Finding the Right Formula for Libbie & Grove

Chadwick Antiques

Chadwick Antiques

by James A. Bacon

When last we visited the re-development of the Libbie & Grove neighborhood of Richmond (“The Densification of Richmond“), public opposition had stymied the conversion of a BP gas station into a four-story luxury apartment complex. The proposed facility was just too big — it would have been out of place in a district of one- and two-story shops.

But the neighborhood is too desirable for investors just to tuck tail and slink away. A group of investors led by Scott Boyers, who had pushed the BP conversion, now proposes to add a floor to the two-story Chadwick Antiques building nearby and turn the upper two floors into four apartment/condos that would start at 1$ million or rent for $3,000 per month. This proposal, which would not alter the ambiance of the region as dramatically, won unanimous approval from the Libbie Grove Association of merchants.

The Chadwick Antiques proposal follows the development of the Tiber condominium project on nearby Patterson Avenue. Before construction is complete, 10 of the 15 condominium units, which start at $600,000, have sold already.

What’s remarkable about the interest in the Libbie & Grove area is that the commercial district is nothing special architecturally. This is not Park Avenue in Manhattan or Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. The buildings and storefronts are nothing special to behold.

But the area does do a few things right. First, it has a good mix of restaurants, boutiques and professional buildings, not to mention a small grocery store and a movie theater specializing in independent films. The buildings are set back far enough from the street to make room for a wide sidewalk and ample patio seating for the restaurants; on-street parking creates a barrier from the traffic on the busy streets. The area has adequate parking (just barely) and, critically, much of it is tucked away behind the buildings out of sight. There are few  parking lots to detract from the pedestrian experience, although the BP station is hideous and does cry out for redevelopment.

For the most part, Libbie & Grove is the quintessential walkable neighborhood. I dare say that you will see more walkers, joggers and moms pushing baby strollers on Grove Avenue than anywhere else in the Richmond region (with the possible exception of the highly walkable Monument Avenue). As a consequence, people are willing to pay a premium to live nearby.

How to densify. The logic of metropolitan growth and development dictates that there will be considerable pressure to re-develop places like Libbie & Grove. What we have learned is that Richmonders are open to change — the response to the Chadwick proposal has been very positive — but change has to be incremental. Three-story buildings in the neighborhood are OK; four stories on a large-footprint building that would stand out like a sore thumb are not.

Over time, we’ll see more re-development. I expect to see some tear-downs — the 7 Eleven on Libbie is not only an eyesore but could be converted into a much higher-value property if three-story buildings become the new norm. Some of the smaller, less attractive single-family dwellings along Libbie and some side streets could bite the construction ball as well. Change will be incremental, stretching out over a decade or more. Measured change that occurs property by property is far less likely to inspire a backlash by nearby residents than if a big developer swooped in with grand plans to transform the neighborhood. All’s well that ends well.

15 Responses to Finding the Right Formula for Libbie & Grove

  1. Very true observations, Jim. What saddens me is that the intersection of Boulevard and Forest Hill on the Southside, just over the Nickel Bridge, had the same architectural “bones” as Libby & Grove but not the same vision. The caretakers of the Southside locale allowed their historic theater to become a store-front church, and allowed Walgreen’s and CVS to build their standard store footprint, including the large set-back, ruining the place for decades, perhaps forever. I would love to know how much the homeowners of Westover Hills collectively forfeited in lost property values when they failed to claim that intersection, one that is walking or cycling distance from their homes, and make it as attractive as Libby & Grove with its proposed million dollar condos. The Southsiders missed an opportunity that makes me sad every time I drive through their intersection ~ without stopping.

    • I know the intersection you’re referring to. You’re right, inserting a suburban-footprint CVS and Walgreens was very damaging. Those buildings probably take 30 years to amortize. They’re locked into that configuration for at least that long. What a shame.

  2. so… how do you do this? free-market or central planning?

    does anyone find the idea of having others decide what a particular “footprint” should look like – umm… not free market?

    If you are a strong Conservative who believes in property rights – how would you approach the idea of how a community “should look”?

    should the community itself – have some say over property rights of individual parcels?

    • One thing you do is NOT impose parking requirements that force stores like CVS and Walgreens to surround themselves with parking lots that sit mostly empty almost al the time. Nothing destroys walkability like a large parking lot.

  3. who makes that decision ? the entrepreneur of the CVS/Walgreens or the community?

    yes, I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here.. as a Conservative, do you sign on to central planning decided by people other than the entrepreneur?

    p.s. I much LIKE CVS’s and McDonalds that look like the rest of the community but that does take rules instituted by someone besides the entrepreneur … “forced” on the property owner… nasty regulations… etc al.

    correct?

  4. Larry, the question you’re really asking me is if I approve of having any zoning regulations at all. I’m conflicted. I think zoning codes are at the root of a lot our land use dysfunction. But you can’t do away with them entirely. The solution may be to move from use-based codes (which are near universal in the U.S.) to form-base codes. But I freely admit that I need to bone up on the subject.

  5. Eureka! I think… but I suspect that some of the more virulent anti-code types would consider form-based to be just as “coercive” as used-based.

    zoning done initially by cities early on was different than later zoning done in suburbs where uses themselves were deemed to be separated – i.e. no muffler repair shop next to residential, etc…

    but you’d still need use-based zoning also. You’d not want a slaughterhouse with a perfectly-matching form-based front… either….

    so we’re back to who decides and the more strident of the property rights folks will say that no one else – not the community and not the govt should be able to tell you what to do with your property.

    and once you cross that line and give power to someone to make those decisions (which I suspect MOST Conservatives would grudgingly admit), then how do you limit and control the use of that power?

  6. so taking the Libbie and Grove case….

    what would be the standard progressive approach to the issue?

    and what would be the Conservative Smart Growth, market-based approach?

    how would they differ?

    how would the Conservative approach be better?

    • Some fat for your fire may be found in my earliest writings on land use in this website. Try the Fiscal Fix for example. You’ve later said you understood none of it. Perhaps now you’ll say the same, or go into some rant on right wing blather or some such – who can tell. Perhaps too, you might surprise yourself – even plunge headlong into a Eureka moment – who knows.

      • No Reed. A pretty simple question. Compare and contrast the “progressive” and “conservative” way to go about this.

        pretty simple. just pretend that I know nothing (or believe it) – either way it’s a straight forward question.

  7. This is a terrific topic, larryg, and I hope the discussion continues. Personally I think there’s a lot to be said for form based zoning without the use based overlay. Look at the few remnants of pre-zoning commercial uses in the Fan, for example, which most consider a plus when in a compatible form. Libbie & Grove is actually one of those, born of the Westhampton streetcar-based neighborhood shops I remember from the 50s. High density does not have to mean high height – there’s nothing monstrous about LA’s Rodeo Drive area for example – mostly 2 story shops – yet it’s world famous. And why shouldn’t folks be able to live upstairs over the shops? But an abatoir next door, no – not sure how best to get there but through market forces. BTW, it’s interesting to see the Grove Ave setback praised for allowing pedestrian-friendly dining etc, but not for parking or any other function; seems we ‘d prefer no setback to that.

  8. I actually think living upstairs over a shop is awesome! And you may be right that use zoning has evolved – but I still can think of some uses you’d not want where there is residential or retail commercial.

    but I do agree – that when zoning went from cities to suburbs – it went sideways and tried to segregate more than it should have.

    but my other question goes to JimB and Reed and others who tend to highlight the difference between “progress” approaches to “planning” and Conservative approaches to planning.

    I do not see how you do this kind of planning without some authoritative, top-down central planning myself but I’ll admit that maybe I have not thought “hard enough” about how a more free-market, entrepreneurial approach would work “better”.

    So I want to learn more ..but I admit I’m a skeptic ..

    I will admit that down my way – the planners have now agreed to put a max zoning on a large parcel and let the developer decide how to allocate the interior design and uses…between different housing types and retail, office.
    there are agreements about overall traffic generation, schools and taxes sufficient to pay for govt provisioned services …. ;it’s a bit of leap of faith on the part of planners… they want performance benchmarks and the developer – not so much (of course).

    this is “greenfield” whereas where you are talking is re-development..

  9. re: greenfield vs re-development…

    there’s an irony here also and that is that there is angst over CVS doing something the rules allow – when the narrative from Smart Growth “conservatives” these days is that cities have too restrictive zoning that drives business out and causes “sprawl”.

    I wonder if Jim Bacon would advocate stricter forms-based zoning than is in place now – and if he would, how he’d justify it as a free-market conservative approach better than that nasty progressive central planning approach.

  10. Whether it comes from the private or public sector, leadership is needed to make anything succeed. Perhaps such leadership existed on the Southside and they got exactly what they wanted, but I strongly doubt it.

    Here’s how the conversation might have gone at a Westover Hills community meeting 20 years ago:
    Leader: “CVS and Walgreen want to build their standard footprint at our intersection. Studies have shown that if they do, your house and mine could lose as much as X% in value, whereas if we push them to adapt to our vision for a Libby & Grove style intersection, our property values could increase by Y%. What say you, people?”
    The People: “Push them, oh leader, push them!”

    As the good book says, “The people perish for a lack of vision.”

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