Category Archives: Land use & development

Yeah, It’s Probably a Good Idea to Update Your Zoning Code Every Half Century or So

Pouring whale oil. At long last, Henrico zoning code will leave the 19th century behind.

Pouring whale oil. At long last, Henrico’s zoning code will leave the 19th century behind.

News flash: Henrico County officials see the need to bring the county zoning code into the 21st century.  Although the zoning code has been amended 240 times, it was adopted in 1960 and has never seen a systematic overhaul since.

The code, Randy Silber, deputy county manager for community development, tells the Richmond Times-Dispatch, is “over 55 years old. It’s antiquated. … There’s disconnect in the uses in the zoning ordinance and the economic development that is being put before us.”

Regulations governing sperm whale oil and poison manufacturing remain on the books, notes Silber. The code also refers to bone distilleries. “I don’t even know what that is,” he says.

The 1960 zoning code shaped the “suburban sprawl” model that propelled Henrico County growth in the 56 years since. But the model has run its course, having saddled the county with vast expanses of low-density land use patterns that are costly to maintain and are beset by intractable road congestion issues. Moreover, businesses are reversing a decades-long migration from the central city to the suburbs as Millennials and Empty Nesters seek walkable, mixed-use communities found in the urban core, along with easy access to the city’s museums, festivals and cultural events. To avoid the same kind of hollowing out that central cities experienced a half century ago, Henrico must create walkable, urban places as well.

While Henrico has permitted a few such places, growth continues to be dominated by old-fashioned sprawl. An outdated zoning code is, in effect, mandating the county’s premature obsolescence.

The fact that county professionals see the need for change is encouraging — although the examples cited in the Times-Dispatch article suggest that they may be in more of a mind to tinker with the code than to embrace an alternative paradigm for development and re-development. It’s also unclear whether the citizenry, which is terrified of any change that might affect their homes’ property values, sees the need for change. But at least it’s a start.

DEQ Approves Utility-Scale Solar Permit in Buckingham

solar_panelsby James A. Bacon

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has issued a permit for construction of a 19.8-megawatt, utility-scale solar project in Buckingham County, Governor Terry McAuliffe announced yesterday. Construction of the 200-acre facility is expected to begin early in 2017 and be finished by the end of the year. The cost is estimated to run between $30 million and $35 million.

DEQ Director David Paylor hinted that more solar projects are in the pipeline. “DEQ is looking forward to issuing more of these renewable energy permits in the future,” he said. “Our priority will be to take the steps necessary to protect Virginia’s environment while helping the Commonwealth become a leader in renewable energy production.”

The project is being developed by Firestone Solar LLC, a subsidiary of Virginia Solar, headed by Richmonder Matthew Meares.

“We are very pleased and thankful to Buckingham County and the Commonwealth of Virginia for supporting a 100 percent Virginia-owned and operated utility scale solar developer by approving our Firestone solar project’s state permit,” Meares said in the press release. “We hope this is the first of many such projects by Virginia Solar in the Commonwealth promoting Governor McAuliffe’s goals of helping the environment creating new economic drivers, utilizing Virginia products and services, and attracting business to the Commonwealth.”

Few other details were available about the project from the press release. However, the project has been in the works since at least August 2015. An article in the Farmville Herald indicated that the facility would include “ancillary support facilities and electrical interconnections … to be transmitted on a Dominion distribution line.”

The project could employ 150 workers during the construction phase, but full-time employment after construction would be minimal. Stated the Farmville Herald:

The project would have up to three employees every two months on-site for system inspections, vegetation management and preventative maintenance. … In addition, one employee may be on-site for security at any time, according to the application. There are not expected to be any permanent employees stationed at the site.

Bacon’s bottom line: So much for the miraculous green-energy job creation machine: a couple of low-skilled, part-time jobs. Solar may (or may not) be good energy policy, but promises that it will spur job creation are a cruel delusion. (Not that the alternative, gas-fired power plants, are a big job creator either on a jobs-per-kilowatt basis. But power plant jobs do require a high level of training and education, and they pay well.)

As always seems to be the case with solar projects, the economics of the Firestone deal remain a mystery. It’s not clear who will buy the solar power — whether Firestone will sell into the PJM Interconnection wholesale market or whether it has lined up a specific customer take the electricity, as in Amazon Web Services. Another possibility is that the developer will just flip the project to Dominion Virginia Power, as has happened with other projects in Virginia.

The up-front cost of about $1,625 per kilowatt is more than twice the cost of a state-of-the-art gas-fired plant, but it is considerably cheaper than the $2,250 per kilowatt for the recently announced Oceana Naval Air Station. (That may not be an apples-to-apples comparison, however, because the Ocean deal may have included infrastructure improvements not included in the Buckingham project.) If Virginia Solar is selling its power to a private customer, the cost is immaterial to the general public. But if the power will be passed on to Virginia rate payers, cost is very germane.

There is little information about the developer. Virginia Solar doesn’t even have a website. (The domain name www.virginiasolar.com is available for purchase.) Matthew Meares, the principal behind Virginia Solar, describes his specialty as “solar and wind financial structuring” on his LinkedIn page. That page also describes him as managing director of Richmond-based Sunworks NC, which has a one-page website. The company’s core competencies include financial modeling of various “tax equity and debt structures,” capital structuring, development assistance, technical due diligence, and energy production analysis.

There is a cottage industry of entrepreneurs who do the leg work of identifying prime solar sites, consolidating the land parcels, lining up the regulatory permits and then flipping the project to a player with deeper pockets. The ideal solar site is located near an existing electric transmission line that requires minimal investment to connect to the grid. It is in a rural area where NIMBYs won’t object to its presence and local governments will welcome the boost to the tax base. It also helps when negotiating the acquisition of land parcels to be a no-name firm rather than Dominion Virginia Power, Appalachian Power or any other company that cries out, “Deep pockets!”

Update: Reader Erik Curren pointed me to the www.vasolarllc.com website, which provides a bit more detail. Virginia Solar LLC was behind a 17-megawatt project in Powhatan County, projected to be installed in 2016. “Dominion Virginia Power intends to purchase this project and has submitted it to the Virginia State Corporation Commission for approval,” states the home page.

Can Richmond Grow without Sprawl?

Rendering of composite build-out scenarios, RIchmond metro, 20-30 years out.

by James A. Bacon

About three years ago the Virginia Chapter of the Urban Land Use Institute organized a Reality Check exercise in which dozens of government leaders and community activists hovered around maps of the Richmond region and used Lego blocks to propose where the projected growth of 200,000 residents and 200,000 new jobs over the next 20 to 30 years should be located. Overwhelmingly, participants envisioned a metropolitan area that grew up, not out, increasing density in the urban core and along key transportation arteries.

It’s a vision that I largely share, although I often find myself wondering, given the zoning rules that empower Not In My Back Yard resistance to development near existing residential neighborhoods, just where those new housing units and employment centers will go.

The question seems all the more relevant as, three years later, I observe the controversies swirling around the Libbie & Grove neighborhood in Richmond’s West End. If growth is not acceptable in the core locality which in the minds of ULI participants is where the growth should occur, is the region doomed to another generation of sprawl?

The Libbie & Grove neighborhood is bisected by two streets, Libbie Avenue and Grove Avenue, which host a cluster of  restaurants and boutique shops in a pedestrian-friendly environment. Property prices in this affluent neighborhood are high, and the existing one- and two-story commercial buildings are under-utilizing the land they sit upon. Developers are continually coming up with new proposals to erect three- and four-story buildings in their place. And residents predictably object, fretting about the impact on parking and fearing that larger buildings will be incompatible with neighborhoods of single-family dwellings. In the face of neighborhood objections, a string of developers has modified and down-scaled their plans to lower densities than the land values would support.

The City of Richmond has seen a resurgence of urban vitality in recent years, but most of the redevelopment has occurred either by retrofitting existing buildings or by building in commercial or industrial districts far from existing neighborhoods. When redevelopment occurs near established neighborhoods, they often spur an outcry, as the would-be developers of apartment towers near Church Hill, whose plans would interrupt views of the James River, found out.

Assuming the ULI’s growth projections are remotely accurate, does the city have the capacity to absorb a meaningful share of new population and jobs, or will NIMBYism and zoning codes force the growth into outlying counties in the form of more the same jumbled, low-density, auto-centric growth that has prevailed over the past half century?

I raised these concerns in a recent chat with Richmond Planning Director Mark Olinger. He was optimistic that Richmond has plenty of capacity to absorb more population and business growth.

There is considerable untapped capacity in the old Manchester district on the south bank of the James River opposite from downtown, he said. Manchester, once an independent city, had largely collapsed — a Detroit on the James. The area was so far gone that residents saw no down side to people investing there. I heard a figure recently from a credible source that the area has received more than $1 billion in real estate investment in recent years.

Additionally, no one objects when old industrial areas get converted to mixed use commercial and residential. Thus, Richmond is seeing steady investment along the riverfront and canals, most notably in Rocketts Landing area and nearby Stone Brewing site, as well as in the Scotts Addition area of Interstate 64. Once a pocket of small-scale warehousing and manufacturing, Scotts Addition now is evolving parcel by parcel into a mixed-use neighborhood, albeit at lower density than one typically associates with mixed-use projects.

That doesn’t leave much else in the city that can accommodate major growth without running into the NIMBY buzzsaw… except, suggests Olinger, the Broad Street corridor, which runs through Church Hill, downtown and Virginia Commonwealth University out to the Willow Lawn shopping center.  While much of the corridor is built out with historic buildings that are untouchable from a re-development standpoint, and some of it is hopeless, ’50s- and ’60s-era sprawl, a good chunk of the corridor does lend itself to re-development, replacing one- and two-story buildings with two-, three- and four-story buldings.

But even that gets tricky.

Completing the Pulse — the Bus Rapid Transit project along Broad Street — would create a mechanism for moving more people through the corridor and supporting greater densities and higher real estate values, Olinger says. He knows the Pulse project is controversial, but he thinks that the investment in mass transit should be viewed in the larger context of supporting the re-development of a transportation corridor that is critical for the long-term growth of the region.

On the other hand, I have been conversing with neighborhood activists who are distressed by an $11 million overrun for the project originally slated at $50 million due to ordering buses with doors opening on one side rather than two, which required an expensive reconfiguration of the BRT stations. Project foes fear that, like so many other mass transit projects, we’ll see more overruns before the project is complete. They also question whether the project will do anything to reduce congestion in the corridor, wondering if it makes sense to dedicate two traffic lanes to the transit system and force cars into the remaining lanes. Moreover, they contend, the city could achieve a comparable reduction in bus travel times simply by using existing buses and signalling stoplights to give them preference over other traffic.

As a city planner, Olinger is not involved with the Pulse, which is being run by the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC), and he cannot comment on the specifics of the project. But if Richmond is going to find more places for people to live and work in the region, he says, the Broad Street corridor is a prime candidate — and the corridor needs a transportation infrastructure to match.

Rocky Mountain High Real Estate Values

Street scene in Aspen, Colo.

Street view in Aspen, Colo.

by James A. Bacon

According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Aspen, Colo., could boast of having the most expensive real estate in the country. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As I sit here blogging at Ink! Coffee, looking upon a patio filled with Pellegrino umbrellas and baskets of bright mountain flowers while perusing the real estate ads in The Aspen Times, it quickly becomes clear that this is a place where I could never afford to live. A 3,414-square-foot home with a view of Aspen Mountain and within walking distance of downtown is on the market for $4,995,000. Select neighborhoods in Manhattan might be more expensive on a per-square-foot basis — I don’t pretend to know the national real estate market — but there cannot be many places that are.

Prone as I am to over-thinking absolutely everything, I have been asking myself, how did Aspen get to be one of the most desirable locations in the planet, while small mountain towns in Virginia with comparable natural beauty slide into senescence? Does Aspen provide lessons that Virginia communities can learn from — not with the unrealistic aim of becoming a playground of the one percent, but with the modest goal of attracting tourists and retirees, supporting jobs, lifting the tax base, and paying for amenities that make life more enjoyable for the people who live there?

In the article that follows, I will endeavor to address those questions, fully cognizant that anything I say is based upon the hasty and superficial impressions. My methodology is simple: I stroll around town with iPhone camera in hand and an eye to observing land use, architecture, transportation, and the retail scene. As always, I pay attention to the quality of the public sphere and the “small spaces.” When possible, I engage people in conversation. As it happens, Aspeners (or Aspenites, whatever they call themselves) are incredibly friendly and eager to talk about their fair city.

Aspen got its start in the late 1880s as a silver-mining boom town. When the silver boom went bust, so did the town. Fortunes did not revive until 1946 when Friedl Pfeifer, a former Austrian skiing champion, linked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth to form the Aspen Skiing Corporation. The town’s most enduring resource, as it turned out, was not silver but world-class skiing.

The inter-mountain west has many  popular ski resorts, but none has done as well as Aspen at winning name recognition and attracting the super-rich. One key to its phenomenal success, I would suggest, is its silver-mining inheritance: a downtown laid out in a classic grid street pattern, a number of handsome brick buildings, and a municipal government intent upon preserving that heritage. Aspen has something that many of its ski-resort peers does not: walkability. Admittedly, Aspen isn’t the only walkable ski town — Jackson, Wyoming, springs to mind — so pedestrian ambiance is not exclusively responsible for vaulting it into the real estate stratosphere. But a comparison with Virginia/West Virginia ski resorts such as Wintergreen, Snowshoe and Massanutten lacking downtown districts suggest that walkability is a critical differentiator.

Downtown Aspen, comprising about two dozen blocks, is a destination in itself, and real estate ads tout houses’ proximity to the urban center. While the “Mountain Modern” style of architecture often presents a jarring contrast with the 1880s-era buildings, the overall effect is still magical. Visitors come to Aspen, fall in love, and gladly pay a premium to buy a house or condominium that allows them to live here.

Aspen5

Not only are historic buildings from Aspen’s silver-mining past architecturally distinctive but they help define the walkable street space.

Walkability

One of the first things my wife, friends and I noticed when strolling around downtown was the paucity of cars. Traffic was negligible. I assumed the empty streets reflected the lassitude of the summer season at a skiing destination. But a friendly acquaintance, a commodities trader who moved here from Chicago, assured me otherwise. We were, in fact, experiencing peak downtown traffic. Summer tourism is booming, and a lot of people bring their own cars and four-wheel drives to take advantage of the hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.

While cars may be scarce, human beings are everywhere. The ability to live here without driving is a prime attraction. People can meet most of their daily needs by walking and biking. The commodities trader said he goes a week at a time without ever stepping in a car. Another acquaintance, a native Philadelphian who lives here eight months of the year and does business in New York, said when he recently sold a Jeep he’d owned twelve years, it only had 15,000 miles on it.

Uncongested streets are the result of thoughtful design. Aspen hews to the rules of classical urbanism. For starters, the buildings define the street space. Rather than standing out and saying, “Hey, look at me” with egocentric starchitect designs, they conform with one another in size, height and relationship to the street. By abutting the sidewalks, their facades delineate the public space of the sidewalk realm. While you won’t see many cars driving around, plenty are using the on-street parking — and that’s a good thing. Parked cars and building facades bracket the pedestrian domain as a distinct space. This pedestrian realm, as I shall describe, is adorned by flower gardens, rain gardens, statuary, street seating, and window shopping that make it extraordinarily inviting. Continue reading

In Praise of Carytown

carytown

by James A. Bacon

One of the Bacon family’s favorite places to go in Richmond is Carytown, an eight-block retail strip embedded in Richmond’s Museum District. Some of our favorite restaurants are there — Can Can Brasserie if we’re in the mood for French, Amici’s if for Italian, Cappola’s if for subs. For soon-to-be empty nesters like us who parachute in from the ‘burbs, the food is the main draw. But not the only one. I look for any excuse to visit Carytown… just because.

As much as I cherish Carytown, I was astonished to see that Cushman & Wakefield profiled it as one of America’s top “cool streets,” giving it a tongue-in-cheek rating of “prime hipness” on its hip-o-meter. I’m so un-hip it hurts. I’m the opposite of hip — I’m pih. Moreover, other than the culinary scene, I’m not accustomed to anyone uttering the words “Richmond” and “hip” in the same breath.

But I do agree, there is something very special about Carytown. Moreover, there are lessons to be learned from its success. Along with Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Chicago’s Logan Square and other cool streets profiled in the report, Carytown is an urban laboratory, a live demonstration showing how retail can thrive in the age of failing malls, shrinking chain stores, and ubiquitous e-commerce.

According to Cushman & Wakefield, Millennials are the generation that defines what’s what’s cool, fashionable, and chic. Almost by definition, cool streets are areas that draw large numbers of Millennials as patrons and entrepreneurs. Urban Millennials are looking for affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods. The cool streets in the Cushman & Wakefield survey meet those criteria. They tend to be older, affordable neighborhoods developed decades ago when grid streets were the norm, went to seed and now are coming back. Tony, long-established retail districts are too expensive to attract Millennials, either as patrons, entrepreneurs or residents living nearby.

Cool streets are dominated by small, independent businesses. They are eccentric and eclectic. They are never dull and predictable. As such, says the report, they are incubators for new retail concepts.

Carytown, notes the report, is home to about 300 boutiques, shops, restaurants and bars in about 950,000 square feet of retail inventory. Rents vary from $12 to $40 per square foot. Millennials account for 43.1% of the population, one of the highest percentages of the cool streets surveyed, and average household income exceeds $81,000. Vacancies are extremely low and rents are rising, but there are no major redevelopment projects underway.

A couple of observations about how Carytown came to be Carytown.

First, Carytown did not emerge from some master planner’s vision. It evolved organically. This stretch of West Cary Street was built in the 1930s as an extension of the Fan neighborhood, and the standard practice of that time was to lay out the city in grid streets, with buildings abutting and facing the street. Other than the magnificent old Byrd Theater and a converted church, none of the buildings are architecturally distinctive. But the cellular structure of the small, street-facing buildings is perfect for shops, boutiques and small restaurants.

Second, the City of Richmond has stayed out of the way. Other than building a two-story parking deck on a side street, the city has busied itself with projects in other parts of the city. It has not spurred “redevelopment.” It hasn’t blessed the district with big plans.

Third, the district combines automobile accessibility with walkability. Parking lots and the parking deck are either tucked away behind the buildings or concentrated in the shopping centers on the west end — they do not violate the integrity of the streetscape. The sidewalks lining Cary Street create a hospitable environment for pedestrians, with visually interesting shops on one side and parked cars creating a buffer from traffic on the other.

Fourth, only modest attention has been given to “place making.” Those features that exist have come largely at the initiative of the businesses themselves — on-street dining, statues and artwork on the sidewalks.

Carytown is a classic example of organic, from-the-bottom-up development that costs taxpayers almost nothing but adds immeasurably to the quality of life. It’s not the only model for urban revitalization, but it’s a darn good one.

Can Atlanta’s East Lake Experiment Work in Virginia?

The Drew Charter School Junior and Senior Academy in Atlanta's East Lake community.

The Drew Charter School Junior and Senior Academy in Atlanta’s East Lake community.

by James A. Bacon

It is axiomatic among social scientists that concentrating poor people in public housing projects accentuates the social pathologies that make poverty self-perpetuating and unbearable. The oft-touted solution is to create more mixed-income neighborhoods that de-concentrate poverty. Presumably, the presence of working- and middle-class households people would moderate the anti-social behavior of the poor. There’s just one problem: While the poor perceive mixed-income neighborhoods as beneficial, the non-poor do not. Typically, the non-poor flee poor neighborhoods associated with crime, poor schools and disorderly behavior.

How, then, does one develop mixed-use neighborhoods? The answer, according to Carol R. Naughton, president of the not-for-profit Purpose Built Communities: The developer needs to partner with allies who can provide amenities — grocery stores, recreational amenities, and above all else good schools — that make a neighborhood attractive to the non-poor.

“Poverty and place are tied together,” said Naughton Tuesday when addressing the Richmond chapter of the Urban Land Institute. Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are “swamps” that breed inter-generational poverty that children can’t escape from. Changing the “place” can change the dynamic of poverty.

Naughton came to the view that developers can make a difference when working with the Atlanta Housing Authority. Her aha moment came when meeting Tom Cousins, a mega-developer and philanthropist with grand designs for repairing East Lake Meadows, a community dominated by public housing projects where the crime rate was 18 times the national average and the employment (not unemployment) rate was 12%.

Working through the East Lake Foundation, Cousins targeted 175 acres in East Lake Meadows to build mixed-use housing. But his approach differed from that of other such projects in several regards.

First, East Lake found people to start a charter school. The Atlanta Board of Education was too broken to help, said Naughton, but the George legislature had just passed a charter school bill. Second, upon the advice of local residents, mixed-use housing was limited to people who worked. Third, the foundation developed key partnerships: with the YMCA to build a community facility, with Publix to build the first grocery store to serve the area in 40 years, and with two Atlanta banks to put branches in the neighborhood. Fourth, the foundation morphed into a “community quarterback” pushing a vision for community wellness and cradle-to-college education.

Each element of the plan was important but the charter school proved decisive, Naughton said. In its first year, the school was the worst-performing school in Atlanta. But it improved year after year, and 20 years later now stands as one of the top schools in the city. “Our kids can compete against anybody, against the wealthiest kids in the city,” she says. “We’re serving more low-income kids than any other school in the community.”

The result is transformational, she said. “Now East Lake is an education destination. People want to live there. It’s a great neighborhood for kids.” Middle-class families are moving into the neighborhood. Indeed, the lure of the charter schools is driving revitalization of neighborhoods beyond the original project.

Naughton is not a big fan of the department of Housing and Urban Development. “HUD confuses funding streams with programs,” she says. Programs take more than money. They require local leadership to put it to good use. She believes that the backing of an entity like the East Lake Foundation, with a high-powered and well-connected board, is a critical ingredient to success.

The East Lake redevelopment model has proven so successful that it is being replicated by the Bayou Foundation in New Orleans, and Naughton runs her own organization, Purpose Built Communities, to work with dozens of other initiatives around the country.

Bacon’s bottom line: Even allowing for the fact that Naughton is a cheerleader for the East Lake project, the concept sounds enviably successful — certainly successful enough that it’s worth a try in Virginia. Could the concept work here? The biggest obstacle likely would be the hostility of Virginia’s educational establishment to charter schools. On the other hand, here in the Richmond area at least, there are dozens of entities — Tricycle Gardens and its community farms, Bon Secours and its community hospital, and the vibrant Communities in Schools program — that would make natural partners.

I am amazed by the number of Richmonders who are actively engaged in trying to ameliorate the concentrated, inter-generational poverty in the city’s East End. There is much good will, and there are many great anecdotal stories, but I don’t see much traction in actually vanquishing poverty. Perhaps the missing elements are a purpose-driven real estate developer and community foundation dedicated to building a physical community and institutions to support it.

Questions about Bidding War for FBI HQ

Rendering of proposed new FBI headquarters

Rendering of proposed new FBI headquarters

There’s a bidding war between Virginia and Maryland to snag a planned, 2.1 million-square-foot Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters campus. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is in for $317 million in state and local funds, according to the Washington Business Journal. Governor Terry McAuliffe is in for $120 million. In both cases most of the money would be applied to make transportation improvements near the proposed sites.

The Virginia location would be in the Springfield area, and the funds would be used to mitigate the transportation impact of relocating thousands of employees from Washington, D.C., to Northern Virginia. There are many interesting angles to this story:

  • Would the $120 million McAuliffe proposes spending benefit mainly the FBI and its employees, or would the contemplated improvements benefit others in the Springfield area as well?
  • Where would the money come from, and what alternate uses are there for that money? What other projects would be deferred?
  • How would the move alter commuting patterns? Would a significant number of employees be “reverse commuting” from Washington, D.C., to Virginia? Will the relocation ease or stress Northern Virginia’s transportation problems?
  • What would be the economic benefits of bringing the FBI to Virginia? Presumably, as a federal facility, the headquarters would generate no real estate tax revenues. Would a Virginia location inspire many FBI employees to move to Virginia — and, given the lack of property tax revenue, would they represent a net gain to the state and local governments and their taxpayers?
  • Who owns the Springfield site for the new headquarters? How much would the property owner stand to benefit from this deal and resulting investment in transportation improvements?

— JAB