Lessons for Richmond & James from Montgomery’s Riverwalk

Amphitheater and Riverwalk on the Alabama River in downtown Montgomery, Alabama

By Phil Riggan
James River News Hub

Downtown Montgomery, Ala., has an interesting and relatively new Riverwalk situated on the banks of the Alabama River in a location that in many ways resembles the curve the tidal James River makes as it heads south at the Intermediate Terminal and Rocketts Landing in downtown Richmond.

Riverwalk has an amphitheater, a baseball stadium, riverboat dock, Union StationLocated in “The Horseshoe” of the Alabama River as it makes a big turn through the town — the complex is connected by a series of landscaped walkways, boardwalks and historic amenities. It has an amphitheater, a baseball stadium, riverboat dock, Union Station (train station distinguished as a historic landmark, includes city visitor’s center), parks and a new community garden. The area is surrounded by many trendy restaurants, several hotels and a convention that was completed in 2007.

Riverwalk is in historic downtown Montgomery, Alabama, in the Horseshoe of the Alabama RiverThe Riverwalk is part of a mile-long greenway and the long-term goal is for it stretch about three miles to connect downtown Montgomery with Maxwell Air Force base and Powder Magazine Park.

During Doug Wilder’s term as mayor of Richmond, he tried to create interest in a marina at the Intermediate Terminal, hoping to either compete with or supersede the dock planned (and since established) for Rockett’s Landing. The failed Echo Harbour project (planned for the property adjacent to Great Shiplock Park) also had a plan for a marina.

Riverwalk is in historic downtown Montgomery, Alabama, in the Horseshoe of the Alabama RiverI saw no sign of downtown marinas in Montgomery, but the Riverwalk was at least in use and is considered a good attraction for tourists staying downtown. The project began in 2005 at the cost of at least $20 million. 

Ruth Stevenson, a longtime Montgomery resident who works in the visitor’s center, said that she thinks the Riverwalk is good for downtown and is great for things like concerts, ballgames, weekend events; but it needs to have vendors for daily use by downtown workers.

There used to be a big shopping district centered around Commerce Street in Montgomery“It used to be a big shopping district centered around Commerce Street, but hasn’t been that way for years,” she said of the immediate area around Riverwalk. “It needs a hotdog stand or some ice cream, something to get the lunch crowd down there.”

Richmonders often have the same complaints about the Canal Walk, which cost $52 million to build. Many expected it to be that type of attraction for downtown, especially combined with the construction of the Floodwall (cost at least $143 million) to protect Shockoe Bottom and Manchester from flooding. I’m surmising that at least some of the vision for the greenway between the Canal Walk, Chapel Island, the Virginia Capital Trail, Great Shiplock Park, through the Intermediate Terminal and down to Rocketts Landing and beyond would benefit from some of the elements that Montgomery’s Riverwalk offers.

The comparisons between Richmond and Montgomery are many:

  • Both are state capitals (Virginia and Alabama, respectively)
  • Both were capitals of the Confederacy (Richmond, 1861-65 & Montgomery 4 months of 1861)
  • Both claim key moments in civil rights and black history
  • Both were born from early European colonization (and subsequent eradication Native Americans)
  • Both have heavy downtown freight train traffic (and both have great places to watch trains as well)
  • Both have claims to “firsts” with trolleys:  Montgomery had the first city-wide system of streetcars established in 1886. Richmond had the first successful large electric street railway system in 1888.

There are many more comparisons, but the cities’ relationship to their rivers are the single biggest reason for their establishment at their respective locations. What better way than to take advantage of a great natural resource.

Richmond could someday take better advantage of its tidal waters. Besides Rocketts Landing, there is little development along that stretch of the city and Henrico County. With continued growth in downtown access to the river and with the success James River Park as an outdoor haven should naturally bring renewed attention to development and usage for the greenway between 17th and Dock streets and Rocketts Landing, and perhaps even beyond someday to shores of the proposed Tree Hill Farm development in eastern Henrico.

* * *

February 26, 1961, the Alabama River hit 58.1 feet in Montgomery and stayed above the 35 foot flood stage for 17 days. There was flooding in the streets. The normal water levels on the Alabama in Montgomery are in the 22-25 foot range, according to the National Weather Service.

Water skiing on the Alabama River in Montgomery at RiverwalkAccordingly, railroads are above the 60 foot mark, hoping to avoid flooding. The Riverwalk is built above the 35 foot mark and has a floating dock to serve the Riverboats and motor boats used for water skiing (yes, downtown water skiing!).

The base of Richmond’s skyline is dominated by the James River and the two-mile steel and concrete double-track railway known as the CSX Viaduct. It too is built above the highest expected flood mark. The Floodwall is constructed to withstand flooding of up to 32 feet and its recorded historic crest was 28.62 feet during the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in June 1972.

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2 responses to “Lessons for Richmond & James from Montgomery’s Riverwalk

  1. A couple of things to consider-

    At one point there was a surcharge on City gas bills that went into the General Fund- essentially a double tax on citizens who used gas since the City owns the utility- part of this money was used for buying the Thalheimer’s building downtown as part of the planning for Center Stage (another mess which I will not go into detail here), and part of this money went into the Canal Walk construction. Like Center Stage, the City does not technically own the Canal Walk despite all the public money involved. After citizens like myself and others publicly took issue with the gas bill surcharge, City Manager Jamison finally, quietly got rid of it. By the way, I still have not forgiven Kaine for some of the stuff that happened while he was Mayor.

    Under Mayor Rudy McCollum, the City gave Cordish Corporation a $50 million loan for developing a portion of the Canal Walk. As a citizen, I was appalled given the City’s other needs and I still don’t think the City got a good deal from it. McCollum also presided over City Council when it gave Dominion Resources its Special Use Permit to build its Enron style energy trading floor and high-rise office tower in front of Oregon Hill, which it will never live down as long as I am around. (On the other hand, McCollum does deserve credit for helping the City acquire parcels back for the Parsons Linear Park as well as the R7 zoning for Oregon Hill).

    I will not go into the nitty gritty of more recent river/Canal Walk things, but suffice it say that there have been a lot of special favors and corporate welfare involved over the years in regard to riverfront development in Richmond. In my opinion, this nontransparent behavior has created waste, hurt stewardship, and kept a lot of good development from happening. In other words, its held Richmond back.

    Thankfully, we have had some good people involved as well. Ralph White has done a lot to protect the park areas while encouraging more access and use. Rachel Flynn raised the bar for development proposals and has done a lot to bring in more sunlight and citizens’ views to the planning process.

    Part of the reason I live in Richmond is because of the river amenities and history. My fear is more concrete and glass canyons with more law offices and condos that will not be enjoyed by most Richmond citizens and visitors. Echo Harbor deserves all the scrutiny that can be mustered. While I will continue to be one of Richmond’s ‘citizen watchdogs’ against corporate mischief and bad development, I am for good economic development and river use. While I have been to San Antonio’s Canal Walk and other riverfront cities, and I certainly welcome constructive comparisons to places like Montgomery, I agree that Richmond’s James River is unique and deserves to be treated uniquely. One thing that I think will bring in a future rush of interest is the intersection of the Capital Trail and the East Coast Greenway. I am glad to see Mayor Jones support incremental but smart development like these greenways as apart of a larger plan for the riverfront They will connect neighborhoods and the world to our James River.

    I look forward to what’s next, for this community site and Richmond riverfront development.

  2. Echo Harbor was supposed to have a river walk component that would have been similar to this. Its a shame that it hasnt already been built. This is needed badly.

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