The Anatomy of a Master Plan: Part 1
Cohere was approached by Philadelphia-based design firm WRT Design, a firm known for its innovative architectural, planning, and landscape work. Projects like The Steel Stacks, Adobe’s Campus, and Philadelphia’s City Hall are iconic as much as they are inspiring examples of their work. To say we were thrilled at the chance to collaborate with such a team would be an understatement.
The project at hand: Research, strategize, brand, conceptualize, and promote a master plan for the city of Danville, Virginia. The subject: A 90+ acre campus of abandoned manufacturing real estate and wasteland-like landscape in the heart of an iconic southern city.
Throughout the 12-month process of creating a master plan for the Schoolfield District in Danville, VA, Cohere along with WRT will be documenting the work, strategy, coordination, and ideation that goes into the in-depth process of reimagining a place such as this – essentially a “blank canvas” of opportunity. Taking what was once a thriving textile industry and reimagining what it could be; what it should be.
Coming to the table (literally, gathering with the team and community members in Danville), there was decades of stories to digest and consider as we began to understand the importance of what was in front of us. That began with understanding the history of the town and hearing directly from its people: the people this master plan will ultimately serve.
At the height of production, the 1940s, the mill employed over 15,000 workers. The mill was the lifeblood of the surrounding communities who both benefited from the rise of industrial production and endured the decline of the industry. Much of the cultural identity of the city was and continues to be linked to this now underutilized industrial site which stands as a reminder of loss and hardship as well as hard-won prosperity and industrial prowess.
The planning process and the Master Plan will seek to lift up and amplify this history. Reconnecting this dormant site to the spine of Danville (River District and Old West End) and the surrounding neighborhoods, protecting important viewsheds, re-purposing historic structures, welcoming a variety of new uses including education, research, and production, and green space, providing new amenities, displaying interpretive signage, and hosting multi-media experiences can all help to celebrate this history as people navigate through the newly re-envisioned site.
Schoolfield, established in 1903 as a textile mill village, founded Riverside Cotton Mills (later Dan River Mills). By the 1920’s, this company town-complete with a school, churches, stores, a theater, and other recreational facilities – was home to over 4,500 residents, mostly mill employees and their families, living in some 800 rental houses. A strike in 1930 ended a decade of employer/employee cooperation known as “industrial democracy” yet the community’s tradition of neighborhood and family life continued to flourish. Danville, VA annexed Schoolfield in 1951. The site has sat dormant since the 1970s.
Much of the cultural identity of the city was and continues to be linked to this now underutilized industrial site which stands as a reminder of loss and hardship as well as hard-won prosperity and industrial prowess.
Schoolfield Smoke Stacks, approx. 1950
Schoolfield Smoke Stacks, 2020
Dan River was more than a job. It was a way of life.Esther Pearson, 46-year mill employee
While the mill is now closed, there is an opportunity to return this site to its rightful place in the collective consciousness of the community as a “village”—a hub of activity where companies, workers and their families, small business owners, students, and makers from all walks of life coexist in a vibrant, green, and connected campus.
For now, we are highly focused on engaging the community in understanding their goals for what the site can be. We don’t want to prescribe anything. In doing so, we seek inspiration from not only from community meetings, but from historic artifacts, photos, and relics.
Dan River Inc.
“For nearly 126 years, textiles sustained a way of life in Danville. To endure, the community lifeblood ultimately known as Dan River Inc. couldn’t stagnate.
Continual challenges — competition, industry advances, recessions, wars, bankruptcy filings and even a hostile takeover — compelled Dan River to grow, evolve and die.
This necessitated vision, continued investment and innovation to stay on the cutting edge. Most importantly, survival meant leveraging the company’s fundamental asset — its people.
The people, former company leaders and employees said, floated Dan River as its business “ebbed and flowed” through the years.”
-The Rise and Fall of Dan River Inc. by Tara Bozick
To this day, in the community meetings and engagement sessions Cohere and WRT have conducted, people have been at the center of our focus. There are countless residents of Danville with direct connections to extended family who worked at Schoolfield and Dan River, and many who worked there themselves. We hear stories of the “Schoolfield boys” or “Schoolfield girls,” as endearing ways to reference those that were part of that history and cohort of families. But, as we learned, that history was not all peachy. The “company town” was essentially a village exclusively for white people, segregating themselves and keeping the area’s jobs for themselves as an earlier influx of freed slaves were allowed to own land and operate businesses of their own, making it harder for the poor white rural farmers to make a living. Schoolfield brought them in and provided shelter and employment.
And for that reason, history alone can’t be the focus of our work. History isn’t always kind to everyone, not does it ever usually include everyone.
We need to look ahead, to imagine and ask ourselves – What does the NEW Schoolfield look like? What does an inclusive Schoolfield look like?
That will be the subject of our next installation as we devise a brand and strategy to engage the community and tell the next story of this massive redevelopment effort.
A selection of Dan River fabric advertising (1960s)