By: Mike Waldron
It’s a scene Richmonders know and love: early October. Falling temperatures provide anticipated relief from summers scorching rays, flora and fauna speak to seasonal transition converting foliage from a ubiquitous green to bright hues of orange and red, and attending outside events becomes something less of a burden. Fall is folk in the commonwealth’s capital and few events draw more people to the downtown riverfront than the annual Richmond Folk Festival.But recent events may place this unofficial seasonal staple in jeopardy leaving thousands with fall fever unfulfilled in their desired folk music rituals. And it all revolves around the relocation of the festival’s main stage.
Venture Richmond, a nonprofit downtown development and marketing organization responsible for the Folk Festival, has leased the property on which the Altria Main Stage has lived for the past nine years from NewMarket Corp. That lease is up this year and Venture Richmond no longer has the authority to house this venue in future festivals. As any festival attendee knows this stage is the event’s largest serving over 10,000 people.
“This festival generates over 200,000 people over a three day period. We need every square inch of property we can come up with to accommodate a crowd of this size and unless we have enough space we can’t in good conscious invite them to the festival,” said Venture Richmond’s Executive Director Jack Berry.
And with limited riverfront space Venture Richmond is left with few options for relocation, a task Berry says is imperative to the festival’s continuance.
The solution? Venture Richmond plans to move the main stage of the festival to the Tredagar Green location, which straddles the James River and Kanawha Canal on the west side of the second street connector bridge; the current location of the festival’s Community Enrichment Stage. The location, featuring a natural amphitheater slope, “is the only site to house this crowd,” said Berry.
Sounds ideal to festival attendees but to the neighboring community Venture Richmond’s plan to construct and own such a large amphitheater presents issues.
Charles Pool, a long standing Oregon Hill resident and historian, questions the amphitheater’s merit in relation to the canal.
“For some reason [Venture Richmond] decided that the canal needs to be sliced and [altered] in order to improve sight lines for the amphitheater,” said Pool.
The canal, which dates to 1785, was used in its heyday as a route for boats to get around the fall of the James in both upstream and downstream traffic. An engineering feat, overlooked by the nation’s first president, played a notable role in the city’s industrial prowess throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries.
In Pool’s eyes the rarity of the canal and the role it played in the nation’s history trump Venture Richmond’s whimsical plans.
“Of course there are no shortages of amphitheaters in Richmond but there are only a handful of canals that date to the 18th century in the United States,” said Pool.
Because large venues draw large crowds Oregon Hill resident and former Neighborhood Association President Scott Burger worries about the saturation of both and the effects such a venue may have on the neighborhood.
“I think the way they’re going about it is wrong…I’m concerned about the amount of use the theater will get and the noise and crowds that may affect the neighborhood,” said Burger.
The noise issues run deep in the Oregon Hill community. But also does an appreciation of the Folk Festival. Jack Berry of Venture Richmond explains:
Berry hopes to rezone the property in order to break their current allowance of four uses per year yet insists that the, “sound may be louder in the future but not significantly louder because of the location of the stage at the bottom of a hill.”
The proposed site sits at the bottom of the hill between Second Street and Tredegar Street below the Virginia War Memorial and the Oregon Hill Overlook, bisected by the Kanawha Canal. The need to accommodate up to 10,000 people results in Venture Richmond’s proposal to alter the Kanawha Canal in order to host individuals in what Berry calls the “upper terrace,” or the area north of the canal.
Burger, however, stresses there’s something greater at work here.
“It’s my personal opinion that this is part of an overall plan to chip away at the neighborhood,”said Burger.
Burger references the development of the Dominion Power HR office to the neighborhood’s south, and the deconstruction of the neighborhood to the east (on the proposed land).
Burger feels the noise and Venture Richmond’s ability to lease this land once they own it could inundate the neighborhood with noise and crowds.
“The overall problem is having this type of riverfront activity so close to the neighborhood. I don’t think Venture Richmond has been very honest in the way they’ve promoted this and I think there’s a way around it,” said Burger.
A compromise was put forth recently by the editorial staff of the Richmond Times Dispatch and is supported by members of the neighborhood.
The compromise, as outlined in the editorial, would keep the area south of the canal, zoned M1 Industrial, as the site of the amphitheater while leaving the area north of the canal, zoned RO3 Residential, vacant.
“[This compromise] would keep the canal intact and make it possible for the amphitheater to be turned away from the neighborhood and the memorial since the noise wouldn’t have to be projected above the canal,” asserted Pool.
The idea is encouraged by the Oregon Hill community but Berry believes noise wouldn’t be an issue due to the geography of the site.
“We took [sound] readings during the Folk Festival in Oregon Hill and what we found was the sound coming from this stage was no greater that the sound of traffic on Belvidere Street,” Berry said. “In fact,” he continued, “When cars went by on Belvidere you couldn’t hear the amphitheater at all.”
Noise remains an issue though, enough of one in fact to convince Delegate Rich Anderson of the state’s 51st district to write a letter voicing his opinion against the proposal prior to its presentation to the city’s Planning Commission last September. His concern revolves around site’s proximity to the war memorial.
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“The noise and parking congestion from the proposed amphitheater would adversely impact the solemnity and dignity of the Virginia War Memorial,” and as a retired military officer Delegate Anderson, “urges reconsideration of the proposed location.”
Many elements are at play here. For Pool his greatest concern lies in the project’s esteem.
“It’s a matter of respect. Venture Richmond is not respecting Oregon Hill with the parking and noise or the historic resource of the canal,” said Pool.
Venture Richmond has more state and federal reviews and approvals in order before breaking any ground on this proposal and Berry remains hopeful that given municipal approval the project will be something everyone can support including the Oregon Hill neighborhood.
“We’re going to make this project an amenity for the neighborhood not a detriment,” said Berry.
If not, thousands of Richmond residents may have to look elsewhere to celebrate their fall traditions.