Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

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Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Putting the Garden in Rain Garden

Soon Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough storm-water regs. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to show how we can save the bay – and look really good doing it.

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Tech Insurrection

Tech Insurrection

Smart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

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Here Come the OOCs

Gardner Campbell (left) and Christina Engelbart.

Gardner Campbell (left) and Christina Engelbart.

Is there such thing as an OOC? We’ve all heard of MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses). But what do you call it when the enrollment in an online course that’s open to the public but only 100 students sign up? An Open Online Course?

Whatever you call it, Virginia Commonwealth University taught such a course over the summer entitled, “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch profiled the course today.

VCU officials refer to the course, properly speaking, as a “connectivist” MOOC. “It’s not about content delivery. It’s about being able to act as individual learners in a shared conceptual space,” explained course designer Gardner Campbell, vice provost for learning innovation and student success. The idea, as the T-D paraphrases him, was to teach students how to use digital media to to think more deeply about problems and share solutions on a global scale.

A second course this fall connects VCU students with local non-profit organizations to develop social media strategies for The World Pediatric Project and the Preemptive Love Coalition, both of which provide medical services to children overseas. What makes the courses different — and potentially valuable — is that they are open to non-students, including professionals working for the non-profits.

“Technology was just a steppingstone for the real vision, which was to help the world become a better place by figuring out better ways that we can all come together, work together, think together to solve big problems,” said Christina Engelbart, daughter of the man who invested the computer mouse and graphical user interface among other things, who provided $10,000 in scholarships to support the VCU program.

I’ll admit, that sounds a little too idealistic and kumbaya for my taste. But that’s OK. It doesn’t matter what I think. What’s important is that VCU is joining other universities in experimenting with what online courses can accomplish. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of linking students with non-profits to accomplish real-world goals. My hunch is that MOOCs (or OOCs) will morph into hundreds of different forms, customized for the specific task at hand. For mastering some bodies of knowledge, OOCs and MOOCs will never replace traditional classroom learning. But for others, they will. Education will be richer as a result.

Now, if we can just find a way for OOCs to make education less expensive.

– JAB

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

Do-Gooders Doing Bad

by James A. Bacon

In a recent post, “Spotlighting the Wrong Victims,” I questioned the premise that “disparities” in arrests and suspensions of Henrico County students for school offenses represented some form of racial injustice. John Butcher, author of CrankysBlog, sheds further light on the issue. Read this post as a footnote to the original.

First, John notes, Henrico County has been reporting fewer disciplinary incidents each year for its high schools, as reflected by the number of individual offenders as a percentage of the school population:

Henrico_offenders

What’s noteworthy here is that the most dramatic declines occurred at Henrico’s predominantly black high schools. On the surface, the trend looks highly positive. Fewer students are experiencing disciplinary issues. Perhaps Henrico County’s new politically correct approach to handling problems, put into place at the instigation of the ACLU and U.S. Justice Department, is working!

Alternatively, perhaps school administrators aren’t recording incidents they once would have. Perhaps they’re hiding the problem and, by hiding it, failing to deal with it — a very bad thing. We can’t tell from this data. But we need to know.

Next, John took the offense data from each school and graphed it in relationship to (1) the percentage of black students and (2) the percentage of economically disadvantaged children.

offense_frequency

The correlation between the percentage of children experiencing a disciplinary offense and the percentage of blacks in a high school was very high — an r² of 0.907. But the correlation with the percentage of economically disadvantaged students was even higher — an r² of .9619, which is extraordinarily high. As John observes, “Correlation is NOT causation but at least this is consistent with the notion [that] the root of the disorder is economic status, not race.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Do-gooders who attribute the high rates of arrest and suspensions among black Henrico County students to prejudice, discrimination or institutional bias are fanning the flames of racial resentment with little basis in fact. I’m not stating that discrimination doesn’t exist but I am saying that the do-gooders have not presented meaningful evidence that it does.

As an alternative explanation, I hypothesize that the critical variables affecting the likelihood that a student will be arrested or suspended from Henrico County schools are sociological. Students classified as “economically disadvantaged” are far more likely than other students to come from dysfunctional families where the biological father is absent, where there are substance abuse issues, where there are domestic violence issues, where adolescents are more subject to the peer pressure of “the street,” and, in sum, where adolescents, especially boys, do not learn the rules of behavior required for a school setting.

Poor discipline in school is not a race issue. It’s a class issue. By making it a race issue, I would argue, the do-gooders are distracting school administrators from dealing with the real problems.

Here’s a prediction. Henrico’s politically correct response to the “racial disparity” controversy will undermine administrators’ efforts to maintain school discipline. Actual discipline will suffer, even if not reflected in the reported statistics. Deteriorating discipline will negatively impact classroom teaching conditions, mainly in schools where the discipline problems are concentrated. Standard of Learning (SOL) scores will suffer. Disadvantaged black students who abide by the rules will suffer the most.

Support Your Local Goat Herder

Goats at work. Photo credit: Goat Busters

Goats at work. Photo credit: Goat Busters

by James A. Bacon

A common reed plant, known by the scientific name of Phragmites australis, introduced into the United States in the 18th century from Europe, has invaded the eastern marshes of North America. Like many invasive species, Phragmites out-competes native marsh plants. When the reed establishes expansive mono-cultures, plant diversity declines precipitously. And when plant diversity declines, so does the diversity of insects and the rest of the food chain dependent upon the plants.

Over the past five years, land managers and private organizations have treated more than 80,000 hectares of marsh with herbicides at a cost of $4.6 million per year to control Phragmites. Mowing and burning the plant hasn’t proven economical, given high labor costs. And insect control often does greater damage to native strains than to the invasive plant.

In desperation, the marine science and conservation division of Duke University tested a new technique for controlling the plant: grazing goats. At a fresh water marsh in Beltsville, Md., the scientists penned goats in enclosures where they had little but Phragmites to eat. While the goats didn’t eradicate the plant pest, they substantially reduced its biomass — from 94% of ground cover to 21% on average — allowing native species a better chance of competing, investigators concluded.

Across the country, government authorities are discovering the virtues of goats for clearing unwanted brush, even tending lawns. The hardy ruminants have an appetite for plants that other animals shun.

There is a small but active goat industry in Virginia. The Virginia State Dairy Goat Association lists 33 members. Jack & Anita Mauldin’s Boer Goats page lists 34 goat farms. My impression is that most goat products fall into the organic or artisanal agriculture category — goat meat, goat cheese, goat milk, maybe some goat wool. But perhaps the most interesting enterprise is Goat Busters, based in Afton, which specializes in land clearing. As its website says, “Goat Busters is quite simply the most environmentally sensitive method to clear land or control invasive species vegetation ever, short of going out and hand-pulling each and every little weed.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Virginia government, businesses and property owners need to Get Goat. They should more aggressively explore the use of goats as a tool for clearing brush and controlling invasive species. Transporting the goats and setting up the pens is more labor intensive than attacking a patch of brush or Phragmites with a Bush Hog or a tankful of herbicides, but goats don’t compact the soil and they don’t leave behind chemical compounds laden with heavy metals. They do leave behind fertilizer, enriching the soil.

In economic development parlance, substituting locally raised goats for imported herbicides and rotary mowers is called “import substitution.” The practice keeps money in the region, supporting local enterprises and jobs. It’s hard to imagine the goat industry transforming the face of Virginia agriculture, but every little bit helps make our rural counties more economically viable.

Spotlighting the Wrong Victims

Graphic credit: Times-Dispatch

Graphic credit: Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Black students comprise 39% of the public school student population in Henrico County but account for 80% of all the kids arrested for offenses committed in schools. That disparity, combined with the fact that black students are disproportionately suspended from Henrico schools, is something that some people find disturbing, according to the Sunday Times-Dispatch. Although the article does not explicitly describe the difference as an injustice, the headline entitled, “School data show racial disparity in Henrico,” certainly implies that it is. In the progressive/liberal worldview “disparities” between the races are ipso facto evidence of discrimination.

“If they don’t know they have a problem, they have their eyes closed,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the Virginia ACLU, which has made an issue of the differing rate of school suspensions in Henrico. “The numbers don’t lie, and the suspension rates are disproportionate as it relates to African-Americans, and I think we see that the arrest rates are as well,” said Tyrone Nelson, a black supervisor from the Varina district.

There are two very big problems with the article. First, it provides no evidence whatsoever that black students are disciplined more harshly than whites for comparable offenses. That evidence may exist somewhere but the article doesn’t provide it. Second, the article follows the standard victimization narrative of troubled black  youths suffering from a system that is stacked against them. But it totally ignores the invisible victims of disorder in the schools — classmates, disproportionately black, whose educational experience is disrupted by the misbehavior. If we want to understand the “disparities” in educational achievement between the races, differences in school discipline is a factor worth exploring.

The incidence of disorderly behavior in schools is tightly correlated with the socio-economic characteristics of the student body. Families from “disadvantaged” backgrounds are more likely to suffer social disorders arising from economic insecurity, substance abuse, domestic violence and the lack of a biological father in the house. Youths raised in such an environment — especially adolescent males — are far more prone to disruptive and violent behavior at home, on the street and in school.

According to our trusty tool, the Virginia Department of Education  SOL Assessment Build-a-Table, 65% of all economically disadvantaged students in Henrico County are black. Insofar as kids who get in enough trouble at school to get suspended or arrested are economically disadvantaged, more than half the so-called racial disparity disappears. A more refined look at the data — I would point to the presence of biological fathers in the household as a better indicator of a family’s ability to impose social norms on rebellious adolescent males — could show that the disparity disappears entirely. Conceivably, a closer look will show no such thing. We won’t know until we do the research. What is reckless, irresponsible and inflammatory is to assume, as a default proposition, that any differences in suspension and arrest rates reflects discrimination by schools and law enforcement.

Under investigation from the hyper-politicized U.S. Justice Department for the “disparity” in school suspensions, Henrico County authorities have been making an effort to cut that disparity. As the Times-Dispatch notes:

In the 2012-2013 school year, the number of suspensions in Henrico County schools dropped to 7,604 from 9,165 the year before, a 17 percent reduction. But the share of suspensions going to black students remained stubbornly high, rising almost half a point to nearly 77 percent.

Unless we’re willing to attribute some kind of subtle racism or prejudice to Henrico County principals and teachers — many of whom are black themselves, especially in the schools where discipline problems are the greatest — the logical conclusion is that the rules and procedures for administering discipline isn’t the problem. The kids are the problem.

There is, in fact, an injustice in this story. The injustice just happens to be the precise opposite of what is commonly asserted. The real problem is that disruptive behavior in the classroom has a negative impact on teacher morale and makes it harder for well-behaving students to learn.

Source:  Virginia Department of Education

Click for more legible image

How prevalent is disruptive behavior in Henrico classrooms? According to the “Discipline, Crime and Violence Annual Report, 2012-2013,” we know that discipline issues are a big problem. Henrico County logged more than 7,200 disciplinary offenses during the 2012-2013 school year. Highlights are shown at left.

These are just the offenses that were recorded for the record. It goes without saying that many fights, scuffles, bullying and lesser offenses take place out of the sight of teachers and administrators, and much of the disruptive behavior in classroom is simply ignored because teachers learn that reporting it or complaining about it is a waste of time.

Who suffers from this behavior? The three high schools that account for the overwhelming majority of the arrests are overwhelmingly black. That means the students suffering from the disruption, bullying, scuffling and assaults also tend to be black. The well-behaved, law-abiding black kids who go to school and want to study find it more difficult to learn because the teachers are spending classroom time dealing with problem students instead of teaching.

There is important secondary fallout from the discipline problem: Teachers find it demoralizing. Teacher burn-out accounts for much of the high turn-over in schools serving low-income student students; teachers with experience and seniority seek employment in schools where they don’t have to contend with discipline issues. The result: teachers in schools serving low-income populations tend to have less seniority, maturity and experience teaching challenging student populations.

Making an issue of “disparities” in arrests and suspensions based on the paltry evidence presented by the Times-Dispatch is a gross injustice to Henrico school and law-enforcement officials who are trying to preserve a decent learning environment. Such articles distract from the far bigger problem of school discipline. If the T-D, the ACLU and other do-gooders want to help struggling black kids mired in under-performing schools, perhaps they should start by asking what effect the breakdown in discipline has on the kids who want to learn.

Retrofitting Suburbia — Henrico Edition

Regencyby James A. Bacon

Regency Square Mall, a failing, 39-year-old shopping mall in the heart of the prosperous “West End” of Henrico County, is expected to go up for sale by year’s end. While the sale likely will prove distressing to bond holders — nearly $70 million in loans are 70% secured by the mall, which is appraised at only $25 million, reports the Times-Dispatch — a change in ownership creates a tremendous opportunity for Henrico County to reinvigorate a major commercial district.

While Regency enjoys an excellent location and serves an affluent market, it faces tough competition from two newer, pedestrian-style malls: Short Pump Town Center and Stony Point Fashion Park. Regency has zero pedestrian appeal — it is a boxy building set in a vast parking lot, and it is largely surrounded by strip shopping centers, some of which are themselves getting long in the tooth. It is no longer a place where anyone enjoys spending time.

I know Regency well — it is located a couple of miles from my home, and I shop there by necessity. Despite a superficial design makeover a few years ago, the place has little appeal. The problem is that the mall and the commercial area surrounding the mall were designed in the 1970s heyday of autocentric suburbia. Everything has been sacrificed for the comfort and convenience of the automobile. There are sidewalks in the area but no one uses them; the design violates every tenet of walkability. Ironically, the Regency Square area doesn’t even work well for the automobile. There are so many ill-timed stoplights that driving through it is a nightmare — to be circumvented if at all possible.

Henrico County officials seem to understand, at least conceptually, the need to redevelop sections of the county along more urban lines, with mixed uses, higher densities and walkable streets. So far, though, they have been reactive, responding to private-sector proposals such as those emanating from the owners of the Innsbrook office park and the Libbie Hill redevelopment project. Regency Square provides an opportunity for the county to be proactive, to create a different vision for the 25-acre mall property and the larger commercial district of which it is a part.

The entire area needs to be transformed, and Regency has the critical mass to make it happen. Like the old Cloverleaf Mall in Chesterfield County, Regency Square needs to be torn down and the property re-developed from scratch. A fresh vision would allow for higher densities, mixed uses and walkable, bikeable streets connecting with adjacent residential neighborhoods. The vision would extend to adjoining commercial properties, which property owners likewise would be encouraged to re-develop.

Redevelopment would be good for the county — the same land mass would generate significantly more property tax revenue while requiring little more in the way of county infrastructure or services. Redevelopment would be good for property owners — higher density and mixed uses would make their land far more valuable. And redevelopment would benefit neighboring home owners. Instead of adjoining an unwalkable, congested and aesthetically ugly retail zone, they would adjoin a vibrant area that would provide them more convenient access to amenities and, most likely, increase their residential property values.

There is no time to lose. If Henrico wants to revitalize this important area, it needs to signal now that it is serious so that the mall ends up in the hands of an owner with the expertise and financial wherewithal to undertake a major re-development project, not some bargain-hunting bottom feeder. The county should convene a gathering of stakeholders — property owners, merchants, residential neighbors — to forge a new vision for the area and discuss how that vision might be achieved.

Good Luck With McAuliffe’s Ethics Panel

Image: Verdict Reached In Corruption Trial Of Former Virginia Governor McDonnell And His WifeBy Peter Galuszka

Despite the obvious need, Virginia still has done very little to address its monumental problems with ethics reform. The latest endeavor was announced yesterday by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, but it seems too much like just another panel.

And panel it is. McAuliffe has created the 10-member Commission to Ensure Integrity and Public Confidence in State Government. The good news is that it is bipartisan and seems filled with reasonable people, including Christopher Howard, president of Hampden-Sydney College and Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Leading it will be for Lt .Gov. Bill Bolling, a Republican who has shown good sense in recent years and got screwed over by party hardliners who maneuvered to get former Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli, a wild man, to run and lose in the 2013 governor’s race. His Democratic counterpart will be Rick Boucher, a former legislator from southwest Virginia.

The plan is to present a package of reforms that will deal with gift-giving and donations to politicians, and redistricting, or possibly redesigning some districts away from the madness that some, and mostly Republican legislators have created.

The impetus, naturally, is the first-ever conviction of a governor for corruption. Three weeks ago, a federal jury gave a resounding “guilty” on felony charges against Robert F. McDonnell and his wife Maureen. The U.S. Justice Department stepped in because Virginia’s state ethics laws were so ridiculously lax no one could ever have made the case. There had been lots of “gee, I don’t see a smoking gun” jabber on this blog and elsewhere, but, hey, why not poll the jury?

Just as the McDonnells were being indicted last January, the 2014 General Assembly considered ethics reform but did squat. It made accepting more than $250 in gifts verboten and expanded disclosure requirements to immediate family but the Republican-led led legislature left in a pile of loopholes. “Intangible” gifts, such as African safaris or trips to the Masters golf tournament are A-OK.

What’s needed is a real ethics commission with subpoena power. McAuliffe’s action was quickly derided by such leading lights of ethics reform as House Speaker Bill Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment. These two Ayatollahs of the Status Quo claimed that McAuliffe was a “latecomer” to an issue that they obviously have done nothing to improve despite their many years in office.

GOP Party Boss Pat Mullins took an irrelevant swipe at McAuliffe’s perceived ethics problems long before he was even governor.

Redistricting is just as important as ethics and I’m glad it is being addressed. Many Virginia districts have been gerrymandered to keep a particular party in office in ways that  protect the status quo and prevent change. Of 100 House of Delegates races in 2013, “only 12 to 14 were competitive,” notes Leigh Middleditch Jr., a Charlottesville lawyer and a founder of the Sorenson Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia, told me earlier this year.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington, has studied gerrymandering for years and believes it negates general elections in favor of party primaries where a handful of hard right radicals can dominate.

This is especially true in some rural districts where tiny cadres of activists, again mostly Republicans, dominate the picks for primaries. It doesn’t matter what the general public thinks or wants. A narrow minority worms its way in power and becomes beholden not necessarily to the party overall, but a little slice of it.

That is why so little gets done.

The very fact that leaders like Howell and Norment are in place and the primary system will make McAuliffe’s efforts very difficult. One wonders if you could go outside the diseased legislative system and forced change through the courts.

It worked before against such Virginia travesties as Massive Resistance. Something to consider.

Millennials Want a New Kind of Suburbia

Image credit: Demand Institute

Image credit: Demand Institute

by James A. Bacon

The Millennial Generation (18- to 29-years old) will be a predominantly suburban generation, contends a new study by the Demand Institute based on a survey of 1,000 Millennial households. Significant majorities of the younger generation aspire to owning a single-family home and consider automobiles a necessity, while a 48% plurality expresses a preference to live in the “suburbs” over an urban or rural environment.

These findings, the authors contend, contradict “myths” perpetuated by advocates of smart growth and urbanism that Millennials “all want to move to the city and rent; they don’t want to own things; they won’t need cars anyway — and there will be a massive slump in demand because they are all going to be living single in their parents’ basements for the foreseeable future.”

Phew! It’s hard to know where to start with this. The study does provide a useful benchmark for what Millennials are thinking and it reaches at least one very interesting conclusion. Unfortunately, the analysis totally clouds the debate by misstating what smart growthers and urbanists are actually saying and by what employing what our old friend Ed Risse terms “core confusing words.”

The Demand Institute does make some useful observations. While there are only 13.3 million households headed by Millennials today, young people will emerge from their parents’ basements. Their number will swell to 21.6 million households by 2018. Almost four in five expect their financial situation to improve within the next five years, and three out of four plan to move. The reasons they list for wanting to move: 71% for a better home or apartment, 59% for more privacy or space, 50% to establish a household, and 48% to own, not rent. While Millennials have delayed family formation, 30% are married today, 64% expect to be married within five years, and 55% expect to have children within five years.

Three out of four Millennials believe home ownership is important, and 60% plan to purchase a home within five years. When they do rent or buy a new home, 61% want more space. Sixty-two percent want to either rent or purchase a single-family dwelling for their next home.

Here’s where it gets interesting for those following the urban vs. suburban debate: Millennials’ locational preferences are:

48% suburban
38% urban
14% rural

Those who say it’s important for their next home to be within “a short drive” of grocery stores, restaurants and retail outnumber those who say it is important to be within walking distance by more than two to one. Meanwhile, 88% of Millennials own a car, down only one percentage point from 2001.

Among the study’s main conclusions: “The suburbs are going to remain important destinations for young families, but the ideal suburban location for Millennials may not be the same as it was for previous generations. Communities that can offer the best of urban living (e.g. convenience and walkability) with the best of suburban living (e.g. good schools and more space) will thrive in the coming decade.”

Very good. I believe that to be true. One of the great challenges of the next two or three decades will be urbanizing the suburbs, or, to be more precise, to replace the “suburban sprawl” pattern of development characterized by large lots, segregated land uses and autocentric streets with a more traditional “urban” pattern of small lots, some mixed-use and walkable streets.

The authors confuse the issue, however, by their indiscriminate use of the words “suburbs” and “suburban.” They do not differentiate between close-in suburbs where single-family dwellings have small lots and walkable streets and the far-flung “exurbs” on the metropolitan fringe where single-family dwells have large lots and rely exclusively upon automobiles. I would argue that while Millennials assuredly seek to live in communities with good schools and reasonable taxes, they are far less interested than previous generations in living in the “exurbs.” However, it is impossible to prove or disprove that argument with the way the authors constructed the survey.

As for dispelling the “myth” that all Millennials want to live in the city, rent an apartment and give up their cars, the authors have created a straw man. I don’t know of anyone who says “all” Millennials want those things. But the Demand Institute’s own data suggests that a significant number do. Thirty-six percent of Millennials say they expect to continue to rent multi-family housing over the next five years; 24% say they want the same amount of space, and 15% want less space. Thirty-eight percent say they prefer to live in an urban environment. As for transportation, 48% say they take mass transit at least once a week, 22% say they walk and 15% ride a bicycle. I would suggest those numbers represent a major shift from previous generations. It would be nice to compare those preferences with those of Generation Xers 20 years ago. The Demand Institute data would mean far more if we could put it in a generational context.

Bacon’s bottom line: In actuality, there is a big shift in Millennial preferences compared to those of previous generations. A big percentage of Millennials prefer urban lifestyles and a bigger percentage prefer a “best of both worlds” approach typical of the older, denser suburbs. There is little evidence here that Millennials are craving an “exurban” lifestyle of big houses on big lots in locations that make them dependent upon cars for long commutes. The study missed a chance to make that clear.

The Fickle Patterns of Population Growth

Map credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

Map credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. (Click for bigger image.)

Image credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

Image credit: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service

Except for a brief period during the Civil War, the population of Virginia has increased steadily as long as anyone has kept track. But the pattern of growth varied as the nation evolved from an agriculture-based economy to an industrial economy and then to a knowledge-based economy. Many once-dynamic jurisdictions have gone into decline and, bucking the overall statewide trend, have lost population.

Hamilton Lombard with the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service has published a fascinating map showing the decades of peak population for Virginia’s cities and counties, as seen above. While roughly half the state’s cities and counties reached peak population last year in 2013 (no numbers yet for 2014), large swaths reached their apogee decades ago. Indeed seven counties saw their glory years in the 1800s. Amelia County’s heyday was 1790.

Lombard’s article traces population growth through the tobacco era, the New South industrialization and the rise of independent cities. A couple of patterns strike me from my eyeballing of the map:

  • Many of Virginia’s larger “cities” — Norfolk, Richmond, Portsmouth, Roanoke peaked in the 1960-1970 era before urban decay white/middle-class flight set in.
  • The coalfields of Southwest Virginia reached their zenith in the 1950s after decades of growth in the coal industry, although a couple of counties didn’t peak until the coal revival of the 1970s.
  • Much of Southside Virginia peaked in the 1920s-50s, although a couple of mill towns — Danville and Martinsville — and their neighboring counties continued growing until 1980.
  • Not all growth has been concentrated in the Washington, Richmond and Hampton Roads metropolitan regions. The Interstate 81 corridor stretching between Winchester, Roanoke and Bristol has provided a secondary locus of population growth (with the main exception being Rockbridge County).

Bacon’s bottom line: Beware ye, exurban counties, who think ye shall grow forever. Fortunes change.

– JAB