Category Archives: Land use & development

Planners Say Yes to Shockoe Bottom Condo

libbie_hill

View of the James from Libbie Hill Park. Pretty nice… if you don’t mind that grainery.

by James A. Bacon

Libbie Hill Park sits on the crest of a hill overlooking the James River. On that spot in 1737 William Byrd II famously looked upon the turn in the river, was struck by its resemblance to Richmond-upon-Thames outside London, and decided to give the new city founded nearby the name of Richmond. It is understandably a view that preservationists want to protect.

The-James-at-River-Bend-from-Cary-Street

View of The James at River Bend from Cary Street. Image credit CHPN.

But the Richmond Planning Commission approved Monday a special use permit to build a 16-story condominium building, The James at River Bend, just west of the view from Libby Hill Park. That decision follows approval earlier this month of an office complex on the eastern side of Libby Hill. Some conservationists are up in arms, and I sympathize. Some things are worth preserving. Yet I agree with the planning commission’s decision. Shockoe Bottom is an appropriate place for development at greater intensity.

The Richmond metropolitan region has reached a turning point. After decades of scattered, low-density growth giving the region one of the worst sprawl indexes in the country, the momentum of growth has shifted back to the urban core. Richmond’s downtown and surrounding precincts have accommodated significant population growth through the expedient of renovating an extensive stock of old warehouses, offices and industrial buildings. That strategy has been economically feasible thanks to state and federal historic tax credits. But the inventory of old industrial buildings is running low. In the future, developers will have to build taller buildings.

David White, president of Historic Housing LLC, explained during the permit hearing that he could not finance the project without the building height and the views that commanded high condominium prices. “I can’t make the numbers word,” he said. “The only way I can afford to build the build is to get the dollars that come from the height.”

Richmond, Henrico County and Chesterfield County all have to come to terms with the prospect of higher density development and taller buildings. It is the natural order of metropolitan evolution and cannot be avoided except at great cost. Richmond’s urban core needs higher density. Condominium towers generate high tax revenues without major offsetting infrastructure costs. They also provide the density needed to support the Bus Rapid Transit system that city planners want to run along Broad Street. Failure to densify the Broad Street corridor will doom BRT to economic failure and perpetual subsidies. And the alternative to building “up” is to build “out” — creating more sprawl with its voracious needs for expensive new infrastructure.

Those considerations trump the marginal impact of the condo project on the view from Libbie Park, as even the Historic Richmond Foundation agrees. The hard decision will come when someone proposes to erect a building that will blot out the river. Until that time comes, the trade-off is an easy one to make.

Smart Growth for Custom-Minded Conservatives

main_streetby James A. Bacon

As I have endeavored to develop a conservative vision for Smart Growth, I have relied primarily upon conservative principles with a libertarian slant — limited government, fiscal conservatism, free markets and the like. But there is a vast realm of conservative thinking that I have neglected, which William S. Lind, director of the Arlington-based American Ideas Institute, has reminded me of in today’s post on the Center for Public Transportation blog.

In that post, Lind has kind words to say about Bacon’s Rebellion and our offshoot blog, Smart Growth for Conservatives. But he also expands the case for Smart Growth beyond the one that I have made: He appeals to the idea of conservatism that favors institutions that have grown up over time, as embodied in customs, traditions and habits. In the realm of land use planning, he invokes the golden age of American urbanism that reached its apex in the street car era before zoning codes mandated separation of where people lived from where they shopped or worked by distances too great to walk.

Traditional neighborhood development, Lind contends, fostered a sense of community — and community is a core conservative value. Community refers to informal arrangements in which citizens interact in the civic sphere, building bonds of trust, collaborating to achieve goals of mutual benefit and enforcing community norms without the need for government intervention. He writes:

Why do we desire community? Because traditional morals are better enforced by community pressure than by the clumsy and intrusive instrument of the law. But community pressure only works where there is community. If you do not know your neighbors, what do you care what they think? We want people to care what their neighbors think.

Lind then observes that a conservative view of Smart Growth differs from a liberal view in preferring free-market mechanisms and a level playing field (the arguments that I have articulated) and in rejecting the Left’s celebration of “diversity, or the mixing of races, ethnic groups, income levels, and cultures in ways where everyone must live cheek-by-jowl.” When “diversity” occurs as a result of social engineering, rather than the natural coming of people together, it undermines community. “Community, for us,” writes Lind, “is far more important than any putative benefits from ‘diversity,’ benefits that seem entirely ideological in nature.”

I would elaborate that the Left tends to worship diversity as an abstract concept with little heed for its actual consequences. In the real world, as I have blogged recently, some of the most segregated places in the United States are the most politically liberal. Liberal policies (such as giving government more power to control land use) are associated with the most illiberal results. Ironically, while a conservative version of smart growth would eschew “diversity” as a goal, by eliminating exclusionary zoning and building communities based on shared values and trust, Smart Growth conservatism could do more to erode racial and ethnic segregation than all the judicial decrees and government programs favored by liberals.

Lind, who co-authored a study with Paul Weyrich and New Urbanism guru Andres Duany that explored commonalities of conservative and the New Urbanism, has tapped a rich new vein of thought and commentary on why conservatives should embrace Smart Growth. Let’s hope he continues to develop this line of thinking.

Re-imagining Sunnyvale

SONY DSCby James A. Bacon

Silicon Valley appears to be moving in fits and starts toward more rational land use, creating denser, more mixed-use, better-connected communities appropriate to a region with extraordinarily high land values. As a casual visitor to the region, I don’t pretend to speak with any authority on the trend but I can provide a couple of case studies on how change is happening. The good news for businesses and residents of Silicon Valley is that change is occurring and that the new is better than the old. The bad news is that change isn’t coming fast enough, and the new stuff being built probably could work better.

Proposed design of Apple mothership

Proposed design of Apple mothership

Projects like the planned 2.8 million-square-foot Apple headquarters complex, one of the final legacies of Steve Jobs, tend to grab the lion’s share of attention. The proposed headquarters, snarkly dubbed the “mothership” for its futuristic design, will be an architectural masterpiece. Apple says the facility will produce as much energy as it consumes and its floor plan will foster creative collaboration. But the complex will be a self-contained campus. While it may encourage collaboration internally, its isolation will not promote interaction with entities outside the corporation. And while the facility itself may be  carbon neutral, plans include a vast underground parking lot to accommodate thousands of employees who will be commuting (and burning gasoline) by car.

Yes, the Caltrain station provides bike racks -- and people are using them. But look carefully at this picture. Beyond the bikes the valuable land adjacent to the train station is consumed by surface parking lot.

Yes, the Caltrain station provides bike racks — and people are using them. But look carefully at this picture. Beyond the bikes, the valuable land adjacent to the train station is consumed by surface parking lot.

It’s not as if Silicon Valley lacks mass transit. As one would expect of a California locale, the region has made significant investments in rail and bus. A Caltrain track runs from San Francisco to San Jose with several stops along the way. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority runs bus lines throughout. There even appears to be some mixed-use clustering occurring around the transit stations. If the region is to address its long-term challenge of providing more affordable housing and reducing traffic congestion, it will need fewer Apple motherships and more of the uncelebrated development like that which is occurring around the Sunnyvale Caltrain station.

The Caltrain stop is served by an attractive bus station. Too bad nobody was using it when I happened by.

The Caltrain stop is served by an attractive bus station. Too bad nobody was using it when I happened by.

However, local planners and developers in the region also will have to work on their execution. Last week I had spent some time touring the district around the Sunnyvale station. Local planners have done some things right. But my quick and superficial impression is that the district will fall short of potential.

Planners appear to be checking off the smart growth list — light rail. Check. Covered bus stops. Check. Mixed-use buildings, grid streets, bicycle racks, parks, underground parking… Check, check, check.

Sunnyvale open space -- attractive but empty.

Sunnyvale open space — attractive but empty.

But the key players appeared to have paid less attention to how all the pieces fit together. The biggest problem is that the train station is surrounded by parking lots and an empty park-like space. The mixed-use, multi-story buildings are all pushed back from the station. Given the reluctance of people to walk more than a quarter mile to transit (roughly 1,500 feet), the most valuable space is located right next to the station. That’s where the greatest density should be. But in Sunnyvale that’s where the lowest-value land uses are located.

The streets and public spaces of this transit-oriented district were empty. The problem wasn’t just the time of day — late morning and lunch-time on a Wednesday. One street was really hopping: South Murphy Avenue. The design was classic New Urbanism with wide sidewalks, on-street parking, narrow lanes, street furniture, ornamental trees and sidewalk dining. The place was packed. I don’t know how people got there, whether they walked or they drove, but the restaurants were jammed. Continue reading

The Perils of Gas Fracking

By Peter Galuszka

More media accounts are showing up now that 84,000 acres of lands south and east of Fredericksburg have been leased for possible hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas.

This Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch published a map showing the leased area covering big swaths of land from the Fort A.P. Hill military area east across the Rappahanock River on  into the historic Northern Neck. These are some of the loveliest parts of the Old Dominion, featuring  sloping valleys, rich bottom lands and meandering creeks and rivers that are filled with wildlife, not to mention farms and homes.

The newspaper quoted Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council proclaiming fracking as being safe and that the construction activity to place wells only takes a few months. “It’s like a construction site,” Ward said. “As it’s being done, there is going to be truck traffic. There’s going to be noise. There’s going to be some dust in the air. There’s going to be mud around the area. But that’s short-lived.”

Really? To be a better idea, I started surfing YouTube to see what the local impact of constructing fracking wells is really like. I happened upon several films from rural Harrison County, W.Va., an area where I lived as a child from 1962 to 1969.

The videos show an area in western Harrison County near the college town of Salem in landscape surrounded by rolling hills and dairy farms. There has been coal mining in the area and natural gas has been around for decades, but fracking wells are something new.

The videos depict an ongoing nightmare for neighbors who have found their quiet, bucolic existence interrupted 24/7 by the roaring of diesel generators, huge floodlights, and many, many trucks. One woman says that the well site across her road starts up around 4 a.m. and she can’t get back to sleep so she’s constantly tired when she goes to work.

Water and construction trucks, many 18-wheelers, are a big problem. They sideswipe cars on rural, two-lane roads or block traffic for a half an hour after they get stuck trying to turn around. The heavy trucks crumble pavement on country roads. Some local ones have had to be repaved four times since drill site preparation began a couple of years ago when the fracking craze began.

It seems likely that areas near Fredericksburg and on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula will taste some of the same problems if fracking begins. The Taylorsville Basin in the area may hold 1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Further questions abound about the company that’s putting together leases for the area. It is an obscure company called Shore Exploration & Production Co. with offices in Dallas and Bowling Green. The plan, company officials have said, is to put buy up gas leases and then flip them to a drilling company.

The company insists it won’t use a “watery” method of fracking but can’t seem to explain its supposed substitute which is to use some form of nitrogen. In West Virginia, wells can need up to five million gallons of water that must be trucked in. Does this mean that trucks carrying nitrogen will come in instead?

Answers seem to be as fleeting as the Shore company which has two full-time employees and has no annual report or website. It has never drilled a well itself, just exploratory ones. One official told a newspaper that having an annual report and website “would provide information to competitors.”

That statement alone should give tremendous pause. What happens if you live in the country of the Northern Neck and a gas well emerges next door? What happens if your life is disrupted by 24-hour diesel generators, lights and dozens of heavy trucks? What happens if the “flow-back” ponds that contain waste, including radioactive material and methane from the drilling area below, breach?

Eastern Virginia is not used to such challenges. As a former resident of West Virginia where such challenges are common, I know well what this kind of set-up can mean, especially in Virginia that has some gas wells in its southwestern tip but has little experience with fracking.

Silicon Valley Knows Technology, Not Land Use

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif.

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif. Impressive facade but poor public spaces.

by James A. Bacon

Apple, Google and other collosi of Silicon Valley are re-shaping the world with their technology but you could never imagine them as masters of innovation by viewing their corporate campuses. While the office interiors may be arrayed with java bars and collaborative workplaces to stimulate creativity, the building exteriors are for the most part bland steel-and-glass boxes of a type that can be found anywhere in the United States. Moreover, surrounded by parking lots and landscaping, the buildings are isolated — islands in a sea of mulch and asphalt. Creativity and interaction end at the front door. The streets, sidewalks and other pieces of the public realm are innovation dead zones.

That was the impression I gained from the Bacon family’s whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley earlier this week that took in the corporate headquarters not only of Apple and Google but Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and LinkedIn. Perhaps we arrived at the wrong time of year, the wrong time of the week or the wrong hour of the day but we saw almost nothing going on. Most of the street-level activity at Apple was generated by tourist traffic to the Apple store. The environs of the famed Googleplex were even more desolate.

google_bikes

Vaughn and Wilson in “The Internship.”

I was expecting bustling outdoor scenes like those shown in the movie, “The Internship,” in which Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn finagled their way into summer jobs at Google and into movie goers’ hearts. We didn’t see bupkis. I sneaked around the back of one of the buildings in the Googleplex and did discover an inviting patio with bright umbrellas but didn’t see anyone except a couple of maintenance guys standing around and shooting the breeze. As we drove around the Google corporate campus with its dozens of buildings, we did espy one multi-colored Google bike leaning against a wall and we did spot one fellow riding down the road, but we saw hardly anyone walking outside. Undoubtedly, billions of neurons were burning brightly inside Google’s buildings — but there was no sign of the company’s massive brainpower on display outside. It turns out that, according to CNN, much of the movie wasn’t filmed at Google at all — but the Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta!

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. According to the Google corporate address listed in Google maps, we did.

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. This is where Google Maps led us.

Who cares whether the innovation occurs inside or outside? Why mess with a proven formula? More to the point, what does a techno-tard like me have useful to say to the likes of Apple and Google, two of the greatest wealth creation machines in human history?

I didn’t visit Silicon Valley with the idea of lecturing the region’s political, business and civic leaders how to improve, which would be incredibly presumptuous on my part. I visited to learn what lessons other communities might learn. Scores of regions around the United States yearn to re-create some of the valley’s technology magic, and I worry they could draw the wrong conclusions. The one dimension of Silicon Valley that others can most readily replicate is its “suburban sprawl” pattern of development — and that would be the worst possible lesson to take away.

Apple parking lot

The parking lots outside Apple’s headquarters are beautifully landscaped but they wall off pedestrian access to the world outside.

I would humbly suggest that Silicon Valley has been insanely successful in spite of its dysfunctional human settlement patterns. Combine world-class research universities, the largest venture capital community in the world and an unparalleled workforce, then shake and stir. You’ll get technological innovation. Silicon Valley’s corporations can create a built environment that discourages interaction outside the firm and it doesn’t matter — the advantages of a Silicon Valley location far outweigh the drawbacks. But no one else has Silicon Valley’s potent mix of research universities, venture capitalists and the smartest engineers drawn from around the world. Other communities need every competitive advantage they can muster — and smarter land use patterns is one of them.

As Hans Johannson has argued in his book, “The Medici Effect,” innovation comes at the intersection — the intersection of different industries, disciplines, cultures or ways of thinking — that allow people to make unlikely combinations of ideas. Some places lend themselves to that kind of interaction, others don’t. Based on her experience living in Greenwich Village a generation ago, renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs brilliantly argued that sidewalks, small parks and mixed uses lent themselves to the kind of meetings and encounters, often serendipitous, where different perspectives and ideas can collide. To spawn entrepreneurship from the ground up, those are the kinds of neighborhoods and communities that aspiring tech centers should be creating.

The built environment of Silicon Valley is Northern Virginia with palm trees — predominantly single-family houses, strip malls and office parks. Thanks to municipal codes and NIMBYs, the region can increase density only sparingly, so it cannot grow “up” by building taller buildings. But wedged between the bay to the north and mountains to the south, it cannot grow “out” through additional sprawl. As a consequence, real estate prices are incredibly high. The cost of housing across the Valley and throughout the entire Bay area is consistently cited as one of the greatest hindrances to living there. The number of homeless in the San Jose metro region, according to the Wall Street Journal, numbers roughly 7,600. To adopt similar land use policies would suicidal for any other region.

Municipal leaders recognize these shortcomings and are attempting belatedly and with mixed results to deal with them. I will discuss two such initiatives in Sunnyvale, as time permits.

In Praise of Small Spaces

SONY DSC

Stairway across from the Ritz Carlton on Nob Hill.

by James A. Bacon

I am fascinated by small urban spaces that normally elude the attention of city planners,  star architects and travel magazines. In low-density settings where low value is placed on land, inhabitants pay little heed to the small spaces. But in densely settled cities, residents apply loving creativity to making the most of the nooks, the crannies, the alleyways and the odd bits of land around them. The accumulation of detail in these small spaces is part of what makes a city like San Francisco great.

Some of the most interesting sights I saw here were tucked away in alleyways and in-between spaces. Many of them were stairways.  The photo above shows a particularly beautiful stairway that led between two houses to a destination up the hill. (I was too tired trudging up and down hills to see where it led.)  With manicured trees and flowers along the edge, this stairway was a significant enhancement to the neighborhood.

The stairway below is all the more interesting because it is all the more ordinary, part of an alleyway on a steep hillside that provides access to several nondescript apartment dwellings. It shows few signs of anyone having lavished money upon expensive materials or landscaping upon it, yet it is visually interesting nonetheless.

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Continue reading

Fracking the Mother of Presidents

fracking rigBy Peter Galuszka

Controversial hydraulic fracking appears to becoming a distinct possibility in areas south and east of Fredericksburg on land that is famed for its bucolic and watery splendors along with being the birthplaces of such historical figures as George Washington, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee.

After several years of exploring and buying up 84,000 acres worth of leases from Carolina to Westmoreland Counties, a Dallas-based company that uses a post office box as its headquarters address participated in the first-ever public discussion of what its plans may be.

According to the Free-Lance Star, the meeting was put together by King George County Supervisor Rudy Brabo to air concerns and hear plans of Shore Exploration and Production Co., which is based in Dallas and has offices in Bowling Green. Its headquarters address is registered with the State Corporation Commission as P.O. Box 38101 in Dallas.

About 100 people attended the meeting April 14, but judging from the newspaper’s account, not many questions were answered. Participants repeatedly asked Shore CEO Ed DeJarnette what his plans were regarding fracking and who would be responsible for damages if something went wrong.

DeJarnette responded that his firm is merely buying up leases and is looking to sell them to other gas drillers and operators. The state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy issues permits one at a time and is responsible for enforcing them, he said.

Hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling have touched off a revolution in the American energy industry in recent years, particularly in the Marcellus Shale gas formations that stretch in the Appalachians from New York State to southwest Virginia. The methods have also been used to reach rich shale oil deposits in North Dakota and other western states.

Fracking has been used as a drilling process for years according to media accounts and authors such as Gregory Zuckerman whose recent book “The Frackers” covers the process’s increasingly widespread use in the past several years.

Among concerns are that the toxic chemicals mixed with water and then pumped hundreds of feet underground could eventually ruin groundwater serving streams and wells. Other concerns are that the inevitable “flowback” in drilling will require surface ponds to handle toxic waste. In places such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia where fracking is permitted, quiet country areas are badly disturbed by the roar of diesel generators at drilling sites and from trucks that are constantly delivering drilling supplies. Methane can leak from drilling rigs, further complicating global warming issues, and flash fires can be problems. Fracking can also consume great amounts of water which often has to be trucked in.

On the plus side, holders of mineral leases can receive great sums in royalties and various taxes and other payments can boost local tax coffers. Natural gas is cleaner and less deadly source of energy than coal, plays a big role in electricity power generation in the Mid-Atlantic.

At the King George meeting, DeJarnette told the audience that he preferred using nitrogen as an element in fracking rather than water, but there were few details in the newspaper story.

While providing scarce details on who would actually handle the drilling, how it would be done and who would be responsible for damages, DeJarnette repeatedly emphasized the monetary benefits and jobs fracking would bring.

If it proceeds, fracking in the Taylorsville Basin would likely be confined to Virginia, which is more business-friendly than Maryland where the basin also extends. The field stretches across the Potomac River into Charles, St. Mary’s, Calvert and Anne Arundel Counties but Maryland has a moratorium on fracking until it can be studied further.

DeJarnette says he wants drilling to start by late this year or in 2015. Major oil firms explored the Northern Neck area and found some evidence of oil and gas deposits there in the 1980s.

The City of Great Places

Belden Street

Belden Street

So, here we are in San Francisco, in the heart of the land of fruits and nuts. We’re  planning to do a lot of the usual tourista things — take the boat to Alcatraz, bike to Sausalito, visit the Exploratorium — but your roving correspondent also will be applying a keen eye to the human settlements patterns of one of the United States’ most remarkable urban experiments.

San Francisco and nearby Silicon Valley comprise the most economically productive region in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Manhattan, although I regard the New York financial industry as a monstrous parasite that, due to Quantitative Easing, prospers at the expense of the rest of the country). San Francisco and San Jose (and environs in between) also happen to have the most expensive real estate prices (outside, perhaps, Manhattan) and the greatest income inequality in the country. Yet there is a remarkable divergence between Frisco and Silicon Valley. San Francisco hews to the Smart Growth ideals of higher density, mixed-use, walkable and transit-oriented human settlement patterns while Silicon Valley epitomizes sprawl. San Francisco is a tourist destination; Silicon Valley is not. I don’t know what all that adds up to but it is my framework for writing whatever I write about.

First observations: Arriving Saturday evening fatigued from a long trip, the Bacon farrow (farrow? Look it up.) checked into its hotel and set out to grab a meal before hitting the sack. There is a delightful little street near our hotel — Belden Street on the edge of Chinatown (see photo above). It really isn’t even a street, it’s more of an alleyway, too narrow for cars, that is lined with seven or eight restaurants. There is nothing exceptional about the street; it’s just one small example of the place-making that inspires love of this city. The alleyway is a visual surprise in that is represents a departure from the dominant street grid. Cozy and intimate in its human scale, it is a delight to stroll through.

Multiply Belden Street hundreds of times across the region and you get a place where people love to live and are fiercely loyal to.

– JAB 

“Where Is the Closest Tiki Bar?”

tiki_barBy Peter Galuszka

Often times, blog commenters really hit the nail on the head. This is the case with “Virginiagal2” who responded to my blog post earlier this week that Richmond’s schools are decrepit and crumbling, as Style Weekly detailed in a recent cover story.

They note that Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools while chasing higher-profile and extraneous projects such as a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins and a new baseball stadium for the Minor League AA Flying Squirrels.

Schools? What schools?

Blog posts also note that NFL football star Russell Wilson, a Richmonder, stayed at private Collegiate school after his father saw academics as more important than sports and blunted maneuvers by Richmond public schools to recruit Wilson during his school years.

Part of the problem, as Virginiagal2 notes, is that Richmond’s select and self-appointed “leadership” ignores the city’s serious problems while they embark another pointless road trip to another city, typically in the sunny South, to gather ideas on how they should proceed with their (how to describe?) “leadership.”

Just a week or so ago, about 160 of Richmond’s “leaders” were bopping around Tampa, sampling its eateries and noting the watery views. The biggest cheerleader for these junkets is The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is very much a propaganda organ of the area’s chamber of commerce. Its publisher Thomas A. Silvestri was chamber chair a few years back yet few commented on the potential conflict of interest. On the Tampa trip, the editor of the editorial pages wrote a supposedly cute series of reports in a “postcard” (ha-ha) style about the Tampa trip. Here’s one tidbit:

“About 160 Richmonders will spend three days sipping from Tampa’s version of youth’s fabled fountain. Where oh where is the closest tiki bar?”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. Next, I’d like to copy what Virginiagal2 had to say in response to my blog. She absolutely nails it:

“The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

‘nuf said.

Can Virginia Reverse the Stroadification of Rt. 1?

The Rt. 1 area under study. Click for larger image.

The Rt. 1 area under study. Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

People living along the U.S. Route 1 corridor in Northern Virginia seemingly desire contradictory things. They want better pedestrian and bicycle safety, they want mass transit. … and they want automobile traffic to flow faster. Alas, designing the corridor to move automobiles faster makes roads less safe, and it discourages the kind of development that would invite the higher-density, mixed-use development that would support mass transit.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, explores the dilemma in a thoughtful two-part series (Part 1 and Part 2on the challenge of re-developing Route 1. His solution, at the risk of over-simplifying, is to switch the perspective from designing the corridor for cars to designing it for people. Planners are scheduled to submit specific recommendations for the corridor by July. If they focus on creating walkable, transit-oriented communities, Schwartz contends and I concur, automobile traffic flow will improve as well.

A few years back, the Virginia Department of Transportation proposed reducing posted speeds from 45 m.p.h. but an uproar ensued. Apparently, too many people depended upon U.S. 1 as a commuter route and imagined that lower posted speeds would translate into lower actual speeds and longer commuter time. But lowering the speed is critical to achieving the goal of walkability, walkability is required to make mass transit economically viable, and viable mass transit is required to reduce the volume of cars on the highway.

The problem is that U.S. 1 fits the classic definition of a stroad, a street-road hybrid. The route started as one of America’s first national highways. But Virginia state and local governments neglected to control access to the highway, with the result that it became cluttered with haphazard development, cut-throughs, curb-cuts and stoplights. Functionally, in Northern Virginia, Fredericksburg, Ashland, Richmond and Petersburg, the highway became a main street. Yet it failed to fulfill the functions of either highway or main street properly. The lanes were too wide and the speeds too intermittently high to create walkability or the higher-end development that is drawn to walkable places. At the same time, Rt. 1 became so congested with local traffic that it failed as a highway.

At some point, the people of Alexandria and Fairfax County must decide whether they want Rt. 1 fulfill its destiny as a highway or a street. It cannot do both.

Rt. 1 should be easier to salvage in Northern Virginia than in points south. There is so much demand in the region for walkable, transit-oriented communities that private investors should be able to re-develop the low-value development that exists now at higher densities fairly quickly. Proffers and/or impact fees, sweetened by higher density allowances, should be available to pay for streetscape improvements to make the corridor more hospitable to pedestrians. Further, there is such a large volume of traffic that the corridor should be able to support mass transit.

Transportation planners could help by reallocating right of way, in effect converting the former in-name-only highway from a stroad to a street. Reducing lane widths from 12 to 10 feet would free space for bicycle lanes and make the “highway” easier for pedestrians to cross. Yes, narrower lanes would slow the peak travel speed of thousands of commuters to Fort Belvoir. But if the narrower lanes were accompanied by less automobile traffic, lower posted speeds could be offset by shorter waits at traffic lights, less stop-and-go.

All urban Virginians should follow the Rt. 1 experiment with great interest. If Northern Virginia can find a workable solution for the old Jefferson Davis Highway, there is hope for the rest of us.