impact of the Canal Walk area was projected at $450 million over 10-15 years. We’ve already hit the $446 million mark in the first 10 years, and the redevelopment of the 6.6 acre Reynolds site will greatly magnify those numbers,” says Venture Richmond’s Executive Director, Jack Berry. These numbers don’t include the economic impact of the residents, restaurants, workers, companies, nor the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to Downtown’s Historic Riverfront District for festivals, outdoor activities, canal boat rides, history and even bird watching. No wonder the total assessed value of the Riverfront development area has tripled; increasing from $242 million in 1998 to $757 million in 2009.
Venture Richmond leases the Canal Walk and Brown’s Island from the city and is responsible for managing the property, including cleaning, landscaping, canal boat operations, and event coordination on Brown’s Island. The private organization markets the downtown area and produces festivals and events, including the Richmond Folk Festival, the 2nd Street Festival, and Friday Cheers.
There are exciting opportunities for more development along the Canal Walk.
In summer of 2008, Reynolds Packaging Group announced plans to consolidate its foil manufacturing activities in Louisville, Kentucky. “We hate to see the closing of their Richmond manufacturing sites, both on the canal and in Manchester, and we are saddened by the loss of good paying local jobs. But there may be a silver lining here if we are able to seize the real estate opportunity,” says C.T. Hill, Venture Richmond’s Chairman.
The North Plant sits on 6.009 acres of prime canal-front property. Bordered by Riverfront Plaza on the west, Riverside on the James on the south, and Vistas on the James condominiums on the east, this site is the last sizable redevelopment site in the core of the Central Business District, and it represents a great opportunity for development of office, retail, residential and restaurant space immediately adjacent to the canal walk.
While there are no specific details as to what type of commercial or residential spaces will be developed there, the property offers a great opportunity for investors and designers to develop a Class A, mixed use property.
“Richmond has been waiting a long time for the property to become available for redevelopment,” says Trib Sutton, Senior Vice President of CB Richard Ellis’ Richmond office, who is marketing the sale of the property. “This site is truly the ‘lynchpin’ to completing the vision city leaders and the private sector have for this stretch of the riverfront community,” Sutton said.
“This site offers the opportunity to connect Brown’s Island to the Turning Basin, connecting the two canal walkways with restaurant, retail and residential uses,” says Berry. “This is our only opportunity to create a short stretch of the canal with a San Antonio type feel.”
Many residents of Richmond find pleasure in exploring the Canal Walk for its historical landmarks, natural beauty, and relaxing atmosphere.
While most people enjoy the waterway by walking along it, River District Canal Cruises offers tours that provide a different perspective of the historic area.
“Our canal boat tours are setting new records, which reflects the growing attractiveness of Downtown Richmond to tourists, visitors, and area residents,” says Berry. “All five canal boats have been fully restored, with new engines and equipment, to meet the growing demand for charters and historic tours. It is amazing how many people in the region still haven’t experienced the history of Richmond from the water.”
Brent Halsey, former Venture Richmond Committee Chairman and Mark Merhige, current Committee Chairman, personally enjoy the 40-minute historical journey through the canal.
“I love the canal boats,” says Halsey. “[They have] good operators who give good lectures about the history of the canal.”
“We did a family reunion and used the canal boats to burn some time before we all strangled each other,” jokes Merhige.
So with everything it has to offer, will the Canal Walk lose its appeal when redevelopment continues? Merhige thinks not.
“I feel it fits into what Richmond is fast becoming—a city where the great quality of life is getting recognized,” he says. “Living and working along the linear park is living at its finest.”
Echoes Halsey, “It’s still growing and it’s got a big future ahead of it.”