by James A. Bacon
New York City has its High Line park built upon an abandoned, elevated freight rail line. The City of Richmond has its Low Line park, built underneath CSX Corp. railroad trestles.
In the seven years since opening to great fanfare, Manhattan’s High Line has attracted millions of visitors and inspired the construction of nearly 1,400 housing units along its two-mile route. By contrast, the opening of Richmond’s Low Line has been decidedly low key, and no one is expecting it to become a magnet for real estate development. But the Low Line could well become an integral part of Richmond’s park system and spur reclamation of the riverfront.
The vision for the $6 million project calls for flower plots with benches, covered walkways beneath the trestles, rain gardens along the Kanawha Canal, and trees shading HOW MANY?? hundred yards of bike path. Capital Trees, a not-for-profit organized to promote urban greening, has committed to fund the ongoing maintenance.
A year ago, the area was an overgrown ruin, neglected by CSX and the City of Richmond, which shared ownership of the land for more than a century. Located in the flood plain, the property had little value. No one had reason to invest in it or even care about it.
“There was no advocate for this area. It was blighted,” says Susan Robertson, co-chair of Capital Trees. “People would ride on the canal boats from the manicured, renovated canal walk [in Shockoe Bottom] and encounter a scene with invasive weeds and trees. From June through November, you couldn’t see the canal [from the land].”
When the Low Line is complete, it will knit together a cluster of recreational assets including the Richmond terminus of the 52-mile Capital Trail, the Great Shiplock Park, the Kanawha Canal, and Chapel Island with its trails and kayak launch. The Low Line also will provide an amenity for the 1,500 residents of Tobacco Row apartments and condominiums on the far side of the flood wall.
“It’s so great,” Victoria Hedegger, a Tobacco Row resident, said recently while walking her new-born in a stroller. “It was nice before. Now it’s even nicer. [The gardens] make the trail so much more attractive.”
Capital Trees originated as a collaboration between the Richmond region’s four garden clubs in the expectation that they could undertake projects with greater impact if they worked together. The new generation of garden club leaders aren’t content with traditional beautification projects. They are exploring the intersection of beautification, conservation, storm water management and urban place making.
In its early incarnation, the group worked with city officials to reform the urban tree-planting program. Then it spear-headed the building of rain gardens on 14th street in Richmond’s downtown to control storm water runoff. With each success, Capital Trees’ projects became more ambitious.
In 2011 Lynda Miller, head of New York City’s Central Park Conservancy, visited Richmond to describe how volunteers had reclaimed part of Central Park. “She told use we could tackle big, important projects that can make our lives better, recalls Clare Osdene Schapiro, a Richmond Times-Dispatch writer active in the organization.
Inspired, the ladies behind Capital Trees worked with the Capital Trail to beautify the kiosk at the Great Shiplock Park. That led to the next project, cleaning up the park and planting rain gardens to control runoff into the canal. And that led to the Low Line.
“The trail was bringing in 300,000 people a year. Runners. Bikers. Elderly people. Kids. We saw the impact the trail was making,” says Robertson. That’s when the idea for the Low Line was born.
But there were complications. The city and the railroad had co-owned the land where the trestles were located, which meant that Capital Trees needed to get buy-in from both. The Low Line did nothing for CSX but expose it to potential liability. The railroad was concerned that someone walking under the trestles might be struck by falling debris. Negotiations with the city and railroad were “grueling,” says Robertson, who credits her compatriots Meg Turner and Jeannette McKittrick. Eventually, CSX fears were allayed by incorporating two steel canopies into layout to allow visitors to walk under to the trestles to the canal.
CSX contributed $100,000 toward the project, the city kicked in $200,000, and the balance for Phase 1, about $1 million, came from private foundations, the garden clubs and other private sources. Universal Corporation even contributed tobacco plants to commemorate the city’s origin as a center of the tobacco trade. As part of the deal struck with the city, Capital Trees is obligated to raise money for annual maintenance, roughly $50,000 a year.
A second phase will extend the plantings another HOW FAR?, while a third phase will replace the weeds along the canal bank with a strip of rain garden, or, as Robertson refers to its dual role in beautification and storm water run-off, “riparian buffer that’s horticulturally interesting.” The last phase will get expensive and time-consuming, she says, because the work must get approvals from the state Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Another goal of the project is to clear out invasive species and replace them with native plants and trees — not out of some antiquarian belief that Virginia flower and shrubs are better than others, but an understanding that native plants provide food for native insects, wildlife and other creatures in the food chain. A big push among Richmond gardeners and horticulturalists, says Robertston, is to restore habitat that supports pollinators like bees, wasps and butterflies.
Perhaps the biggest contribution of the Lowline will be to demonstrate that a well designed garden can serve many purposes — recreation, storm water management, and restoration of native species — all at once. Says Robertson: “We try to make sure that all of our projects have a holistic approach, not just beautifying an area to make it prettier.”There are currently 1 comments highlighted: 123556.