Can you imagine the James River Park in five years? What do you see?
More full-loop trails? More parking? Less trash?
The same preserved wilderness in the heart of the city?
In the fall, the Friends of the James River Park released a master plan for the site — the first in over 50 years. This followed a $250,000 fundraising effort, thousands of surveys, years of planning and several meetings with the public. The goal: to preserve, protect and maintain the park for years to come.
“The main message from the surveys was: Don’t let the park change. Keep the wilderness safe. That’s what makes James River Park so unique and treasured,” said Greg Velzy, a member of the volunteer group Friends of James River Park and a longtime advocate for the master plan.
The James River Park was formed in 1972 from 200 acres that were donated to the city of Richmond. It has been expanded to 600 acres, stretching from the Huguenot Flatwater to Ancarrow’s Landing. It’s used for hiking, biking, rock climbing, sunbathing, swimming — you name it. The park is the place to rest, relax and recharge in the city.
In late January, the Richmond City Council approved and adopted the park master plan.
“This is a planning document,” said Bryce Wilk, superintendent for the park. “It’s our guiding document for the next 10 years.”
That doesn’t mean plans can’t change or that new things won’t crop up, but the master plan aims to provide a shared vision.
Here are a few big takeaways from the James River Park master plan. Think of this as a flashcard version.
Highlights from the study of the James River Park
Most popular areas of James River Park
- Belle Isle
- Pony Pasture
- T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge
- Reedy Creek
- Buttermilk and North Bank trail systems
James River Park Visitation
2018: 1.4 million
2019: 1.9 million
Expected in 2020: 2 million
Users of the park
More users of the park are non-Richmond residents, according to a 2012 James River Park System visitor survey.
41.3% of visitors were Richmond residents.
58.7% are non-Richmond residents.
James River Park is funded by the city of Richmond.
Volunteers for the park
The park relies on volunteers to create trails, reduce invasive species, pick up trash and, in general, help keep the park thriving. Nathan Burrell built a “volunteer army” when he was park superintendent.
Total volunteer hours in 2019: 8,000
Total number of volunteers in 2019: 3,078
Goals from the James River Park master plan
Right now, the JRPS has a full-time staff of eight. The master plan calls for a full-time staff of 14 or more.
One survey responder wrote: “With the amount of traffic that this park has annually, they need to double staff in order to keep up with the necessary maintenance.”
Add the “Missing Link” trail
This has been on Richmonders’ wish list for years and years.
The “missing link” will be the connection between Belle Isle and the T. Pot Bridge on the South Side. It’s less than ¾ of a mile, but it’s critical to complete the loop in the James River Park trail system.
“This is a big ask,” Wilk said. “It will cost millions of dollars, but it has a lot of momentum behind it.”
Reedy Creek Welcome Center
Right now, the park doesn’t have an official welcome center. The master plan calls for improvements to the main headquarters at Reedy Creek to turn it into an official welcome center and expanded headquarters for staff.
The existing building at Pony Pasture would also be turned into an Environmental Education Center with additional bathrooms, according to the master plan.
The Pump House
Richmonders love the Pump House.
“The vision is to restore it and use it as a venue space. The park gets requests for it every week. Restoring the Pump House received a pretty high response rate in the surveys,” said Katherine Mitchell, president of the board of the Friends of James River Park.
The Friends of Pump House are currently raising funds and spearheading efforts to restore the Pump House and create a Pump House Park. JRPS is working with the Friends to make that a reality within the 10-year plan.
The estimated cost for the project is $12 million, according to Cassi Patterson, president of the Friends of Pump House. They are hoping to raise the money through public and private funds, as well as through private donors, grants and federal opportunities. The first step in the project is to raise $450,000 for construction designs.
Add dedicated police patrols
Enforce laws against littering, drinking in public and having dogs off leash.
“Our goal is to keep it family friendly and safe for everyone,” Wilk said.
Parking lots are already stressed and overflowing at park entrances.
The master plan doesn’t call for additional parking lots to be built to alleviate parking stressors.
Most of the park system is under conservation easement, and JRPS cannot increase impervious surfaces, i.e., parking lots. Instead, the master plan looks to create more access to the park through shuttles and satellite parking.
The master plan also considers charging parking fees for non-city residents to reduce parking demand and to encourage use of alternative modes of transportation, such as buses, bikes or shuttles.
If you’re wondering what’s up with the parking lot near the footbridge to Belle Isle that’s been closed to public parking for months, it’s currently owned by CSX. Wilk said that JRPS and Venture Richmond are in communications with CSX and hope to lease that lot or buy it.
Maintenance of park structures & bathrooms
Many users want to stabilize and interpret the historic hydroelectric plant and mill on Belle Isle. Restrooms could also be added to the triangle building on Belle Isle.
Many users would also like to see more permanent restroom structures throughout the park, where sewer systems allow, versus port-a-potties, which can detract from the beauty and overall user experience of the park.
Greenway looks as if it’s going to be a big buzz term.
“Greenways are safe ways to travel that are not on the road in a non-vehicular manner,” Wilk explained. For example, the Capital Trail is the “Cadillac of greenways, being a paved, designated space for cyclists and pedestrians. Other greenways can be paths or green spaces that will connect city and county parks. The proposed Reedy Creek Greenway would connect JRPS with Forest Hill Park, for example.
Adding parks and green spaces is also on the agenda for the city.
In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Levar Stoney said, “Most of you probably don’t know this, but 51,000 Richmonders live farther than a 10-minute walk to the park.” He said that in the coming year, Parks and Recreation will identify up to 10 parcels of city-owned land to be converted into green spaces.
The James River Park conservation easement is also expected to be expanded by over 200 acres.
Invasive plant removal
Invasive species are seen as one of the biggest threats to the park, and the invasive plant task force will continue to remove and fight such plants. The task force relies almost entirely on volunteers, but the master plan calls for a new part-time staffer to coordinate efforts to control invasive plants.
All of these projects, obviously, will require funding.
For all of these projects, funding is the key. Besides looking for funding the traditional way, through capital projects or an increase in the operational budget, Wilk said, “We’ll be looking at private donors and grants. No stone will be left unturned.”
These are just a few of the over 60 action items on the master plan. If you want to find out more, dig into the full master plan with the attached PDF or at jamesriverpark.org.
“It’s a very exciting time for the river,” Wilk said. “We haven’t had a master plan in 50 years. I’m really looking forward to the next 10 years, because I do see the possibility of having a lot of this accomplished.”