Spaces and Sights That Can't Be Experienced From a Car
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
I've worked within two blocks of this cool place for 13 years and only recently discovered it. Unless you know exactly where to look, you'll never stumble across it. The best way to find the starting point is to go to the river side of the floodwall at 14th Street and head west about 200 feet. Not far after crossing the grade-level tracks, you'll see a wooden stair that ends at the top of the bank.
This river bank drops about 15 feet straight down to the water. To start the journey, one must climb down a metal ladder to the 24" wide catwalk. Once on the pipe, you'll see that the bank along this section of the river is held in place by very old stacked stones which I presume were once part of the industrial buildings along the river.
The pipeline is suspended over the water and under the CSX elevated track. A metal grate walkway is bolted ontop. It's a very architectural experience to walk the quarter mile until the grate ends. You can continue to Browns Island if you wish to negotiate the flattened top of the pipe without a rail.
Along the way, you will see some new guests to our city and an indication that the James River is getting healthier: the Heron Rookery. The sign along the walkway tells the story best. In 2006 there were no heron nesting in the trees along the River. In 2007, there were 4. One year later, there were 34. I don't know exactly how many are there now, but it is nesting time and I can count more than three dozen nests in the treetops of Mayo Island from the pipeline view. These large birds constantly swoop down to feed on the fish at the first line of rapids near the bridge, then return to the nests.
Walking further along the pipeline, there are rapids under your feet and a pretty good view of the downtown skyline. Overhead are a pair of train tracks. The walking experience could only be more interesting if one of the long coal trains were to pass over your head.
The only disappointment with this view is seeing the ugly underside of the Cordish development. It appears that the design team turned its back to the river and didn't put any thought into that side of the building's base. The parking deck, best seen from the Manchester Bridge is crude and thoughtless. Sorry for the editorial comments, but as someone in the design and urban planning business, this complex misses the mark in so many ways. It occupies a huge footprint on the river's edge, but set aside no public access. Only upper floor tenants get a view of the river. After 5+ years, the canal-oriented plaza remains dead and only one restaurant occupies the retail spaces. I wonder why.
Thoughtful planning is so important to a city. Developments like this are around for 50+ years and mistakes are hard to undo. At least the wildlife don't seem to mind this complex as much as I do.