Thinking Big: a “Park in the Sky” over the James River

New York’s High Line park

Two weeks ago Ella Kelley and Mike Hughes ran a brief op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch highlighting their idea for building a “park in the sky” across the James River. Inspired by the success of New York City’s High Line bridge project (pictured above), which converted a 1.45-mile stretch of railroad line slated for demolition into an elevated park, they painted a word picture of “a lush green park suspended over the James River … the first bridge of its kind.”

The response was phenomenal, says a public affairs consultant who briefed me on the project this morning. The Richmond BridgePark Foundation has received some 400 emails, telephone calls and other contacts — despite the fact that it has yet to unveil a concrete proposal. “Ninety-nine point eight percent were positive,” says my source, who preferred not to be identified until the foundation firmed up its leadership roster. Many people, he says, have asked how they can help make the idea a reality.

The idea took root as a proposal to convert the old Huguenot Bridge into a river park. “Everybody loved the idea,” the consultant says, “but we were two months away from the bridge getting knocked down. We were nine years too late on that conversation.”

But the idea didn’t die. Supporters of the bridge-park idea started looking for another location — and they found one. The current plan calls for a more central location that will tie into other urban assets along the river and be accessible to far more people. The foundation hopes to unveil a concrete proposal within a month.

Manhattan’s High Line has emerged as a major tourist attraction. It drew 3.7 million visitors in 2011, only half of whom were locals. Backers of the project view Richmond’s bridge-park not only as a world-class recreational facility but a magnet that could draw visitors downtown and stimulate economic development.

What I like about the idea is that it builds upon one of the city’s great strengths, its river. I’ve seen lots of rivers in lots of cities, and let me be blunt: The rivers themselves (not the riverbanks, but the rivers) all look the same. Each one is a flat ribbon of gray-green water. The James River is alive, spotted with islands, trees and foaming whitewater, and teeming with wildlife.

New York’s High Line is a brilliant project, turning an eyesore into an incredible asset — a canyon of green running through mid-rises and high-rises. Think of how spectacular a park in the sky would be if it provided bikers and pedestrians access to views from the middle of the James! I await further developments on this project with great anticipation.


To find out more about how New York’s High Line came to be, watch this brief TED presentation.

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  1. I’ve paddled a few rivers in my life and seen a bunch more (in the US and Canada) and there are few real cities where there is real whitewater flowing through the city.

    The James through Richmond is not unique but it’s on a short list of whitewater rivers actually going through a city and it is an asset.

    Columbia, SC has a similar river (actually 2) and they are busy developing both banks… their whitewater is relatively mild at normal levels whereas the James whitewater from Reedy Creek down is not for those who are not experienced.

    To get a close up view, go to Belle Island on the suspended walkway …and make yourself to the head of the island then down the north side … That Rapid is called “Hollywood” for the cemetery off in the distance on the North shore. The rapid washes directly into a pile of rocks. people have gone swimming upstream and got washed into it.

    but I digress…. The James, along with hiking/biking trails and other accouterments such as Shockoe Slip would (I think) could compete well against some other young outdoor folks urban venues. Better than NoVa because housing is cheaper and congestion a shadow of NoVa’s hell hole.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Go to San Antonio. See the River Walk. The “river” is about two feet wide. You don’t need to build a bridge to have a park. Just build a park.

    1. I’ve been to River Walk and found it to be a magical place — truly one of the neatest places I’ve ever visited. It will decade Richmond’s canal decades to achieve what San Antonio’s has achieved, but it’s something to aspire to.

      But the bridge-park idea is really cool. I’ll provide details when the Foundation is ready to go public.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        OK. But, as I understand your post, the bridge will be built in order to make a bridge – park, right? That seems a bit much. Wasn’t the bridge in NY already there?

        1. I see what you’re saying. All I can say now is that all will be revealed.

  3. Been to River Walk also … and …. it’s a neat place but the water is less than wonderful looking…. and I found it to be more of a stroll and shop place than something like the James bridge-park would be.

    so the real test of River Walk in San Antonio is this. Would you book a flight to just re-visit it?

    Not me. It was a place to go look at while there for another reason.

  4. Potomac Clubber Avatar
    Potomac Clubber

    My boss sent to NYC last year for a day and I stumbled upon the High Line park. It’s probably the coolest park I’ve ever seen. Yes I know that being in the Meat District of Manhattan next to the Hudson river with views of the statue of liberty doesn’t hurt, but it was still an awesome park.

  5. Easy on the “we can be the next high line” schtick. It’s just as rote as the “we can be the next River Walk” thing that came out right after San Antonio built theirs.

    The High Line, while an interesting project no doubt, is unique because the dense population that surrounds it AND the lack of additional public park land anywhere in the vicinity of those neighborhoods. Once you get up on the High Line, you realize quickly that it isn’t so much a park in the mold of Central or Prospect, but rather is a nicely landscaped sidewalk. A very expensive nicely landscaped sidewalk whose operating budget alone dwarfs the operating budget for any state park in Virginia.

    Richmond is already blessed with a world class park that New York City, no matter how much money it spent, could never recreate. The James River corridor is phenomenal. The MTB trails planned for Belle Island will be exceptional. Follow Ralph White – execute a high quality James River Park on either side of the river. Connect it with bridges, but don’t think that the connective tissue is the park. Richmond doesn’t have to think small like NYC did with the High Line.

  6. he’s basically right IMHO.

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