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Bank Street Blues
By Stephen J. Rossie

Square2017 imageRICHMOND, VA – The large barricades and Capitol Police outpost still seal off the east and west blocks of Bank Street and the northern most block of 10th street, just south of Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol. The contrived pedestrian pathway to the capitol, which created a mall of sorts for foot traffic, and connected the Pocahontas Building — the new, but temporary, legislative nerve center — to Capitol Square, was put in place in December in advance of the 2018 legislative session.

It’s a surreal feeling to walk about a ghost town-appearing city street with a lawmaker talking about a bill, a committee or policy as traffic on adjacent avenues whiz by. The newly restored, historic Commonwealth Hotel, sits isolated. But safety is no longer the problem as when the city of Richmond governs the intersection, where only two yield signs — below a driver’s sight line — stand, and which are not seen or just ignored.

About 50 years ago the state solved a similar problem simply by buying what was then Capitol Street from the city. It was two blocks long but a key east-west downtown connector, between the General Assembly Building and the centuries old iron gates of Capitol Square, and connected 9th Street to Governor’s Street.

The commonwealth created a beautifully landscaped brick and grass walkway, with a period street clock and other touches, and named it Darden Mall for the late former Governor Colgate Darden. This way, legislators didn’t have to wait for traffic signals to cross the street on their way from the GAB to the capitol.

That not being convenient enough, about 12 years ago they floated the idea of recasting the tunnel system that runs beneath Capitol Square into a members only pathway to and from the capitol. The iron gates were 18th-century safety, erected to keep out wild animals in still-rural Richmond. The tunnel would have been legislative safety, further isolating the people’s representatives from the people designated to pay for it.

Meanwhile, the dismantling of the GAB proceeds, slow as she goes, because of asbestos removal and the like. Stripped down to a skeleton of metal beams, the four buildings, stitched together as one, stand revealed. The façade of one, a grand 1912 bank, remains (although another old building behind it, fronting Broad Street, is coming down) and will be preserved to front the new, grand 15-floor GAB. Standing alone, its distinguished details now ornately pop, contrasting to the remains of the other buildings.

Just a year ago, its demolition commenced with a sale of everything in the building that could be removed, from office placards to bathroom fixtures. Scores of people with any connection to the building flocked to it to scavenge a memory or more. Now, rumors persist that the grand new building’s design is to accommodate an eventual full time legislature.

The Bank Street barricades were scheduled to come down sometime in the spring so that traffic, including the domino effect detours on blocks of surrounding streets could return to normal. They were to come down after the session, then the special session. But as with any new government initiative, their dismantling is in question.


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