Open Letter to VMFA: It’s time to give Parsons Plaza back to people

Our comrade Doug Allen over at Richmond in Motion has written an open letter to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts that we would like to share with you. If you agree with his argument about the need to close Parsons Plaza to car traffic, give the @VMFA a nice little tweet or email about it.

To whom it may concern:

To continue working toward its mission of enriching the lives of all by providing Virginians and others access to world-class art, VMFA should permanently close the Mary Morton Parsons Plaza to car traffic. VMFA’s Parsons Plaza, facing Arthur Ashe, Jr. Blvd, is the main entry point and gateway for visitors, and has tremendous potential as a gathering place. However, the presence of cars – picking up, dropping off, and passing through – prevents the Plaza from reaching its full potential. Instead of a place where people gather, relax, and meet-up, it’s a busy thru-way, avoided by most. Walk around the museum grounds on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and observe for yourself; there will be dozens of people enjoying the sculpture garden and almost no people enjoying Parsons Plaza and the other spaces facing Ashe Blvd. Those who are taking in Parsons Plaza are confined to the bicycle parking area – caged in by large blocks to protect them from passing cars.

The arrival of Rumors of War is the perfect opportunity for VMFA to transform Parsons Plaza and give the space back to the people. This incredible piece is guaranteed to attract more people than ever before to the areas along Ashe Blvd. With the current traffic setup, visitors will have to avoid getting hit by passing vehicles while they take in, contemplate, and interpret the largest sculpture acquisition in the history of the VMFA. In addition to providing a safe, comfortable place for people to view Rumors of War, removing cars from Parsons Plaza will unlock the entire portion of the museum adjacent to Ashe Blvd. The current car lanes and pickup and drop off area are an obstacle that separates the museum’s main entrance, Best Café, and sculpture garden from the green space and sculptures along Ashe Blvd.

Concerns would be raised about funneling all parking traffic through the Sheppard St entrance and exit. There are several responses to this concern, including working with the Virginia Museum of History & Culture to route some traffic to Kensington Ave during times of heavy ingress and egress. Concerns about pickup and drop off areas can be addressed by designating the area fronting Ashe Blvd for curbside pickup and drop off and designating an area near the current disabled parking for certain pickup and drop off. Parking is currently not allowed in front of VMFA on Ashe Blvd due to the curb cuts, so this could be done without losing any street parking.

Permanently removing cars from Parsons Plaza would provide a massive long-term benefit to VMFA visitors and unlock a huge portion of the museum’s grounds that are currently underutilized. VMFA has done an excellent job in the past few years to provide access to world-class art to larger and larger audiences, which is one of the reasons why I recently became a VMFA member. Removing cars from the Parsons Plaza is a logical next step in expanding and improving the museum’s access.

Sincerely,

Doug Allen, AICP, PMP
VMFA Member since October 2019

Don’t get distracted: Our streets are f*cked up

Our insides are still all tied up from the awful and fatal bus-involved crash in which a Pulse driver killed a woman who stepped into the bus-only lane. While there has been some thoughtful coverage about how we can make our streets safer through infrastructure improvements to ensure this never happens again, there has also been some sensationalized local media coverage vilifying the Pulse. 

For some reason, our local media loves to use the bus as a punching bag while ignoring the fact that the vast, overwhelming majority of people who die on our streets are killed by drivers of cars. And the further sad truth is that these deaths and serious injuries often go unnoticed, underreported, and, even worse, usually nothing is done to build better streets and make them safer for people. 

Don’t get it wrong: There are changes that need to be made to the Pulse’s bus-only lanes to increase their visibility and safety. We’ll post more on that later. But for now, where does the blame really fall for nearly every pedestrian death? These deaths are caused by terrible street design that prioritizes the speed and throughput of cars over the safety of people. And we should also blame shitty, distracted drivers. 

Here are just a few reports of people walking who were killed or hurt by drivers in the Richmond area just over the past couple months:

And of course, there’s this: Richmond drivers among the worst in America, new study says.

So before you watch the next overly sensational, breaking news, special report about the dangers of bus rapid transit in Richmond, consider this: If our streets were actually designed for people rather than speeding metal boxes, and if people would actually slow down and pay attention while operating them, we wouldn’t have lost 16 people this year who were just trying to walk somewhere and the 242 people who were injured by drivers wouldn’t have been hurt at all.1

We’d rather have productive conversations about how we get those numbers down to zero by fixing our fucked up streets and enforcing our existing traffic laws. Everything else is just a distraction.  


1 According to the Virginia DMV, 16 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in Richmond, Henrico, and Chesterfield since January 1, 2019 and another 242 have been injured.

PARK(ing) Day: Streets for people

On Friday, September 20th, Richmond will join the rest of the world in celebrating PARK(ing) Day. Parking sucks, so why are we celebrating it? Well, this is PARK(ing) Day, not Parking Day. The former is an international event where folks transform horrible parking spaces into wonderful, temporary parklets for people, while the latter is…not a real thing (at least we hope not).

This year, Venture Richmond (spearheaded by our very own Max), has taken Richmond’s previously limited (but still cool!) PARK(ing) Day efforts and kicked them up a notch. We’ll have not one, not two, but 23 parklets spread across different parts of the city.

BAM!, as they once said.

PARK(ing) Day is great but, unfortunately, oh-so-temporary, which is why we’re stoked on the addition of a competitive aspect this year. About half of the groups creating parklets on Friday have opted-in to a design/build competition judged by Ryan Rinn (formerly of Storefront for Community Design), Emily Smith of 1708 Gallery, Nathan Burrell of City Parks and Rec, and Yessenia Revilla who manages the City’s parklet program. The winning group will win a nice little chunk of start-up capital and the chance to work with Venture and the City to make their temporary parket a permanent place for people to hang downtown. This new, permanent parklet would be the first to take advantage of the City’s parklet program and serve as an example for other aspiring mini-park designers.

Why does all of this matter? Because cities are, ultimately, for people not cars. So much of our Downtown is taken up by parking decks, parking lots, parking spaces, and so little space—especially Downtown—is dedicated towards giving people a humane place to simply exist. PARK(ing) Day is important because it gives us a visual reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way! In fact, it’s pretty easy to take back some of that space and make our city a more comfortable, liveable, and fun place to be.

You can check out a map of all PARK(ing) Day locations here and find a bit more information over on the Facebook event page. If you’d like to spend some time touring the parklets, check out Bike Walk RVA’s parklet bike tour or hop on the Pulse, which rolls by a by a handful of parklets at the Scott’s Addition, Arts District, and Main Street Stations. It’s against the rules to drive on PARK(ing) Day.

We are all diminished by one

Last week, a woman was murdered by a person driving a car through Shockoe Bottom in Richmond. In this case, the vehicle was the murder weapon.

Shiauna Harris was arrested on Friday evening for the act of killing Shanice Woodberry and injuring three other people, and she will be charged with homicide. Also last week, the neo-Nazi driver who killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville two years ago was sentenced to life in prison. Justice will be done in both of these incidents, but this is not always the case when a car is involved in killing a person.

Too often, as we have seen in New York City with the recent death of Richmonder Robyn Hightman, the claim of “I didn’t see them” is excuse enough for many people—including law enforcement—to shrug off a fatal crash as an “accident.” This is a terrible and all-too-common occurrence. And it’s not just in bustling cities like New York City where bikes and cars rub up against each other for space. A 30-second search of last week’s crash-related news pulls up stories of a woman who ran over a man who was trying to keep her from driving drunk and a truck that spun out of control and smashed into a house with a person inside. This is by no means a comprehensive list—that would probably require a full-time intern to compile—but they are examples that pose important questions about the threat we invite through the unregulated use of cars in our cities.

Is it okay that nearly anyone over the age of 16 can get behind the wheel of a machine that in one instance can be used to drop the kids off at school and in another instance can kill dozens of people within seconds when accelerated into a crowd of people? Or that someone can simply lay down in a street that was intentionally designed to move a lot of cars real fast and commit “suicide by car?” Is there a gun comparison to be made here? What do you think, reader?

More children and teens die from traffic-related crashes in America per year than from guns, and yet we have a liberal blind spot when it comes to car culture. It’s a blind spot that prevents our elected officials from doing anything truly meaningful to regulate the unsafe use of cars and the unsafe design of the streets on which we drive them. Can you name one U.S. mayor who has decided to take a stand against traffic violence in their city and put extremely effective and politically risky measures in place to eliminate traffic-related deaths?

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is currently pushing for a ban on guns in city-owned buildings and parks. At what point do we start pushing for greater regulation of cars in an urban environment to achieve #VisionZero? What would that look like? Perhaps it would look like putting some political muscle behind the idea that cities should—in some form and in some settings—#BanCars.