Bikes, Bees, Beauty


by James A. Bacon

New York City has its High Line park built upon an abandoned, elevated freight rail line. The City of Richmond has its Low Line park, built underneath CSX Corp. railroad trestles.

In the seven years since opening to great fanfare, Manhattan’s High Line has attracted millions of visitors and inspired the construction of nearly 1,400 housing units along its two-mile route. By contrast, the opening of Richmond’s Low Line has been decidedly low key, and no one is expecting it to become a magnet for real estate development. But the Low Line could well become an integral part of Richmond’s park system and spur reclamation of the riverfront.

The vision for the $6 million project calls for flower plots with benches, covered walkways beneath the trestles, rain gardens along the Kanawha Canal, and trees shading HOW MANY?? hundred yards of bike path. Capital Trees, a not-for-profit organized to promote urban greening, has committed to fund the ongoing maintenance.

A year ago, the area was an overgrown ruin, neglected by CSX and the City of Richmond, which shared ownership of the land for more than a century. Located in the flood plain, the property had little value. No one had reason to invest in it or even care about it.

“There was no advocate for this area. It was blighted,” says Susan Robertson, co-chair of Capital Trees. “People would ride on the canal boats from the manicured, renovated canal walk [in Shockoe Bottom] and encounter a scene with invasive weeds and trees. From June through November, you couldn’t see the canal [from the land].”

When the Low Line is complete, it will knit together a cluster of recreational assets including the Richmond terminus of the 52-mile Capital Trail, the Great Shiplock Park, the Kanawha Canal, and Chapel Island with its trails and kayak launch. The Low Line also will provide an amenity for the 1,500 residents of Tobacco Row apartments and condominiums on the far side of the flood wall.

“It’s so great,” Victoria Hedegger, a Tobacco Row resident, said recently while walking her new-born in a stroller. “It was nice before. Now it’s even nicer. [The gardens] make the trail so much more attractive.”

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Capital Trees originated as a collaboration between the Richmond region’s four garden clubs in the expectation that they could undertake projects with greater impact if they worked together. The new generation of garden club leaders aren’t content with traditional beautification projects. They are exploring the intersection of beautification, conservation, storm water management and urban place making.

In its early incarnation, the group worked with city officials to reform the urban tree-planting program. Then it spear-headed the building of rain gardens on 14th street in Richmond’s downtown to control storm water runoff. With each success, Capital Trees’ projects became more ambitious.

In 2011 Lynda Miller, head of New York City’s Central Park Conservancy, visited Richmond to describe how volunteers had reclaimed part of Central Park. “She told use we could tackle big, important projects that can make our lives better, recalls Clare Osdene Schapiro, a Richmond Times-Dispatch writer active in the organization.

River view from the Great Shiplock Park

River view from the Great Shiplock Park


Kiosk at the Great Shiplock Park

Inspired, the ladies behind Capital Trees worked with the Capital Trail to beautify the kiosk at the Great Shiplock Park. That led to the next project, cleaning up the park and planting rain gardens to control runoff into the canal. And that led to the Low Line.

“The trail was bringing in 300,000 people a year. Runners. Bikers. Elderly people. Kids. We saw the impact the trail was making,” says Robertson. That’s when the idea for the Low Line was born.

But there were complications. The city and the railroad had co-owned the land where the trestles were located, which meant that Capital Trees needed to get buy-in from both. The Low Line did nothing for CSX but expose it to potential liability. The railroad was concerned that someone walking under the trestles might be struck by falling debris. Negotiations with the city and railroad were “grueling,” says Robertson, who credits her compatriots Meg Turner and Jeannette McKittrick. Eventually, CSX fears were allayed by incorporating two steel canopies into layout to allow visitors to walk under to the trestles to the canal.

Clare Osdene Shapiro, marketing coordinator for Capital Trees, and Mary Bacon, chief financial officer, share a laugh.

Clare Osdene Shapiro, marketing coordinator for Capital Trees, and Mary Bacon, chief financial officer, share a laugh.

CSX contributed $100,000 toward the project, the city kicked in $200,000, and the balance for Phase 1, about $1 million, came from private foundations, the garden clubs and other private sources. Universal Corporation even contributed tobacco plants to commemorate the city’s origin as a center of the tobacco trade. As part of the deal struck with the city, Capital Trees is obligated to raise money for annual maintenance, roughly $50,000 a year.

A second phase will extend the plantings another HOW FAR?, while a third phase will replace the weeds along the canal bank with a strip of rain garden, or, as Robertson refers to its dual role in beautification and storm water run-off, “riparian buffer that’s horticulturally interesting.” The last phase will get expensive and time-consuming, she says, because the work must get approvals from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Another goal of the project is to clear out invasive species and replace them with native plants and trees — not out of some antiquarian belief that Virginia flower and shrubs are better than others, but an understanding that native plants provide food for native insects, wildlife and other creatures in the food chain. A big push among Richmond gardeners and horticulturalists, says Robertston, is to restore habitat that supports pollinators like bees, wasps and butterflies.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of the Lowline will be to demonstrate that a well designed garden can serve many purposes — recreation, storm water management, and restoration of native species — all at once. Says Robertson: “We try to make sure that all of our projects have a holistic approach, not just beautifying an area to make it prettier.”

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6 responses to “Bikes, Bees, Beauty

  1. Just want to point out again – if the elected Conservatives in Va, local, State and Congress the ones whose views Jim often channels these days in his other commentaries here relating to government and tax-funded things like education and transit…. etc… – that not a penny of tax dollars would be spent on this and likely would be referred to as yet another tax & spend boondoggle….

    Hardly a week goes by in other blog threads that Jim does not remind us of the irresponsible actions of the govt – in Detroit – or unfunded pensions or good money after bad in education, etc, etc – the 20 trillion debt… gawd Boomergeddon is nigh upon us!

    and then he comes up with these rah rah “let’s let the govt re-develop and spend tax money on parks and bike trails and other leftist liberal goodies!

    I SWEAR – the man is a regular Jekyll and Hyde !!!


  2. The difference is really very simple, Larry. One tends to create real value, the other tends to be a complete boondoggle.

    Larry, you are like most leftists. You like moral equivalence arguments. It’s either all or none for you. More nuanced positions you simply can’t abide. You want to paint with the broadest possible brush, just like your arguments on the Metro/public trans situation. Obviously, government has to have some role, just not to the extent you want it.

  3. Good Gawd Crazy.

    there’s massive confusion here between what moral equivalence is and outright hypocrisy.

    It’s hypocrisy to pick and choose – on an arbitrary basis what role one thinks govt should be involved in – where there is no real consistency in criteria.

    My original statement stands. Most Conservatives – would not support Govt doing the things most City Govt does like parks and trails and “walkability” – and the proof of that is looking at what non-city suburban and rural Conservative govt supports – and it ain’t what city govt supports.

    those who align themselves with Conservative philosophy these days have no problem castigating the govt role in all manner of things from healthcare to education – and of late – in Virginia – transit – both the METRO variety in NoVa and the BRT variety in Richmond and the light rail variety in Va Beach!

    Can’t have it both ways Crazy. If you hate those leftists tax and spend goodies – you gotta be consistent.. in that hate.. when you wobble – that’s worse than moral equivalence!

    • LarrytheG,

      I seem to recall a lot of what you are saying. Take a trip down memory lane all the way back to that ancient age of the 1990s. That’s when urban theorists and planners started to really buy into the idea of trails as defining features of areas.

      The right wingers screamed about “waste”….as they always do. I was in Roanoke when the Greenway was getting off the ground and the usual suspects were throwing out their same old, same old: boondoggle, waste, etc.

      It amuses me to see so many right wingers now embrace trails (though they’re still spewing poison in Chesterfield from what I read).

      There are a number of books about the right wing psychosis when it comes to local government.

      If you want a great read on “waste” and “privatization” and “vouchers” at the local level (including the obsession over trails) and how it all relates back to white racism which turned into contemporary Southern conservatism, here is a book for you:

  4. “Beauty and the Bacon”

    Could be a Broadway musical by Disney!!!!

  5. I can smell that pork sizzling from here, listening to LarryG talk about how JB is “a regular Jekyll and Hyde.”

    But thank you, Jim, this “Low Line” discussion is fascinating! New York City’s indulgence in urban revival through recycling steel structures as a framework for growing things is spawning all sorts of imitators, and deservedly so. My daughter just moved back here from Brooklyn and she really championed that project while she was there. Why shouldn’t Richmond do likewise? We have missed opportunities in the past. Do you remember the old Richmond to Ashland viaduct that ran across Shockoe Bottom from Brook Road to the railroad’s terminal building at Broad and Laurel? It used to be called “The Dinosaur.” Imagine what a High Line garden built on that structure, in that location close VCU, would be like today. But it was torn down in the 70s as a disgraceful industrial relic.

    The old C&O viaduct has an interesting history. Collis Huntington, the railroad magnate, assembled the C&O railroad in the 1870s to connect the Ohio River at what became Huntington with the James at Richmond, a venture long envisioned via the JR&K Canal beginning in the 1820s. But the Richmond City Dock was no place to unload and ship trainloads of coal. Huntington built coal piers in Newport News as well as a rail ferry to take coal cars across to Norfolk, and built a railroad up the Peninsula to Richmond to connect up Shockoe Creek to the C&O. He cut a tunnel under Church Hill to bypass the old City port. Then his plans changed: in 1888 he bought out a competitor, the Richmond & Allegheny RR, which Major Dooley (of Maymont and Richmond Library fame) had built along the towpath of the JR&K Canal after the canal ceased operations due to flood damage in 1877 and he bought it. Dooley’s railroad followed the James River, and thus had a better grade to Clifton Forge than the C&O line through Charlottesville, but it terminated at the old JR&KC Basin. So Huntington set out to extend the James River line to connect to his Peninsula line. This took most of the 1890s; the final viaduct connection, completed in 1901, followed the River all the way past Church Hill to Fulton. This is how today’s “Low Line” viaduct came to be.

    Along with the main viaduct for coal traffic, an elevated spur was built north along Shockoe Creek past where the old Church Hill tunnel began; with this connection the tunnel was abandoned. In the middle of this spur, Huntington built Main Street Station to replace the old terminus of the James River line as well as his own line to Charlottesville. In the 1920s the C&O attemped to reopen the tunnel so that freight traffic coming to/from Charlottesville could bypass Main Street Station, but the tunnel collapsed during the construction effort to reopen it. For more read:

    Meanwhile, the old Canal Basin and the locks connecting it to the “Great Shiplock” at the tidewater end of the JR&KC remained, ready for potential restoration as part of Richmond’s own “riverwalk” until the 1970s. But certain people wanted several office buildings and the Downtown Connector built close to Main St. more than they valued the unrealized potential of an urban water park, so all that was bulldozed. How times change! The old “Great Basin” lay between 8th and 11th, Cary and Canal Streets, with the original Gallego Mills at the end of the Basin between 11th and 12th Sts. Here’s a nice picture of it. Canal Boats could exit the Basin in a short lateral under Canal St. over to five high granite locks (all would be located underneath the Downtown Expressway today), that lowered boats down to the level of the Shiplock, to where the canal now dead-ends near Pipeline Rapids Overlook (a location LarryG can relate to even if it’s City-owned!).

    One of the interesting details about the C&O viaduct is that most of its down-river portion was built on four-column steel piers, so that it straddled Dock Street and cars drove under it, but up-river each pier has cross-braces close to the ground (probably to save steel), as clearly shown in the picture you included. Today, those cross braces make it difficult to create a bike-trail directly underneath the viaduct. I look forward to seeing how they have designed the new park and bike trail and plantings.

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