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.