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Will this historic downtown recover? (photoessay)

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 6, 2011 in Living Sustainably

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  downtown Lynchburg as envisioned in the 2000 master plan (by: City of Lynchburg)

  Main Street, Lynchburg (c2011 FK Benfield)

As I often write, cities and regions need strong cores in order to be sustainable.  If all the action is on the fringe, you can find your community in danger of becoming the next Detroit, shrinking in the middle but relatively stable on the outskirts.  (In the last decade, the central city of Detroit lost a staggering 25 percent of its population; yet the Detroit metro region as a whole lost only 3.5 percent.)  Goodbye to walkability, identity and vitality, hello to more sprawling land consumption, decay and driving long distances to get anything done.

Lynchburg, Virginia isn’t Detroit, by a long shot.  It is smaller and much more scenic and pleasant.  But its downtown, mostly intact architecturally, isn’t as strong as it needs to be to support sustainable living.  Not yet, anyway.

  looking down 9th Street from Monument Terrace & the Old Court House (c2011 FK Benfield)

Last week, I had the honor of addressing a meeting in Lynchburg, staying in a quite lovely downtown hotel fashioned out of an old shoe factory, up the hill from the James River waterfront.  On my first day there, I went for a stroll around 7 o’clock or so on a beautiful, still-sunlit early evening, exploring the place for the first time.  I was struck by two observations:

  • Downtown Lynchburg has not just good but great historic architecture, terrific “bones” to support a vital place.
  • But there were no people anywhere to be seen.  It felt a little like an elaborate movie set, after filming for the day had finished.  Some buildings were vacant and deteriorating significantly.

So the question is whether this photogenic city of about 75,000 people, with some significant assets, can reestablish the vitality of its core.  I’m hoping that the answer will be yes, and in today’s post I will mostly use the photos I took while there to show why Lynchburg is worth caring about.

  Court Street, just up from Main (c2011 FK Benfield)

  looking up to the Old Court House (c2011 FK Benfield)

The local officials are certainly trying.  One of the sessions I attended at the conference was about the city’s revitalization, and it is clear to me that the planners and architects get it.  They know where they need to go, and are taking some steps to get there:  refurbishing the waterfront, improving civic infrastructure and street connectivity, planning around key corridors, doing their part with municipal investment to make downtown more hospitable to private investment.

I got the impression from that session that the downtown master plan posted on the city’s web site, now a decade old, isn’t fully up to date with what the city is currently doing.  But it’s not a bad start to understanding the issues:

“The extent of vacant historic buildings in the downtown area is sizable and affects the pedestrian environment and public perception.  Over the past several months, a few new restaurants and businesses have enlivened Main Street, yet there continues to be a lack of critical mass in the commercial, retail, housing and entertainment markets . . .

restoration may be under way in this one (c2011 FK Benfield)  Main Street, Lynchburg (c2011 FK Benfield)

“Revitalization of the downtown and riverfront is not without challenges, however.  Downtown is struggling to compete with the city’s suburbs, where retail, industry, and corporate businesses have relocated.  With easy access and extensive available land, residential preferences are weighted toward the outskirts, although a committed group of residents has reclaimed and improved the historic neighborhoods downtown.  Filling the extensive vacancies downtown will require a significant change in perception for people to realize the advantages of the culture, recreation and history of the downtown environment.”

Much of Lynchburg's downtown falls within a designated historic district, by the way, even if some of the historic fabric hasn't been treated that well.

  doorway in downtown Lynchburg (c2011 FK Benfield)   still in use but compromised (c2011 FK Benfield)   barely functional (c2011 FK Benfield)

  abandoned factory buildings in downtown Lynchburg (c2011 FK Benfield)

As those paragraphs from the master plan were written in 2000, they could just as easily have been applied to a large number of cities great and small across the country.  Yet many old downtowns are now making impressive comebacks.  Lynchburg has clearly taken some important steps – I stayed in a great restored building, had a couple of good meals, and visited a couple of nice, arty storefront businesses all on foot downtown while I was there.  But my overall sense is that the planners’ 2000 description of Lynchburg remains essentially accurate, if slowly improving, today. 

Two transportation quirks have been among the factors influencing this scenario.  First, a storefront on Main (c2011 FK Benfield)Lynchburg is one of very few cities of its size to have been bypassed by the Interstate Highway System.  That actually is good news for the retention of historic architecture and relative lack of chain stores, but maybe not so good for maintaining a robust economy in the late 20th-century.  Second, the downtown resides on a very steep hillside that can limit walkability.  Traversing the length of Main Street, along the side of the hill and parallel to the river, for example, is easy; but to get up to Court Street just a couple of blocks away, you must climb.  If you're starting from the waterfront instead of from Main Street, the trek to the top of downtown is longer and even steeper.  If you make the climb, you’ll be rewarded with great views; but it might be a challenge for those not so young and able.

At one point the city even installed an ugly erector set of an elevator, sticking out from the hillside, to assist the climb.  I wonder if at some future point it might be feasible to install a small funicular instead (such as this one in Bern, Switzerland), to more naturally follow the slope instead of marring it.  But I digress.

In some parts of downtown, you can begin to see snippets of the vision that city leaders are aiming for:   

  walkable Main Street (c2011 FK Benfield)   doorway on Court Street (c2011 FK Benfield)

  a hopeful section of Main Street (c2011 FK Benfield)

But the economic conditions for the city appear murky at best; certainly the large riverfront manufacturing companies are now long gone, and it is not entirely clear to me what, if anything, has replaced them economically.  (Some of the old factory buildings have been restored and adapted for modern uses; others remain broken and highly visible reminders of a thriving economy that once was.)  City-Data reports that the city’s biggest employment sectors are construction (10 percent), education (7 percent), and hospitality (6 percent).  On the plus side for new businesses seeking to locate in the city, commuting times are reported to be among the lowest in the country, with the median around fifteen minutes.

Let's hope the economy picks up.  If it does, we know the national trends are in the right direction for revitalization.  In the meantime, downtown Lynchburg, architecturally rich and gradually becoming better positioned to take advantage, waits to be discovered and appreciated for the immense potential that it contains. 

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page

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Comments

Jim NoonanMay 6 2011 01:57 PM

I am struck by your comment that Lynchburg has good bones, but there were no people downtown. It seems that many towns of this size have residents who are largely ignorent of the advantages they have. Planners tend to see a place through a lense that shows them possibilities. Local residents see thigs that are old and desire the 'new' things that others have. I can remember being in upstate NY (I'll leave the town unnamed) and hearing a resident tell me that what the town needs was a WalMart. I almost choked on my bottle of Gennessee.

I am not familiar with Lynchburg. It has, as you say, been bypassed by the Interstate system, so unless you have a reason to go there, you probably don't. You are right that the place seems unlikely to maintain a robust late 20th century economy. Fortunately for Lynchburg they are ahead of the game, for not many places will retain a robust late 20th century economy. As for an early 21st century economy, they may be better placed. They have the 19th century infrastructure, in the form of a rail connection, to Richmond and the NE Corridor that might serve them well in the near future. And if, by chance, they need a road connection, it seems they have one, as I do see cars on the street. They may also have access to both power and water and be able to reuse those older industrial sites as it becomes too expensive to ship clothing all the way from suburbs of Delhi.
In summary it appears that the residents need only hang in there and not do unnneeded damage to their historic downtown. They may find that what was old will become new again, and what they thought they missed in terms of chain stores will mean they will also miss the empty chain store as well.
Good luck to them!

DanielMay 8 2011 07:44 PM

I see the potential in Lynchburg as well. One asset you didn't mention are some wonderful residential neighborhoods very near to downtown, with a wide variety of architectural styles one after another. Some are showing some disrepair, but when we walked around last year there were quite a few areas that are well kept or at least showing some signs of revitalization.

I also second the train comment. Amtrak just began daily trips from Lynchburg to DC a little over a year ago, and the ridership has exceeded expectations. I know that folks from Lynchburg have been enthusiastic about these developments.

There's also a nicely done greenway and trail running from the train station down to the river, although I wish there were more access points to facilitate its use for transportation as well as recreation.

J.J.May 12 2011 03:43 PM

As we speak, the Piedmont Flour Mills - pictured above with the wooden scaffolding- is being restored into loft living. The demand for downtown hosing is on the rise; a waiting list exists at some of the most popular destinations. For an economy that was once built on tobacco, Areva and B&W are driving the engineering boat while Centra, and the surrounding schools continue to recruit talent. Many graduates are electing to stay in Lynchburg and participate in the Young Profesisonals of Central VA organization, which does wonderful work connecting businesses with 20/30somethings. Suburban sprawl developments such as Wyndhurst are losing - or have lost - momentum, as we see the shift of interst returning to the Riverfront. A marquee move would be the Bikes Unlimited shop leaving its suburban location taking up residence at Jefferson Street and the Blackwater Creek entrance. Yes, the lack of an interstate negatively affects traffic. However you will see a resident mentality shift toward downtown, which until 2000 was absolutely dead in the water. Now its become an excercise in postmodern city life.

Kaid @ NRDCMay 12 2011 05:25 PM

Jim & Daniel - great perspectives, thanks.

JJ - that's certainly the outcome I am rooting for.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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