The New West: Leaving Richmond Behind

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

By Peter Galuszka

This story may seem a contrarian piece when it comes to smart growth and exurban sprawl but so be it.

Back in 1969, road planners in Richmond came up with an idea for a superhighway, Route 288,  that would span the iconic James River and connect the far western suburban areas of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, then primarily pine forests or dairy farms. The idea seemed to be to ring Richmond with a Washington-style Beltway and push growth farther away from the center city.

The scheme ran against some curious local snobbery – that of whether one lived on the north or south side of the James. The smug north side, of course, encompassed Richmond and its white ruling elite although many of them had moved to the West End or beyond to escape integration of schools.

Those living on the south side of the river were considered inferior, trailer park folk  whose uncouth views were more in synch with the Southside area of Virginia near the North Carolina border. Dixie would not mix easily with the assumed gentility of the Richmond folk, although southsiders had to drive to Richmond to see a doctor or do serious shopping.

Flash forward 45 years. Route 288 was finished about 10 years ago and despite the 2008 economic crash, it is quietly establishing its own upset of economic and cultural change and growth. It is linking Short Pump and its office parks and restaurants with upscale subdivisions in Chesterfield that boast of the highest income zip codes in the Richmond area. Capital One employees live at Foxfire. I explore this phenomenon in cover stories I wrote this month for the Chesterfield Monthly and the Henrico Monthly.

As George Hoffer, a transportation expert at the University of Richmond told me: “The West End and southwestern Chesterfield were going to grow independently. Then the highway did what public transportation can’t do. It provided links and created markets that didn’t exist before.”

And, as corporate relocations draw in more high-income workers from other areas, the old cultural biases are eroding. The newbies want convenience and could care less about Richmond’s ancient vanity about which side of the James one resides. Schools on either side of the river are comparable in quality, tests scores show. The north has more jobs and the south more houses, but that will shift over time.

Therein lies the rub. You have created a thriving exurban corridor that really doesn’t relate to the various and worthy land use ideals such as minimizing car traffic and creating bike trails. The most significant thing is that this outer corridor completely bypasses inner Richmond, its perpetual squabbling over over issues like a baseball stadium and its onerous 26 percent poverty levels. It doesn’t mean that the city is doomed to decay. Signs show more young people and retirees moving there. Unfortunately, however, low income ghettoes are stuck in a cycle of no jobs and inadequate transportation and the efforts of Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones haven’t produced many solutions.

The 288 phenomenon also is evidence that the cul-de sac ideals are not quite dead yet. Locating somewhere has long ceased being about white flight. The newcomers to the “New West”  include many people of color for whom Richmond’s racial animosities are more of an historical footnote. They may drive in to enjoy the city’s eateries and museums but choose not to live there and are hardly obsessed by what happened years ago.

So, Smart Growthers, you had better take notice. In some cases, the center city concepts you espouse are irrelevant.

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15 responses to “The New West: Leaving Richmond Behind

  1. the beltway phenomena was not totally revolutionary. Way back when – roads, rail and transit evolved initially and primarily hub and spoke with not so hot “connects” between them especially for rail light and heavy.

    Wiki calls them “ring roads” and in the pre-interstate days they were primarily existing segments of roads that were extended and expanded to connect two or more of the “spokes” radiating out from the center core.

    the concept of an explicitly designed “belt” evolved as part of the interstate system – as an alternative to the Robert Hodge idea of driving the interstates right through the center core.

    ever since, one of the pecking order criteria for localities is whether or not they have a “complete” circumferential belt.

    but beltways forever changed the way that settlement patterns “work”.

    the center core remained the center core even with hub and spoke but once “connectors” were built in the spokes – it allowed people more options for where to live and where to work and once the beltway came into being it allowed people all manner of not only up and down one spoke but across multiple spokes.

    this was no way for rail to do this although both NYC and Chicago have “connected” some of their spokes.. and Washington has long talked about connecting Metro west across the Potomac to a North to west Metro.

    Tysons Corner is an example of a settlement pattern that would be a far different thing if it was at the end of a spoke with no connections to other spokes, i.e. the beltway.

    the enduring question is why Tysons where it is rather than say some other place on the spokes? why did that place begin to densify –

    check out this map of Fairfax density:

    I’ll post the Richmond density map in the next post.

  2. RIchmond Density map :

  3. “So, Smart Growthers, you had better take notice. In some cases, the center city concepts you espouse are irrelevant.”

    Can you elaborate? I didn’t get that message from what you wrote. Scattered, low-density zoning is scattered, low-density zoning whether it occurs north of the James or south of the James. It is fiscally inefficient. Both Henrico and Thanks in part to Rt. 288, Chesterfield and Henrico are embedding high cost structures in their human settlement patterns.

  4. It may be fiscally inefficient but it is happening.It may be creating more ultra-local GDP than either the center city plans or “New Urbanist” ideas for ‘burbs. I’m a believer in Smart Growth to a large extent but in the case of Richmond, I don’t see an explosion of jobs. You are seeing more jobs in Chesterfield (Amazon) and Henrico ( various finance and tech firms).

    Can you explain where the jobs are in denser parts of Richmond? I think that’s the point of the piece. You can preach smart growth all you want but is it really happening? That is — is the “free market” allowing it or are the dynamics actually coming together more in the hated and shunned exburbs?

    I think this is an essential question if you want to advocate Smart Growth policies. Fair question, too, and not one so easily dismissed because it doesn’t conform to some predetermined set of dogmatic points, Ed Risse or no.

  5. I don’t even know where to start.

    – As to George Hoffer, he conveniently conflates public transportation and mass transit. 288 is a state highway built to interstate specs with no tolls on it, that all came from public money. As to the assertion that “public transportation” can’t open new markets (which, since 288 IS public transportation is disproved as soon as it’s uttered) I think New York City, Chicago, Boston, the DC Metro Area, London, all of urbanized Japan, etc. would beg to differ. To say nothing of the entire subset of development known as the streetcar suburb.

    – At this point 288 is hardly a thriving corridor. The corridor itself is still mostly empty. What’s been created is a thriving set of two points linked by a common pathway. If the in-between space is ever filled in it will be interesting to see how the people at the two points respond.

    – It’s funny that you use as evidence of the death of white flight something that was started in 1969

    – It’s also disingenuous to chalk up the very real issues surrounding the location of the Diamond and the allocation of city funds that go with that debate as “squabbles,” while glossing over the gnashing of teeth Henrico and Chesterfield have done over the past years regarding voting apportionment on the RMA. Oh, the city just can’t get its stuff together, unlike our bucolic county cul-de-sacs.

    – Did you talk to any black people for this? Any at all? Because I can say for a fact that every time my wife sees the people protesting outside the VMFA with their traitor battle flags it sends a chill up her spine. And in your article you site that battle flag as being irrelevant, and yet there was just an incident over the placement of said flag just off I-95.

    – To tie those three threads together, the issue of white flight as it pertains to Richmond’s “onerous” poverty is still alive and well and the racial issues aren’t something that happened “years ago.” The county’s still appeal to white fear about “bad schools” to draw white middle class and above people out of Richmond city when their school-aged children hit roughly the 6th grade. Why else do you think the city has a multitude of well performing elementary schools and no good high schools? The crime rate in Richmond is the lowest it has been in decades but people – including yourself – talk about moving out to the counties because they want somewhere “safe” for their kids. The people in the counties want to come eat in our restaurants, watch baseball games in our stadium, go to concerts and plays in our theaters, and work at our job sites, but when it comes to actually being participants in our city they hit eject. And that’s fine, but stop pretending that white flight isn’t part of that ejector switch.

    – Yeah, the Center City concept is so irrelevant that Short Pump has erected its own little play city in the midst of its sprawling retail mess.

    • I’m confused. I drive on 288 daily.

      During rush hour, it’s packed heading north – jam packed. The road significantly cut the commute time for people who live in Midlothian or Powhatan and work in the West End or Far West End. There were a lot of them and there are more now. 288 is relatively busy on weekends as well.

      I can’t figure out what you consider to be the begin and end stops on 288, so I’m not sure what you’re referring to as the two destinations – I’m assuming one is Short Pump but I can’t figure out what you think is the other.

      288 is already pretty well built up along along the corridor, although not necessarily right against 288 – with exits taking you immediately to Short Pump, Salisbury, Midlothian, Brandermill/360, Chesterfield Courthouse, etc. You do actually need to be familiar with the area to know what’ you’re close to with the road, but it isn’t going through desolate undeveloped land, at least not south of the river.

      I’m old enough to remember integration and the response to it was one of the shameful eras of Virginia’s history.

      But concerns about quality of schools and safety of schools and in general aren’t code – they are real concerns. People want their kids in good schools. They want to be safe. They want their kids to be safe. If the city would focus on safety and good schools, it would help far more than bike races, or stadiums, or marketplaces, or train stations, or any other big budget process.

      I’ve lived in the Richmond area for thirty years, and since I’ve been here, I’ve had friends who would love to live in the city, if it was safe and if it had good schools. That’s not a racist thing. That’s a human thing. Being safe and well educated is something we should aspire to for everyone.

  6. Life,
    I welcome your differing views but I do have a couple of responses. 288 may be little traveled in off hours — but then so is the Downtown Expressway.
    As for safety and cul-de-sacs, I’m not talking about crime, I’m talking about speeding motorists mowing down toddlers on tricycles — that sort of thing.

    As for suburbanites paying homage to Richmond, why shouldn’t they? They pay meals taxes and sales taxes don;t they. As for the baseball stadium, I question Shockoe, think the Diamond location is OK and could see a move to the burbs. Other cities do it. Why should the region be defined in “Richmond” terms. Both C-field and Henrico have larger populations. Why does Richmond get to be the center of the universe when it can’t progress like dozens of other cities have. All you see is stagnation with a leadership that migrates, 150 of them with some public money – to “inspect” Tampa or Durham or wherever. Why? What do they bring back. We’re stuck arguing about the Diamond for the zillionth time. And who visits the Diamond? suburban families, that’s who. You’re not going to see a baseball Mom with a van load of 10-year-olds dropping off at Havana 57 for a rum and cola while the kids play outside unattended in the Bottom.

    As far as the RMA, why should Richmond hold more sway? That was like so 1960s.

    • I’m not talking about traffic on 288, I’m talking about what’s happening around 288, which is largely nothing. There’s stuff at either end and nothing in the middle. That does not a thriving corridor make.

      Are Henrico, Chesterfield, Goochland or Hanover willing to give a deal to a baseball franchise to locate out in any of those counties? The Diamond is no longer an RMA concern and is back in the hand of the city of Richmond. If the counties want a baseball team then let them go find one. The Diamond doesn’t have to be in the city, but unless and until the counties provide proper incentive for a team to locate out there then the debate is centered around where in the city.

      And paying taxes is hardly the same thing as being an integrated part of the community. I pay taxes that benefit Alaska, but I’m no more an Alaskan than a Martian. The problems that assail the city are largely the result of white flight, period. You want better schools, bring in a class base that has the resources to fight for better schools. In fact, they don’t even need to fight, one of the best things that can be done for students in low income, low performing schools is to send them to schools with their higher income counterparts, but since we aren’t about to start busing across municipal lines (and if you think there is no lingering problem with race in this area then propose that very idea and see what the dialogue becomes) then if higher income people returned to the city the schools would benefit. Instead they hang out in the counties because “that’s where the good schools are,” and the good schools are there because of the historic inertia of white flight.

      And have you been to the Bottom recently? There are a bunch of reasons the Diamond doesn’t belong there (improper allocation of city funds, roads incapable of handling the increased volume, disruption of historic ground), but that it’s unfriendly to the county yuppies and their spawn is no longer applicable. It still has rough edges (thank God), but the flood wall, historic tax credits and ungrateful noise ordinance have made it much tamer.

      I’m sorry, were the communities that were broken up by the Expressway made whole recently and no one told me? Or is there still a giant corridor of auto traffic running through them?

      One area we do agree, though, is that city leadership is abysmal and it has been since at least the reinstatement of at-large elections. I enjoyed the mayoral leadership of Rudy McCollum, and while Dwight Jones has yet to clear the bar set by Doug Wilder for sheer lunacy, he’s more interested in spending city resources on big-ticket developments built on promises that don’t materialize than investing that money in a more wise fashion in the city.

      • Again, I’m not sure what you think is the other end from Short Pump, but there is plenty all along 288 south of the river, including Midlothian, Powhatan, Brandermill/Woodlake, Chesterfield Courthouse, etc. You might have to drive half a mile, instead of the community being abutted to the road, but that’s because these communities pre-dated 288. People who live along the corridor certainly know it has plenty in it.

        White flight occurred a LONG time ago – I’m in my 50’s, so I remember integration from childhood, but for a lot of people today, it’s not even a memory.

        You don’t bring in a class base to fix things – you fix things to bring in a class base. You cannot draft people to live in a place they don’t want to live. I personally would never live in the city (I want to be able to have animals and horses and a kitchen garden) but MANY of my friends would, if it had what they wanted.

        And what’s that? People would like to live in the city, if it had good schools and was safe.

        If there is money for a baseball stadium and a bike race and a football practice area and a 6th street marketplace and an arts center and a train station attraction and all that other mess, there is money for good schools and good, positive community policing. Instead of big dollar projects, safety and good education would pull people back. It would also greatly benefit the people who are already in the city.

        You can’t force people to buy what they don’t want. But if you give them what they want, they will come to you.

        • Gal,

          Everything you listed predated 288 and turns Midlo Turnpike and Hull Street into reasonably active corridors, but the fact is the existence of 288 hasn’t spurned much growth on its own and all the development is still on one side of the route itself. This hardly makes for a thriving corridor, regardless of how much rush hour traffic you personally experience.

          White flight isn’t a one-time thing that happened a long time ago and then was over. It happened in waves, and the effects linger. I don’t understand people like you who are so quick to say something that had so many negative impacts that are still being felt happened long ago and is a distance memory with no importance to the current conversation but the 6th Street Marketplace is a totally cogent, relevant argument about the failures of Richmond city government. And the city has crime rates at the lowest levels since 1971.

          And that last sentence is key. The city is still deemed “unsafe” as if that’s the nature of the thing itself, why is that? Does it really matter if crime goes down if the code remains and is passed around reflexively? How “safe” does it have to be? No crime at all? How many fewer crimes have to occur in the city versus the counties before it’s “safer” than the counties?

          To further expound on how white flight isn’t just something that happened and the city just needs to pull itself up by its bootstraps, first let’s note that it wasn’t just citizens that left cities, it was the jobs as well. That creates a cyclical, multi-generational problem wherein the middle class leaves, the jobs follow, and future employers (other than the municipality) are reluctant to set up shop in the city because it’s “unsafe.” At the same time all this was happening the federal and state governments were pitching back less and less money to the cities and even those jobs were evaporating. So the tax base leaves, upper levels of government pitch in less, but the city is supposed to fund top-notch schools with fewer and fewer resources all while providing paved roads, paid cops, and lit streetlights.

          So we’ve covered notions of “safety” and the ongoing problems caused by white flight, let’s tackle the schools next.

          My point wasn’t that people should be forced to live somewhere they don’t want to be (more on this later, but my exact words were “that’s fine” regarding the choice to live in the counties), my point was that people have cause and effect backwards regarding schools. Poverty is the single biggest factor in predicting school performance, and a corollary of that is the more higher income students a school has the better it does, and in fact the more higher income students a school has the better its poor students perform as well.

          The code here is that the suburbs/counties have “good schools” because they are doing something better than the city isn’t doing. The middle class didn’t follow the schools, the schools followed the middle class. Once the resources were effectively drained from the city, a self-fulfilling prophecy was set up wherein the counties had better schools and the city had terrible ones and the dog whistle is that this is somehow the result of things the counties are doing better other than attracting a whiter, wealthier tax base, which all started on the premise of “move out here away from the black people in the city” and was reinforced with redlining and other racist real estate practices.

          If the middle class and above want to live in the city and have good schools they can achieve this simply by moving back to the city and letting their presence lift the schools back up. But they don’t actually want this either because they’re actively racist of because they’re lazy and just want things to manifest for them. And that’s all fine, but I want people to stop pretending that “If we could only have x!” is a valid argument in full for the living choices people make.

          Yes, there are things the city could be doing better to help their schools, and most of those things would be policies and programs that ameliorate the effects of poverty: universal, professionally staffed pre-k; free health, dental and optical clinics in the schools; longer school days and a longer school year would all help. Most of those things cost money that is largely unavailable and in the case of a longer school year runs counter to state law.

          Finally, I don’t want to force people to buy what they don’t want, I just want them to stop running their mouths about their choices as if they’re strictly rational and made because of all available evidence. I don’t care if people don’t want to live in the city, the truth is I largely don’t want them here. But if they’re going to choose to live in the counties then they need to keep the city out of their mouths. There are enough legitimate problems in Richmond without the citizens of the surrounding counties popping off with uninformed opinions about how it could be better and patting themselves on the back for choosing to live in a superior location. The future Short Pump Dwellers of Richmond already forced a noise ordinance on the Bottom, I hate to think what other damage they’d like to inflict upon the Jewel on the James.

  7. Fall,
    I think the only point of disagreement is that you see development at either end and not along the sides. I don’t see a problem with that. A good part of the land along 288 is right of way for Dominion’s high voltage transmission lines or is its rich farm bottom land near the James that probably couldn’t be developed without a lot of hassle. The point is that you are connecting two of the richest and most economically significant parts of Greater Richmond without Richmond being much involved.
    On the Bottom, absolutely. I like baseball and while the Diamond is horrible, it’s a great location in terms of access. With Jones’ idea, you’re going to be stuck in traffic waiting to get to multi-level parking. The slave history sites badly need development but they are inconsistent with having a pleasant afternoon or evening at a ballpark and knocking back a few beers and eating hot dogs with your kids and friends. You really don;t want to try to comprehend the awful history of Lumpkins Jail with a Bud Lite buzz on.

  8. Peter,

    You analysis of 288 through a smart growth lens raises some interesting questions. For example, is 288 really about expansive ex-urban growth vs. “smart growth” or is it about connecting population centers to encourage commerce and value creation? And, at what cost?

    The quote by Hoffer points to a distinction between transportation systems: highways (and other high-speed modes) are optimized for long distance travel; streets, public transit, bike paths and sidewalks are optimized for local travel. 288 is a highway and, to the extent that it is linking Short Pump and Midlothian, it is doing what highways are supposed to do “and what public transportation can’t do.” The real problem is when the two systems are confused, particularly when highway design is applied to local travel networks, e.g. suburban arterials, like West Broad Street or Midlothian Turnpike, or urban expressways, like the Downtown Expressway. I would argue that this type of approach to transportation is intrinsically counterproductive and destructive.

    So, if we agree that 288 is a highway functioning as a connector between population centers (for the moment), the next logical question is about the cost/benefit. I believe that the preponderance of evidence indicates that projects like 288, though seen as an inevitable transportation “improvements,” are not good value and that the true costs are hidden through the subsidies of public finance. Furthermore, returning to the smart growth lens (and challenging the pure “highway” concept), it is likely that 288 will enable additional leap-frog suburban expansion, a type of growth that is widely viewed as unsustainable in multiple ways, including economics. In addition, 288 is entirely motor vehicle-centric in concept and form, reinforcing a pattern of car dependency that, among other things, marginalizes other transportation choices that have been shown to increase local economic mobility, among other benefits.
    If 288 is truly a long-distance travel connector that enables commerce between economic centers and the benefits outweigh the costs, then mission accomplished. However, I suspect that this will be a difficult case to establish, when all of the costs of induced demand are factored in.

    Andrew Moore
    President, Partnership for Smarter Growth

    • RE: “The real problem is when the two systems are confused, particularly when highway design is applied to local travel networks, e.g. suburban arterials, like West Broad Street or Midlothian Turnpike, or urban expressways, like the Downtown Expressway. I would argue that this type of approach to transportation is intrinsically counterproductive and destructive.”

      Short Pump and Midlothian are desirable precisely because roads like Midlothian Tpke. and West Broad St. enable mobility. Growth is occurring in these areas because residents and businesses have chosen them by “voting with their feet”- they don’t want to locate in Richmond. Look at where Capital One chose to locate (right off 288). Ditto for Amazon in Chesterfield.

      What would truly be counterproductive and destructive would be to enact coercive planning rules to increase congestion and/or force people to live in urban locations like Richmond. That is the road to wealth destruction, and the reason why government-determined “smart growth” should never be acceptable to conservatives.

  9. Andrew,
    You make excellent points, especially about the leap frog phenomena, which 288 most distinctly is. The disassociated pockets of growth happened before the road, which merely connects them. The Chesterfield hub is centered around Swift Creek Reservoir, a large lake that was the focal point of Brandermill, one of the early versions of the planned suburban development following examples like Hilton Head. Henrico’s was Innsbrook where office parks emerged out of cow pastures to offer an alternative to Richmond. The city has had trouble attracting corporate relocatees because of the quality of its schools.
    You are right about the costs of such type of development being out of balance. My reporting job was to merely point out what is going on.


  10. Smart Growth generally has principles of development centered around mass transit, and walkable/bikeable (bicycles) communities with affordable housing, expensive housing, and businesses, all located in closer proximity, connected by these mass transit nodes. Richmond Metro has none of this. its walk scores make it “car dependent”, and that is by design. Until there is some form of regional planning, with a commitment to mass transit, there is no “Smart Growth.”

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