Shockoe Bottom Small Area Plan – and big ideas

The city of Richmond has recently released a draft Shockoe Bottom Small Area Plan. It was designed with input by the by the many public and private partners in the Shockoe Alliance, a group put together by Mayor Levar Stoney in 2019 and “charged with guiding the design and implementation of concepts and recommendations for the future of Shockoe with the goal of creating an innovative space of memorialization, learning and transformation – all while protecting the area’s cultural and historic heritage.”

There is a lot at stake in Shockoe Bottom, the oldest section of the city where most of the surviving pre-1800 buildings still stand, and where one of the largest slave markets operated in the United States before the Civil War. For decades after the war, that history was largely effaced. Only in the past thirty years, with the creation of the city’s Slave Trail, the struggle to acknowledge the African Burial Ground, and the excavation of the foundations of Lumpkin’s Jail, did the importance of the area return to public memory and deliberation.

In its planning, the Shockoe Alliance emphasized a collaborative approach among some members who had previously been at odds — property owners, social justice activists, legislators, city staffers, and more.

The resulting plan is gratifying to see, building as it does on the best ideas already put forth by its partners. The plan hopes to lay out “a guide and vision for making Shockoe a national and international destination through the recognition and memorialization of the powerful and complex narrative of the oldest sector of the City once tied to the domestic trade in enslaved Africans.” It also hopes its features can “serve as an economic catalyst for the district” and to support “development and a thriving, diverse, and equitable neighborhood.”

That’s a tall order. But it is rightly centered on the concept of a “Heritage Campus” at its heart, where an expansive Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park would incorporate the African Burial Ground, the Lumpkin’s Jail site, and other features alongside a museum. It was not so long ago that a memorial park concept for Shockoe Bottom was greeted with skepticism or disinterest, so this embrace of the broader space as a site of reflection feels like progress. The plan also recognizes the importance of water in the district, located as it is in a floodplain and onetime creekbed.

The city is seeking comments on the plan by August 17. You can make comments on the document itself, complete a survey, or attend the final related community meeting on Saturday, August 14th at 5:00pm at the Night Market @ 17th Street Marketplace. The plan gives us much to look forward to beyond the current parking lots.

2 responses to “Shockoe Bottom Small Area Plan – and big ideas”

  1. RyanSmith Avatar

    An important editorial from the Defenders of Freedom, Justice, and Equality on the small area plan was published today in the Richmond Times-Dispatch here. Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto focus on the museum element of the proposed Heritage Campus to note that “a museum is not what the community has been demanding.” They argue that “a museum would be tremendously expensive, deeply cutting into funds needed to develop the rest of the heritage campus” and that “it would compete for visitors and financing with the city’s other museums.” In its place, they suggest that the historical story proposed for the museum “can be told in an interpretive center through displays, audio and video presentations, and artifacts,” and that interpretive center could be located in the attractive, newly-built, currently underutilized Main Street Station train shed that overlooks the proposed grounds of the campus.
    Additionally, Edwards and Wilayto caution that the city has not made clear what entity will be responsible for administering the proposed campus and its features. In keeping with the Defenders’ mission, Edwards and Wilayto argue that no matter which entity is finally chosen for that role, “there must be strong participation by the descendant community” and “the financial benefits of creating and administering the campus” must “primarily go to the Black community. This is simple historical justice and a practical form of reparations.”
    These are all thoughtful points worthy of consideration and transparent discussion. I have my own concerns about a $100 million museum proposal, about the potential administration of the campus, and about the ability of the project to support Black economic empowerment. I am grateful for the Defenders’ efforts to continue spotlighting constructive directions for Shockoe Bottom.

  2. […] follows years of deliberations from expensive consultants like Smithgroup and the city’s own small area plan that declared a shiny new museum planned atop the Lumpkin’s Jail site to be a central […]

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