The sixth installment in a monthly series in which a hometown Richmonder who has spent over a decade abroad explores the many different neighborhoods accessible by GRTC bus lines to discover the ways transit connects us all.
If the city dwellers of Richmond and the suburbanites of Henrico sometimes seem so distinct as to be entirely different species, then Willow Lawn is the brackish water where the two intermingle. During the day, VCU students ride the Pulse out to meet their needs at the closest thing the city has to a traditional mall. In the evenings, the commuters of Henrico’s many bedroom communities stop off to pick up last-minute items on their way home. On weekends, the ebbs and flows of city and county residents transform into a full-on whirlpool of shoppers, indistinguishable in their consumerist flurry.
From the very beginning of Willow Lawn’s existence, the appeal of this place has always been as a halfway point between two worlds. When the shopping center was first opened in 1956, this collection of strip malls was on the cutting edge of retail. Americans no longer wanted mom-and-pop-shops along a walkable main street. They wanted to drive, park, and buy all the latest national brands.
This model worked for a generation; however, the 1980’s brought the dawn of a new way to spend, see, and be seen: the mall. After a decade of shop closings and dwindling retail options at Willow Lawn, in 1986 the Federal Realty Trust acquired the property, enclosed the middle, and added in a food court to complete the shopping center’s transformation into a mall.
Willow Lawn’s sales began to sag again at the turn of the century as the malls of the 1980s lost their appeal. In response, the shopping center reinvented itself in 2012 by returning to its open-air model of yesteryear (today branded an “outdoor mall”) and assumed a new name for a new era: The Shops at Willow Lawn.
This adherence to the evolution of the shopping experience is the lifeblood of Willow Lawn; the website even boasts, “Since its grand opening in 1956, both the landscape and structure of Willow Lawn has evolved to keep consumers happy and stay current with shopping center trends.”
Perhaps it was the stale Hanson song playing over the loudspeakers — no, not “MMMBop,” which may have actually been refreshingly vintage — but as your correspondent walked around The Shops, it was hard not to feel as if the outdoor mall is just the latest iteration of the shopping experience that’s slowly falling out of favor. With one rival, Stony Point, struggling as another, Short Pump Town Center, rapidly urbanizes, what works about Willow Lawn today are all the things the shopping center was designed to eschew.
The 2012 renovation infused the area with an air of astroturfed urbanism. Apartments now sit atop many of the shops. A central plaza features a variety of seating, a canopy, and even a water feature to mimic what people love about public parks. Almost being run down by a car while walking from shop to shop, though, reminds one of what does not work about Willow Lawn: it’s hard to walk, bike, or just be a human that’s not in a car or store here.
All across our region, urban spaces are enjoying a revival. From Main Street Ashland to downtown Hopewell, Virginians are increasingly choosing places with a walkable, bikeable vibe in which to live, work, and play. Perhaps the next redesign of Willow Lawn will reflect the latest model shoppers favor: authentic city streets.
After checking the Transit App for the arrival of the Route 75 bus, the five minute delay provided the perfect amount of time to buy a GRTC mobile pass. The $3.50 day pass wasn’t a bad option for a person like myself that planned on taking a ride somewhere and back, but the absence of a single-ride option proves perplexing.
The lack of a reloadable card system similar to WMATA’s SmarTrip cards makes it unnecessarily hard for the casual rider to catch the bus without exact change on hand. Drivers’ inability to give people change is good for saving time and keeping the buses moving quickly, but the frustration of having to give up a larger bill for a ride valued at $1.50 is especially punitive to low-income riders.
The addition of a one-way trip to GRTC’s mobile pass options, and/or the introduction of reloadable tap cards, should be priorities as the system innovates to attract more casual riders.
A kind driver welcomed us onto her empty bus as the first afternoon run of the 75 got underway at 4:00pm on a weekday. Route 75 may be the least frequent bus in the entirety of GRTC’s system. Its schedule reveals just twelve westbound trips to the University of Richmond, and oddly only ten eastbound trips to Willow Lawn, per day. As of this past Spring, the 75 runs every half hour, up from just once per hour, during the morning and evening rushes — roughly 6 to 9am and 4 to 6pm, respectively.
A few people hopped aboard at the Libbie Place Shopping Center. A couple passengers got off at Saint Mary’s, apparently to begin evening shifts, based on their scrubs and uniforms. Libbie and York, along the cheery strip of businesses which divide Westhampton and Three Chopt, proved to be the stop with the most people to board or alight the bus. The relatively few points of attraction along Route 75 mean the line has an incredibly high on-time arrival record.
We actually arrived on the UR campus ahead of schedule, and departed the bus with a handful of students and staff. After helping one other rider with Transit App’s live-tracking GO feature, I instantly became the route’s top rider. With school now back in session, hopefully my reign won’t last long.
The University of Richmond:
The majestic Collegiate Gothic structures of the University of Richmond campus belie a long and often sordid institutional history. The stains upon UR’s legacy reach far into the university’s past and even into the ground upon which it stands; at least one building on campus was built atop a slave burial site.
In 1830, Virginia Baptists founded the precursor to UR, a manual labor college in which men did agricultural work in exchange for training to become ministers. At the start of the Civil War, the entire student body formed a regiment and went to war to preserve slavery. During the fighting, Richmond College — as it was called back then — served as a hospital for Confederate troops. After investing all of its funds into Confederate war bonds, the college was left bankrupt when Robert E. Lee capitulated in 1865. Today, the Thomas Hall building on campus is named after the man who donated $5,000 to reopen Richmond College.
Serving as its president from 1894 to 1945, Dr. Frederic W. Boatwright oversaw sweeping changes in order to chart a new course for the struggling college. In 1914, he raised a small fortune to move the campus from downtown to Westhampton, and in the process opened the Westhampton College for Women. In 1920, the institution was renamed the University of Richmond, with the men’s college assuming the title of Richmond College.
The school’s dedication to missionary work brought the first non-white students to campus in the early 1920s; however, the coterie of Chinese who matriculated into UR were still “subject to racial stereotyping and endured racist language.” Black students, on the other hand, weren’t allowed on campus until over four decades later in 1968, but according to UR’s website, “integration was half-hearted and incomplete at best. In 1969, there were still only 6 black students. Even through the early 1970s, the majority of the black students on campus would be recruited track athletes.”
During this year’s Black History Month, the blackface admissions of Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring reopened the wounds left by UR’s own blackface scandals in the 1980s. In a picture in the 1980 yearbook, a black student stands on a table with a noose around his next, a drink in his hand, and a smile on his face as five white students hooded in Ku Klux Klan uniforms surround him. Such terrifying pictures have been the subject of much debate on campus and “bring into question the comfort of public racism at the University.”
The separation of the sexes — underscored by Westhampton Lake as a barrier between the two sides — endured even longer. As UR staff member Kim Catley explains, “It wasn’t until 2002 that men and women began living on both sides of the lake and 2006 before residence halls went co-ed.” Even today, men and women at UR are still pointlessly sorted into Richmond and Westhampton Colleges, based on their gender.
While the history of UR suggests the institutional culture of Richmond’s top private university to be stodgy and traditionalist, student life and campus policies present a different picture. UR’s two gendered colleges readily work with transgender and non-binary students to help them switch to the college in which they feel most comfortable. Today, UR even produces Common Ground, a campus-wide inclusion effort, and has designated a point person to help trans students. This enlightened culture arose out the work of Joh Gehlbach and Jon Henry — leaders of UR’s Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity — who in 2011 gathered over 1,000 signatures in support of updating the university’s non-discrimination policy to include gender identity and expression. The change made UR only the third school in Virginia to do so.
Although much of the visible diversity on campus comes from international students, recently UR changed its admission policy to encourage low-income Virginians to apply. Leveraging its $2 billion endowment (among the 40 largest in the country), UR now provides in-state students with a family income under $60,000 financial aid packages without loans that cover full-tuition and room and board. Also, the children of all UR staff — not just faculty and administration — receive free tuition if accepted.
Although VCU earned a lot of press for its collaboration with GRTC to give its students, faculty, and staff unlimited access to the bus system, UR was already offering this. To get a free GRTC bus pass through UR, students only have to fill out this simple online form. UR actually fought to add Route 75 into the redesign, and later to increase its frequency, as many faculty and staff rely on it to get to and from campus.
Why the university continues to pay hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to maintain its six private shuttle routes instead of investing that money into increased frequency for the 75 or new GRTC routes is a question for students, faculty, and the board of trustees. Ridership of Henrico’s lines nearly doubled after they expanded coverage of three lines to nights and weekends.
Willow Lawn and the University of Richmond long prided themselves on being places away from the rest of the city — somewhat suburban enclaves of refined retail and higher education. Today, they are discovering newfound strength thanks to their increasing relationship with the city of Richmond, its creative people, and its vibrant culture. If Willow Lawn and UR continue to lean into their connection with the rest of the River City, the whole region will be stronger for it.
Photos by Wyatt Gordon, except where otherwise noted. Top Photo: Wyatt’s friend Que (far right) takes in the seating arrangement at Willow Lawn.