Grid Pro Quo

Grid Pro Quo

The EPA wants to restructure Virginia’s electric grid. Skeptics argue that slashing CO2 emissions will drive electric bills higher. Environmentalists disagree. Who’s right?

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Does Dominion Win or Lose from the New Law?

Does Dominion Win or Lose from the New Law?

Virginia's biggest power company could benefit from the freeze in electric rates but it also could take a big hit to earnings from power-plant shutdowns.

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Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Jonnie Williams' trial testimony about a critical meeting with the former governor was contradictory, implausible and sometimes incoherent. But the jury bought it anyway

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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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How to Frame the “Loving” Movie

The Lovings

The Lovings

Hollywood is producing a new film about Richard and Mildred Loving, who were arrested in 1958 for violating a Virginia  law prohibiting interracial marriage. Ruling on a lawsuit they filed in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws against mixed marriages.

In a press release, Governor Terry McAuliffe Thursday said, “Loving is a significant American story that should be told.” The film will be shot in the state, creating local jobs and highlighting “Virginia’s historical significance.”

I’m not sure that Jim Crow-era laws forbidding “miscegenation” is the kind of “historical significance” Virginia wants to bring attention to. But there is an opportunity, if McAuliffe will embrace it, to highlight how much Virginia has changed since the 1950s. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2008 and 2010 Virginia had the highest rate  of black-white intermarriage of any state in the country. Of the 156,000 marriages involving whites in Virginia, 3.3% were with blacks. The only states that came close were North Carolina (3.2%) and Kansas (3.0%).

Let’s not let “Loving” give people the mistaken impression that Virginia is stuck in the 1950s. We’ve come a long way — longer than most. Let’s make sure we let people know it.

– JAB

A City No Longer Obsessed by Race

richmond_by_race

Source: Hamilton Lombard, StatChat

by James A. Bacon

The City of Richmond reached a quiet demographic tipping point about five years ago: It stopped being a majority-African-American city. Movement of blacks into suburban jurisdictions, an influx of whites into the city and a small-but-measurable increase in other races, including people who self-identified with two races, all contributed to the change.

Richmonders appear not to notice. There is a still a widespread perception of Richmond as a black-majority city (and, in fact, blacks still outnumber whites, although by a tiny margin.) African-Americans still dominate city government. Richmond has a black mayor, a black police chief, a black sheriff, a black school superintendent and a black commonwealth’s attorney.

I find it fascinating how little attention anyone is paying to the demographic shift – and what that lack of attention says about our times.

It wasn’t all that long ago — around 1980 — when Richmond, once a white-majority city, tipped into a black-majority jurisdiction, according to Hamilton Lombard, a demographer writing in StatChat, the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service blog. Political power shifted to blacks for the first time in a city that had been synonymous with Jim Crow segregation and massive resistance to integration. White flight, part of a national phenomenon, was highly publicized at the time, and local politics were racially polarized.

Now that the demographic pendulum has swing back, nobody seems to notice. Richmond City Council now is majority white, but the shift in racial representation has not resulted in calls for white racial patronage. Everybody’s focus seems to be on promoting economic development, addressing poverty and making city government function more effectively. (One can argue how well the city is faring on those fronts, but that’s where the focus is.)

Race is less of a divider in other ways. Although there remain hard-core pockets of concentrated, African-American poverty, most neighborhoods are less segregated than they once were, Lombard contends. “The concentration of blacks is beginning to lessen; in 2000, 13 census tracts in Richmond were over 95 percent black, but by 2013 only 4 of these census tracts were still over 95 percent black,” he writes. “During this same time period, the black population in the Richmond metro area’s suburban counties grew quickly as many of the city’s black residents moved to them.”

While the city continues to expand its housing base through infill and redevelopment, allowing for continued population growth, Lombard thinks it may never return to white-majority status. One big reason:

The number of people living in Richmond who describe themselves as being more than one race has tripled since 2000 to a little under 9,000. This is likely in part due to Virginia having the highest rate of marriage between blacks and whites in the country, but also because as racial identity means increasingly less today, many people are identifying with more than one race, some even writing in their own race. Considering how much publicity the last major demographic change in Richmond received, the lack of attention given to the current one reveals how much Richmond itself has changed.

Racial identity politics is such a powerful force nationally that it’s hard to imagine that Richmond — the former capital of the Confederacy and locus of massive resistance, as some like to continually remind us — could be so lackadaisical and unaware of a shift that once would have been regarded as so profound. That is a sign of tremendous progress, and it augurs well for the future.

This NRDC Report… Cough! Cough! … Has a Few Problems

sneezing_wheezingby James A. Bacon

Richmond has been awarded the dubious distinction of being the “sneeziest and wheeziest” city in the United States in a report issued yesterday by the Natural Resources Defense Council. And thanks to global warming, says the NRDC, conditions are likely to get worse.

Scientific studies have also shown that our changing climate could favor the formation of more ozone smog in some areas and increase the production of allergenic pollen such as that released by the ragweed plant, the principal source of pollen associated with allergic rhinitis. This is bad news for allergy sufferers and asthmatics because both ragweed pollen and high levels of ozone smog can trigger asthma attacks and worsen allergic symptoms in adults and children.

Richmond, as it happens, suffers from both high ozone and high ragweed counts. As the report notes, Richmond was  was named the 2014 top U.S. Asthma Capital by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA. “Contributing to Richmond’s status as the number one Asthma Capital are high pollen levels, death rates from asthma, and numbers of asthma-related emergency room visits.”

As temperatures slowly ratchet higher, one would conclude from the parade of horribles revealed by study after study like this one that a warmer climate heaps nothing but harm harm and misery upon mankind. No doubt that explains why Americans have been migrating en mass from southern states to northern in search of cooler temperatures. … Oh, what’s that? It’s the reverse? Americans are migrating to states with warmer temperatures? Does not compute.

Permit me to play devil’s advocate. The NRDC may be absolutely correct in its appraisal but, at the risk of being denounced once more as a “climate denier,” it can’t hurt to subject its claims to some critical analysis.

The NRDC makes this interesting statement:

Richmond, Virginia, is—for the second time in a row—number one on this list. Although Richmond does not have an ozone monitoring station and is not ragweed-positive, we include it on the map because of its status as the number one Asthma Capital, as published by  the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Henrico County air quality monitoring station

Henrico County air quality monitoring station

Although the city of Richmond does not have an ozone monitoring station, neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield counties do. And what do those stations reveal? Despite higher temperatures, ozone levels got better, not worse, over the decade of 1999 to 2009.  The chart below, based on EPA data, show how the region’s average ozone levels declined markedly over that decade — dipping below the Virginia mean and the national mean.

ozone_index

A quick Internet search did not reveal comparable data for more recent years. But an American Lung Association ranking listed the average high-ozone days between 2010 and 2012 for several localities with monitoring stations. Chesterfield County had weighted average of 3.3 and Henrico of 6.2. Ozone in Northern Virginia was much worse: Alexandria had a weighted average of 8.5 high-ozone days, Arlington 11.2, and Fairfax 12.8. Yet the incidence of asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) cases as a percentage of the population was virtually identical.

ozone-asthma

Obviously, there are many factors other than ozone associated with asthma. What might those be? WebMD lists these risk factors:

  • Endotoxins in house dust.
  • Animal proteins (particularly cat and dog allergens), dust mites, cockroaches, fungi, and mold. Changes that have made houses more “energy-efficient” over the years are thought to increase exposure.
  • Indoor air pollution such as cigarette smoke, mold, and noxious fumes from household cleaners and paints.
  • Environmental factors such as pollution, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ozone, cold temperatures, and high humidity.

Whoah? What was that? Cold temperatures?

Yes, ozone is on the list. But it’s only one factor among many.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, race is a major risk factor, too.  In recent years, the greatest rise in asthma was among African American children: One in six African-American children have asthma. For African Americans, the rate of emergency department visits is 330% higher and the rate of hospitalizations is 220% higher compared to whites. “Ethnic differences in asthma prevalence, morbidity and mortality are highly correlated with poverty, urban air quality, indoor allergens, and lack of patient education and inadequate medical care.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If we want to attack the  high incidence of asthma in the Richmond region, we’re probably better off focusing on the socio-economic conditions of African-Americans than worrying about the impact of climate change on ozone and ragweed. Those are only two factors among many affecting asthma, and arguably far from the most important. In any case, thanks to coal-plant emissions controls and cleaner automobile engines, ozone levels probably will continue to decrease.

Think Competition Isn’t Important?

The recently shuttered Westbury Pharmacy was a compounding pharmacy. These institutions make up drugs per the instructions of a doctor when a special medicine is needed for an unique problem. A member of my family was a patient and the charge was $200 per refill. Now that Westbury is out of business, South River Compounding Pharmacy charges $550 for exactly the same  prescription. Competition is important.

– Les Schreiber

Measuring Diversity

Source: WalletHub

by James A. Bacon

A popular body of thought today hails “diversity” as one of the United States’ great strengths. That may be difficult to imagine at the moment, with race relations more strained than at any time since the school busing controversies of the 1970s, but the idea has much to recommend it. Innovation, argued Frans Johansson in his book “The Medici Effect,” comes at the intersection — the intersection of cultures, the intersection of academic disciplines, the intersection of industries. Insofar as the world is evolving into an innovation-driven economy, metropolitan regions that entertain a wide diversity of perspectives arguably have greater potential for artistic, cultural and entrepreneurial innovation.

WalletHub, a compiler of imaginative geographical rankings, has devised an intriguing set of metrics to compare the diversity of 230 sample U.S. cities based upon their rankings in a larger group of 350 cities. (Interestingly, Washington, D.C.-based WalletHub counts Arlington, a county, as a city.) The twelve metrics used in 2015’s Most Diverse Cities in America index fall into four broad categories: economic class diversity; ethno-racial & linguistic diversity; economic diversity; and household diversity.

By way of explanation, the compilers of the diversity rankings write:

Rapid diversification is one of the main drivers of our economic success. In recent decades, waves of immigration as well as financial and social mobility have not only changed the face of America but also ushered in a wealth of fresh perspectives, skills and technologies.

And thanks to its ever-expanding diversity, the U.S. remains forward-looking and extremely adaptable to change. According to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, economies generally fare better when they openly embrace and capitalize on new ideas. Conversely, those relying on old ways and specialized industries tend to be more susceptible to the negative effects of market volatility.

There is no question that cultural diversity breeds innovation. A classic example is the interaction of many musical styles rooted in local American cultures — from African-American blues, white Appalachian bluegrass, Cajun zydeco — that gave rise to jazz, country, rock n roll, soul, rap, punk and many more musical styles. Musically, the U.S. is the most innovative country in the planet, with no peer. On the other hand, some might take issue with the notion that socio-economic and educational diversity — another way of describing inequality — is a boon to innovation. Likewise, one could argue that industry diversity is a hamper to innovation; innovation is most likely to occur in regions with powerful industry clusters like those seen in the Silicon Valley (digital), New York (financial) or Los Angeles (film).

It would be interesting to run correlations between WalletHub’s diversity metrics and metrics of economic performance to find which factors show the strongest relationships. Complicating any such analysis is the fact that, while WalletHub is measures the diversity of “cities,” cities are embedded in larger metropolitan areas, which may or may not share the same diversity characteristics.

With that important caveat, it is interesting to view the diversity of Virginia cities:

diversity_rankings(For a detailed breakdown of all 12 metrics, click here.)

If there is a strong correlation between diversity and innovation, Hampton Roads cities should be the economic dynamo of Virginia. Let’s just say that that’s a stretch. Likewise, Arlington is the least diverse “city” in the state — just too darn many affluent and well-educated residents. Yet somehow it manages to have one of the highest incomes of any jurisdiction in the U.S.

Frankly, I don’t find the data terribly useful in their current incarnation. But I give WalletHub credit for its creativity in dreaming up new metrics. I hope the company recycles this feature in 2016 in a format that compares metropolitan regions rather than core cities. For wonks like me, the data could prove endlessly fascinating.

Injecting the “Public” Back into Public-Private Partnerships

P3sWe haven’t heard much about Public-Private Partnerships since the days of the McDonnell administration, which touted P3s as a tool for leveraging limited state transportation funding into more road and rail construction. The problem with the McDonnell team’s reliance on P3s wasn’t the grand strategy but the execution. The tolling of the Downtown-Midtown Tunnel in Norfolk proved so controversial that the state felt compelled to cough up money to buy down the cost of the tolls. Also, the U.S. 460 Connector turned into a fiasco potentially costing the state $300 million, including $250 million in payments to the concessionaire to do nothing even though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had balked at issuing wetland permits for the proposed route.

Trip Pollard, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, has been one of the most outspoken critics of Virginia’s P3s. But in a recent post on the Brookings Institution blog, he says he sees them as a potentially valuable tool to supplement public funds with private capital. Rather than throw out the P3 option, he argues, we need to build more transparency, public input and government oversight into the P3 approval process. He offers several concrete suggestions.

Speaking of public engagement with P3s, here are the new  “P3 Public Engagement Guidelines” released by the Office for Virginia Public-Private Partnerships. I’m not sure it’s possible to fully reconcile the private sector’s desire to negotiate in secrecy, not in the press, and the public’s right to know. But the McAuliffe administration is making a yeoman’s effort of trying to thread that needle.

Meanwhile, occasional Bacon’s Rebellion contributor Randy Salzman is still doggedly pursuing P3s. He asks a simple question: How is it possible that so many P3s have proven to be financial disasters, and why, knowing their abominable track record, do private-sector players continue to invest in them? Do the private participants engage in behind-the-curtain financial engineering that makes P3s profitable even if revenues fall short and the projects tank? He has come up with some tantalizing leads but no definitive answers. My suspicion: Follow the TIFIA loans, federally backed loan guarantees that absorb much of the risk inherent in P3 projects. What are the underwriting standards for those loans? How many have gone bad? How much in losses has the federal government sustained?

– JAB

Measuring Educational Value Added

Lexington -- national center of value-added education.

Lexington — national center of value-added education.

by James A. Bacon

What are the top colleges and universities in Virginia? We know the usual roster, based upon the annual survey by U.S. News & World Report: The University of Virginia, College of William and Mary, and Virginia Tech. Essentially, U.S. News measures the prestige of an institution. But how well do colleges and universities actually actually prepare students to earn a living? That’s a very different question, and it’s one that that the Brookings Institution has set out to answer with a very different kind of study in “Beyond College Rankings: A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools.”

A university can have immense prestige based upon factors such as the star power of its faculty, the size of its endowment or the average SAT scores of its student body. But if the faculty stars delegate much of their teaching to graduate students and the endowment underwrites the building of magnificent edifices, and if students spend more time partying than studying, prestige may not translate into effective learning. Conversely, an institution whose faculty members excel at teaching rather than, say, publishing books and winning research grants might actually do a better job of preparing their students for the world beyond.

eva

In the Brookings rankings, 100 is the highest score.

Based upon Brooking’s methodology, Washington & Lee University provides the most educational value added in Virginia, followed closely by Virginia Military Institute. Virginia Tech surpasses the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary looks decidedly mediocre. The performance of Virginia’s community colleges looks especially dismal. It’s a very different profile than the U.S. News rankings that allow Virginians to proclaim that the Old Dominion provides the best undergraduate education of any state in the country.

Brookings compares actual economic metrics such as mid-career earnings, occupational earnings potential and repayment of federal student loans to the “expected” level based upon race, ethnicity, family income and academic preparation. The greater the gap between actual and expected, the greater the value added. It is important to note that this methodology does not capture all value from a college education, such as a person’s intellectual, artistic or spiritual development or a person’s preparation for civic or political participation. However, insofar as the primary justification most people give for attending college is to prepare for a career and increase their earnings potential, Brookings arguably captures the most important data.

Due to its immense prestige, Harvard University attracts some of the brightest students from across the country. Many of those students would be successful in life no matter where they attended college, or even if they dropped out. It’s no surprise that Harvard graduates earn a lot of money. As it turns out, Harvard still performs better than most institutions in adding value, giving a bigger edge to already advantaged students. But in terms of creating economic value added, Washington & Lee in Lexington, Va., out-performs Harvard, while VMI, also in Lexington, almost equals it.

A fascinating aside: One could argue that tiny Lexington is a national center of excellence for economic value-added education. One small Virginia town is home to two of the highest ranking institutions in the Brookings list.

Bacon’s bottom line: Brookings’ calculus is terribly complex and, truth be told, I have not had time this morning to do any more than skim the surface. I am in no position to evaluate the methodology, and I’m sure that many institutions (especially those who fare below expectations) will take exception to it. But I will say this: Brookings is asking the right questions. Educational institutions should be judged not on their prestige but upon their ability to deliver tangible value to students. If there are flaws in the Brookings approach, let’s fix them and keep moving.

Blankenship’s Incriminating Tapes

don-blankenship By Peter Galuszka

It may sound like something out of the Nixon White House, but embattled coal baron Donald L. Blankenship regularly taped conversations in his office, giving federal prosecutors powerful new ammunition as he approaches criminal trial in July.

According to Bloomberg News, the former head of Massey Energy taped up to 1,900 conversations that often go to the heart of the case against him. Blankenship was indicted last Nov. 13 on several felony charges that he violated safety standards and securities laws in the run up to the April 5, 2010 blast at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners.

The revelation of the tapes came about in a circuitous way. The tapes were given to federal prosecutors in 2011 by officials of Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Richmond-based Massey Energy in 2011 for $7.1 billion.

After reaching a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors, Alpha hired a powerful New York law firm to investigate Massey for any possible violations.

Alpha, based in Bristol, was required as part of a non-prosecution order it signed to surrender all evidence, including the tapes.

Earlier this year, Alpha declined to continue paying Blankenship’s legal bills since he was under criminal indictment. Blankenship, claiming Alpha was required to indemnify, him, sued Alpha in a Delaware court. The existence of the tapes was revealed in that venue.

According to court documents filed in Delaware, Blankenship seemed to know that his disregard and hardball management practices could hurt him.

The tapes show Blankenship’s disdain for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which regulates mines but also reveal Blankenship knew Massey’s practices were risky.

According to testimony, a tape has Blankenship stating, “Sometimes, I’m torn up with what I see about the craziness we do. Maybe if it weren’t for MSHA, we’d blow ourselves up. I don’t know.”

“I know MSHA is bad, but I tell you what, we do some dumb things. I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have them,” Blankenship said on tape in the Delaware case.

So far, little has been revealed about what evidence the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charleston, W.Va. has against Blankenship. Irene Berger, a U.S. District Judge in Beckley, W.Va., issued a massive gag order forbidding lawyers and even family members of the 29 mine victims from discussing the case, now scheduled for July 13 in Beckely.

The gag rules were order modified after the Charleston Gazette and the Wall Street Journal among other news outlets challenged them before the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

In some cases, apparently, the tapes cut both ways. In Delaware, Blankenship’s lawyers played a tape from 2009 which has Blankenship urging executives to tighten up on safety. “I don’t want to go to 100 funerals,” he is quoted as saying. He allegedly told Baxter Phillips Jr., then Massey’s president, that if there were a fatal disaster, “You may be the one who goes to jail.”

According to Bloomberg, Alpha initiated the internal probe after reaching a non-prosecution deal with federal prosecutors. It hired Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton of New York to handle it.

Since Alpha refused to continue paying Blankenship’s legal bills, Blankenship reportedly has paid his lawyers $1 million himself.

The writer is the author of “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” 2012, St. Martin’s Press. Paperback , West Virginia University Press, 2014.

Using Big Data to Lift Americans out of Poverty

Senior person hands begging for food or helpWe’ve reached a dead end in the debate over poverty here in the United States. Liberals and Democrats say that all we need is to throw more money at the program, as if the trillions we’ve spent over the past 50 years were not enough. Conservatives and Republicans, while great at dissecting the failure of Great Society anti-poverty programs, don’t have much to offer in their place. No one, not even mean, skin-flinted conservatives like me, want to slash benefits willy nilly. No one wants a country in which poor children starve or poor sick people die from a sudden retraction of the safety net.

Is there a third way? Perhaps. From the small but magnificent country of New Zealand (run by the conservative National Party) comes a new idea: using Big Data to target welfare dollars where they are most needed. Allegheny County, Pa., (which includes Pittsburgh) is hiring a Kiwi pioneer in the field to apply the same approach to the American welfare system. Maybe Virginia should consider doing the same.

Writes Josh Eidelson with Bloomberg:

In 2010, when [New Zealand] Minister of Finance Bill English first convened a policy group to review welfare spending, government statistics showed half the 4,300 teenage single mothers receiving benefits in that country were likely to remain in the welfare system for 20 years, at a total cost of about $264,000 each. The government responded with $23 million to assign individual case workers to help teenage mothers finish school and find work. Now, after four years, the number of teenage single parents on benefits has dropped to 2,600.

Using data from welfare, education, employment, and housing agencies and the courts, the government identified the most expensive welfare beneficiaries—kids who have at least one close adult relative who’s previously been reported to child safety authorities, been to prison, and spent substantial time on welfare. “There are million-dollar kids in those families,” English says. “By the time they are 10, their likelihood of incarceration is 70 percent. You’ve got to do something about that.”

What works in a small, homogeneous country like New Zealand may not translate well to a large, multicultural country like the United States with a culture of inter-generational poverty and dysfunctional governance institutions. But, then, it’s just possible that the Kiwi model will work here. Given our impotence in combating poverty in the U.S., we don’t have anything to lose. If we frame the initiative as fiscally conservative (no one is asking to spend more money or raise taxes) and as pragmatically effective (we succeed at actually lifting at-risk people out of poverty), using Big Data to combat poverty would at least be a political winner.

– JAB

Private Investment in the Public Realm

libbie_mill_lake
by James A. Bacon

The American suburbs built since World War II have many deficiencies, not the least of which are expensive, fiscally unsustainable infrastructure and a proclivity toward traffic congestion. But the greatest drawback of all gets the least attention: the poverty of the public realm. Outside of shopping malls, there really is no public realm in the post-World War II suburbs. Streets are not designed for walking. There are no plazas. Parks are accessibly mainly by automobile. The only gathering places are found indoors — libraries, churches, fitness clubs and the like.

But tastes are changing, and a new generation of real estate developers understands that creating quality public spaces — particularly streets, sidewalks and parks — allows them to charge premium prices for their buildings. The key insight they have grasped is that humans are social creatures. Yes, people like their privacy of their homes, but they also enjoy being around other people. They like to walk. They like to watch other people. They like gathering in groups.

Developers in the Richmond region have gotten the message that there is a large unmet demand for “walkable urbanism,” places that make it easy, even delightful, for people to walk around. Walkability goes deeper than the utilitarian function of allowing people to substitute walk trips for car trips, thus reducing traffic congestion. People like walkability because it facilitates social interaction. Sadly, most efforts to build walkable communities in the Richmond suburbs have been underwhelming.

That’s why I’m paying close attention to the development of Libbie Mill-Midtown in Henrico County. Gumenick Properties may be paying keener attention to the quality of the public spaces they’re building in the 800-acre, $434 million project than has any other suburban developer in the history of the Richmond region. As a sign of how seriously Gumenick takes the public realm, the company has engaged the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization launched by William Whyte, the pioneer who first studied the sociology of small public spaces from a scientific perspective.

Little of what Gumenick is doing is new — it’s just been forgotten. Company spokesman Ed Crews describes the project as “retro.” Libbie Mill-Midtown seeks to create “what the urban environment was a century ago,” before counties outlawed mixed-use zoning and developers designed communities largely around the car.

As I explained in a recent post (see “The Invisible Parking Garage“),  Gumenick is building a pedestrian-friendly community. The mixed-use  project is laid out in a street grid with wide sidewalks. Great attention is paid to defining the pedestrian street space and providing a variety of destinations within easy walking distance of apartments and town homes. Gumenick donated land for construction of a new Henrico County library, and plans call for lots of street-level space for restaurants, shops and local services.

Parking is only one dimension of the challenge. The landscape of the Richmond region is pocked with ugly sediment ponds installed to manage storm water. Occasionally, someone sticks some gazebos by them or turns them into something visually interesting like a man-made wetlands. But Gumenick is investing the resources to transform its storm water pond into the focal point of the entire development.

The rendering above is a conceptual sketch of what that lake might look like. The final design will depend upon the buildings constructed around it. But there will be trails, a fountain, plazas, an amphitheater and places where people can touch the water. One of the key insights learned from the Project for Public Spaces, says Crews, is not to fill in the public space with fixed benches and other objects. Instead, provide portable furniture that people can rearrange to accommodate the size of their small groups.

Shane Finnegan, vice president of construction, says the plaza will be built for flexibility in order to accommodate a wide range of activities. For instance, to accommodate tents for farmer’s markets and other events, the design calls for embedding hold-downs in the pavement. Alternatively, the community might bring in taco trucks and a marimba band. The programmatic element of bringing in events and concerts will be important in Libbie Mill-Midtown, as it is in downtown Richmond, Innsbrook and other areas. The difference is that in Libbie Mill, the physical space will be designed from the beginning with that programmatic element in mind.

“This won’t be built in a day,” cautions Crews. Indeed, the project is expected to take 10 years to complete, depending upon market conditions. There needs to be a critical mass of people living and working in the neighborhood for activity in the public spaces to take off.

Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick is betting that investing in the public realm will pay off. I’d wager that the company has it right.