Residents worried Canal Walk murals won’t be truly public art anymore

If there is one thing Richmond artist Mickael Broth knows for certain, it is that public art does not last forever.

“That’s the nature of it,” said Broth, who twice has painted murals featured along Richmond’s Riverfront Canal Walk on the downtown banks of the James River. “It’s not forever, and you should let it go.”

Broth would know. His artistic background is in graffiti, which regularly appears and then disappears without a trace. In fact, before he became involved in the RVA Street Art Festival and worked on the murals project, Broth spent ten months in jail on vandalism charges for a piece of graffiti artwork that was covered up almost as soon as he had finished it.







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Mickael Broth poses for a photo near his mural at the former power plant at Haxall Point on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.




And yet, while Broth well understands the fleeting nature of public art, he also is among the Richmond residents who are anxious that the recently announced re-development of the Haxall hydroelectric plant will mean the loss of the canal-side mural exhibit that Richmond has come to love dearly.

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“Free, easily accessible public access is important … to (art) and to the culture of this city,” Broth said. “I personally am concerned that putting anything — a court, or bar — in front of the murals essentially turns them into background and removes (their) power.”

Alex Nordheimer of D.C.-based Nordheimer Companies — one of the developers involved in the project to transform the Haxall plant — has vowed that the murals are not going anywhere.

“We love the murals,” Nordheimer said. “We think they’ll be a huge asset.”

But for Broth, it is that very idea — the notion of the murals as assets, and not “a space to view free public art” — that is perhaps most worrisome.







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A tall tower is part of the Haxall hydro plant. The developers of the new space thought Haxall had everything they were looking for in building a racket sports venue.




‘A reprieve of beauty’

Nordheimer Companies and local development firm Thalhimer Realty Partners in December announced the acquisition and conversion of the historic Haxall plant into a racket sports venue and food-and-beverage concept that will be called Padel Plant.

The building, which formerly harnessed water from the city’s canal system to generate power for Richmond’s downtown infrastructure, has sat empty and virtually unused since it was shuttered in 1965. Developers have said the revamped facility, which is slated to open this summer, will “reinvigorate the Canal Walk and breathe life into Shockoe Slip.”

But some Richmond residents are skeptical.

In 2012, an exterior wall of the abandoned building was the site of the inaugural RVA Street Art Festival. Artists from Richmond and around the globe painted murals before a large audience in the public space, and the artworks quickly won the hearts of Richmond residents.

Andrew Crider, who lives just a few blocks from the murals, called them a “reprieve of beauty on the reflection of a dilapidated industrial building.”

Crider first encountered the murals during a run along the canal right after he moved to Richmond. They immediately captured his affection, he said.

“That … facility is very important to members of our community,” Crider said. 

Crider and Broth both expressed many of the same fears: that the repurposing of the Haxall plant would reduce the murals to a mere backdrop for a commercial space, or perhaps even destroy them entirely.

“Any sort of paywall absolutely defeats the purpose of freely accessible public art and turns it into a commodity: a backdrop to a money-making venture, which is not at all what they were intended to be,” Broth said.







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Mickael Broth poses for a photo near his mural at the former power plant at Haxall Point on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.




‘A place to really hang out’

In response to public concern, developers sought to assure the murals’ admirers that the artworks were in good hands.

Nordheimer said that, while he could not promise that “none of the murals would be touched,” preserving a majority of the art was a priority of the development team. 

“We put a lot of thought into keeping as many of (the murals) as possible in our plans,” Nordheimer said.

Drew Wiltshire, principal at Thalhimer, confirmed that a small portion of the mural wall would be removed, but that the rest will “by and large remain unchanged.” 







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A visitor takes a photo of Nils Westergard’s mural “Opossum” at the Power Plant building along the Haxall Canal.




The murals will be “completely open to the public,” Nordheimer said.

“You’re free to walk in and look at them,” he said.

Nordheimer also argued that the Padel Plant will enhance rather than detract from the murals.

“We want to take this building — this area that has the potential to be so much more than it currently is as just a canvas for art — and add in those amenities and make it a place to really hang out instead of a place to just walk in and leave,” he said.

“People just need to decide what they would rather see,” he added. “If they’d rather see an empty space for longer, that’s an option. But we really hope to create a social hub over there … to really bring the Canal Walk up to its full potential.”







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Mickael Broth poses for a photo near his mural at the former power plant at Haxall Point on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024.




An “empty space” is precisely what Crider would like to see.

“(The murals are) a solemn reminder of the eras that our city has lived through, and the beauty that can be found in once mighty, but now abandoned places in Richmond,” he said. “I’d like to see the space preserved as is.”

As for Broth? He said he and others had talked to developers about the prospect of creating a public park at the site of the murals, but reported that the developers were “unreceptive to the idea.”

“We’ll see,” Broth said. “I hope (the developers) are committed to unencumbered access.”

Samuel B. Parker (804) 649-6462

sparker@timesdispatch.com

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