RICHMOND, Va. -- Few modern leaders have changed Richmond as much as Dr. Eugene Trani, president emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University.
He's the man who dramatically built out VCU downtown when violent crime nearly killed the city in the '80s and '90s, re-shaping the heart of Richmond as a college town.
Now Trani wants to help shape a new downtown around a high-speed rail station on the Boulevard in booming midtown.
"We've got 325 acres and I believe the development of this (midtown) area will be accelerated dramatically by the train station being located there," he said this week.
It's an idea he's pushed for a year now, bucking the plan (and nearly $100 million in renovations) that would make Main Street Station in Shockoe Bottom the high-speed rail sweet spot for our area.
"That's the worst possible situation," Trani said. "Main Street doesn't have the capacity to handle the trains, it can't expand the tracks there and they've got all kind of barriers."
There's no question Main Street's rail lines - shared with freight traffic - aren't ideally situated for a brisk stop downtown in a north-south race from D.C. to Raleigh.
And while there is seemingly plenty of parking in the area, much of that is taken up by current state workers working 9-5 Monday through Friday.
Trani said adding needed parking decks and attracting businesses would collide with efforts to preserve to historic slave-trade grounds surrounding much of Main Street Station, which played a role in stalling a plan for a ballpark there.
After much study, the state Department of Rail and Public Transportation recently recommended two high-speed rail stops in Richmond, Main Street Station and the current main area passenger station on Staples Mill in Henrico County, well north and west of downtown. (There will be public comments and wrangling by local political leaders and others.)
Staples Mill is a low, strip-mall looking station with limited parking, surrounded by real strip malls some distance from any freeways.
"My fear is the train station will be at Staples Mill, because Main Street Station is never going to make it," Trani said. "And why would you want your train station that far from downtown Richmond?"
Trani's suggested spot for the Boulevard is within sight of the city's original train station (now the Science Museum of Virginia) and is surrounded by what has become a new and thriving residential and entertainment district, with lots of breweries, wineries, restaurants and museums, along with Richmond's ballpark, soccer field and movie theater.
There is lots of city-owned property and other land and buildings ripe for development, and Trani said he knows of national corporations interested in a move if high-speed rail is centered there.
Trani believes Main Street Station could house Virginia's slavery museum - it's right in the middle of all that history. Outside of New Orleans, he said, Richmond was the slave-trade capital of the U.S. and must host a Virginia museum. (He also favors a slavery museum at the 1780 First Baptist Church, which still stands solidly at E. Broad and College streets.)
But a ton of money has been spent revamping the tracks at Staples Mill and much more will be consumed untangling the lines shared by freight and passenger traffic in our area. A
big parking expansion is next at Staples Mill.
And let's not forget the $90-plus million spent on the latest Main Street Station renovation to make it ready for high-speed.
But the man who helped save Richmond a quarter-century is not giving up on his plan to re-center the city.
"I think this is the future of Richmond," the 77-year-old Trani said. "I think this would be a missed opportunity if we did not fully exploit this more than 300-acre site and relocate the train station."