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Capitol Designs
By Stephen J. Rossie

Square2017 imageRICHMOND, VA - An unsightly parking lot sits on the southwest corner of Broad and Ninth Streets in downtown Richmond, once occupied by historic buildings. There is a construction sight on the southeast corner where the General Assembly Building once stood and, before the hodgepodge of buildings that were stitched together to create the GAB, was graced by dignified architecture.

That area, now cleared save for a remnant — the façade of a large, ornate, stately 1912 bank — is a construction site where soon a 15-story legislative building will rise. Completion is scheduled for 2022.

In addition to the bank, the other buildings connected to each other included a non-descript mid-century office building that was the headquarters of Life of Virginia (now Genworth) and a WPA-era looking tower that deserved a better effort to preserve at least the lower floor elements.

Out of what appears to be a desolate mess will be a shiny new complex combining the modern with nods to the Capitol Square environs’ courtly past. It’s part of a decades long process of updating the heart of state government operations, that has included renovations, restorations, repurposing and/or expansions to the Governor’s Mansion, Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol and the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Patrick Henry, Barbara Johns, Oliver Hill and Pocahontas buildings (the latter twice), and a new Library of Virginia.

A bond package passed by the General Assembly a few years ago included the funding for the new legislative complex and a future restoration of Old City Hall, a Gothic looking 1890s granite structure the city sold to the state years ago. Capitol Square is an eclectic laboratory for architectural historians. There must be an example of every decade’s design from the 1780s to — soon — the 2020s.

While romantic, and a bit wistful for those who remember the now gone stateliness of previous corner occupants, there are practical and, believe it or not, political concerns as the new construction presses on. That was made clear last week when the state Art and Architectural Review Commission met with the project’s contractors. While the commission previously gave the go-ahead after some modifications to the GAB, it put the brakes on a new parking deck and office building planned on the now empty Ninth Street lot.

Criticisms included its bland appearance, non-existent public parking, lack of commercial space, a desire to use materials reminiscent of earlier periods and salvaged elements and antiques of the old Murphy Hotel, once on that spot, that was used for state offices. The submitted plans call for legislative agency offices and parking for those employees and legislators, with a tunnel connecting to the GAB. It was unclear if the tunnel was solely for lawmakers. (In 2006, the General Assembly planned for a tunnel from the GAB to the capitol until angry public outcry nixed the several million-dollar project.)

Commission members want street level commercial space to spark economic activity in the area — Capitol Square for all your shopping needs — and possibly add a level of parking to accommodate the public, necessary during the busy legislative session when Virginians from Alexandria to Appalachia visit their representatives. It was enough to prompt both chambers’ Rules Committee chairmen, House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Senator Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover County), to issue a statement the next day instructing the chambers’ clerks to ensure pubic parking.

Lack of access, whether parking or cramped subcommittee rooms in spaces designed as corporate conference rooms, with no sound amplification, was a thick layer of opaqueness in the old GAB. The new version should create more access and transparency. The parking remedy and commercial conveniences are astute political moves, too, especially when spending hundreds of millions of dollars of constituents’ money — private tunnel or not.

 





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