Category Archives: Land use & development

Virginia Beach on Another Wild Goose Chase


by James A. Bacon

Virginia Beach City Council voted yesterday to give 155 acres to build a biomedical park, reports the Virginian-Pilot. The Virginia Beach Development Authority will oversee the design and promotion of the property.

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms justified the initiative to lure health care and biotech companies as a way to diversify the city’s economy away from the military and tourism sectors. “You’ve got to look around the country and see what is really growing. As you know, health care numbers continue to increase,” Sessoms said earlier. “We saw that as an opportunity.”

Economic Development Director Warren Harris said the city has identified some prospective tenants, including a regenerative medicine/cancer research firm and a stem cell research firm. MedImmune, a research and development arm of British drugmaker AstraZeneca, met with city officials last month and “left very impressed,” Harris said.

Bacon’s bottom line: This cannot end well. In its pursuit of “economic development” Sessoms seems to be chasing every shiny object that someone dangles in front of him. Last night City Council also voted to sign two agreements with the state that keeps on track plans to extend Norfolk’s light rail system into Virginia Beach on the promise of the most nebulous of benefits. The mayor also supports a mega-convention complex (committing the city more deeply to a tourism-oriented economic development policy). And he supported city subsidies to jump-start redevelopment of the old Cavalier Hotel into a resort complex (another tourism-oriented initiative). As if all these city-backed projects were not enough, now he wants a biotech park.

Well, get in line. Everybody sees high-tech medicine as the next big thing, and everyone wants a piece of it. Bacon’s Rebellion has highlighted the plans of Inova and George Mason University to build a Center for Personalized Health in Fairfax County, and the ambition of Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic to build a biotech cluster around neuroscience in Roanoke. While both those initiatives face major challenges, they at least have resources that Virginia Beach doesn’t have. The Inova-GMU project is located in the Washington metropolitan area, one of the largest biotech clusters in the country, and Inova has publicly stated its willingess to put $200 million into the project. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is the largest research university in the state, and it is partnering with western Virginia’s largest health care system.

There is no indication in the Virginian-Pilot reporting that Virginia Beach has forced an alliance with either the Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS) or the Sentara Health System. Despite the fact that the Virginia Beach site is not located anywhere near EVMS or Sentara General Hospital, the region’s flagship hospital, Harris sees the park focusing on diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neuroscience and traumatic brain injury. As for supporting assets, Harris cites a branch of Tidewater Community College and the Sentara Princess Anne Hospital, which opened in 2011. Virginia Beach also has donated $1 million to fund the initiative. Really? Is this serious?

The city has many assets. Biotech is not one of them. The chances of building a high-end biomedical cluster are just about nil. For biomedical projects lower down the value-added scale, a run-of-the-mill office park will likely do. If Virginia Beach wants economic development, maybe it should persuade Governor Terry McAuliffe to stop subsidizing the relocation of Virginia Beach businesses to Norfolk. In the meantime, the city should focus on providing core government services of the best possible quality at the lowest possible cost. It’s that simple.

More Small Spaces


King Street, Charleston, S.C.

by James A. Bacon

I can’t overstate how important the creative use of small spaces is to evoking the aura of authenticity and charm that people love. As with so many things, small spaces-as-works-of-art cannot be managed from the top-down; it must burble from the bottom up. Each of the small spaces highlighted here, drawn from my recent trip to Charleston, S.C., originated as a work of passion and creativity by an individual property owner. Added to and improved incrementally over the years, they they form an impression that no central design authority — be it a municipal government or a giant private developer — could possibly replicate.

This series of photos was taken along King Street, a marvelous, walkable retail-restaurant district. Richmond’s Carytown is comparable, though definitely a poor cousin. I haven’t visited Old Town Alexandria in several years, but I recall similar street scenes. Otherwise, Virginia has nothing else that comes close.

King Street does many things right. It has many historic buildings, and recent redevelopment maintains the same sense of human scale. There are no blank spaces in the street — no large parking lots, no blank facades. Indeed, what stands out is the way property owners have made the most of every niche available to them. The result of many individual actions is a collective masterpiece.

portalThe photograph immediately above shows a funky iron-forged gate that cordons off an enclosed outdoor dining space visible to King Street.

The photo at left shows an oval porthole in a wall, also on King Street that reveals another enclosed outdoor dining area. This arrangement provides more privacy, yet still creates a visual delight for pedestrians.

Continue reading

Reveling in Small Spaces


Charleston sidewalk scene: wide sidewalks, potted plants, and vine-covered buildings.

by James A. Bacon

One thing I look for in a city is the attention given to small spaces — the pocket parks, wide spots in the sidewalk, corridors between buildings and other features that lend texture and delight to an urban landscape. The antithesis is large parking lots, long buildings and the empty detritus of concrete that inhabitants long ago lost interest in.

The Bacon family is spending a short vacation in Charleston, S.C., a 300-year-old city with one of the nation’s largest historic districts, a great street grid, and an abundance of small spaces where Charlestonians have lavished love and care over the years. The city is most famous for the spectacular South of Broad neighborhood of handsome 18th- and 19th century buildings, a living architectural museum. But the city has a lot to offer North of Broad in a more conventional urban setting. The photos in this post come from a stroll around the block where our hotel, the Hampton Inn (comfortable but not exactly the most chi-chi address in town) is located.

Charleston4 I love the corridors between buildings where property owners treat what could be an ugly alleyway as a venue for creative landscaping. The corridor at left apparently leads to dwelling in the interior of the block, creating an inviting entrance for guests and a visual delight for passersby. Examples of these in Charleston are too numerous to document them all. This one is fairly typical.



Another ordinary street scene: I like the cloistered effect created by the row of trees on one side of the sidewalk and storefronts abutting the sidewalk on the other side. Also, the awnings create visual interest. Continue reading

Citizens Take on Crony Capitalism in VA Beach

cavalierby James A. Bacon

Arlington County had its $1 million bus stop scandal. The City of Richmond had its mayoral cronyism scandal. Now Virginia Beach has its Cavalier Hotel redevelopment scandal. The FBI has undertaken a criminal investigation of a vote by Councilman John Uhrin in favor of providing $18 million in city funds to subsidize redevelopment of the landmark Cavalier Hotel. Days later, his wife Catherine Sassone was hired to sell luxury properties associated with the project. Uhrin has said he did not know when he voted that his wife would be hired.

I have no idea if Uhrin is guilty of anything — I have not followed the controversy closely enough to have an informed opinion — but I do admire how Virginia Beach residents residents are responding to the revelations. A group of about 25 citizens who believe “the taxpayers of Virginia Beach have been pushed aside for too long” have banded together to dredge up public records, publish them online and expose the crony capitalism at the heart of Virginia Beach government. The result is The Document Project:

When City Councilor John Uhrin arrived at City Hall on July 2, 2013, he did much more than just vote to give Cavalier Associates, LLC, the largest upfront taxpayer incentive in the city’s history. Uhrin’s vote unintentionally opened a window into the inner workings, backroom negotiations and financial wrangling that for a decade has become the shameful signature of Virginia Beach government.

And it’s all published here, for the first time. Courtesy of a federal subpoena, the FBI and Virginia’s weak, but still sufficient, public records laws.

Among the accusations:

  • Mayor Will Sessoms and former City Manager Jim Spore scheduled Cavalier meetings at the developer’s headquarters even after the mayor recused himself from voting because he had a conflict of interest.
  • A firm run by a member of the Cavalier Task Force, an independent body formed to protect the city’s interests, was working for the Cavalier developers without telling the public of his dual roles.
  • A city engineer describing a 968-foot roadway to be built with $2.5 million in public funds said the cost was so inflated that the developer could use “gold-leaf pavers” and still build the road for less.
  • During negotiations on city incentives, the city’s point man for the project, Barry Frankenfield, asked the developer if he might entertain a “pitch” from his son’s firm. Two months later Frankenfield wrote e-mails stating that the city could “edit out” and “tone down” critical comments made by its own engineers that questioned safety and financial aspects of the development.
  • The Cavalier’s developers applied for a tax break under the state’s GAP financing program. State regulations require all financing to be in place before approval. The developers did not have the financing in place when they applied, and in fact didn’t receive its $77 million loan from TowneBank until February 2016.

I have not examined the substance of the allegations. What I find encouraging, though, is the way citizens have taken matters in their own hands and done the hard work of sifting through a large body of public records to expose questionable ways of doing business.

Why is Hampton Roads among the worst for economic growth in the entire state of Virginia, when we have so much more to offer? Because we’ve long ago traded capitalism for cronyism. …

This website is here because the taxpayers of Virginia Beach have been pushed aside for too long as the same few developers and our elected officials make deals behind closed doors while saying, “trust us.”

Well, those days are over. And with Light Rail, the 15th Street Pier, the 27th Street boondoggle and so many more projects on the horizon, we’re just getting started.

Bravo. Virginia is sliding into a cesspool of corruption. The media is a largely defanged watchdog lacking the resources to conduct the investigative journalism that once was its hallmark. Citizens must take matters into their own hands.

The Big Bet on Roanoke’s Biotech Cluster

Virginia Tech Carolion Research Institute and medical school. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

Virginia Tech Carolion Research Institute and medical school. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

by James A. Bacon

Just as Inova Health System and George Mason University are investing hundreds of millions to build a center of excellence around personalized medicine in Northern Virginia, Virginia Tech and Carilion Clinic are spending hundreds of millions to build a comparable center in Roanoke. While the dollars committed in Roanoke may be smaller, the enormity of the investment looms larger for western Virginia, where the regional economy has been hollowed out far worse than Northern Virginia’s and local leaders are even more desperate to find an economic sector that can thrive in the knowledge economy.

In a Saturday article, the Roanoke Times describes how Tech and Carilion are building upon the medical school and research institute they established eight years ago. Tech will move components of its biomedical engineering program and its nascent neuroscience discipline — 500 to 1,000 undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and scientists — to Carilion’s Riverside campus in Roanoke. The plan calls for 25 new research teams capable of attracting private investors, who in theory will spawn start-up companies and large-firm satellite offices. Tech has stated its intention to invest $100 million in health sciences and technology in the next eight years.

Meanwhile, Carilion has doubled its complement of physicians to 1,000, recruiting more specialists and subspecialists, to expand its clinical capabilities. Most recently, it opened an Institute for Orthopaedics and Neurosciences.

Just as Inova and GMU hope to establish a foot-hold in the area of personalized medicine, an emerging field in which treatments are tailored to the unique genetic make-up of patients, Virginia Tech and Carilion are aiming, as Thanassis Rikakis, the Virginia Tech provost overseeing the initiative, tells the Roanoke Times, to “[corner] the market on a big-data approach to personalized medicine in rural areas — something that could significantly change public health.”

Inova-GMU and Virginia Tech-Carilion enter a crowded field. It’s not as if they are the only academic-health system collaborations to have stumbled upon the idea of exploiting the fast-expanding fields of big data and personalized medicine. The Obama administration unveiled a precision medicine initiative in January 2015, backed by $215 million in federal funding, calling upon “academic medical centers, researchers, foundations, privacy experts, medical ethicists, and medical product innovators to lay the foundation” for the effort. Presumably, every other major medical research institute in the country is vying for a piece of the action.

Inova and GMU have an advantage in being located in the Washington metropolitan area, home to a significant biomedical industry cluster, which provides an advantage in recruiting from a large, highly skilled labor pool and an edge in recruiting world-class faculty. Recruiting talent to the smaller Roanoke-Blacksburg labor market might prove more difficult. On the other hand, Virginia Tech-Carilion have identified a niche — rural personalized medicine — that might enable it to complete effectively for a slice of the pie.

Another difference: The focus of the Inova-GMU initiative will be in the old Exxon-Mobil suburban headquarters office outside Tysons Corner and GMU’s Prince William County campus outside Manassas. Traffic congestion will present a huge quality-of-life issue for researchers and businesses choosing to locate there, which may be a factor behind Governor Terry McAuliffe’s $2 billion commitment to increase the capacity of Interstate 66 which connects both facilities.

By contrast, Virginia Tech and Carilion are pursuing an “innovation district.” The campus there is located on the fringe of downtown Roanoke. The idea is to create a cluster with urban amenities — walkability, access to transit, access to mixed-use office, housing and retail, where the medical school and educational facilities are connected to start-ups, business incubators and accelerators. Such an environment arguably would be more attractive to students and young professionals than traffic-clogged highways.

Another plus for Inova-GMU is the existence of a robust venture capital industry in the Washington metro region, which Southwest Virginia does not have. Moreover, Inova has pledged to commit $100 million to create a venture fund in support of its initiative; Carilion has not announced anything comparable. Carilion, which serves a large, rural population in western Virginia, is not as profitable as Inova, which supports a largely affluent, suburban market, nor does it generate excess profits of the same magnitude that it can steer into its biomedical initiative. Where Inova generates roughly $100 million a year over and over the 4% profit margin considered desirable for non-profit hospitals, Carilion generates less than $20 million a year over that benchmark.

Virginia Tech’s Rikakis acknowledges that the Tech-Carilion initiative cannot compete on the same basis as a University of Virginia or Duke University, which have much larger research programs with clinical service and research under the one roof. “Virginia Tech is not set up to do this. Taking it on would destroy us,” he says. But the UVa-Duke model is so 20th-century. He envisions Virginia Tech-Carilion instead as a node in a network of collaborations and partnerships.

The Roanoke initiative will be supported by $46.7 million in state bonds to be matched by $14 million from Tech, $5 million from Carilion, and $2 million in in-kind land contribution.

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia Tech and Roanoke leaders have been talking for literally decades about combining the strengths of both regions. Creation of the medical school and research center was the first tangible example of such a collaboration. Now both partners are upping their commitment to a level that has the potential to create a critical mass that employs not only doctors and scientists but spins off new businesses and creates private-sector jobs.

I’ve lived long enough to see rah-rah projects soak up a lot of money before crashing and burning, and I think a commitment like this deserves close scrutiny. I would ask the same question of Carilion that I would of Inova: To what extent is Carilion funding its participation with monopoly profits extracted from its rural/small metro service area — in other words, are working- and midde-class patients subsidizing job creation for affluent doctors and scientists? How much will the Tech-Carilion initiative soak up in public money — bond proceeds for new buildings, state support of the medical school, routine economic-development incentives — along the way, and what are the odds of creating an economically sustainable research-business cluster?

At the same time, I would say this: If politics dictate that the Commonwealth lavish tens of millions of dollars on bolstering the economy of the Roanoke Valley, this might well be the best bet going.

How Not to Think about Mass Transit


GRTC bus bound for Chesterfield Plaza. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Michael Paul Williams, a feature columnist for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, takes a dim view of a decision by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors to discontinue a subsidized bus route between downtown Richmond and Chesterfield Plaza. “Chesterfield, despite its dramatic demographic shifts and an increasing poverty rate, continues to turn a blind eye to residents who don’t own cars due to choice, age, disability or the inability to afford one,” he writes in his column today.

He indicts Chesterfield’s decision without ever revealing (a) how much it costs to maintain the service, (b) how many passengers used the service, or (c) how much the subsidies amount to per passenger, much less asking (d) how such a sum might be spent more beneficially in other ways.

The prospect of such reasoning taking hold in the Richmond region and driving the expenditure of real money should be terrifying in the extreme to anyone who objects to the squandering of tax dollars on symbolic gestures rather than on remedies that actually work. Walk with me through his column and despair.

Williams writes:

The supervisors gutted the budget of the Route 81 Express, creating the ridership decline they used to justify killing it. What exactly did the board expect from a route that offered one round-trip in the morning and a single one-way trip from downtown Richmond to Chesterfield in the afternoon with no stops in between? The board couldn’t have undermined the bus route more effectively if it had let the air out of the tires.

He has a point. Sort of. True, the route structure was idiotic. From Williams’s account, it sounds like the Chesterfield supervisors were trying to provide mass transit on the cheap and the route was doomed to fail. The obvious solution, however, is to pull the plug on the project before wasting any more money — just what the board did. The alternative is to double up on a bad situation, spending money to beef up the schedule or add interconnecting lines in the hope of creating critical mass. But what would such an arrangement look like, how much money would it cost, and how many people would be likely to ride that route? Just how much money does Williams propose throwing at the problem?He doesn’t say. He just wants more.

Williams brushes close to enlightenment when he quotes Jesse W. Smith, Chesterfield’s transportation director: “The county really doesn’t have the density to support traditional bus service.”

Bingo. The rule of thumb is that people are willing to walk 1/4 mile to avail themselves of mass transit. If 500 people live within a 1/4-mile radius of a bus stop, that represents far fewer potential customers than if, say, 2,500 people live within a 1/4-mile radius.  It also matters how walkable the streetscapes are. Are there sidewalks? If so, are they set away from streets with cars whizzing by at 45 miles per hour? When pedestrians cross the street, do they feel like they’re taking their lives into their hands? Is the walk visually interesting or is the view monotonous and undifferentiated?

Chesterfield is the epitome of the autocentric suburb. Given decades of low-density, hop-scotch, pedestrian-unfriendly development, Chesterfield County has a pattern of land use that is totally hostile to walkability and inappropriate for transit. Trying to implant mass transit in such an environment would be like planing a banana tree in Alaska: It can’t possibly thrive.

Chesterfield fully deserves criticism for its horrendous land use decisions, but that is no reason to compound the error by superimposing an unsuitable mass transit system. If Williams would like to spark a useful discussion, he could start by suggesting which transportation corridors might lend themselves to mixed-use development at higher densities that might one day, given sufficient redevelopment, support a bus line at reasonable cost.

“They’re shooting themselves in the foot,” Williams then quotes my old friend Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, as saying. Williams summarizes Schwartz as making a point similar to one that I have often made on this blog:

In today’s competitive marketplace for corporations and employees, the suburban office park model of the late 20th Century is fading fast as companies seek to appeal to a millennial workforce that increasingly eschews the automobile and would rather walk, bike or ride mass transit to work. From Charlotte to Phoenix to Denver to Cleveland, “elected officials and business leaders recognize that transit provides a competitive edge,” Schwartz said.

That’s all very true. But it’s also totally irrelevant to Chesterfield. The transit systems he mentions serve areas that have far more people within walking distance of their bus stops than Chesterfield can ever think to have. Buses and Bus Rapid Transit might make sense in Richmond’s urban core (assuming City Council enacts appropriate zoning and invests in walkable streetscapes) but none at all in Chesterfield.

Williams then quotes former Sen. John Watkins, a Republican who represented Chesterfield County, who “was a lonely voice in the wilderness on the need for mass transit” (and who also was a prime mover behind the Rt. 288 corridor that opened up vast new swaths of the county to autocentric development). When he joined the legislature in the 1980s, Watkins observed, Fairfax County was adamant about not wanting buses, “and how they’re the biggest user of transit dollars in the state.”

Here’s the flaw with that comparison: Fairfax County had a population density of 2,862 inhabitants per square mile in 2014; Chesterfield had a population density of 742. Fairfax had nearly four times the population density! Moreover, there are sections of Fairfax that have far higher density than the average, while population in Chesterfield is smeared uniformly across the landscape. Buses make far more economic sense in Fairfax than Chesterfield.

Yes, Chesterfield has made a mess of itself. Yes, Chesterfield has created a land use pattern that makes life difficult for poor people lacking access to automobiles. But, no, compounding one folly with another is not an answer. Chesterfield needs to develop corridors of high-density, mixed-use development capable of supporting mass transit before adding new bus routes. Only then will the cost-benefit ratios look remotely favorable.

An Economic Development Incentive for the Knowledge Economy

Former Exxon-Mobil headquarters, planned location of Inova's Center for Personalized Health. A world-class research center needs more than world-class real estate, it needs world-class researchers.

Former Exxon-Mobil headquarters, planned location of Inova’s Center for Personalized Health. A world-class research center needs more than world-class real estate, it needs world-class researchers.

As a follow-up to the Inova-driven Center for Personalized Health initiative I wrote about yesterday

The final 2017-2018 budget approved by the General Assembly includes $28 million to help get Inova’s proposed biotech research initiative get off the ground. According to a Senate Finance Committee document, state goodies include $8 million in General Fund monies and $20 million in bond proceeds for the Global Genomics and Bioinformatics Research institute “to support a public-private partnership with six Virginia research institutes and Inova.”

  • Funding is dedicated for incentive packages for high-performing researchers and laboratory renovations.
  • Funds require a $3 to $1 match from outside fund sources for receipt of any funding and partnerships with institutions of higher education.

Bacon’s bottom line: There are a couple of interesting things here. First, the McAuliffe administration is making good on its promise to support the biotech initiative to which Inova has pledged the purchase of the former Exxon-Mobil headquarters complex near Tysons Corner as well as $100 million for venture capital.

Second point: Traditionally, Virginia has offered incentives to recruit corporate investment such as manufacturing, call centers and corporate offices and headquarters. This is the first time of which I am aware in which the Commonwealth has dipped into the General Fund for funds to support the recruitment of star faculty. The money reflects a recognition that we need new tools to address the relative dearth of big-name scientists who bring in big research grants that lies behind Virginia’s modest R&D prowess.

If Virginia wants to be a player in the genomics/personalized health space, we’ll have to recruit big-league players from outside the state, and that probably means supplementing private dollars and university dollars with public dollars.

This could be either a brilliant move or a slippery slope to hell, depending on your perspective. The idea of spending tax dollars to make rich scientists even richer may not appeal to everyone. Regardless, it is a big step for Virginia.