The Richmond Planning Commission unanimously endorsed the concept of a “natural amphitheater” on the James River waterfront on Monday, but members warned they may want restrictions on its use in any future rezoning of the property.
The commission voted 7-0, with two members absent, after more than two hours of impassioned public debate, particularly over the future of the historic James River and Kanawha Canal as it traverses the 4½-acre property on Tredegar Street.
“It’s a very narrow decision,” Chairman Rodney Poole told the overflow audience at the outset of the debate over whether the conceptual plan proposed by Venture Richmond is appropriate for the downtown riverfront.
While opponents of the project decried potential damage to the more than 200-year-old canal, commissioners said the proposal offered an opportunity to restore a neglected, weed-choked remnant of the city’s once-vibrant river transit system around the falls of the James.
“For the first time in 25 years, this is an actual positive action that will help reveal the canal and restore the canal for the public,” said Commissioner David Johannas, who warned, however, that his support of the amphitheater proposal did not extend to its unrestricted operation.
Venture Richmond wants to lower the canal towpath from 84.5 feet above sea level to 83 feet, while narrowing its width from 25 to 12 feet, which the organization and city planners called its historical dimensions.
Gregg D. Kimball, a historian at the Library of Virginia, agreed that the Venture Richmond proposal would not violate its historical authenticity.
“I think it’s right on the history,” Kimball said.
Canal preservation advocates voiced mixed opinions on whether the plan to alter the canal slopes would allow its eventual restoration as a waterway, but they challenged the necessity for any change at all to the canal towpath and banks to improve spectator views of the amphitheater stage.
They said the views could be improved simply by raising the stage or the ground above the canal without any alteration of its current dimensions.
“Why are we going through any of this?” asked John W. Pearsall III, who served on the Historic Richmond Foundation committee that recommended restoration of the canal system in 1988. “It’s a manufactured dilemma.”
Berry called the proposal “a natural amphitheater,” with no permanent stage or seating, between Tredegar and South Second streets along Brown’s Island Way, the new connector road between the streets.
“We’re talking about a grassy slope,” he said.
The proposal drew intense public interest, with 85 letters of support and 47 in opposition, and competing interpretations of the historical dimensions of the canal during its heyday in the mid-19th century.
And the debate is far from over.
The final design plan for the project will have to return to the Urban Design Committee, which deadlocked with no recommendation two weeks ago, and Planning Commission.
Venture Richmond plans to apply next week to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to fill some of the seasonal wetlands in the canal to make its slopes less hazardous to spectators. The expected six-month review will include a detailed analysis by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.
The Planning Commission included as a condition that any fill of the canal be reversible so the structure could be restored, and required that city inspectors oversee grading to ensure the canal isn’t altered beyond what has been proposed.
The property also will require rezoning or a special-use permit to be used as an amphitheater more than four times a year, which prompted City Councilman Parker C. Agelasto and some Oregon Hill residents to question whether the zoning should have come first.
Venture Richmond said it intends to seek rezoning of the property but doesn’t want to agree to limitations or conditions on the proposed amphitheater until then.
Oregon Hill civic groups say they cannot agree to the amphitheater without limitations on the number of events that can be staged there, the hours of operation, noise level, and plans to handle parking and traffic.
“The impacts are real and a present threat to our property values,” said former Richmond School Board member Maurice Henderson, who lives in the Overlook condominiums at the south end of Oregon Hill.
The Overlook Unit Owners Association and Oregon Hill Association expressed concern about an amphitheater without use restrictions. The Overlook board of directors proposed limiting the amphitheater’s use to 15 events a year, ending no later than 10 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Jennifer Hancock, president of the Oregon Hill Association, also questioned whether the amphitheater is necessary for the survival of the folk festival.
“Venture Richmond is using the threat of losing the Richmond Folk Festival as a stick to beat the residents to accept a plan that many of us have serious reservations about,” Hancock said.
But supporters applauded Venture Richmond for a plan that they said would help the folk festival handle big crowds and open the door to restoration of the canal as a working waterway.
“I feel this goes beyond preservation and into restoration,” said Jim Wark, chairman of the folk festival programming committee.
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