What will become of the 100,000 square ft. former train yard behind Main St. Station?

by | Jul 21, 2015 | POLITICS

Richmond’s Main Street Train Station is one of RVA’s most prized jewels but the massive space behind the Second Renaissance Revival style structure has laid semi-empty for decades.

Richmond’s Main Street Train Station is one of RVA’s most prized jewels but the massive space behind the Second Renaissance Revival style structure has laid semi-empty for decades.

The folks at Richmond Economic Development Department are aiming to change that. Well, they’re doing a lot more than aiming, they’re elbow-deep in construction and the soon-to-be renovated space is hoping to become a new focal point in RVA’s transportation and economic future.

First opened in 1901, Main St. Station was constructed to join the Seaboard freight line (west side) and CNO freight yard (east side). As was usually done back then then, RVA’s Shockoe Bottom was an industrial hub so a train yard was built to store trains between use. The two story structure stayed in use until the early 70’s when Hurricane Agnes flooded the bottom and damaged the station so badly it forced Amtrak to divert passenger service to a station in Henrico County.

In the 80s, the train yard was renovated into an open-air mall with shops and office spaces (seen below). These white walls and dividers were still visible until construction began on this new iteration of the space.

“They were a head of their time, probably,” said Jeannie Welliver, Project Development Manager for the train yard renovation at Richmond’s Department of Economic Development. She praised the one-time-mall space but understood why the project fell off like it did. “People didn’t live downtown, the flood wall hadn’t been built, times were different – but [it was] a very visionary project.”

But the mall was built on top of some messy (and smelly and dangerous) old train yard equipment.

So when the city came in with $86 million in funds from the Fed, the state, VDOT, and a number of other acronyms to return the Main St. Station to its former glory, they had to gut the thing first.

They’ve already ripped out the floor, now they’re peeling off the walls and the roof – “exposing the beauty underneath,” Welliver said.

When Talking to Welliver, its easy to see she’s excited and passionate about the project. She said 65 million cars pass the clock tower every year and if the new station can handle high speed rail, as part of this project hopes to accommodate, the building will get shown off to even more folks.

Yes, part of the update to the train yard, and the reason there was so much money to renovate it, was the hope of tapping RVA into the future of high speed rail along the EAst Coast. Well, highER speed rail – we’re a lot closer to faster passenger trains, like the DC to Boston corridor with top speeds of about 160 MPH.

Actual high speed rail requires additional track construction and other specifics which are incredibly expensive and wont be coming through downtown anytime soon.

But with these renovations, Welliver sees that DC to Boston stretch of track being extended to RVA and beyond, a mission of the Federal Department of Transportation, called the South East High Speed Rail Corridor.

“If you bring high speed rail into your downtown, that architecture, that place you bring them to better be a gateway and it better be your best foot/face forward,” she said. “[train stations] were the old gateways; restore them back and use them as a gateway again.”

But as much as this project is about bringing higher-speed rail to RVA, its also about creating a new hub for business in the Bottom. “We also want it to be a day-to-day success,” Welliver said. “And the only way to do that is if we get the region to want to come here.”

The actual space they’re working with is about 100,000 s/f of space with some of the “finest examples of riveted steel” still available today (video below).

Original rivets from #Rva's Main St. station

A video posted by Brad Kutner (@patioweather_rva) on

The original steel bars still hold the structure up and will be featured prominently when the building is finished. But the current roof needs mending and there needs to be new floors as well. Layers of Creosote, a black goo used to preserve old train rails (and other pieces of wood), were still buried in the structure’s walls and floorboards, even when it was a mall in the 80’s, so all that had to come up.

The empty space at #rva's Main St Station

A video posted by Brad Kutner (@patioweather_rva) on

It’s that history that Welliver and friends want to capitalize on. “The beauty is the glass, the heavy timber roof,” she said as she walked me through the live construction zone, yellow hardhat covering her blond bob.

Welliver’s got a few ideas of what to do with the space, but her department sought help from the public with the project as well through an online survey.

The results of that survey are due in the coming months, but, until then, Welliver listed off farmers markets, beer gardens, concert venues; any number of possible uses for the massive open lot. But no matter the outcome, Welliver said they plan to make it as “authentic Richmond as you can… capitalize on the authenticity of Shockoe Bottom – CheeseCake Factory does not make a destination…”

There’s still lots of work to be done, and we wont see the former-train yard open its doors to the public until at least 2016.

But we’ll be keeping up with the project as time passes.

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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