Written by Jessee Perry and edited by Melissa Vaughn
With Halloween approaching, I wanted to write a super scary article for RVA Dirt, but the typical Richmond ghost stories were not scary enough for my liking (W.W. Poole?). Let’s go right to a real horror story. A horror story that is Ghosts of Christmas Past meets poor, tone-deaf city planning. The O.G. of boondoggle shiny projects. Sixth. Street. Marketplace.
Sixth Street Marketplace was originally approved in 1977 and leasing officially began in September 1984. Brace yourself for a cheap scare: I was not born until 4 years and 8 months later. What you are about to read is a product of an Excel document, hours of research, and maybe a bulletin board with pictures and yarn to make connections while wearing a tin foil hat. The horrors of Sixth Street Marketplace run deep. Not only did it hemorrhage money for years after viability and support ceased to exist, but the project conflicted with organic downtown growth, left city needs unaddressed, and was tone-deaf.
Background on Festival Marketplace Concepts
Architect Benjamin Thomson and developer James Rouse were the ‘founding fathers’ of the first Festival Marketplace in 1976. Festival Marketplaces were supposed to be a destination location in and of itself that happens to also have shops with small businesses that sell low-cost ($4-6) goods in a fun atmosphere. Festival Marketplaces do not usually have large anchor stores and the local owner-operated businesses primarily sold food and cheap products that are usually an impulse buy. In theory, the location/building is something people want to see just because and entertainment options will keep them there long enough to make impulse buys. Usually the shopper demographic is a tourist.
Richmond in the 1980s
While Festival Marketplaces were intended to revitalize downtown areas, think about downtown Richmond in the 1980s. Keywords you may think of include: shrinking population, crime, racism, poverty, cocaine, lingering impact of failed integration attempts and associated white-flight to the suburbs. Public housing projects were relatively new, with a Gilpin Court expansion in the 1970s, allowing for further concentration of poverty in pockets of the city. Public transit infrastructure was sorely lacking. Does 1980s Richmond sound like the ideal setting for a destination marketplace geared toward tourists with a cash flow for impulse shopping? Literally at a 1985 VCU Urban Planning Conference, James Rouse (founder of marketplace concept), cautioned Richmond to not lose sight of other issues including crime and public housing when building 6th Street Marketplace.
What is your point?
City officials did not think this plan through. To be fair, they did not have access to unlimited documents and archives online; however, the concept of a Festival Marketplace at 6th street in 1985 is the very definition of a “shiny project” that lacks substance. In addition to the issues Richmond was experiencing, there were private developers revitalizing the new National Historic District, Shockoe Slip. Since Shockoe Slip is not too far (if you ignore the behemoth hill), the competition of a comprehensive revitalized city district and a festival marketplace, could either promise increased attraction to the area (think Starbucks) or negatively impact sales. Since Shockoe Slip was considered to be safer and a better part of town, 6th Street Marketplace’s businesses suffered from a lack of shoppers. Compounding the negative impact, not even a bridge across Broad attempting to unify the city could stop the growing perception of a racial divide between the two areas. Black Richmonders went to 6th Street. White Richmonders went to Shockoe Slip. These inherent challenges with 6th Street Marketplace do not touch how much of a financial burden it was for the city. From the beginning, the finances were a disaster. The original developer was cash-poor, the city had a large financial obligation, utility costs were higher than anticipated, rent per square foot was lower than projected, and lawsuits were filed. Year after year the city continued to foot the operating expenses bill because the revenue was lower than originally projected and promised.
Hard facts and Jack Berry
In March 1987, they had 62 tenants. Two months later in July, City Manager Bobb told Richmond City Council that Sixth Street Marketplace was projected to have a $5.9 Million loss through 1991. In a 1989 interview, Deputy City Manager Jack Berry (yes, that Jack Berry), said, “we have to think of this project as a piece of city infrastructure, like a bridge or park.” He indicated he did not anticipate breaking even anytime soon and expected the city’s commitment to be ongoing. During summer of 1989, the marketplace was down to 37 tenants. In the same interview Berry said, “the project is becoming less popular and more divisive in the community. People are tired of putting money into it. They want the money spent in their neighborhoods. There’s going to have to be a turn around. We can’t keep putting $4 Million a year into this thing. We’ve got to get it to appear to be more of a success in the eyes of the citizens, or they’re going to say turn the lights out.” In 1991, Berry left his job to work for Hanover County but came back to the city in 1998 when he took a job with Richmond Renaissance (later to become Venture Richmond). In 1999, Richmond City announced they would tear down 6th Street Marketplace and reopen it as a public street. By 2003, Richmond Renaissance launched a $90 Million downtown revitalization plan and most of the marketplace was torn down. In 2007, the city was losing $600-800K/year at 6th Street Marketplace. The food court finally closed in 2008.
Three concerns with Jack Berry
1. His role: During the planning, development, and failure of 6th Street Marketplace, Jack Berry was a city budget analyst, city budget director, and deputy city manager. While he was not on council, he would have been intimately aware of how the marketplace impacted city finances. Should he have been more of an advocate for Richmond residents? Should he have been more of an advocate for the budget and city needs? If you see something, say something… or so they have been telling us. Comply and complain later.
2. His experience: Jack Berry had direct experience with one of the most expensive and well-known boondoggle shiny projects that still haunt’s Richmond today. Yet, Berry went on to be a vocal advocate for the Shockoe Bottom Stadium and the Redskins Training Facility. He should have known better. He had the experience to evaluate the Shockoe Stadium project objectively and check it for boondoggle red flags. Instead he pushed for the project to happen and brainstormed ways to hide citizen dissent. But now as a candidate for mayor, he frequently repeats that he has “learned his lesson.” What about the next project? What about the next private developer that comes forward? Will he have to re-learn the lesson then? And at whose expense? How many times do we have to be burned to recognize a pattern?
3. His (lack of) transparency: We all know Sixth Street Marketplace was a major failure. The name alone makes most people cringe. Why does Jack Berry mention his experience as a city employee and celebrates his success, but the only project he ties himself to is the ambulance authority. Even if he was not directly involved, he would have been aware of the details yet he chooses to avoid putting dates to his resume. It could be an innocent attempt to stay relevant with a younger crowd by not dating himself, but it does not feel good when a major city black eye (no matter how old) is glazed over and not mentioned.
While you are getting rained out of this weekend’s Venture Richmond production aka the Folk Festival, think carefully about if a Festival Mayor would be any better than a Festival Marketplace.
PS: If you have an interest in reading a 100 page dissertation that I used as a foundation for my research, here you go: https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/79951/21962657-MIT.pdf?sequence=2