Biking more, driving less around Richmond will be fun

Since I attended the City of Richmond’s Pedestrian, Bike and Trails Commission planning meeting a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking more about my efforts to bike around town. I wrote a story for Richmond.com that summarizes the plan and safety concerns.

I recently wrote about my work commute and I’ve determined that under most circumstances, biking the 8.2-mile commute from Lakeside to the NBC12 studios by way of Lakeside Avenue/Hermitage Road/The Boulevard/Westover Hills Boulevard and Midlothian Turnpike is not going to work for me and my family.

We bike for fun, exercise and to cut out using gas. We want our children to grow up fit and with an open mind toward alternatives to automobiles. 

I own a trailer and a trail-a-bike attachments to make taking the kids along easier and safer. Now that they are getting big enough to bike on their own, the trailer is more often used as the hauler. When we go to the beach, that thing gets loaded down with as much as we can carry, because we try our best to not drive the car for short trips in the Outer Banks.

But, there are plenty of other ways I can continue to remove automobile trips from my/our routines and replace them with biking. The key to many of these working for me and my family is traffic and safety. There is occasionally a need to drive due to time constraints, but many of these short trips are actually faster by bike!

Bike trips already added, under 3 miles (weather permitting):

  • Bryan Park (soccer, playgrounds, exploring)
  • Dance class
  • Lakeside Farmer’s Market (unless watermelons are in season)
  • Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
  • Lewis Ginter Recreation Association pool (longest trip)
  • Sweet 95 or Kitchen 64 (rewards!)
  • Hermitage Grill (open soon please)
  • Richmond Volleyball Club
  • Dumbarton Library (often)
  • Dry cleaners
  • Rowlett’s Bike Shop (unless my bike needs repair, purpose for visit)
  • Brook Run Ukrop’s (with trailer attached, not worth trouble)

Bike trips considering, 3-5 miles (weather permitting):

  • SCOR Richmond (indoor soccer)
  • The Diamond (attend a couple of games a season)
  • Children’s best friends houses
  • Buzz N’ Ned’s
  • Movieland (reflective gear and lights needed)
  • Science Museum of Virginia
  • Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
  • Chiocca’s (an all-time favorite)
  • Carytown (now we’re talking our family limit)
  • The Byrd Theatre

Several of the shopping, museum, entertainment and dining options on this list are perfect for potential riders to consider. As Richmond encourages cyclists by developing more bike-friendly routes, adds more bike racks and signage, citizens and tourists need to step up with more efforts to add the enjoyment and adventure that comes with biking to our city’s best attractions.

I suggest that anyone else that is considering substituting automobile trips with bike trips make your own lists. Commit to cycling. Own the right safety equipment, including helmet, reflective gear, lights, locks, tire pumps, backpacks, baskets, etc. The only way you’ll make it a habit is if you tell yourself that the car is off-limits for short trips unless absolutely necessary.

Go to http://bit.ly/RVA-Ped-Bike-Trail-Survey to express your opinions and http://bit.ly/MPOBikePlan for more information.

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Bryan Park’s revival caps first 100 years

Entrance to Northside’s Joseph Bryan ParkAs we celebrate the glory days of the first 100 years of Northside’s Joseph Bryan Park, I’m reminded of the more recent bad reputation the park has overcome.

I’m a Bryan Park resident and that has been my home turf since 1999. My kids have grown up with Bryan Park, playing in Upham and Jordan’s branches. Climbing, sliding and swinging around the playground. Learning to bike on the blacktop streets that are blocked from vehicular traffic. Going on nature hikes, exploring and searching for geocaches. Shopping the weekly North of the James Farmer’s Market. The past three combined birthday parties for my kids have been held at our favorite park and we have loved it all.

When the soccer fields were installed in the heart of the park in 1998, that began a revival of sorts for a park that had been compromised by unsavory activity — people parking and cruising for sex in the corners and hidden areas of the heavily wooded, 260-acre park.

The families and constant coming and going of visitors helped improve the perception of the park, which runs along the city’s boundary with Henrico County and the Lakeside community. Getting well-intentioned, right-minded park-goers has made a huge difference in the revitalization of Bryan Park, but it wasn’t complete.

Disc golfers playing at Bryan ParkIn 2007, the park gained another positive feature with its 18-hole disc golf course. The course is always packed and provided more people to help police the park grounds merely by their presence.

With the increased good people traffic to the park — combined with the road bikers, runners, picnickers and SEAL Team trainers — Bryan Park is a vibrant and friendly place.

In the past year, the City of Richmond spent $805,000 in Bryan Park to make improvements to two ponds, according to Christy Everson of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Facilities. After years of failed attempts, it cost $600,000 to repair the walls of Young’s Pond.  It was restored with customized molded walls, made to look like the old mortar and rock walls to help retain the historic look.

Joseph Bryan Park's Azalea Garden pondIt cost $205,000 to remove years of silt from the historic Azalea Garden pond and repair its walls. The total amount removed from the Azalea Garden pond: 120 cubic yards of dirt or the equivalent of 25-30 dump trucks loads.

The city still plans to add a gazebo in the Azalea Garden within the next 12 months. The expectation is for the gazebo to be used for weddings and special events, especially during the spring when the 17 acres of azaleas are in full bloom.

There are plans to add a shade structure over the heavily used playground. It would be similar to the one at Pine Camp Park, which is about 1.5 miles to the east on Azalea Avenue.

The city also plans to team up with the Central Virginia Soccer Association to build a concession stand with restrooms adjacent to the beautiful soccer fields, which could cost about $200,000. CVSA, which does most of the maintenance and management of the fields, would be matching funds with the city.  

So many great plans for a park that people wanted to forget existed. It now has the respect and love that is earned for a 100-year-old park. If you’d like to help keep it nice, contact the Friends of Bryan Park: www.friendsofbryanpark.org

Assessing a bike commute: Boulevard at least scenic

The view heading north on the Boulevard BridgeI went to the recent Bike, Pedestrian and Trails workgroup organized by the City of Richmond at The Carillon in Byrd Park. It was very informative and the crowd of nearly 200 showed that Richmonders definitely want improvements to planning city streets for pedestrians and cyclists and not just for vehicles and public transit.

It got me to thinking about my own daily work commute between my home in Lakeside and South Richmond at the NBC12 studios on Midlothian Turnpike. I often take a route that is 10.5 miles from Lakeside Avenue by way of Powhite Parkway, Chippenham Parkway to Midlothian Turnpike. Other than the one fantastic highlight as I pass over the Powhite Parkway Bridge and get to see the James River, the commute is not appealing.

A second, more scenic and direct route for me is an 8.2-mile commute from Lakeside to Midlothian Turnpike by way of Lakeside Avenue/Hermitage Road/The Boulevard/Westover Hills Boulevard and Midlothian Turnpike.  Really, one right turn from my street and all those named streets are the same road until I reach Midlothian Turnpike.

That commute would follow the proposed North/South major route outlined by the commission. It is a shorter route and much more scenic.  I would pass Joseph Bryan Park, the huge homes on Hermitage Road, Gen. A.P. Hill statue at Laburnum, Gen. Stonewall Jackson at Monument Avenue, the crape myrtle and museum lined Boulevard and The Fan and Museum Districts, Columbus statue at Byrd Park, The Carillon, Maymont, the Boulevard Bridge and the James River, and Westover Hills along the way.

Of course, there is The Diamond and the Greyhound bus station and Midlothian Turnpike along the way to bring me down, but it can’t all be perfect. And The Boulevard is actually No. 10 on the list of the streets with most vehicle vs. cyclist accidents in Richmond.

I’ve done this commute by bike just once, and it could work if I had the time. It would take about an hour, plus the time to cool down and shower. It takes about 20 minutes by car if there is no traffic, but it costs me between $0.70 and $0.35 in tolls one way.

My workplace grades fair (especially for a TV station) on the recommendations to promote alternative transportation modes for commuters:

  • Bike rack – NO (I’d make due)
  • Shower – YES

Key issue: I’m a father of two and my family takes priority over exercise and going green. I need to drop off and/or pick up my kids daily.  But on special occasions, this would be a great way to combine a workout with a commute and save fuel. We will have to stick to the 2-mile commute to Sweet 95 for ice cream and 3-mile commute to the Lewis Ginter Recreation Association pool for now.

Snorkeling the shallow waters at Texas Beach

What can you find under the water?Richmond’s North Bank Park is one of the best places to visit the James in late summer. The shallow waters and calm sands of Texas Beach are a great setting for an afternoon of exploring.

For one, Texas Beach is never as crowded as Pony Pasture, Belle Isle or even the Main Section, which is located across the river on the south bank. Two, the people there generally are more laid back. We observed some college-aged kids kicking back playing guitars, people with dogs and a couple of groups that brought their own folding chairs and beach towels.

When the river levels are low (it was at 3.3 feet that day), a new world of opportunities opens. With no recent rains, the water is clear and the bottom is easy to see. The shallow pools and slower rapids make it safer, including for little children. We brought our masks to see what was going on under the water.

Read more in Snorkeling at Texas Beach at Richmond.com

10 places you might encounter homeless in Richmond

Monroe Park

There are thousands of homeless in Richmond and I have no idea how to deal with them.  What is the proper etiquette? Do you give them money or something to eat? Do you ignore homeless people? Tell them “No thank you, I can’t help you?” Are you consistent? Are you sympathetic to their plight? Do they make you angry? Are they all on drugs, drunk or mentally ill?

I am cautious around unstable and desperate people, especially now that I’m a parent. I have had trouble explaining to my children why the people we see hanging out in intersections are allowed to break the rules of the road that I’ve worked so hard to teach them. Or why we cannot camp out in our parks and on benches at night like those same people. It’s confusing to them.

With the City of Richmond announcing a $6 million plan to improve the very visible Monroe Park — widely known as the number one place to find homeless in the River City. City leaders and a group of citizens say they are looking to make the city’s oldest park more open and family-friendly.

I don’t get everywhere in the city, but I have encountered homeless in many unexpected places over my many years here. This list isn’t meant to be harsh or insensitive to the homeless, but I am trying to illustrate how many key locations have suffered from the blight of homeless.

Monroe Park – You will find all types there, and it has been that way for as long as I can recall. The Daily Planet shelter used to be a couple of blocks south of the park. Different organizations regularly feed people in the park. NBC12’s Rachel DePompa detailed the renovation plan, which included a café with public restrooms and seating on a sunken plaza, a granite water feature that would be designed to mimic the James River.

I’ve seen enough abuse of fountains by homeless folk and as much as I love the push in Richmond to encourage public art, I have my doubts that this fountain will avoid being abused.  Sounds like a running urinal in waiting.

Anywhere on Grace Street – From Belvidere down to Centenary Church at 4th Street and beyond. Monroe Ward used to be a glorious gateway to the West End from downtown. Then, automobiles and suburbia ruined it, and the majority of the old Victorian homes were replaced with drab storefronts. Now, many of the remaining businesses are blighted by hoards of people roaming the streets looking for a hand out — many likely mentally ill. Many of the entranceways of empty businesses have been treated as urinals for years.

Kanawha PlazaKanawha Plaza – This must be a resort or oasis of sorts for the homeless.  The stage in the park used for Friday’s a Sunset is a ready-made shelter and the attractive fountain in the plaza doubles as the laundromat. I’ve seen it and while I feel sad for the people, I hate that a beautiful spot of the city doesn’t belong to the downtown workers that deserve a pleasant, clean park.

Anywhere within a four-block radius of the Greyhound bus station – The Boulevard between Broad Street and Westwood Avenue is littered with humans with no better place to bed down than under an overpass or behind a warehouse. The Boulevard needs to have this problem addressed as the Richmond continues to encourage economic growth and development in that promising area.

Leigh Street and Belvidere – Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between “Homeless: 2 kids, no job, need food” and “I’m report for work to this corner everyday.” That sounds so harsh, but there are people who have been at that same intersection for YEARS. I believe they are homeless, but I don’t believe that it will help them stop being homeless if people continue to support them with change out of their windows.

Belvidere and Canal streets – The Daily Planet used to be there, so there is history. VCU bought the property and moved everyone out, but there is plenty of lingering homeless. Traditions are hard to break.

Lombardy Street, between Maggie Walker Governor’s School and Virginia Union University, under the Interstate 95 overpass – It’s a shame that those two institutions have to be sullied. The chain-link fence under I-95 has signs warning against trespassing, but plenty of people live back in the weeds under the shelter of the overpass by the train tracks.

James River downtown at the Pipeline Trail – Actually, they also live among all the islands around Mayo Island downtown at the Great Blue Heron rookery. These guys have a tent city, mostly in the summer. I’ve looked down on the tarp houses from Vistas on the James. These are the hearty, self-sufficient types that aren’t likely looking for a handout and generally you never see them — just their stuff.

Broad Street in Shockoe Bottom – Not as bad as it used to be, but I’ve seen plenty hanging out in Shockoe Bottom at the Exxon across from McDonald’s recently. Same dudes every time.

Bryan Park – This is from personal experience. They like to live in the backwoods or along the interstates. More of the self-sufficient types — never had them ask me for anything.

This is not an overly thorough list. I am not that familiar with Southside, Highland Park or Church Hill. I’m not trying to offend anyone and I’m clearly not overly educated on homeless in Richmond. I don’t know the solution.

Key statistics from January 2009 of homeless people in Richmond:
Total homeless population:
1,150 (1,014 adults and 136 children).
Adults with children: 11 percent.
Unsheltered individuals: 16 percent.
Gender: 74 percent male; 26 percent female.
Family status: 56 percent single, never married; 6 percent married; 44 percent have been in families before.
Race: 68 percent African-American; 26 percent white; 4 percent Hispanic.
Average age for adults: 44.
Education: 53 percent high school diploma or GED; 22 percent some college; 9 percent college degree.
Veterans: 18 percent.
Have served time in jail or prison: 73 percent (43 percent jail; 8 percent prison; 22 percent both).

For more: www.homewardva.org.  Also, see the Daily Planet website for a list of local resources.

Eight places I need to eat in Richmond

I asked readers to give me a list of eight places you eat in Richmond, and got many great comments and suggestions. I didn’t expect to do a follow, but I got so many suggestions that I compiled a list of eight places I need to eat in Richmond.

Thank you to those that made suggestions and posted their own lists. I wrote that I think you can tell a lot about a person by where they like to eat. Where you choose to spend your time and money for just one meal is one thing, but associating and aligning yourself with places you consistently — your favorites — is another.

With restaurants, as in life, it is good to break out of the mold and try something new!

Again, there is just one rule to this quest: 1) Must be local restaurantsNOT a national chain. Here is mine in reverse alphabetical order:

Stronghill Dining Company, 1200 North Boulevard: I live in the Northside, and support the rebirth of the Boulevard. I haven’t been to Stronghill yet despite a couple of attempts by my wife or myself to slide the restaurant in. Happening soon.

Outer Banks Seafood Co., 11400 West Huguenot Road: I don’t love the location out in Chesterfield — I would have preferred the old Rio Grande spot at Stony Point Fashion Park — but I love the Outer Banks and seafood. I must do all I can to support things I love in my city.

Lemaire, 101 West Franklin Street: Top of the line, I’ve always been told. My wife and I need to go there if for no other reason than to get the monkey off my back about the time I put playing soccer over getting a free night’s stay with at The Jefferson Hotel followed by free brunch at Lemaire. Come on! I was young and didn’t know what I was doing….

8 1/2, 401 Strawberry Street: Total recommendation! I was told that the pizza rocks. I’ve been by the place several times on the way to Strawberry Street Cafe or the market and it smells delicious.

Can Can Brasserie, 3120 West Cary Street: I’ve been to France and usually only like French cuisine when I’m in France, but I’ve been told I need to try it before I knock it.  Plus, the place looks so happening when you drive through Carytown at night.

The Boathouse at Rocketts Landing, 4708 East Old Main Street: I’ve seen the view of the James River and the city skyline once during the day, but my cousin loves the place and that’s good enough for me.  

balliceaux, 203 North Lombardy Street: I used to love going to Bogart’s when it was in this location, and if for no other reason I must go to balliceaux to satisfy my curiosity. Plus, I just love the location. Lombardy in The Fan is a cool street.

Alamo, 2202 Jefferson Avenue: Another long-time recommendation, but I’ll admit, it doesn’t take much to talk me into trying barbecue.  I am a man after all. Plus, getting a chance to hang in Church Hill is a treat to a history guy like myself.

Honorable mention: Buckhead’s, 8510 Patterson Avenue; Pescado’s China Street, 626 China Street; Cafe Rustica, 414 East Main Street; Acacia Midtown, 2601 West Cary Street.

Canal Walk getting more attention, best to be patient

Chuck "Cotton" Renfro, a canal cruise tour guide for Venture RichmondI’ve been on a handful of cruises on Richmond’s Canal Walk downtown, but only one with a $10,000 camera on my shoulder. They are always entertaining, but I think I finally found my favorite guide.

Reporter Danielle Wilson did a fun 12 About Town story for NBC12.com on the canal cruises that are offered throughout most of the year. The guide for our tour Chuck Renfro, or “Cotton” as he’s better known. He has been a guide with Richmond canal cruises since they began 11 years ago. 

Cotton is best guide I’ve had yet. He was entertaining and full of fun history facts and he even dressed for the part. Other guides I’ve had were knowledgable and full of facts too, but Cotton was hitting his history with exact dates, quizzes for the passengers and his presentation was full of energy.

We were there on a Saturday night from 4:30 to 7 p.m. and the tours were packed on every run. The one thing I noted was that most everyone showed up just for cruise and left. Some people milled around on the canal before or after the tour, which brings me back to my wish there be something to do or a vendor of some type to take advantage of the crowds.

In late August, I met with Lucy Meade of Venture Richmond at a dinner at Morton’s hosted by Richmond.com to discuss the James River. We got off-topic at one point, talking about the Canal Walk, which is under Venture Richmond’s control.

Meade mentioned that the first comparison most people want to make for Richmond’s Canal Walk is the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas. Her point was that for anyone that wants Canal Walk to be a thriving, bustling retail and restaurant hub in Richmond like River Walk is for San Antonio, it should be noted that it took nearly 40 years for River Walk to develop and gain acceptance as a tourist attraction.  She said that organizers in San Antonio tell her it was more like 80 years in the making.

The work to create the Canal Walk in Richmond was completed in 1999 and many people are becoming impatient with the process of developing a consistent entertainment draw. I wrote about this in early August after a rezoning decision was made for the Reynolds Plant that bisects Canal Walk and have continued to follow developments.

Alix Bryan covered an event for Richmond.com about a collaborative session attended by about 40 people on the future of the Historic Canal Walk, hosted by Sixth District Councilwoman Ellen Robertson at the Hat Factory on Aug. 28:

The Canal Walk and surrounding areas are jewels that many cities lack. The riverfront undoubtedly holds the potential to host great community spaces for residents, outdoorsy types, buskers, vendors, singles, couples, families, cosmopolitans, professionals, students, and tourists alike.

A majority present were City of Richmond affiliates, developers, or business owners. Who else gets up early on a Saturday morning for a three hour public meeting? However, the most vocal participants were Bottom residents, or interested citizens–an estimated 12 total. A developer of the soon-to-be 225 apartments at the former Reynolds site, long the obstacle impeding cohesion along the Canal Walk, was in attendance taking notes.

I will have to side with Venture Richmond’s Meade and just practice patience. Richmonders don’t like to be pushed into anything new, even if the “new” thing is something that was old, like the canal.