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Southside "Green Street" Raises Importance of Community Engagement, Maintenance

creek
The waterways near Bellemeade flow into the James River. An important step to keeping pollution out of the river starts with the storm drains near this creek, which can capture stormwater overflow with the right plants and engineering. (Photo: Clara Haizlett/VPM News)

Clara Haizlett reported this story.

Construction is underway to install a “green street” in Southside Richmond. It’s one of many environmental initiatives taking place in the Bellemeade community, although long-term success rests on maintenance and effective community engagement.

The Green Street refers to about five blocks of Minefee Street that connect residents from Hillside Court to the community center, elementary school, and the local park. 

The project involves replacing concrete with soil and vegetation, installing systems that help filter stormwater runoff, and eventually building a bike and pedestrian path. 

Several organizations have supported the project, including Groundwork RVA, the James River Association, the City of Richmond, and the Virginia Department of Forestry.

Nearly a decade after the initial planning, implementation is in its early stages. Native vegetation lines the five block stretch and contractors are digging a bioretention area to capture stormwater runoff at the top of Minefee Street. 

Justin Doyle, JRA’s community conservation manager, says the soil and plants in the bioretention area will capture pollutants in stormwater before they enter into waterways, like nearby Albro  Creek, which ultimately flows into the James River.

“Any pollution that is entering Albro Creek here is ultimately impacting the health of the James,” Doyle said. 

Doyle says the plants and trees will also help mitigate the urban heat island effect that subjects  many parts of the city to extreme heat. 

Although the installation of the bioremediation area looks promising, Doyle says green infrastructure needs to be maintained in order to serve its intended purpose. 

He pointed out another stormwater filtration system, a filterra, that was installed on the street a few years ago. Instead of plants growing in the intended space, the filterra was clogged with leaves, plastic bottles and trash, defeating the purpose of the system all together. Doyle said it’s a “poster child for poor maintenance.” 

He tied that back to the importance of funding green infrastructure maintenance. 

“A lot of grants want to pay for new infrastructure,” he said. “And so maintaining something like this in perpetuity is a little bit difficult for us, because the resources aren't necessarily there.” 

Doyle says he’s confident they will be able to secure at least three years worth of funding for maintenance on Green Street, but it’s unclear what comes after. 

bump out
"Bump outs" serve multiple purposes: They add greenspace without impeding sidewalk use, prevent parking in the turn radius of intersections and can slow speeding traffic. But some neighbors say these bump outs are making it too hard to park in their neighborhoods. (Photo courtesy James River Association)

During a recent visit to the site, some residents said they don’t understand the project, or disagree with parts of the implementation - although Doyle says multiple community meetings were held throughout the planning process.

One resident, who preferred to remain anonymous, was unhappy with the planters, which protrude into the narrow street. They said they’re just “in the way.” Others, including Patrice Shelton, the former president of the Hillside Court Tenants Council, shared that criticism. 

“The street is public access but [tenants] are paying rent to live here. And then their parking space is gone,” she said. 

Shelton is a long-time community advocate who supports the incorporation of more green spaces into the community. But she says the parking controversy points to a larger issue: Often, outside organizations make decisions without effectively communicating with Hillside Court residents, and residents of public housing in general. She says in the future, she would like to see better community engagement.

“It's an effort that needs to be taken,” she said. “It's not going to be easy, because it needs to be a trust building thing.” 

Some residents of Hillside Court say the environmental efforts are positive, and a needed investment in an underfunded community that suffers disproportionate crime and poverty rates. 

Alyasia Shaw, a recent high school graduate who grew up in the surrounding neighborhood, says she’d like to see the project expanded to other streets in the neighborhood, especially near the other public housing complexes that surround the elementary school. 

Since elementary school, Shaw has been actively involved with greening efforts in the community, which she refers to by its zip code: 23224. 

“The whole issue with this area is how little funding comes in here. And how little recognition comes to this community,” she said. 

But she says that’s been changing over the years. She largely credits the work of Robert Argabright, “Mr. Bob,” the de facto steward of Bellemeade Park.

people standing close
Shaw with Argabright, "Mr. Bob," who she credits with many of the positive changes in her neighborhood. (Photo: Clara Haizlett/VPM News)

Argabright is a retired business executive who became involved with the elementary school about 17 years ago through a church outreach program. Since then, he’s spearheaded various initiatives to engage youth and transform the six acre Bellemeade Park into an outdoor learning campus. 

A once empty field, today the park has a bike repair shop, a youth garden, native vegetation, a rain garden and a Saturday outdoor club. 

When Argabright started volunteering almost two decades ago, he says residents were skeptical that he would stick around. 

“You have to show people that you don't come in and leave the next day,” Argabright said. He’s been involved in the Green Street efforts since the beginning. 

“One of the key things that the community wanted, they wanted a safe passage from Hillside Court into the park,” he said. 

The second phase of the project will address that need with the installation of a bike and pedestrian path along the Green Street portion of Minefee. 

Patrice Shelton says she supports that initiative - which will allow kids who live in Hillside Court to safely walk and bike to the school, park and community center. 

She’s also hopeful that kids will benefit from the improvements underway at Bellemeade Park, but she’d like to see the attention and resources more evenly spread out among other underserved communities in the area. 

“We have so many other things in the community and in the surrounding communities that could be done,” she said. “If they build up one community to the fullest capacity, then hopefully they will move on to the next thing.” 

This stage of the project is expected to wrap up by the end of June and will be followed by the installation of the bike and pedestrian lane.