Community Productions: A Wellness Center Sparking Change

A successful community design project is not unlike a well-orchestrated theatrical production; there’s a setting, the place all of the action occurs. There’s a cast of characters working together to create a captivating production; in this case, a community space that spurs needed change. And then there’s the dialogue—here, often months or even years of it, in the form of neighborhood meetings, workshops, and design charrettes. Simply put, community design projects are often intense productions—investments in time, money, and spirit from many.

That was certainly the case for the Bon Secours Center for Healthy Living Sarah Garland Jones Center. Envisioned as an eatery, community gathering space, and job skills center, the 4,900-SF health and wellness facility—which includes the Front Porch Café, meeting and training spaces, and a 1,100-SF commercial-grade community kitchen—is sparking catalytic development within the area.

The short story of how it unfolded: Seeking to create change in the traditionally underserved neighborhood of Richmond’s East End, Bon Secours Richmond Health System partnered with Baskervill—along with others—to redevelop a beloved yet dilapidated landmark, the former Parsley’s gas station. But this isn’t the Reader’s Digest version; this is a front-row seat to all the action and characters who made the center come to life—a behind-the-scenes look at the center’s past, present, and bright future.

Before we open curtains on this tale, let’s set the scene.

The story of the Bon Secours Center for Healthy Living Sarah Garland Jones Center begins in Richmond’s East End, a neighborhood widely considered a food desert and burdened in recent years with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and high cholesterol.

“We certainly need to see better health outcomes in this zip code,” says Albert Walker, director of the center, which is owned and operated by Bon Secours Richmond Health System. “It’s a neighborhood unnecessarily vulnerable to preventable diseases,”—a key reason Bon Secours wanted to create a resource that would help residents learn healthy habits by focusing on the most powerful tool we have at our disposal in the fight against preventative disease: the food we eat.

The site of the center is advantageous. It’s highly visible to hospital visitors and employees driving in and out of the neighborhood, and is also within walking distance of the neighborhood’s many residential areas (both new and old), making it a prime spot for a cross-section of the community to gather, says Albert.

So who were the key players involved in making it all happen? Let’s meet the cast.

“A lot of people were involved in the design process for such a small building,” jokes Principal Burt Pinnock, AIA, the lead architect (and dare we say design director?) behind the project. “But each voice was important and necessary to its overall success.”

For most projects, he says, a client comes to you with an idea, and you deliver a design that matches. In many community design projects like this one, the architect is part of the ideation process, helping the clients and community stakeholders figure out the best function of the building and space. And that means listening very closely to many stakeholders.

Parsley’s Garage was quite the community hub back in its day, says Sheena Mayfield, AIA, the lead designer on the project. What she heard in the workshops our team facilitated was that the spot was more than a carwash and convenience store. It was a landmark, a place for neighbors to spontaneously run into each other, and they were missing that sort of interaction and connection.

Those community meetings were critical to the process, she says. “Projects will fail if the people who live and work in the area feel neglected and unheard.”

It’s only after these voices are heard that a design can unfold—and that can take some time, adds Burt. “It was well over a year before we even started to put pencil to paper.”

With every conversation had, the project’s goal kept circling back to the building’s original life as a community connector, and soon our goal became clear: design a modern facility complete with a commercial kitchen, community room, café space, and outdoor amenities that would enrich the surrounding neighborhood, all while preserving the history of the former gas station.

The building’s 1950s-era form and gritty industrial character served as a starting point for our design team. We polished the concrete, used oil drums as light fixtures, and worked with the building’s garage door openings to create an open-air feel. Then we layered in more rustic elements, such as reclaimed wood siding, to the building’s existing industrial vernacular, creating a casual and modern vibe that is warm and welcoming—the epitome of a modern-day front porch.

The original gas pump canopy was repurposed, transforming the spot into a sitting area for the center’s Front Porch Café (which acts as a job skills lab for neighborhood teens to learn workforce readiness)—complete with speakers and wireless internet. Local urban farms also use the canopy as a pop-up farmer’s market, which provides the neighborhood a place to buy fresh, locally grown produce.

It has quickly become a neighborhood catalyst, jumpstarting the needed change everyone involved had hoped it would. Making their debuts soon are a much-needed grocery store and culinary institute. (Insert rousing applause here.)

Tabitha Monroe Gregory, RD, is the manager of community health, wellness, and nutrition for Bon Secours. She works with a team of dieticians that have been tapped to engage the community in new and creative ways. The center is a pivotal player in their mission, serving as headquarters for their nutrition outreach efforts, which include programs like a mobile learning kitchen, weight management classes, an eight-week healthy cooking series, and a garden-based nutrition workshop to teach elementary-aged students how their food is grown.

The dieticians use the center’s commercial-grade teaching kitchen as a laboratory to create and test new recipes, which they then share with classes either in the kitchen or in the center’s community room. The kitchen is also used by CHAT as an incubator to grow the Front Porch Café, which allows the nonprofit to teach more extensive culinary skills to the teens who work there. So far, both endeavors have been a resounding success; the café is hopping with activity at breakfast and lunch, and the center has seen a steady lineup of community organizations using the space to bring wellness education to the public.

Albert sees a bright future at the Sarah Garland Jones Center. “The nation as a whole is increasingly divided by things like our income or our race, and when you look at a neighborhood like this, which has experienced rapid growth in recent years, I think it reflects this pattern,” he says. “We need places like this to serve as a neighborhood epicenter to celebrate community connection and strength, not division and deficit.”

And that, says Burt, is the essence of community design.


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