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Posted In: Features

The Rise of the Brown’s Island Dam Walk

Max Hepp-Buchanan

January 22, 2014 2:14pm
The current Vepco Levy Bridge, will be reborn as the Brown's Island Dam Walk. Credit: Phil Riggan

The current Vepco Levy Bridge, will be reborn as the Brown’s Island Dam Walk. Credit: Phil Riggan

On a sunny, cold Saturday morning in late November, Tyler Potterfield gathered a group of young urban policy and planning professionals and set out on a guided bike tour of his opus, the Richmond Riverfront Plan. We were standing on the Brown’s Island “bridge to nowhere” when Mr. Potterfield described his vision of what will soon become the Brown’s Island Dam Walk. I liked what I heard.

Picture, if you will, crossing the James River on foot or by bike in the comforting embrace of a protected bridge that you don’t have to share with swarms of speeding cars and trucks. Imagine walking a direct line from the north bank to the south, just mere feet above the rushing James. There is no pressure to hurry across and no need to be hyper-vigilant as you make your way. In fact, there are several spots along the span of the Dam Walk that invite you to stop and stare out over the water, and just be there.

That is what crossing the James River on the Brown’s Island Dam Walk will be like.

Tyler Potterfield, a thoughtful and devoted urban planner with the City of Richmond is about to leave his legacy on the city’s riverfront. The Brown’s Island Dam Walk is a top-priority project identified in the Riverfront Plan, adopted by City Council in November of 2012.

Most of the 1,500-foot bridge is already done, but it will need significant upgrades.

Most of the 1,500-foot bridge is already done, but it will need significant upgrades.

Just over $4 million has been allocated by City Council for the Dam Walk and some terracing and trail work on nearby Chapel Island (also a top priority in the Riverfront Plan). The 1,500-foot Dam Walk is proposed to complete the “bridge to nowhere” on Brown’s Island and provide a dedicated connection for bicyclists and pedestrians across the James to a landing adjacent to the Manchester climbing wall on the south bank.

The general Richmond community was scheduled to get a full briefing on the Dam Walk at Tuesday’s public forum at the Virginia War Memorial. Unfortunately, a late-arriving but nasty winter storm thwarted those plans, and the meeting was postponed. At this community meeting, Mr. Potterfield and the consultants would have presented this project to the public in full and asked for feedback. The meeting will be rescheduled but a new date and time have not yet been announced. Schematics of the Dam Walk can be viewed on the City’s Riverfront Plan webpage.

Some have said – and more will say – that the proposed paved trail configuration at the southern landing of the Dam Walk is too circuitous. And that’s fine, because it is circuitous. But Mr. Potterfield and his team are committed to keeping the slopes manageable for all potential river-crossers, not just the ones who can walk, bike, or jog steep grades, and that requires some winding of the path.

It’s also important to remember that this is not just any river crossing. Walking or biking across the Dam Walk will be nothing like crossing the Manchester or Mayo Bridge. It is not meant to be the most efficient route in every way possible. In fact, the Dam Walk is only the first step in opening an important experience – the “Richmond Riverfront experience” to so many more of our residents and visitors. People who commute by bike or on foot will at long last have a safe, comfortable, and direct crossing of the James. And families with young children or elderly relatives will get to experience many aspects the river up close and personal without trepidation.

Credit: P. Kevin Morley/Times-Dispatch

Credit: P. Kevin Morley/Times-Dispatch

I know what some of you are thinking. Don’t worry – the riverfront will still maintain its wild, adventurous, and sometimes dangerous side for those who tread off the beaten path to seek the thrills the James has to offer. But for so many more, the river is about to become more than a landmark – it’s going to become an attraction.

For more information about the project, visit the City’s webpage. To be informed of opportunities to support the Dam Walk and other bicycle and pedestrian projects, sign up for Bike Walk RVA email updates.


About Max Hepp-Buchanan

Max Hepp-Buchanan is the Director of Bike Walk RVA, a regional program of the Sports Backers dedicated to making greater Richmond a safe and comfortable place to walk and bike. Max was raised in Seattle and received both his Bachelor's and Master's degrees at the University of Washington. Before joining the Sports Backers team, he did advocacy work for several years at Cascade Bicycle Club, one of the nation's largest bicycling organizations. Max, his wife Anna, and his son Lars, moved to Richmond in March of 2013 and settled in the Bellevue neighborhood.


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