Walkable Urbanism Takes Root in Virginia Beach

Intersection of Independence and Virginia Beach Boulevard.

Intersection of Independence and Virginia Beach Boulevards.

by James A. Bacon

Back in the pre-PowerPoint days when people used slide projectors, New Urbanist evangelist Andres Duany traveled around the country with a carousel of slides to illustrate the horrors that poor planning had inflicted upon the urban landscape. One of those slides, I recall, was an aerial shot of the intersection of Independence Boulevard and Virginia Beach Boulevard where 22 lanes (11 for each road, by my count) collided in a jumble of lanes. Making matters worse, the buildings on all corners were surrounded by acres of parking lots. It was a classic case of planning dedicated to the “care and feeding of automobiles,” in Duany’s phrase, that created terrain utterly inhospitable to walking. It made quite an impression upon me that one of the nation’s leading architects had singled out a corner of my home state as a paragon of poor planning.

But times change, and a group of architects, property owners and businessmen have spent the past two decades extricating the so-called Pembroke area of Virginia Beach from the clutches of auto-centric design. To date, they have carved out a walkable, mixed-use district of nine or 10 blocks, designated Town Center. The goal always has been to expand from this nucleus into neighboring blocks, with a vision of creating an urban “downtown” for Virginia Beach, which, outside the resort area, is as shapeless and formless as an amoeba.

So, it comes as encouraging news that the City of Virginia Beach, presumably after long and bureaucratic deliberation, is on the verge of implementing new zoning regulations for the CBD. As Gabriella Souza describes the thrust of the new zoning regs for the Virginian-Pilot:

Shops and restaurants should sit close to the street. Signs should convey an urban ambiance. And don’t even think about constructing buildings with windowless, blank walls. … The goal is to encourage more urban development in the area, to move away from strip malls and parking lots.

Think more walkable areas, public art and buildings that rise up rather than sprawl outward, said city planner Ashby Moss.

cbd

Area of the Central Business District Core.

City staff will make a presentation about the updated zoning regulations at a public hearing tonight. Judging from the comments under the article, there is a lot of hostility to the idea. As one resident commented:

If you look to the south you can catch a glimpse of the used car lot and garage that is the iconic entrance to Town Center. Or if you prefer, look north and see the historic site (now a parking lot) where the famed Beacon building once stood. Each of these debacles cost the taxpayers $5 million. You’ve got to love that “vision” thing. … You really can’t make this stuff up.

Density is bad, developers are greed-heads, City Hall is squandering tax dollars, etc. Clearly, city officials and the CBD business leaders have a major public relations challenge overcoming the Not In My Back Yard syndrome. In response, I would emphasize a couple of points:

  1. If you don’t like the idea of living in a compact urban environment, then don’t. Nobody’s making you move there. But other people want to partake in walkable urbanism. Who the hell are you to deprive them of that choice?
  2. Compact, mixed-use development creates five to ten times more revenue-per-acre than conventional suburban subdivisions and shopping centers — but they actually cost less per acre to maintain and provide with city services. Properly done, mixed-use development can augment the tax base and reduce the pressure for higher taxes.
  3. Mixed-use development can support mass transit such as buses and, possibly, an extension of the Tide light rail line. The more people who live and work within walking distance of the station, the more people who will use it… and pay fares… and reduce the rail line’s operating costs. When more people walk and ride transit, there are fewer people clogging the roads.

I would side with the anti-urbanism populists on one issue: City policy could generate windfall profits for wealthy landowners. If the city decides to extend the Tide as far as Pembroke, and if it decides to increase development densities there, then land owners will see a surge in property values that they did nothing (other than lobby legislators) to create. To help finance the rail line, the city should set up a Community Development Authority within a 1/4-mile walking radius of the station, taxing property owners to help pay back the bonds used to finance the rail project. Perhaps a formula could be devised so that the tax would vary in direct proportion to which land owners benefit from increased density allowances.

While the city should bend every effort to encourage the private sector to re-develop the area, it should not do by shifting the burden of building and maintaining infrastructure to the general public.

Now, if the planners can just figure out what to do with Virginia Beach and Independence boulevards, those uncrossable asphalt causeways that divide the district into hermetically sealed quadrants. Converting them into so-called “complete streets” by shaving off a couple lanes each direction for bicycles and pedestrians could make Pembroke a really exciting place to live and do business.

25 Responses to Walkable Urbanism Takes Root in Virginia Beach

  1. Boy you just LOVE this ‘cramped living’ stuff don’t you?

    “Density is bad” – yup
    “developers are greed-heads” – yup
    “City Hall is squandering tax dollars” – yup

    “If you don’t like the idea of living in a compact urban environment, then don’t. Nobody’s making you move there. But other people want to partake in walkable urbanism. Who the hell are you to deprive them of that choice?” I don’t wish to deprive them of that choice, but it goes back to how is the zoning being done/used? In the past zoning favored automobile centric lifestyles. You are now advocating to favor ‘walkable urban’ lifestyles. So which choice is being denied? Say what you want about Houston, but lack of zoning certainly has it’s pluses. A developer developes a section, puts in basically an HOA and that becomes a homes area. An area outside the HOA can (and does) become manufactoring, or business or maybe another residential that doesn’t have a HOA or a different HOA. It’s sort of a zoning by proxy, but it certainly seems/feels like it’s based on market rather than government. I’ve certainly seen my fair share (up in Oregon) of areas that the government dictated will be a ‘mixed-use’ and or a TOD, or a ton of other cutsie ideas that government types thought would work (because we all know that they know better than the little people); and they didn’t. They had a pathetic track record yet the waste of taxpayer money and really bad ideas continue. You want to build your mixed-use area – go for it, but it shouldn’t be mandated by government. If you can find enough people who want to live there, your gamble paid off, if you can’t you lose, period. Ditto just SFH areas, ditto industrial, retail, manufactoring areas. Get the damn government out of it short of things for health (must have this much water and sewer capacity for X number of people or type of industry).

    The picture did remind me of the one place that I’ve seen similar streets and the solution to that. Las Vegas – they have sky bridges that safely allow patrons to walk from casino to casino without having to deal with the number of cars on the incredibily busy streets, not to mention the heat factor.

    Oh, and your idea of setting up a “Community Development Authority ” – I call bunk on that. They did something very similar to that in Oregon and my small business, which attracted NO walkin business (it was a home business and when necessary we would DRIVE to meet our clients), we still had to pay a transit tax just because of our proximity to a bus stop – yeah, that one still burns my butt.

    In this man’s opinion, you want your urban living, build it, if they like it they will come. Meanwhile allow someone else to buy the land next to it and build a SFH development and build SFH’s, if they (the public) like it, they will come. Yes, there is a percentage of people who LOVE the urban flavor, good for them, they should be able to buy without the government encouraging or discouraging it. Likewise, there is a percentage of people who LOVE having a SFH, likewise they should be able to buy without the government encouraging or discouraging. This is another example of the government going someplace that it really doesn’t need to be.

    • Accurate, virtually the entirety of Virginia Beach is built around the auto-centric lifestyle. Creating an island of walkability in one small business district will not interfere with anyone’s freedom to live how they please. I’m really quite startled by your stridency and your apparent willingness to coerce others into your vision of society.

      I thought conservatives were live-and-let-live types. Leave me along and let me live the way I want to, and I’ll leave you alone. I guess I was wrong.

      • As I said Jim, you want to live in a urban setting, go for it; but should the government slant zoning/building codes to encourage that? Nor do I think that government should slant zoning and codes to encourage SFH. I am very much a market driven guy. You find a developer who knows/thinks that he sees a market for mixed use, a niche that people will flock to, let him build it and see if he’s right. If he’s right he’ll be a rich man. What I strongly dislike is the government stacking the deck to tip the scale towards one or the other. It’s obvious that given the choice, you’d choose urban and I wouldn’t – I’d love to see two developers allowed to give both of us that choice, not the government putting it’s thumb on the scale and then telling us to make the choice. I’m not trying to coerce anyone (like I would be able to convince you), I’m ticked that we both don’t have equal opportunity to make a choice coming from a level playing field.

        • Accurate:

          How does the government do transportation planning if there is no zoning. For a moment, let’s use what has become a dirty four letter word on this blog – road. If there are 200 undeveloped acres in a city and the government has no say in how it will be developed how can the government ensure adequate road access. If the 200 acres becomes 200 SFH that’s one road problem. If the 200 acres are used for 10 multi-unit dwellings that’s a different road problem.

          In Virginia, it can take 30 years to build a bypass (witness the Charlottesville Bypass). How would free market development work in a place where special interests debate, argue and file lawsuits for decades on simple road construction projects?

  2. I saw Andres make that presentation and was caught off guard when the Va Beach slide came up. (He originally used an intersection a block east of there that had absolutely no pedestrian accommodation.) You might be interested to know that the move featured in this article is a result of two civic engagement initiatives. The first was a citizen engagement program involving people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding Town Center. Traditionally a blue collar area with strong Libertarian leanings, when given good information and good process, they came up with a vision for that area (aka Strategic Growth Area #4) so ambitious that you’d have never believed it could have come from a value-drive citizen group. The second project was a more recent city-wide initiative about the kinds of neighborhoods we’d like to live in. You’re right that VB is heavily and defiantly suburbanized. But the trend is away from that. Complete Streets in VB was a citizen-driven initiative that the City probably would have never had the nerve to recommend. There’s also compelling data from the ULI demonstrating how much better the taxpayer payback is on such mix-used developments; 4-5 years versus 42 years for the typical suburban single-family home community. (This drives the small government crowd crazy because they can’t let go of the belief that God personally ordained quarter-acre suburban lots.) We also know that health and energy efficiency (heating/cooling) are both far better in denser neighborhoods than they are in sprawling areas. Virginia Beach now offers a much wider and richer variety of housing choices than ever.

  3. any locality is free to configure their roads in ways that support and protect walking and biking and control auto movements.

    “traffic calming” can be exceptionally effective at allowing cars to use the road but not be near the danger to others as a wide open intersection might be.

    of course in doing that – you may well make the place so auto-unfriendly that people won’t come there any more.

    I’m reminded of my last trip to Mesa Verde (and some other parks) where if you want to visit – you do so on a shuttle and not your car.

    I like it. I’ve seen the idiots in Yellowstone… and other parks that allow unfettered auto movements.

    but the bigger question in a place like Va beach is NOT that you can’t make it much friendlier of ped/bike but if you do – do you run off those who would come there only in their cars?

    Somehow – NYC and Chicago, etc have crossed the Rubicon on this and now people in those areas accept that they are not easy places for autos to be and yet people still go there on foot, bike and via cabs.

    so when you see an intersection like the one at the top of this blog – it’s not some accident or unintended consequence. It’s a choice. And it’s a choice that can be modified to be more friendly for ped/bike and less so for cars – if that is what you really want…

  4. Having lived in Virginia Beach (up near Fort Story and in Bay Colony) as a child in the 1950s I was shocked to see that Virginia Beach before and after intersection in the above caption.

    Regarding planning – I guess the lesson here might be that much depends on the vision, taste, care and sensibilities of those involved in the redevelopment initiative. Duany is a superstar, a pioneer of profound influence. I’ve yet to see anything in his work that failed to inspire me.

    Similarly I have visited places ruined by “inspired” planners. The city of Rockville Maryland visited as recently as yesterday being a poster child for what to my tastes fails utterly. And along the way that redevelopment ruined much irreplaceable local history dating back to Colonial times. And it also wasted not only an historic town but huge sums of money as well.

    I guess this planning stuff and its implementation is too creative and magically to work by rote formula. So few have what each circumstance demands by way of solutions and most of the rest far too often don’t.

    So results are never guaranteed, only earned by the hard work and vigilance of talented and inspired professionals and determined citizens too.

    • As usual there is also merit is what Accurate says. What did Charleston, New Orleans, or Buford come from? Did they spring up as if by chance and over time without rules save those imposed by the soil of a rich cultural heritage? How about the great cities, towns, and villages of Europe? Perhaps our problem derive from culture and overcoming one culture to find another is key. Of that is super hard to do as well. Random thoughts are all this is.

      • it OUGHT to be MORE than random thoughts – as these are fundamental questions to the reason why cities exist and how they came to be designed in the way they are.

        sometimes I think the Smart Growthers think cities are natural things not built things…

      • The driving force behind Duany’s deserved success was his ability to see how towns and streets evolved naturally to meet the deep needs the human species. Perhaps his central insight was to remove the automobile from the equation and let the towns and streets evolve from there. This put collective living spaces back into the scale and function best suited for collective living before the advent of the auto. This helps explain the power and success of Charleston, New Orleans, or Buford.

        Duany’s insight is too powerful and successful to ignore. But so are the now essential benefits and rights that touch on peoples’ use of the automobile, and the monumental harm done by the overbearing efforts of some people to deprive other people of their legitimate use.

        • On this other hand I am sure that strong and powerful ways can found to diminish and dilute and, in perhaps many cases, ultimately eliminate, peoples need and dependance on the automobile.

          I hope so.

          And, at the risk of appearing over dramatic, the question recalls the paradox and dilemma Lincoln faced in his efforts to eliminate slavery while preserving freedom, democracy, the rule of law and constitutional government. He taught us in his exquisite exercise of power that ultimately big things are ruled by small actions.

  5. I can remember when Fredericksburg had a ‘downtown’. City grid streets.. cross walks at every intersection… everything from Men’d suits to toilet paper.

    but then some entrepreneur type put up a shopping center on, what was then, the “edge” of town and he called it of all things “Park and Shop”.

    that shopping center still exists but it spelled the end of the downtown as a true business district. It now is a hodgepodge of stores that you see in small town “downtowns” now days.

    but at the heart of this – Accurate (whom I seldom agree with) has nailed it.

    what should determine the settlement pattern? Central planners or entrepreneurs?

    JimB makes the case for ‘conservative’ central planners… almost an oxymoron… in some respects.

    in a real “free market”, the entrepreneur would decide the zoning.

    what gives someone else who is not an entrepreneur that role?

    Bonus Question: do “conservatives” really believe in central planning?

  6. There’s an amazing history of VB about how local pols moved to create a sprawl after Princess Anne County became a city. Everything was done with the car in mind as was the fashion in the 1950s and 1960s. Even the end of I 64 at a “tollroad” expressway was done to avoid Federal Highway Administration inspectors. It was done to line the pockets of the Kellam Machine and favored contractors.
    Jim is absolutely right to keep raising these points. But he’s like Don Quixote tilting at ancient windmills. The decisions were made when he and I were babes or not even born.
    The issue is how to undo them. That’s going to be a major contradiction for a fiscal conservative like Jim. Simply preaching smart growth won’t help since the damage has been done. It is great if you are considering new growth. But this is undoing bad old old growth.That will take billions upon billions.

  7. re: central planning and Conservatives

    I was under the impression that Conservatives thought central planning was a government evil and that “planning” is best done by free-market entrepreneurs.

  8. Revenue per acre is a bogus statistic. If I take 100 single family homes and bulldoze them I could build a single multi-unit apartment building instead. The homes might have taken up 50 acres and the apartment building would take 10. Yes, those 10 acres generate more revenue. However, the 40 acres without anything on them generate less revenue. Revenue per acre might start to make sense when a locality starts to run out of acres. However, one would expect the free market to build higher density in those situations anyway. Look at the history of Manhattan. There were once sheep farms there, and single family homes. Not so much anymore.

    Cost per acre might be more relevant although I have never seen a believable study or analysis of actual costs by type of human settlement pattern. The usual hogwash is fire departments. The theory holds that you need more fire departments in suburban environments because the distances take time to traverse and the fire trucks have to get to the fires quickly. Several problems – high rise buildings require specialized fire fighting gear that costs more than basic fire trucks. And, in low density rural areas there are not many fire stations. Density has nothing to do with the costs of fire fighting. Expected response times might be important but density, per se, is not.

    • Wonderfully written!!

    • not only wonderfully written but dead on correct!

      cities are by definition – centrally-planned and collectively-planned.

      A fire station is a centrally and collectively planned “good”.

      what is the free market, non-govt, version of it?

      DJ cites apartments and multi-story buildings. Would the free market
      equip them with fire-fighting infrastructure if not required in code?

      Would Conservatives advocate that a govt that requires fire-fighting infrastructure in a building is “oppressive” and such regulations damage the free market?

      when you enter a restaurant or movie house – you’ll see EXIT posted.
      Would the free market put that EXIT there if it was not required?

      • Larry, Yes, a fire station is a collectively planned good. Congratulations, you won that round… arguing with a straw man! Every conservative I know agrees that public safety (fire, police and rescue) is a core function of local government. I’m not sure with whom you are jousting, but it certainly isn’t the likes of Reed or me.

    • “Revenue per acre is a bogus statistic.”

      Keeping the lights on, the roads paved, the police ready and waiting for 911 calls, et cetera, costs money. That money, this being the United States, comes from property tax, mostly, and so a municipal government cannot afford to ignore the revenue per acre number.

      “f I take 100 single family homes and bulldoze them I could build a single multi-unit apartment building instead. The homes might have taken up 50 acres and the apartment building would take 10.”

      Except if you were an actual developer, that is not what you would do. The 10 acres you need would require demolishing 20 homes. So you would quietly start buying options on homes in that area, and once you had a contiguous area of 20 homes optioned, which would take optionning 30 or so homes, you would exercise those 20 options, demolish 20 homes, and replace them with that 100 unit high rise. Now the area has 180 homes on the same footprint, and the local government is better able to provide municipal services from the tax revenue of those 180 homes.

      No, if I did go your route, and demolish those 80 other homes, then yes, they would no longer provide revenue. They would also no longer impose costs.

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  11. I was a huge fan of New Urbanism and an Andres Duany devotee until I visited a few NU communities, including Seaside FL ~ the original poster child of the New Urbanist vision. They were nice, and better than suburbia for sure (a truly disfunctional human settlement pattern, in my opinion), but I find NU towns to have a strange, overly ordered, almost anti-sceptic feel that creeps me out. In the fields of robotics and animation we refer to that phenomenon as the “uncanny valley” ~ a hypothesis which holds that “when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.” Here is a video showing some creepy examples. It is no surprise then that Seaside was used as the setting for the movie “Truman” starring Jim Carey ~ a town that appeared real but was completely fake. It was, and perhaps still is, in the uncanny valley of human settlements. Alas, New Urbanism is a good idea and I remain a fan, but the “New” part is not for me. Give me the higgly-piggly disorder and grit of an older, organically grown town like Charleston, SC or Charlottesville VA or NYC or Boston or pretty much any European city. I am happy to see them thriving with people like me who prefer them.

    • Interesting observations. I suspect I would agree with you (although I have never visited Seaside). I think the New Urbanist design principles are good ones for the most part. The problem, as you say, is when they are applied to every building in a community, as happens with a new development. We like a little messiness, serendipity and surprise in our urban places.

      But take a place that’s messy and dysfunctional to begin with — like the Pembroke district of Virginia Beach — and New Urbanist principles provide a pretty good framework for repairing them. You won’t get the creepy “uncanny valley” effect because developers will have to make all sorts of compromises with the reality on the ground.

    • I have heard this criticism before, and I suspect its valid in the case you mentioned. I have not visited Seaside, and referred only to project I experience first hand.

      And I agree with your “higgly-piggly disorder and grit of an older, organically grown town like Charleston …” comment as well.

      The key challenge and great opportunity is to built a framework of land use templates that unleashes (encourages and jump-starts) individual expression and energy to the point of disorder yet works to create a place whose whole is far greater than its parts. Those are fancy words but communities done right (whether new, redeveloped or restored) should unleash creative energies instead of confining and or destroying them.

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