Category Archives: Land use & development

Loudoun’s Broken Development Model

If housing stock like this Loudoun County beauty can't cover its costs in infrastructure and services,  the local governance model is badly broken.

If housing stock like this Loudoun County beauty can’t cover its costs in infrastructure and services, the local governance model is badly broken.

by James A. Bacon

Office workers need less space than they once did. Over the years businesses’ space needs per office employee have shrunk from approximately 250 square feet to less than 190 square feet, says Ben Keddie, vice president of Coldwell Banker Commercial Elite, as quoted in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Office space is expensive, and businesses have learned how to function with less of it. With the rise of the mobile workforce, open work spaces and office hoteling, it is easier than ever to conserve space and rein in lease and rental costs.

That trend has dramatic, if unappreciated, consequences for local governments’ real estate tax base and the management of growth and development. If businesses need less office space per employee, they need less office space overall. Which means the cost of office space drops. Which means developers build fewer new office buildings. Which means local governments are finding it harder and harder to grow their tax base.

Loudoun County in Northern Virginia, it appears, is facing that very problem. “A softening commercial office market has made it difficult for developers to make money on their commercial land, because there are fewer companies interested in large parcels,” reports the Loudoun Times. Indeed, it might be said that outlying counties in the Washington metropolitan region are facing a trifecta of troubles regarding commercial real estate: (1) business enterprises are shrinking their office footprints everywhere; (2) sequestration-related budget cuts have dampened demand even more in the Washington region; and (3) when Washington-area businesses do seek new digs, they show strong preferences for walkable urbanism, a higher-density, mixed use pattern of development that accommodates walking, biking and mass transit. Walkable urbanism is found mainly in the region’s urban core and along Metro lines, not in low-density burbs like Loudoun.

Not surprisingly, Loudoun’s supervisors appear to be adrift in dealing with these trends. According to the Loudoun Times, the Board of Supervisors has been striking down applications by developers to rezone excess commercial land to residential on the grounds that residential incurs high costs for roads, schools and other infrastructure.

Loudoun County estimates that for every $1 spent on housing, the county pays $1.62. Developers dispute the latter number, suggesting that it is closer to $1.20. Either way, says Supervisor Shawn Williams, R-Broad Run, new residential development has a negative impact on the county’s operational budget.

Think about it: There is something severely wrong with a system that incentivizes local governments to limit residential development. If Loudoun County, which has the highest per capita income of any locality in the entire country and presumably has a building stock to match, can’t justify new residential development, then something is severely out of whack! It is precisely this attitude, and the resulting restrictions placed on the building of new residences, that creates housing scarcities and makes housing more expensive up and down the income scale.

In the old old tax model, a 60/40 balance between residential and commercial real estate property tax revenue was considered healthy. If you could get more commercial development, then great. If not, you had a problem. Well, almost every locality in the United States has, or will have, a problem as offices continue to downsize and retailing shifts from malls and shopping centers to online commerce. Local government generally, not just Loudoun County, will face a tax crisis. And if county boards and city councils all try to address it the same way as Loudoun — by restricting new housing construction — they will compound the tax crisis with a housing crisis.

What, then, is the answer? Local governments need to advance the emerging discipline of fiscal analytics. The core premise of fiscal analytics is that different human settlement patterns have different cost and revenue profiles. Some patterns generate more tax revenue per acre than other patterns. Some patterns have lower embedded costs for transportation, utilities and public services than others. Some human settlement patterns provide a much better balance between revenue and cost than others.

As a general rule, walkable urbanism (mixed use, medium density, complete streets, access to mass transit) comes closer to fiscal balance (revenues matching expenditures) than the scattered, low-density, auto-centric pattern commonly referred to as suburban sprawl. Continue reading

EPA Carbon Rules: Ask the SCC

The SCC: An Emerald Palace?

The Emerald Palace or the SCC?

By Peter Galuszka

Last week, State Corporation Commission drew attention when its staff wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, at the EPA’s request, to respond to one of the biggest proposed steps the nation has seen in cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The report sparked considerable interest and confusion over what the SCC staff actually meant when it predicted that proposed EPA rules to cut carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The staff report, written by William H. Chambliss, SCC general counsel, said that EPA’s proposed limits would cost Virginia ratepayers from $5.5 billion to $6 billion extra. It claims that the state would have to shut down fossil-fuel, predominately coal-fired, plants producing 2,851 megawatts and replace it with only 351 megawatts of land-based wind power. This would badly impact the reliability of the state’s power supply, the staff said.

My immediate question was why so much and where, exactly? Precisely what power stations would have to be shut down? Where did the ratepayer increase numbers come from? Is there is a list of all the coal-fired plants affected? Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility, has long-standing plans to shut down two aging power stations at Yorktown and Chesapeake with about 920 megawatts of power? How does that factor in?

So, I contacted Ken Schrad, the spokesman for the SCC, by phone and email and asked some questions. He kindly provided the following answers (in italics):

Where are the affected plants precisely?

The numbers come directly from the EPA’s own spread sheets and the EPA does not identify the specific units.” 

How many plants are coal-fired?

Of the 2,851 MW, EPA predicts 2,803 MW of coal units and 48 MW of combustion turbines which could be natural gas or oil-fired CTs. Assuming Yorktown and Chesapeake are included in the EPA estimate, SCC staff knows that those planned retirements total approximately 920 MW.  The output of those units varies depending on when operating (summer or winter).”

Where does the 351 megawatt of land-based wind power, the only available replacement source for the lost fossil-fuel power, come from?

“The 351 MW figure is also direct from the EPA’s analysis which does not identify where EPA believes these undeveloped projects would ultimately materialize.  As staff noted in its comments, the SCC has approved the only request the Commission has received for a certificate for a wind project (Highland New Wind).  Approved in December 2007, the project envisioned up to 20 turbines with each turbine capable of producing up to 2MWs.  That project has not been built.   DEQ now has regulatory responsibility for permitting most solar and wind projects in Virginia. “

How do you answer criticism from environmental groups that Virginia has already attained 80 percent of the EPA’s carbon reduction already?

“Staff has no information regarding this assertion, the costs incurred to reach such a figure, how that attainment level was achieved, or the starting point from which such has materialized.”

The SCC staff recommends that the EPA adopt “an alternative carbon emission rate of 1,216 pounds of carbon dioxide per Megawatt hour of power. The EPA is proposing tighter limits of 843 of CO2/MWh for plants to attain by 2020 and levels of 810 pounds of CO2/MWh for plants to comply by 2030 because it would be more affordable. How much more affordable would the SCC’s suggested rate be?

” Staff recognizes there will be a considerable amount of expenditures to achieve the alternative emission rate.  It is a level envisioned in the integrated resource plan (IRP) filed by the utility company and reviewed every two years by the Commission.  The projected cost to achieve that level has not been quantified.  Instead, staff made a conservative analysis of the impact of the EPA proposed standards resulting in its determination that the alternate carbon emission rate would not require an additional expenditure of $5.5 to $6 billion.”

The SCC staff says that attaining EPA goals could cost ratepayers an extra $6 billion. Dominion is considering a third nuclear unit at North Anna that might cost from $10 billion to $14 billion. Wouldn’t the ratepayers have to pay for that, too?

“If built, the costs of another nuclear unit would be recovered over the expected life of the unit which could be 60-80 years.  There is a disconnect between taking a net present value figure (staff comments) and comparing it to something that is not.  Also, the added nuclear unit is envisioned in one of the IRP compliance plans. So, that was factored into the conservative analysis performed by staff which produced the projected additional $5.5 – $6 billion figure.”

I also asked Ken why the SCC did not issue a press release about the SCC reply to the EPA. He said that the SCC does not normally issue a press release when it responds to requests by federal agencies for comment.

Fair enough, but I have a few takeaways on the other answers. I am still not exactly sure where the 2,851 megawatts-to-be-shut-down figure comes from.

Next, the SCC staff complains that when this amount of generation goes offline (assuming it actually does), there will be pitifully little left on the renewable side to replace it. The only plant sited is a 40 megawatt one in Highland County that was approved by the SCC in 2007 (a lifetime in renewable energy terms) and has yet to be built.

What about plants for offshore wind farms, not to mention Dominion’s own plans for an experimental offshore wind station? The answer seems to be that we don’t know because another agency (DEQ) now licenses that sort of thing. If that’s the case, one wonders why the SCC staff didn’t give the DEQ a ring on their phone and ask for a seven-year update on what’s doing in wind and solar? Instead, they used seven-year old figures, apparently to minimize the importance of renewable power in rather sweeping terms.

One reason why Virginia’s renewable percent is a low 6 percent, compared to its neighbors, is that the General Assembly has refused to set mandatory renewable portfolio standards that require 20 percent or so of future generation to come from renewables.

Why so? The first ones to ask are the utilities – Dominion, Appalachian Power and the cooperatives. It seems that they don’t want any threat to their grids that they have poured billions into over the decades. Talk renewable and they’re like babies crying for the base-loaded bottles.

In any event, Virginia is not the only state to question the EPA rules. Oklahoma has as well. Big industry doesn’t like the proposed rules either. And the EPA is asking regulators like the SCC for input. One can’t blame them for responding. Forgive me if I don’t understand their response.

Could Surry Be an 80-Year Nuke?

Surry1By Peter Galuszka

Here’s a new twist on the carbon emission debate: Dominion Virginia Power is considering seeking federal approval run its 40-plus year-old Surry nuclear power station for another 40 or so years.

The arguments in favor are that keeping the two-units at Surry (1,600 megawatts) going would be a lot cheaper than building a brand new plant. Nukes do not contribute much at all to greenhouse gases and climate change compared to coal or natural gas plants.

The huge issue, however, is safety. Can you really expect a nuke whose design dates back to the 1960s to run until 2054? Surry’s plants near Jamestown were once the most heavily fined in the nation because of their repeated safety problems. Constant use can affect any number of crucial components such as making reactor metal brittle, pulverizing concrete and becoming more susceptible to earthquakes and storms.

According to the New York Times, Dominion hasn’t decided whether to apply to extend Surry’s life span. Other possible extended life reactors are Duke’s three Oconee units near Seneca, S.C. and Exelon’s Peach Bottom not that far from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

Dominion is also pushing ahead with a third new unit at North Anna, but the price tag for that apparently would be many times what extending Surry would be. But there are no hard figures about the cost of the new nuke ($10 billion to $14 billion, maybe) or how much Surry would cost.

The news is curious coming just as the staff of the State Corporation Commission came out with a curious report slamming proposal EPA rules on cutting carbon emissions. Although the SCC’s opinions are murky and badly-documented, it raises fears that a bunch of coal-fired generation in Virginia will be shut down due to EPA regs. Hot flash: a bunch was going to be shut down anyway because it dates back to the 1940s and 1950s.

I don’t know enough about the current Surry operation to know what and how extending its life would proceed and whether it would be safe.

That said, I refer to my own reporting past – the 1979 when I was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot. Another reporter and I spent weeks at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s archives in Bethesda, Md. poring over safety documents. This was back when newspapers had the money to do that kind of reporting.

Our result was a big investigative piece that made banner headlines on the front page one Sunday with two full pages inside. I’d include the cite since it is too old to have one. We found a multitude of issues at Surry ranging from faulty radiation monitoring for workers to faulty snubbers which are rod-like shock absorbers to mitigate earthquake-like movements.

Dominion, then Vepco, hated the story and tried to tear it down. But Vepco was undergoing a corporate sea-change away from its institutional arrogance related to some extent by the former Navy submarine officers were not used to being questioned by outsiders. Vepco was getting hit by Wall Street because its sloppy nuclear program resulted in extended outages. They ended up hiring a ringer engineer who cleaned up their act and later the company transformed into something more modern.

Even so, a decade after we did our story, there were still plenty of concerns about safety at Surry.

The big question is how can you keep a car designed in the 1960s going strong nearly 100 years later? Maybe they have the answers in Havana.

More Coal Industry Propaganda

coal woman By Peter Galuszka

If you read a blog posting just below this (the one with the coal miner with an intense look on his grit-covered face), you will see how hyperbole, confusion, misunderstanding, ignorance and one-sided arguments twist something very important to all Virginians – how to deal with carbon dioxide and climate change – into a swamp of disinformation..

The news is that the State Corporation Commission has responded to the federal government’s proposed rules that carbon emissions be cut 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 by complaining that it would cost ratepayers up to $6 billion.

This is because Virginia utilities may have to shut down 2,851 megawatts worth of electrical generation with only 351 megawatts (at present) of “unreliable” wind power to replace it.

The image one gets from the presentation of the blog post is that it is “The EPA’s War on Virginia” with the haggard-looking miner thrown in, we are given the impression that it is more of the “War on Coal” that the coal industry has been promoting in recent years to blunt much-needed mine safety laws and moves to police highly destructive mountaintop removal practices.

The author does not address any of this. But since he’s handing us the “War on Coal” propaganda line, let’s take his arguments apart. This won’t take too long.

  • The author fails to note part of the Richmond Times Dispatch story upon which he bases his opinions. There is a very important comment: “It appears the staff has misread the rule,” said Cale Jaffe, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Virginia office. “Analyses that we have reviewed show that Virginia is already 80 percent of the way to meeting Virginia’s carbon pollution target under the Clean Power Plan. “Almost all of those reductions are coming from coal plant retirements and natural gas conversions that the utilities put in place long before the Clean Power Plan was even released,” Jaffe said.
  • That said, let’s take a look at coal-fired plants in the state which are the biggest carbon offenders. For starters let’s look at Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility. It has already converted three coal-fired plants – Altavista, Southampton and Bremo Bluff – to biomass. The 50-plus-year-old Yorktown plant (335 megawatts) is due to retire in 2015. Another aging plant – Chesapeake (609) megawatts — is also due to retire by 2015. The point here is that these plants are being closed because Dominion realizes that it is just too hard to keep 50 or 60 year plants operating efficiently and cheaply. It would be like keeping that 1960 Corvair because you don’t want to put oil workers out of work.
  • Dominion’s biggest problem and the biggest single air polluter in the state is the Chesterfield station with 1380 megawatts. Yes, it does need more controls. Then there’s Clover (882 megawatts) and Mecklenburg (138 megawatts). That brings us up to 2400 megawatts that might need upgrades. Let’s see. The two nuclear units at North Anna put out a little more than 1,700 megawatts just so we get some scale here. Dominon also has Virginia City (585 megawatts) which just opened, uses coal and biomass and has advanced fluidized bed burning methods.
  • Out west, Appalachian Power has 705 megawatts at Clinch River and 430 megawatts at Glen Lyn. Two of those three units there were built in (my God!) 1944 so I guess the blog author wants to keep those great granddaddies running to save miners’ jobs. Actually they are so unneeded that they have been on extended startups.Besides these Cogentrix has a couple small, modern plants in Portsmouth and Hopewell.
  • One reason there so little renewable generation (6 percent) is that the utilities do not have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force them into wind and solar, etc. Virginia’s neighbors do.

All of this gets back to Jaffe’s point that the blog author so easily ignores. A lot of the carbon cuts are going to come from plants that are aging and are going to be closed anyway.

The SCC may complain about the $6 billion but guess what, you beleaguered electricity users? If Dominion puts a third nuke at North Anna, that’s easily $10 billion. Is that going to raise rates sky high? Where’s the outcry? It’s almost double what helping save the planet from carbon dioxide will cost.

The blog author’s hyperbole about the poor coal industry shows his ignorance of the topic. Virginia’s rather small coal industry (No. 12 in production) reached its peak in 1991. Natural gas has displaced a lot of expensive coal. Gas prices would have to triple to make Central Appalachian coal competitive again. There’s lots of metallurgical coal for steel, but the Asian economic slump has dropped prices maybe 60 percent.

I won’t comment on the author’s lame and misunderstood point about climate change not happening.

The blog author may want to blame that on Obama and the EPA but that would be almost as ridiculous as his blog post. I decline to name him because I don’t want to embarrass him.

Virginia Tech: What a Difference a Decade Makes

Tech_robotics_lab

Virginia Tech robotics lab

It’s probably been a decade since I’ve been to Virginia Tech. I spent a year living in Blacksburg about 30 years ago and I visited with some frequency during my tenure as editor and then publisher of Virginia Business magazine, but I haven’t had much cause to return to Hokieland recently until this weekend when the Bacon family visited to expose the Bacon male progeny, who has expressed an interest in pursuing an engineering career, to the top engineering school program in Virginia. (Sorry, Wahoos, but it’s true, Tech engineering is No. 1 in Virginia.)

It is remarkable what has transpired in Blacksburg in a mere decade — both in Virginia Tech and the surrounding town. Slowly but surely Virginia Tech continues to gain ground against other engineering schools in the hyper-intense competition for resources, cutting-edge programs and prestige. Tech ranks in the top 50 nationally for total R&D expenditures but the College of Engineering ranks among the Top 10 undergraduate engineering programs in the country.

The College of Engineering also has generated considerable spin-off economic activity. We’re not talking Boston or San Francisco-style impact, but Tech’s Corporate Research Center — in essence, a corporate park for companies interacting with the university — has grown to 31 buildings employing 2,700 employees. That’s small potatoes compared to, say, Northern Virginia, but it’s pretty darned impressive for Southwest Virginia. Indeed, the performance is all the more impressive considering the fact that Tech is not situated in a major labor market, is geographically remote and has lousy airline service.

One benefit of Tech’s isolated location is that the physical setting of the New River Valley is stunningly beautiful. And I’ll say this about Tech’s campus: It may not have the world-heritage quality of the Thomas Jefferson-designed Rotunda and Lawn of the University of Virginia, my alma mater, but university leadership has done a superb job of maintaining architectural continuity over the years — all buildings are built of Hokiestone. I hesitate to say so but the Virginia Tech campus overall is more aesthetically pleasing than the hodge-podge of UVa outside of the Rotunda-Lawn core. Furthermore, the Hokies have paid close attention to the art of “place making” over the past couple of decades. The campus is much more inviting in many small ways than it was when I saw it last.

Another virtue is that the town of Blacksburg has been evolving in a positive way. County planners have permitted developers to increase the density of buildings around the perimeter of the campus. Far more apartments and commercial establishments are within walking and biking distance of the Virginia Tech campus than there were when I last visited. The town has replaced two busy signalized intersections with roundabouts, and I spotted a couple of tandem buses rolling through town.

My main concern is that Blacksburg’s prosperity is built upon a mountain of student indebtedness. But rising tuition is hardly unique to Virginia Tech.  Indeed, the College of Engineering probably could do just fine catering to out-of-state students willing to pay significantly more than in-state students do. The College of Engineering does not charge what the market would bear, to the benefit of thousands of Virginia students. All things considered, I’d be delighted if the Little Porker ended up at Virginia Tech.

Update: The densification of downtown Blacksburg continues apace. Town Council approved 4 to 3 yesterday (Oct. 15) construction of a 37-bedroom, four-story condominium on the edge of downtown. The project had stirred controversy because it bordered a neighborhood of single-family houses. The developer argued that the condo would be located within walking distance of Virginia Tech and downtown.

There’s plenty more room for Blacksburg to densify without impinging upon old neighborhoods — just up-zone the Main Strip commercial strip. Vast acreage there is dedicated to parking lots and low-rise shopping centers. If the town council encourages mixed use and runs those tandem buses down Main Street, it can accommodate the town’s population growth for many years to come.

– JAB

Virginia Tech campus -- very bike friendly

Virginia Tech campus — very bike friendly

Why We’re Being Railroaded On “STEM”

 csx engineBy Peter Galuszka

When it comes to education, a constant mantra chanted by the Virginia chattering class is “STEM.”

How many times have you heard that our students are far behind in “STEM” (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)? We have to drain funding from more traditional areas of study (that actually might make them better human beings like literature, art or history) and give it to STEM. The two types of popular STEM are, of course, computer science (we’re all “illiterate” claims one journalist-turned computer science advocate) and biotechnology.

But how important is STEM, really? And if Virginia joins the STEM parade and puts all of its eggs in that basket, will the jobs actually be there?

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what jobs will be around in the future and like the famous generals planning for the last war, we may be stuck planning for the digital explosion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that is like, so, 25 years ago.

To get an idea where markets may be, look at today’s news. Canadian Pacific is making a play for CSX railroad (headquartered in Richmond not that long ago) because of the unexpected explosion in fracked oil.

CP handles a lot of freight in the western part of Canada and U.S. where some of the most impressive new fracked shale oil are, namely the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Alberta. CP wants access to eastern U.S. refineries and transshipping points, such as a transloading spot at the mouth of the York River. CSX is stuck with dirty old coal where production and exports are down, although it has an extensive rail network in the Old Dominion.

The combined market value of the two firms is $62 billion — a far bigger potential deal than the $26 billion Warren Buffett paid for Burlington Northern Sante Fe in 2010. There are problems, to be sure. CSX isn’t interested and the Surface Transportation Board, a federal entity, nixed a matchup of Canadian National and Burlington a little while back.

But this isn’t really the point. The point is that the Old Steel Rail pushed by new sources of oil and to some extent natural gas has surprisingly turned domestic economics upside down. Many of the new oil fields are in places where there are not pipelines, so rail is the only answer. In 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, six or so American railroads generated $25.8 million in hauling crude oil. Last year that shot up to $2.15 billion.

So, what does that mean for students? A lot actually, especially when we blather on about old-style STEM that might have them inventing yet another cell-phone app that has a half-life of maybe a few months. Doesn’t matter, every Virginia legislator, economic development official and education advocate seems to be hypnotized by the STEM genie.

A piece I just did for the up-and-coming Chesterfield Observer on vocation education in that county:

“The recent push to educate students in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) may be case in point. The goal is to churn out bright, highly trained young people able to compete in the global economy with their counterparts from foreign lands.

“A subset of this area of concentration is computer science, which goes beyond knowing the basics and gets into the nitty-gritty of learning code and writing computer languages. By some accounts, such skills will be necessary to fill more than 2 million jobs expected to become open in the state by 2020.

“Critics question, however, if overspecialization in technology at earlier ages prevents students from exploring studies such as art and literature that might make them better rounded adults. And, specialization often assumes that jobs will be waiting after high school and college when they might not be.

“Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about such problems of academic overspecialization in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal. He recently responded to questions from the Chesterfield Observer via email.”

“Not many science grads are getting jobs in their field,” Cappelli says. “The evidence suggests that about two thirds of the IT (information technology) grads got jobs in their fields, about the same for engineering. There is no guarantee in those fields. It’s all about hitting the appropriate subspecialty that happens to be hot. There are still lots of unemployed engineers and IT people.”

So there you have it. In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind. And, if you insist on STEM, why not branch into something where there are actually jobs namely petroleum engineering, geology and transportation engineering.

I’ll leave the dangers of added petroleum cargoes in trains to another post.

Burbs Beware: Office Jobs Moving Back to D.C.

dc_office_spaceNot only are Millennials migrating to the Washington metropolitan region’s urban core, it seems that businesses are, too, in a reversal of the decades-long trend of businesses moving out of the central city to outlying counties.

Vacancy rates have risen in Washington, D.C., due to the contraction of legal services and government contracting tied to federal government spending. But according to commercial real estate firm JLL, private-sector tenants from Maryland and Washington accounted for 300,000 square feet of new leasing activity in the District. Reports Virginia Business magazine:

Doug Mueller, a senior vice president at JLL, noted that the migration is heavily populated by associations, technology companies and professional services firms. “The quality and location of office space with easy access to mass transit, abundant amenities and housing options also has a visible and tangible impact on attracting and retaining top talent,” he said in a statement.

According to JLL’s Office Insight report for the third quarter, since the start of 2014, a total of 21,200 private-sector office jobs have been added to the metro D.C. economy.

In an office market with tens of millions of square feet of space, 300,000 square feet is a rounding error. What’s significant is not the volume of space being occupied — although 21,200 office jobs is nothing to sneeze at — but the trend: jobs migrating back to the urban core. For decades, Virginia enjoyed a huge competitive advantage over the District with its dysfunctional government, poverty, crime and decaying neighborhoods. Now, despite bad schools, high taxes and expensive real estate, D.C. has something that educated Millennials and the businesses that employ them are looking for — walkable urbanism.

Next question: Is this trend unique in Virginia to the Washington metropolitan region or is it occurring in Hampton Roads, Richmond and the smaller metros as well?

– JAB

Petersburg’s Renaissance

PetersburgBy Peter Galuszka

Petersburg has been a special place for me.

Years ago, when I’d pass through, I always felt I were driving onto the set of a 1950s or 1960s movie set in the South such as “Cape Fear” starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. A somnambulant ease pervades the place as does the down-home friendliness you don’t get in pretentious Richmond 30 miles to the north up Interstate 95.

I got to know Petersburg a lot better when my two daughters went going to high school there at the Appomattox Regional Governors School for the Arts and Technology. Drawing from localities from Richmond to Isle of Wight and Franklin, the school body was bright, diverse and creative.

Driving my children if they missed the bus from Chesterfield was a pain but the effort was worth it since they had some fine teachers and avoided the White Toast trap of entitlement one gets into in more affluent suburban schools.

That’s when I was introduced to Petersburg’s nascent arts community. I went to plenty of “Fridays for the Arts” celebration and hung out at Sycamore Street with the kids.

Returning again recently, I found that the arts scene is really taking off. They  seem to be at a sustainable critical mass.

It is due primarily to the city’s policy of remaking itself by setting up an arts district that is nationally recognized as historic and offering tax credits and abatements for newcomers to renovate properties they buy from the city. The big expansion at the Fort Lee military base in 2005 really helped (although it’s due for a cut).

I wrote about it in a cover story in Style Weekly. The heroes and heroines are far-sighted city officials, arts willing to risk a lot remaking some truly historic buildings and the next wave, restaurants that aren’t owned by franchises, coming in.

Not everything is wonderful. Petersburg still has a weak public school system and a poverty rate of 28 percent, a point higher than Richmond’s. But it also doesn’t have the in-fighting among powerful interest groups that far bigger Richmond does. There’s no endless debate over building a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom (to line pockets of developers) or keeping it at the Boulevard.

There’s no high level brinksmanship about where to put a Children’s Hospital.

In Richmond, you see, ball fans and sick children are the last ones to be worried about. What matters is Mayor Dwight Jones, Bill Goodwin, Michael Rao, the Timmons Group and the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch. They are important and you are not.

You don’t get that in Petersburg. The little city (population 32,000) that has a historical richness than rivals Richmond’s doesn’t think it is better than anyone else.

McAuliffe Dodges Mandatory Renewable Energy

coal plant burnsBy Peter Galuszka

It seems like two steps forward and one step back. That’s about the best I can come up with for Governor Terry McAuliffe’s new energy plan for Virginia.

On the two steps forward side, McAuliffe is pushing for more wind power and relaxing regulations to make it easier to back solar, such as allowing towns to create their own solar panel farms near their city limits.

The one step back is the usual commitment to energy sources of days before, such as a nuclear, offshore drilling for oil, coal and natural gas. That’s what former Governo Bob McDonnell wanted with his pipe dream of making Virginia “The Energy Capital of the East Coast.”

The biggest problem with the McAuliffe plan is that it dodges the issue of making Virginia’s Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) mandatory. I asked Brian Coy, his press spokesman about this, and he said that the governor sees that as something for the future.

Maybe better late than never, but the fact that Virginia has always bowed to the power of Big Energy and declined to make mandatory the conversion of a certain amount of electricity generation to renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric.

Plain and simple, that is why Virginia gets an embarrassingly low six percent of its power from renewables and is far behind states like Maryland and North Carolina that have mandatory standards. One wonders why Virginia seems so exceptional. The only answer that I can come up with is that Old Energy firms such as utility Dominion and coal baron Alpha Natural Resources are huge contributors to political candidates of both stripes.

Dominion praised the governor’s efforts and the Sierra Club had lukewarm approval.

The problem with shifting to renewables is that not making it mandatory by law gives Big Fossil and Nuclear an immediate price advantage. Coal is deadly, messy and is a major contributor to climate change. A few years ago, there might have been a greater push towards wind and solar to replace it. But hydraulic fracking came along, bringing a big boost to natural gas from hard-to-reach geologic formations.

Thus, gas pushed out coal (although conservative Big Fossil types claim it is Barack Obama’s over-regulation but that just ain’t so) on economic terms. It has probably delayed advanced nuclear technology and most certainly has delayed solar and wind. They are expensive now but won’t be in the future, so fracked gas’s great advantages won’t last forever.

Don’t believe me? Check out historical data on gas prices.

McAuliffe, meanwhile, is pushing such dubious projects as a 550-mile-long gas pipeline running over the tops of pristine and sensitive mountaintops and through lots of small towns that don’t have big corporate clout to change pipeline routes.

One more step back.

Hope for the Burbs

Ellen Dunham-Jones

Ellen Dunham-Jones

by James A. Bacon

While urbanists trumpet the resurrection of America’s core cities, the nation’s inner suburbs are seeing a lot of action, too. In fact, the transformation of the burbs may be more radical. While cities are seeing more of the same — gentrification that restores decaying neighborhoods, in-fill development looking a lot like the existing development — real estate developers are reinventing suburban structures from the inside out. Shopping malls surrounded by seas of asphalt are being converted into town centers. Big box stores are becoming public recreation centers. Fifty-year-old shopping centers built over streams are being torn down and the waterways restored as greenways.

This is a time of tremendous opportunity for “suburban” counties that developed since World War II, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, an architecture professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, co-author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and a leading light of the New Urbanism movement. What she did not say in her enthusiastic, up-beat speech at Virginia Commonwealth University last night is that it is also a time of peril for counties that don’t embrace a strategy of selective urbanization.

Change is not only desirable, it’s necessary, Dunham-Jones contended. The low-density suburbs consume two to three times more energy per capita than central cities, making them vulnerable to upward spikes in energy prices. Local governments are suffering fiscal stress from the burden of maintaining a sprawling infrastructure. Poverty is an increasing problem as poor people, either immigrants or poor people leaking from inner cities, move into older, run-down suburban neighborhoods. At the same time, housing affordability is becoming a middle-class issue as rising transportation costs kill the old “drive ’til you qualify” housing model. Last but not least, Dunham-Jones cited suburbia’s automobile dependency as a public health issue. Infectious diseases (despite the ebola virus hype) are not a major health hazard in the U.S. The real problem is chronic disease stemming from obesity and sedentary lifestyles, which leads to diabetes and heart disease.

Demographics also are driving the transformation of the burbs. People still think of the suburbs as Leave It to Beaver land of households with school-age children. But a majority of households in the burbs now are childless, said Dunham-Jones, and 85% of the growth in household formation in the U.S. will have no children. Millennials are driving the shift to urban lifestyles. They don’t want to live like their suburban parents. But those parents, Baby Boomers mostly, are approaching retirement differently from preceding generations. YEEPIES (Youthful, Energetic Elderly People Into Everything) aren’t looking for suburban privacy; they’re looking for urban engagement.

While many childless families would love to live in old-style, walkable urban neighborhoods, not everyone can afford to do so because restricted supply has driven up prices. And the reality is, a majority of jobs remain in the suburbs. By default, much of the “walkable” community development will take place in suburban counties where land is cheaper. And that creates opportunity for creative real estate developers who can figure out how to retrofit aging suburban properties and for the counties that will accommodate them.

There is more than enough land in suburban counties to make room for the surge of Americans looking for urban lifestyles in suburban counties without disrupting the lives of people who still want to live in their conventional cul-de-sac subdivisions. One third of all malls are dead or dying, said Dunham-Jones. Thousands of big box stores are empty. Retail as a real estate category is shrinking, probably permanently, as more people shop online. As a result, vacancy rates remain stubbornly high in shopping centers. Meanwhile, as Millennials show a strong preference for working in an urban environment, businesses are less interested in putting their workforce in suburban office parks.

“It’s an opportunity,” said Dunham-Jones. “We get to do a make-over!”

Developers have not yet settled upon a fixed formula for re-developing the burbs. Right now, an extraordinary amount of experimentation is going on. Dunham-Jones and co-author June Williamson have built a database of more than 900 case studies of radical suburban make-overs across the country, many of them in Virginia.

Dunham-Jones said suburban retrofits fall into three broad categories.

From single-use to mixed use. Suburbia is loaded with malls and big-box stores whose retail function is no longer economically viable. Some of these structures are finding a new life by adding new uses. Dunham-Jones cited the example of Hundred Oaks Mall, a dying mall in Nashville; the property still had retail on the ground level but had abandoned the upper level. Vanderbilt University took over the lease for the upper level and installed a medical center. Now the medical center draws patients who otherwise would not have frequented the mall, and patients visiting Hundred Oaks can hang out at the mall while waiting for test results. Patients prefer Hunred Oaks to Vanderbilt’s city facility.

Regreening. An astonishing number of commercial properties were built in wetlands and flood plains. It was routine practice in the 1950s and 1960s to obliterate wetlands and route creeks through culverts underneath the buildings, said Dunham-Jones. The culverts could handle the run-off from undeveloped land upstream but as that land got built upon and paved over, run-off got worse and flooding became an issue. Today, an increasing number of suburban projects are “regreening” old development — ripping out buildings and culverts and restoring the stream beds. Benefits include not only better storm water management but attractive ribbons of greenery through the suburban landscape

Walkability. People are willing to pay a major premium for walkability, even islands of it in an otherwise autocentric environment, said Dunham-Jones. Perhaps the most spectacular transformations are occurring in plots of land large enough — typically old malls — to allow for a restoration of walkable streets and mixed-use development common to traditional cities. Continue reading