In Praise of Carytown

carytown

by James A. Bacon

One of the Bacon family’s favorite places to go in Richmond is Carytown, an eight-block retail strip embedded in Richmond’s Museum District. Some of our favorite restaurants are there — Can Can Brasserie if we’re in the mood for French, Amici’s if for Italian, Cappola’s if for subs. For soon-to-be empty nesters like us who parachute in from the ‘burbs, the food is the main draw. But not the only one. I look for any excuse to visit Carytown… just because.

As much as I cherish Carytown, I was astonished to see that Cushman & Wakefield profiled it as one of America’s top “cool streets,” giving it a tongue-in-cheek rating of “prime hipness” on its hip-o-meter. I’m so un-hip it hurts. I’m the opposite of hip — I’m pih. Moreover, other than the culinary scene, I’m not accustomed to anyone uttering the words “Richmond” and “hip” in the same breath.

But I do agree, there is something very special about Carytown. Moreover, there are lessons to be learned from its success. Along with Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Chicago’s Logan Square and other cool streets profiled in the report, Carytown is an urban laboratory, a live demonstration showing how retail can thrive in the age of failing malls, shrinking chain stores, and ubiquitous e-commerce.

According to Cushman & Wakefield, Millennials are the generation that defines what’s what’s cool, fashionable, and chic. Almost by definition, cool streets are areas that draw large numbers of Millennials as patrons and entrepreneurs. Urban Millennials are looking for affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods. The cool streets in the Cushman & Wakefield survey meet those criteria. They tend to be older, affordable neighborhoods developed decades ago when grid streets were the norm, went to seed and now are coming back. Tony, long-established retail districts are too expensive to attract Millennials, either as patrons, entrepreneurs or residents living nearby.

Cool streets are dominated by small, independent businesses. They are eccentric and eclectic. They are never dull and predictable. As such, says the report, they are incubators for new retail concepts.

Carytown, notes the report, is home to about 300 boutiques, shops, restaurants and bars in about 950,000 square feet of retail inventory. Rents vary from $12 to $40 per square foot. Millennials account for 43.1% of the population, one of the highest percentages of the cool streets surveyed, and average household income exceeds $81,000. Vacancies are extremely low and rents are rising, but there are no major redevelopment projects underway.

A couple of observations about how Carytown came to be Carytown.

First, Carytown did not emerge from some master planner’s vision. It evolved organically. This stretch of West Cary Street was built in the 1930s as an extension of the Fan neighborhood, and the standard practice of that time was to lay out the city in grid streets, with buildings abutting and facing the street. Other than the magnificent old Byrd Theater and a converted church, none of the buildings are architecturally distinctive. But the cellular structure of the small, street-facing buildings is perfect for shops, boutiques and small restaurants.

Second, the City of Richmond has stayed out of the way. Other than building a two-story parking deck on a side street, the city has busied itself with projects in other parts of the city. It has not spurred “redevelopment.” It hasn’t blessed the district with big plans.

Third, the district combines automobile accessibility with walkability. Parking lots and the parking deck are either tucked away behind the buildings or concentrated in the shopping centers on the west end — they do not violate the integrity of the streetscape. The sidewalks lining Cary Street create a hospitable environment for pedestrians, with visually interesting shops on one side and parked cars creating a buffer from traffic on the other.

Fourth, only modest attention has been given to “place making.” Those features that exist have come largely at the initiative of the businesses themselves — on-street dining, statues and artwork on the sidewalks.

Carytown is a classic example of organic, from-the-bottom-up development that costs taxpayers almost nothing but adds immeasurably to the quality of life. It’s not the only model for urban revitalization, but it’s a darn good one.

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9 responses to “In Praise of Carytown

  1. I agree with you about the City’s benign neglect being a factor in the success of Carytown. But there is more.

    I remember that stretch of street from the 1950s. The glue that held it together was the Byrd Theater, which created the pedestrian traffic, and Cary Court, with its wonderful bakery and other shops, and the “NY Deli” between these. And you could go to Byrd Park for recreation and then get refreshments along Cary Street afterwards. I don’t think the rest of the strip was zoned commercial so much as a lot of mixed-use storefronts dating from pre-zoning days, back when the theater was built, and thus grandfathered; that plus the deliberately commercial Cary Court enclave was enough to overcome neighborhood opposition to all the parking on side streets. It isn’t surprising that restaurants moved into to the strip but there weren’t many in the early years aimed at the evening trade; what I remember were sandwich shops (like the Deli) aimed at daytime pedestrians.

    All this was in sharp contrast to the east side of the Boulevard. Cary Street eastbound, paired with Main Street westbound, had a few businesses around Robinson St, mainly black-owned, but few pedestrians, no casual shopping for several blocks until you reached Meadow St.

    The Fan and its westward “Museum District” expansion were streetcar suburbs, of course, and the commercial areas generally betrayed where the streetcars had run (Broad, Robinson, Floyd west of Robinson [then Grove west of the Beltline], Main below Robinson, Belmont). These were converted to bus lines when I rode them but followed the old tracks. Still, what’s interesting is that the street car, and later busses, never ran down Cary Street, unlike that similar congregation of businesses around Libbie and Grove and the Westhampton Theater that was clearly centered on the streetcar line. If you wanted to get to CaryTown by public transit, you walked from Floyd Avenue.

    I can’t think of a single factor that “made the difference” in creating CaryTown, but the construction of Cary Court with all that free parking (a marvel in the ’50s) combined with the grand old Byrd Theater just down the street was what I remember. And now, the district has been there long enough that it has cult status!

  2. One unmentioned problem with Carytown is rent gouging, It’s hard to hang in there for some store owners.

  3. Makes one wonder what things propel Carytown and not other areas – and what role that govt plays – or not.

    Places like Carytown could be “labs” for better understanding what govt policies ought to be – or not – or perhaps places like Carytown are pure happenstance and have nothing what-so-ever to do with govt one way or the other…

    Could a private developer with a large enough area – “create” a Carytown?

    • I don’t think a private developer could create a Carytown any more than a municipal redevelopment plan could. A private developer would impose a unified vision. It might be a great vision — but it wouldn’t create the kind of diverse, eclectic place that Carytown is.

  4. Cory towns are wonderful. Georgetown DC has changed its clothes and disguise more than a dozen times. Sometimes government plays a roll, sometimes not. Same with developers who for example have typically played important rolls in Georgetown’s many revivals, just not obviously so in most cases, but obviously so nevertheless in some important and high profile cases, too.

  5. I keyed off of this: ” impose a unified vision”.

    whether Govt or Private sector – is that the right thing to do ?

    do you want urban areas actually “planned” in that way?

    what things that are part and parcel of Carytown – could not be replicated in a planning process?

    Is this a potential key to attracting more people to urban areas to live as well as work rather than commute to residential subdivision-laden suburbs?

  6. also should point out – there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of small towns in the USA that look like this:

    and this

    that used to be more often than not – places like Carytown in their heyday.

    how does Carytown survive and prosper rather than meeting the fate of these other places – of which I bet are more than a few in Richmond itself?

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