Sidney Gunst talks about the dysfunctional pattern of
development that has transmogrified Virginia over the past
35 years, he speaks with authority. He is the man who
developed the Innsbrook office park in Henrico County...
the man who created the second largest employment center
in the Richmond metropolitan area... the man who
single-handedly drove Richmond's demographic center of
gravity miles to the west.
converted 850 acres of land near Interstate 64 into a
setting for 100 buildings and seven million square feet of
commercial space. He made Innsbrook the premier business
address outside downtown Richmond -- 25,000 people work
there. He laced the project with miles of jogging
trails, installed fountain-spewing lakes, complete with
flocks of geese, and organized after-hour concerts. He
added conveniences like day care, a fitness center, a
library and a post office. To this day, set amidst
curving roads and groves of trees, Innsbrook stands as
the perfected form of the 1980s-era office campus.
proud of what I did. It was state of the art,"
Gunst says. But if he had to do it over, he hastily
adds, he would do it very differently.
sees now what he didn't see back in 1979, when he
launched the project as a 28-year-old novice burning
with ambition. He understands that the very concept of a
park-like office complex set apart from houses, stores,
churches, schools and other spheres of human activity is
fundamentally flawed. He frets that the inefficient use
of land has plunged the Commonwealth into a fiscal
crisis marked by the inability to build enough roads,
utilities and other basic infrastructure to keep up with
by the rules laid down by the Henrico County zoning
code, Gunst says, he did many things wrong. Now, with 20 years of
experience under his belt and a six-year respite from
development to think things over, he is getting back
into the game. This time, armed with a keener
understanding of real-estate economics and grounded in deep
philosophical convictions, he vows, his future projects will
look very different from Innsbrook.
up in the Richmond area, Gunst demonstrated a flair for
risk taking as a teenager. He tells the story how as a
learning to fly, he liberated someone else's airplane for a
joy ride - a stunt that landed him in considerable
trouble and which he has not cared to repeat.
at a small North Carolina college, where he did not
exactly establish himself as a budding philosopher, and then
came back to Richmond to work. He was working for the Pruitt family on a project called
Commerce Center -- at the intersection of Broad Street
and Glenside -- when he got the itch to put together his
own deal. With the backing of two successful
businessmen, he acquired 80 acres near the Short Pump
exit on Interstate 64. The rest is history.
no denying Innsbrook's financial success and its impact
on growth patterns in the Richmond region. But will it
withstand the test of time? Will it become one of those
projects that define Richmond as a unique and livable
place like Church Hill, Monument Avenue, Northside or
even Windsor Farms? Probably not.
There is no "there" there.
mistake, Gunst says, is that he blindly accepted the
strictures of contemporary planning principles. "We
did everything textbook," he says. It never
occurred to him to try to reduce the use of the
automobile. Nor did it strike him to create a town
center. "A town center," he avers,
"respects man's social nature." People like
mixing with other people. They flock to places where
they can interact.
he could do it over, he would add a town center instead
of pushing all the stores and restaurants to the Broad
Street retail corridor. And he
would add far more housing to the project than the 600
single family dwellings and 100 condos that are there
now. The imbalance between office space and housing
creates an artificial district from which all life
drains after hours as people hop in their cars and drive home.
People work in buildings that stand in isolation from
each other, and then they travel in insulated bubbles,
their cars, to wherever they're going. At Innsbrook, he observes,
people are totally dependent upon their automobiles for
everything -- their commute, their lunch break, their
every errand. There is little opportunity for
he could do it over, says Gunst, he also would offer varied
densities in place of the uniform pattern of three-story, brick-and-glass buildings
surrounded by acres of trees and parking lots. He would
offer people a greater array of choices of how to live
most significantly, Gunst says, he would make more
efficient use of the infrastructure. Installing roads,
sidewalks, water and sewer lines and all the rest is
expensive. Given the considerable acreage consumed by
the project, Innsbrook property could accommodate
far more people at little extra cost. Indeed, he notes,
only six years after he completed the project,
landowners are already proposing to redevelop pieces of
the project with mixed uses and higher densities.
financial crisis is a direct result of the growth
patterns mandated by zoning laws and comprehensive plans
over the past several decades, Gunst maintains.
"Zoning codes fashioned in the early 1950s were
based on false premises -- cheap gas, unlimited funds
for infrastructure, and the belief that people wanted to
separate work and play."
capping density, local governments made it impossible
for developers to build up. So they build out, smearing
their subdivisions, shopping centers and office parks
over broader and broader expanses of land. That means
someone must pay for more miles of water, sewer,
roadway, curbs and sidewalks -- not to mention utilities
such as electricity, telephones and cable.
"Infrastructure" says Gunst, "is
expensive, and scarce, and must be treated
a globally competitive economy, Gunst says, Virginia
citizens and enterprises cannot afford to carry the
overhead costs -- whether paid through taxes, tolls,
fees or time spent commuting, of an extravagant
infrastructure base. "With the reduction of trade
barriers, you have to compete, and you compete on the
basis of productivity."
had more time to take such a high-altitude perspective
when he finished the build-out of Innsbrook around 1999.
By then, he'd learned enough to question the rational
behind county zoning codes. "I became curious about
the nature of rules and regulations, and the ideas that
drove them," he says. "Why were property
rights being eroded? I got obsessed with the word
why." His inquiries took him deeper, into political
theory, the origins of constitutional rights, the
basis for the Lockean social contract... and even deeper,
into epistomology, the study of knowledge itself.
by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who endorsed capitalism
and limited government, Gunst started a new venture,
Life Logic. He believed that Rand's philosophy would
help people live better, in part because she showed why
political freedom is good. "Ideas are
fascinating to me," says Gunst. "They're what
I love most. I'm less interested, relatively speaking,
in material things."
found it more difficult, however, to build a viable
business around the advocacy of philosophical
principles. He still supports Life Logic out of his
pocket, but he has pared it to the core, and he has made
the decision to apply his ideals to a realm where he
knows he can make money: Real estate development.
Gunst: "My interest now is to apply private-sector
the issues of growth and infrastructure and
transportation. There are solutions. They require
a revisiting of planning models.... a greater
integration of uses. ... When given a choice, people
will want to be in a denser environment that provides a wider
range of choices of where to live and work."
should be free to choose where they want to live, Gunst
adds, as long as they pay the real costs of supplying
roads and infrastructure to that location.
is close to finalizing some deals and professional
relationships that will launch him anew. His vision
isn't to build new places from scratch, as he did in
Innsbrook, but to rebuild cities that were developed
badly the first time around. He cites projects like
the reworking of the Pembroke area in Virginia Beach and
Oyster Point in Newport News as examples he'd like to
has tremendous confidence in free markets. In the immortal
words of Ronald Reagan, government [regulation] isn't the solution,
it's the problem. Nowhere is that truer than in the
field of real estate development, one of the most
heavily regulated sectors of the U.S. economy. If free
market principles were allowed to operate, he predicts,
developers would build more compact communities that
treat infrastructure more efficiently. We would see a
greater variety of choices for people to live, work and
freer market, a competitive market, will solve these
problems," Gunst says. Builders will strive to
provide the kinds of houses and workplaces that people
want. And if they fail, someone else will come along and
a half-century of government
regulation, entire precincts and neighborhoods in
Virginia have failed. Only by unleashing the energy of
entrepreneurs acting free from government interference,
he says, can Virginia re-work failed development into
communities that better serve individual needs.
December 12, 2005