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.

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