Guest Comment: “Moaning about losing a great view won’t solve anything”

The view from the deck of Legend Brewing would be affected by a proposed high-rise apartment building. (BizSense File Photos)

I can’t remember any other news that the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran on its front page one day recently, but a three-column headline caught my eye: “Manchester Skyscraper Project Could Block View of the city skyline.

Damn, stop the presses.

In Manchester, the folks at Legend Brewing Co., which operate a dining hall and outdoor patio at 321 W. Seventh St., are understandably concerned. A 350-unit skyscraper is proposed for the block across the street at 301 W. Sixth St. It would block out most of the iconic downtown skyline view that has made the brewery a destination. Ellen Robertson, the councilwoman who represents the ward, reportedly said the proposed project, by developer Avery Hall Investments, will not be approved until ward stakeholders have a say.

Legend, which opened in 1994 as a small operation in Manchester when the area looked something like the set of a Mad Max movie, has long been the only restaurant on the south side with a panoramic view of the city center at Church Hill. The plain, salt-treated wooden deck extends north from its dining room along a slight ridge parallel to the tracks of the Norfolk Southern Railroad and a stretch of the Manchester flood wall. It’s a multi-generational destination where the pub grub is dampened by the gorgeous views and occasional live music.

The problem is that Legend doesn’t have the popular view. And years ago the brewery could not have foreseen the rapid pace of change in Manchester. But anyone who hasn’t been under a rock in the last few years knows that the neighborhood has witnessed a tsunami of apartment construction. Legend may be the oldest craft brewery in the state, but its current urban surroundings are almost unrecognizable from what they were in the 90s. The city of Richmond has no code or restrictions of design that regulate the height of buildings along the river or setbacks. Some ancient city planners advocated a gradual increase in the height of buildings, moving away from the water. Other planners cite the practical complexity of designing and applying such an aesthetic approach. And it’s no secret that instead of placing lower structures closest to the river and ever higher structures behind them, the American way is to maximize (and monetize) the view you have while you can.

When the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank built its glittering tower by architect Minoru Yamasaki in 1978, it pushed its gleaning pit near the edge of the James River. And isn’t Co-Star showing strength by threatening to build an even taller building nearby? In Manchester, one of the newest and tallest apartment buildings is the South Falls Tower, designed by Walter Parks Architects, a clean-looking complex at 111 Hull St. built flush with the flood wall.

Sure, there’s moolah in the sky, and in many cities, great views from residential and office towers can drive up rents by 25%. Some cities even tax great views. And yes, someone measures these things. According to the Lawn Love website, Honolulu offers the best views of the city, with Atlanta and San Francisco ranking second and third, respectively.

The legend’s apprehensions about the proposed giant to the north also reflect a general reluctance by people in the surrounding area to embrace the current rapid pace of apartment building.

“We are becoming like Northern Virginia,” is a frequently heard lament. And when a laid-back institution like Legend loses a beloved and gorgeous, no one is happy.

Richmond developers are trying to maximize the profit they can get from buildings with a view.

I recently stopped at the Legend Bridge at dusk. Clear skies illuminated the financial district across the river. In the gradually fading daylight, the parabolic concrete arches under Manchester Bridge put on their own reflected light show. I then swung my chair 180 degrees away from the view of the train tracks, flood wall, and The View as I looked west toward Seventh Street.

It has become a critical thoroughfare in the area as it is the only cross street that runs completely through the industrial south of Manchester, from Semmes Avenue to Hull Street and beyond. Diagonally across Seventh Street from Legend, a massive 255-unit, 14-story apartment complex under construction at 700 W. Seventh St. has taken shape.

Looking through the willow oaks past the Legend car park and up McDonough Street and across Commerce Road, a new view emerges. The residential terraces of Manchester, the Link apartments and the UPS Freight building are seen merging to form a solid urban wall. North of Legend, a block of new townhouses named McCrae & Lacy, an architecturally disappointing housing block, bookends to the brewery. It’s starting to look like a real city over there.

Legend management and even newer settlers feel they are losing things, like a beloved sight. But what do they gain? Well, hundreds of new resident neighbors, potential customers and others who will write the next chapter of the neighborhood.

The legend is expected to embrace the new residents, many of whom will stroll to the pub and not need to park. How about sprucing up the secondary Legends patio that faces Seventh Street so it doesn’t look like another fringe roadside attraction, but something that elevates the scene?

Why not challenge the city to create new and improved sidewalks and landscaping? Let’s widen the narrow streets that lead to the proposed 350 apartment structure on Sixth Street and make sure emergency equipment has access. Consider that the proposed site for Sixth Street apartments will be located in the mother of all cul-de-sacs.

Moving a few blocks south, what will be the overall impact of increased population density on the comfort levels of those who live, visit or work in Manchester? Hull Street desperately needs more traffic lights and markings at pedestrian crossings.

What about parks and public recreation places, even small ones? Launch the development of Bridgepark, the ambitious plan to create a linear greenway through Manchester along Commerce Road and over the Manchester Bridge and beyond.

And what about the narrow one-way streets of Manchester? Issues of lack of affordable housing, groceries and housing for those who have no place to live should also be addressed.

The legend knows its territory of origin. It’s been on Seventh Street for a long time. He can show good will, leadership and sharp vision to go beyond his size by asking the right questions. With serious and pressing issues surrounding Manchester’s rapid growth unresolved, complaining about the potential loss of a magnificent sight won’t solve anything. Try this: Ask the developer, Avery Hall, to design Legend a terrace in the new complex and, in case of bad weather, a room with a view.

About Justin Howze

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