A proposed new amphitheater for the Richmond Folk Festival ran aground in its first voyage at City Hall, where a deadlocked advisory committee offered no recommendation to the Richmond Planning Commission.
The 4-4 vote by the Urban Design Committee on Thursday killed a motion to recommend approval of the conceptual plan submitted by Venture Richmond to establish the Tredegar Green amphitheater on 4.5 acres of scenic and historic James River waterfront.
The divided vote reflected concern over how best to preserve the historic James River and Kanawha Canal as it bisects the property, and strong opposition from neighboring Oregon Hill over the lack of limits on the number of events, noise and hours at the amphitheater or provisions for parking.
Committee member Giles Harnsberger, one of four no votes, commended Venture Richmond for its efforts to preserve the canal, but advised the nonprofit organization to “spend more time with residents” trying to allay their concerns.
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“This isn’t just about the folk festival,” said Oregon Hill resident Caroline Cox. “It’s about neighbors and how they treat each other.”
The vote stunned Venture Richmond Executive Director Jack Berry, who told his executive committee later that approval of the amphitheater is essential to the future of the folk festival, which will have to move its main stage from property of NewMarket Corp. after the ninth year of the popular three-day event next month.
“We will do everything we can to save the Richmond Folk Festival,” Berry said in a memorandum to the Venture Richmond executive committee.
Oregon Hill civic leaders and canal preservationists say the main stage would work better on Brown’s Island, which is more capable of handling the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people that typically attend the festival’s biggest shows.
But Berry said Brown’s Island is reserved for the two tent-covered stages, which he said could not be moved to the slope proposed for the amphitheater. The festival draws up to 200,000 people to multiple stages over three days.
“We just need every square inch because so many people are coming,” he said.
The committee vote was the first of many regulatory reviews for the project, which will require rezoning or a special-use permit on all or part of the property, with review by the Planning Commission and City Council.
It also will require an estimated six-month review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in consultation with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, over a permit to fill a portion of the canal wetlands to make its slopes less dangerous to spectators.
The final conceptual plan will return to the design committee if the preliminary plan is approved by the Planning Commission despite the vote on Thursday.
Doug Cole, a member of both the Planning Commission and design committee, voted against the proposal because of concern about potentially damaging the canal so it cannot one day be refilled to carry light tour boats.
“If we make a mistake, we can’t go back,” Cole said.
But city planning staff said the concern isn’t founded in the history of the canal, which was altered significantly by the railroad company that took it over and ceased its use for navigating cargo around the falls of the James in 1877.
Planner T. Tyler Potterfield said the Venture Richmond plan would remove railroad tracks and soil that had been put directly on top of the canal towpath without reducing the historical height and width of the embankment that is critical to holding enough water to carry boats again.
“The proposal leaves that window open for that to occur at some future date,” Potterfield said.
Berry said Venture Richmond would prefer water in the canal and its transformation as a historical tourist attraction, but said that would require significant engineering as well as corps approval to destroy wetlands that have taken over dammed sections of the structure.
“We would love to join forces with the canal advocates to get water all the way to Maymont (Park),” he said. “We’d love to run boats on it as well.”
But critics questioned whether that could happen if Venture Richmond reduces the height and width of the towpath, which the organization contends historically was 83 feet above sea level and 12 feet wide. Currently, the towpath is about 25 feet wide and up to 84.5 feet above sea level.
Oregon Hill resident Charles Pool cited surveys that show the water level historically had been at 83 feet above sea level with 2 feet of separation from the top of the towpath. Venture Richmond and city planners say the water level typically was 81 feet.
John W. Pearsall III, a Richmond lawyer and member of the Historic Richmond Foundation committee that recommended restoration of the more than 200-year-old canal system in 1988, said the water level must be no less than 82 feet above sea level for boats to float above a large utility pipe in the canal bed west of the Lee Bridge.
Reducing the towpath to 83 feet is “cutting it pretty close,” said Pearsall, who said the project would have to “be drawn to that standard or not at all.”
But the question of historical authenticity also raised concerns about what period of history would be preserved — the canal as a major transportation artery, its use as a water supply and off-loading area for mills and factories along the riverfront, or as the embankment for the railroad that took it over in the late 19th century.
“This is a heavily altered canal resource,” said Potterfield, whose historical analysis was confirmed by Gregg T. Kimbell, a historian at the Library of Virginia, in an email this week.
Cole favors the amphitheater but not further alterations to the canal.
“I feel like it’s the amphitheater dictating the design of the canal,” he said. “I think it should be the canal dictating the design of the amphitheater.”