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James River Park System under threat as visitation traffic increases, supporters say

James River Park System under threat as visitation traffic increases, supporters say

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For the first time in almost 50 years, a new master plan may be in the works for the James River Park System.

The Friends of James River Park are raising $250,000 for a 10-year master plan aimed at preparing for the future and protecting the surrounding wilderness.

The James River Park System hasn’t had a master plan since the late 1960s.

“It’s very important that as the city continues to grow, as visitation to the park continues to grow, we have plans in place to ensure the long-time viability of the park,” said Nathan Burrell, superintendent of James River Park.

The James River Park system has grown exponentially over the years. Last year, it saw almost 1.8 million visitors, up from 1.4 million in 2016. The park system and the river have garnered national attention in the past few years, helping land Richmond on several “best city” lists from Lonely Planet and Outside Magazine.

With that attention and increased use comes a need to preserve and conserve the park, the Friends group said.

“James River Park is one of the crown jewels of the region. People use it every day,” said Katherine Mitchell, chair of the master plan committee for the Friends.

There is a conservation easement on the James River Park System, which helps protect it, but which also means there’s a small amount of development that is allowed to happen in the park system.

“We have to think about the best use of that development, just to sustain and maintain this asset,” Mitchell said.

The budget for the park, owned by the city of Richmond, is $241,000, which doesn’t include the full-time staff of nine.

“The major source of funding for the park is the city of Richmond, which is already stressed. The James River Park doesn’t come up when you have issues of schools and general safety,” Mitchell said. “We need a plan so that we can prioritize things. We need a vision that everybody buys into for public and private funding, so that this park stays protected, strong, vibrant and accessible to everyone.”

Roughly 60 percent of the park’s almost 1.8 million visitors last year were from outside the city. But the city is solely responsible for the park’s funding.

“It would be very appropriate to be like a Maymont-type entity,” Burrell said. “I would love to see the park function as the regional asset that it truly is with regional input.”

When the park started in 1972, it was 200 acres. It has grown to 600 acres, stretching from the Huguenot Flatwater to Ancarrow’s Landing.

According to an economic study of the park conducted by VCU last year, the James River Park has the potential to generate $33.6 million per year in visitor spending.

“A master plan has been needed for years. It’s long overdue,” said Greg Velzy, a member of the Friends group. “We’re realizing how precarious the James River Park System is, and now there’s such an influx of visitors, it’s threatened to be lost.”

Once the money for the master plan is raised, which is expected to be completed by the fall, it will be developed by Hargreaves Associates, the group that created the downtown riverfront plan, and VHB, a land development group that helped work on the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge.

The master plan will include input from general park users and interest groups. Built into the process are community meetings in each of the nine districts in the city, as well as two general public meetings, according to the proposal.

Burrell said that this will be a “community-vetted plan, owned by the community and supported by the city of Richmond.”

Burrell said the first master plan for the James River Park was very different from the “urban wilderness” that the park is today.

The first master plans for the park emphasized man-made features.

For instance, Belle Isle would have had a space needle, revolving restaurants and a monorail. The plan called for concrete shorelines and concrete paths. None of that happened for two reasons, Burrell said.

The first was an underestimation of the power of the James.

“A lot of the original infrastructure washed away,” he said. The remnants of landing pads can be found near the Reedy Creek headquarters. “There used to be the ability to draw yourself across the river via a rope and dinghy. That was quickly washed away.”

The second reason those plans weren’t enacted was a recession, Burrell said. In the 1980s, the park’s staff dropped from 15 to one person: Ralph White, the former park manager.

“It was a blessing in a way. Now we have this wonderful wilderness asset in the middle of our city,” Burrell said.

The other positive, Burrell said, was that the community “stepped up to the plate and took ownership of this park. The community put in the sweat equity. They worked on the trails and built better access points. If there was something that needed to be done in the park, they did it.”

Last year, more than 7,000 volunteer hours were put into the park.

The Friends of James River Park isn’t the only volunteer group that helps support and maintain the park. The park system has many groups and “friends” that help support it such as the James River Outdoor Coalition, the James River Advisory Council, Sports Backers and others.

“Nathan has a lot of people coming at him,” Mitchell said. “A master plan will be a helpful tool so that he can say, ‘Yes we’ll do that, but not in Year 1, in Year 8.’ It will help him prioritize. It will be a tool to manage park resources and to obtain the resources needed.”

Priorities for the park are many, Burrell said, including regular park maintenance that includes invasive species management, climbing wall management, expanded park programs, repairs to trail bridges and structures, bike park maintenance and development. Also needed are major infrastructure repairs to towers and the suspension bridge to Belle Isle.

As for new initiatives for the park, Burrell said his biggest priorities are habitat restoration, expansion of the park’s conservation easement and park access for underserved communities.

He said the current parking lots are overwhelmed but increased parking isn’t allowed because of the conservation easement.

“You can really see the need, the way that people want to access the park. We need to have a plan in place for multi-modal transportation opportunities, whether that’s via bus, bike lanes or greenway. Changing the way that people are able to access the park and make it more equitable. There are some neighborhoods in our city that don’t have access to the park,” Burrell said.

As for the next 20 years, Burrell said he would like to see the Pump House renovated, more river access points, more towers built and an activated canal system. Most important, he said, is maintaining the James River Park as a “wilderness asset.”

“The park is truly moving in the right direction. There is so much pressure on the park to be all things for everybody,” he said. “There needs to be a collective vision for where we’re going. To be the great wet Central Park that it is.”

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Twitter: @collcurran

“A master plan has been needed for years. It’s long overdue,” said Greg Velzy, another member of the Friends group. “We’re realizing how precarious the James River Park System is and now there’s such an influx of visitors, it’s threatened to be lost.”


Colleen Curran covers arts and entertainment for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She writes the weekly column Top Five Weekend Events.

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