Bacon's Rebellion

James A. Bacon





The Gunst Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Government regs have made a mess of real estate development, says the creator of Innsbrook. It's time to rewrite the rules and start over.


When 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.


Gunst 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.


"I'm 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.


Gunst 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 growth.


Playing 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.


Growing up in the Richmond area, Gunst demonstrated a flair for risk taking as a teenager. He tells the story how as a teenager, after 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.


He studied 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.


There's 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.


His 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.


If 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 interaction.


If 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 and work.


Perhaps 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.


Virginia's 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."


By 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 accordingly."


In 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."


Gunst 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.


Impressed 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."


Gunst 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.


Says Gunst: "My interest now is to apply private-sector olutions to 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."


People 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.


Gunst 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 emulate.


Gunst 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 play.


"A 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 re-work them.


After 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









Fire back!


You can berate Bacon personally at jabacon@


Or read his profile here.




Full Disclosure


In the interest of full disclosure, I list all paying clients for whom I have worked in the past year. Clients include:


Greater Richmond Partnership: Contract publication of three  electronic newsletters (Greater Richmond Catalyst, Greater Richmond BioSynthesis and Greater Richmond Logistics, Working Capital); writing for WORK magazine.


Virginia Commonwealth University: Contract publication of electronic newsletter for School of Engineering; writing for the president's office.


kSERO Corporation: Contract publication of electronic newsletter; writing, editing.


AgilQuest: Contract publication of electronic newsletter; writing.


310 Ltd.: writing


Tridium Inc.: writing


Note: This list does not include advertisers in VA Newswire, which I also publish.