Category Archives: Land use & development

Shocker: Positive Signs from Washington Metro

I have relentlessly criticized the Washington Metro system for years, but I have to give credit to management under General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld for trying to steer the dysfunctional mass transit system in a fiscally sustainable direction. Today’s media reports highlight two straws in the wind.

First, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (MWATA) is trying to revive a plan to redevelop portions of the Huntington Metro campus in Fairfax County, according to the Washington Business Journal. An effort to redevelop a 1.15-acre parcel failed four years ago. But Metro has expanded the project scope to 12 acres.

The selected developer for this larger project would not only design the 12-acre site but also help WMATA determine the need for replacement transit facilities — the three parking garages at Huntington Metro Station had a combined usage rate of 61 percent for fiscal year 2018. WMATA recently closed an 885-space garage on 6 acres located on the south side of the station, where it sees an opportunity for redevelopment if parking demand doesn’t merit replacing.

Heavy-rail transit stations significantly increase the value of adjacent properties. Mass transit systems in other countries employ “value capture” strategies to extract some of that increased value to defray the cost of building and operating their stations. For the most part, Washington’s Metro system has failed to do that. Rather, property owners reaped windfall gains from the public’s massive investment. (A partial exception is taxation of property owners in Tysons to pay for a modest portion of the cost of building the Silver Line extension.) However, Metro frequently did build parking structures around its stations, some of which may be severely under-utilized. The potential exists to redevelop that property in light of market conditions that favor dense, mixed-use development around Metro stations.

Although the WBJ doesn’t frame the story this way, it appears that Wiedefeld is trying to extract maximum value from the limited property Metro does own around the Huntington station. If this redevelopment project is successful, it might be a template for extracting value from other Metro parking lots and garages.

Second, Metro is looking at the potential for privatizing operations of the Silver Line extension encompassing six new stations in the high-tech corridor between Tysons and Dulles International Airport, and beyond. Reports the Washington Post:

On Tuesday, the transit agency issued a request for proposals from private companies willing to perform maintenance and operations on the line extension, which is under construction by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. …

Metro has hinted for the past two years that its intention was to outsource the Silver Line service, suggesting that such a decision could save taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run. In January, the agency issued a “request for information” from potential contractors interested in the job.

Now, Metro says that hiring a private company to fill new Silver Line jobs, rather than adding to the ranks of unionized employees, will help control operating and maintenance costs, “including future pension costs, which have grown to unsustainable levels.”

Paul J. Wiedefeld

Wiedefeld said the effort is intended to help the transit agency start “living within our means.” “Competitive contracting is one tool to hold down pension cost growth, while providing quality service for customers.” Laughably, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 responded that outsourcing services would result in poor service for riders and subpar maintenance of infrastructure. Worse than the service and maintenance provided by the union workforce? That would be something!

Virginia has boosted its financial commitment to Metro to reduce a massive capital spending shortfall on the understanding that the mass transit authority would undertake meaningful reforms. Wiedefeld is making an honest effort to deliver on that promise, pursuing strategies that were never part of Metro’s past playbook. Whether he succeeds or not is a different question — that depends in large measure upon market conditions and cooperation from Metro’s labor unions. But he’s giving it his best shot.

Bacon Bits: In with the New, Out with the Old

In with the new…

Data Center Alley too hot to handle. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has sold 424 acres west of Dulles International Airport to data-center developer Digital Realty Trust for an eye-popping $236.5 million — $558,000 per acre. MWAA will place $207 million in a segregated account used to reduce costs that airlines pay to do business at the airport. The transaction expands the large and growing data-center presence of Digital Realty in Loudoun County, reports the Washington Business Journal.

Virginia’s next big solar project? Solar developer Community Energy has applied to build 125-megawatts in solar capacity in Augusta County, reports PV magazine. To offset concerns about neighborhood impact, Community Energy plans to surround the facility with a buffer of vegetation and put into place measures to diminish the limited audio output. Instead of purchasing the land, the power company is leasing it from landowners, providing farmers an ongoing revenue stream rather than a lump-sum payment.

Out with the old..

Gutted newsrooms. Ned Oliver with the Virginia Mercury has quantified the shrinkage of news staff at Virginia’s largest daily newspapers in recent years. After quietly laying off another eight newspaper employees at the beginning of the month, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newsroom has gone from 42 news and sports reporters in 2010 to 26 today, from nine to six photographers, and from 20 to 13 editors. The Virginian-Pilot has dropped from 67 reporters to 33, 35 editors from to 22, and eight photographers to five. Newsroom staff at the Roanoke Times has eroded by 35% to 25 reporters, 11 editors, and three photographers.

“Meanwhile,” writes Oliver, “there is still no clear model for metro and community newspapers to make up for the loss of all that ad money to digital giants like Google and Facebook.”

Tarheel coal ash overflow. In an event sure to impact the debate over coal ash in Virginia, heavy rains from Hurricane Florence eroded a coal ash facility at a Duke Energy power plant near Wilmington, N.C. The utility is investigating the possible release of about 2,000 cubic yards of the material — enough to fill two-thirds of an Olympic-size swimming pool, according to the Herald-Sun. It was not clear whether any of the ash, which contains traces of heavy metals, reached public waterways.

The release reinforces the necessity of removing coal ash from unlined, uncapped containment ponds where electric utilities have been restoring the coal-combustion residue for decades. Environmental Protection Agency regulations were designed to prevent incidents like this by consolidating and capping coal ash ponds. While environmentalists, regulators and utilities haggle over whether it’s better to store the material in lined landfills, a process that could take two to three decades, existing containment ponds remain vulnerable to extreme weather events like Florence.

Looks like a Taking, Feels like a Taking

Bike valet parking outside the Northside Richmond bike lane briefing.

The parallel struck me early in the meeting – this is like the pipeline process.  The people who want this bike lane are not deterred by what it does to the people and businesses directly on the route and disregard all concerns as unfounded.

Of course, the property owners along Richmond’s Brook Road do not actually own any of the pavement which would be converted from multi-vehicle use and dedicated to bicycles only. This may not qualify as a taking. But as they try to maneuver out of their driveways through the bike lane, see the one remaining travel lane occasionally blocked by emergency or service vehicles, and wonder if anybody will ever buy their house in the future, they will feel like they lost something.

Some of them came out to a community meeting Tuesday night to say so but found themselves up against the same kind of organizational techniques so effectively used in favor of the pipelines. The proponents had turned out their crowd and had people there to park their bikes and hand out shirt stickers.  When the moderator asked for questions, proponents instead made statements of strong support. It was a while before an opposing view was heard.

Joe Citizen just walking into a neighborhood meeting these days without planning and preparation and inclined to politely follow the rules is going to a gun fight with a pen knife.

The Experts were all for it, of course – city engineers and planners.  They’ve done their studies, thank you very much, and don’t need any more.  The “road diet” concept is Settled Science.  There is a consensus among 92.3 percent of traffic engineers (I made that number up) that adding bike lanes by eliminating car lanes stops speeding and saves lives (I didn’t make that up, that got said several times.)

It was just eerie how easily you could have substituted the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for the Brook Road bike lanes and little else said would have changed.  The bike lanes have federal agency blessing!  There is even federal funding!  Anybody who doesn’t fall in line is just not rational and need not be taken seriously (which explains the rude behavior poured on the Doubting Thomases who did speak).

The Richmond Times-Dispatch story on the meeting was abysmal, just rotten reporting. I don’t know the reporter, but he missed half the story. He implied all 250 people came to speak up in favor of the bike lanes, but plenty in the crowd did not join in the applause for statements of support and several made excellent point in opposition.

My bet is the reporter didn’t even know one of the speakers with concerns was former Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer, and not quoting any of the many others raising questions was just shameful bias. On the other hand, the paper’s photo essay included several shots of skeptics, including Homer. But that didn’t tell the reader what was being said.

The pedestrian, bicycle and trails coordinator for the city staff, Jakob Helmbolt, made some telling statements. Most of the opposition flows from concerns the lanes will disappear just as surge of growth is expected. But when somebody asked about the huge open tract at the north end of the route near Azalea Avenue, ripe for commercial development and traffic growth, Helmbolt said he would consider that “at the time of development – that’s when the traffic impact study occurs.”

This 301-unit complex going up on Brook Road has proper zoning to expand.

Of course, once Brook is on its “diet” any developer may go elsewhere. Proponents even claimed that cutting down the road to a single lane each way will stop future apartment development. If they made that official with zoning changes, some of the opposition would melt.  But tell me again why that would not be a taking?

Somebody asked about turning right across the bike lines and Helmbolt dismissed that with: “The signalized intersections will have dedicated right turn lanes which will be shared,” he said. But there are scores of intersections without signals and all those private driveways. That’s the problem.

Big property owners on the route who were represented in the room but said nothing included Virginia Union University, a rapidly-growing private school, the Virginia Commonwealth University Children’s Hospital and CSX, which has a major gated crossing at the southern end of the bike lane route. A woman representing the industrial properties near those tracks, who will see their freight trucks restricted to that single lane and forced to turn across the bike lane, expressed strong opposition.

The meeting was all sparked by a proposed ordinance seeking to block the bike lanes, reversing earlier votes of support from City Council with less attention paid. Just when that ordinance might be taken up for a vote, or when the bike lanes will be created if it fails, never came up. I’m sure many are hoping that once the work is done and gas starts flowing, oops, I mean the bikes start using their protected lanes, things will quickly be forgotten.

The Berkeley of the East Coast

Has the City of Charlottesville become the Berkeley of the East Coast, a college-dominated town populated with enough leftists to enforce their destructive brand of politics? Maybe not quite yet, but when anarchists are referring to the liberal Democrats on City Council as “fascists” (view the video above), it could be getting close.

“While Charlottesville’s government continues to spin wildly off-center, raucous public meetings and accompanying calls for social, economic, and legal anarchy come at great cost,” writes Rob Schilling, a local radio host who bills himself as the first and last Republican since 1986 to get elected to the Charlottesville City Council, in the Bearing Drift blog. Consider the following, taken verbatim from his article:

  • Most recently, local developer and perennial City Council ally, Keith O. Woodard, cancelled the long-planned $50 million West 2nd project, citing an “adversarial” relationship with the City and “uncertain” process. The development was expected to net Charlottesville nearly $1 million annually in direct tax revenue.
  • Adding insult to injury, Charlottesville City Councilor, Mike Signer, himself was General Counsel on the Project Team for WillowTree at Woolen Mills. In such capacity he presumably helped negotiate app developer WillowTree’s exodus from Charlottesville into neighboring Albemarle County—a $20 million, 200-job boon for Albemarle’s economy and another crushing financial blow to the City, this time delivered by a Charlottesville elected official.
  • Nine years on, the rusting hulk of the Landmark Hotel on Charlottesville’s downtown mall stands as a monument to ineffective, bumbling, incompetent governance. The economic implications are manifest; no rational developer would risk large-scale “investing” here presently.

Says Schilling: “The escalating social and civic anarchy promulgated by the current crop of councilors has impelled Charlottesville into a rapid downward spiral, wherein nothing much may be left to ‘tear down’ when all is said and done.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Charlottesville enjoys a historic opportunity for urban revival as broad economic forces across the nation propel investment capital and people back into traditional downtowns and urban neighborhoods. In other Virginia metros, businesses are moving from the suburban jurisdictions to the urban cities, not the other way around. It would be a shame — and an object lesson to others — if the crazies ruined everything.

Solar Power and the Gentrification of the Countryside

Consider two mega-trends: (1) the push to renewable solar power and, (2) the changing economics of rural land that places an increasing value on pristine “viewsheds.” Both are powerful forces, and the two are coming into conflict here in Virginia. How the story ends, nobody yet knows. Hopefully, the two can be reconciled.

The American Battlefield Trust has published a study, “A War-Time Viewshed Study of Culpeper County,” that examines how far Confederate and Union troops see from the half-dozen signal stations around Culpeper County during the Civil War. The study asks, according to today’s Free Lance-Star, “what is the modern-day value of preserving such elevated vistas near the same areas proposed for two large solar farm projects?”

Virginia has committed itself to an energy future that eventually will rely upon solar energy for some 25% of its electric generating capacity. While a portion of that capacity will be installed on rooftops and other urban/sububurban locations, most of it will take the form of vast solar farms consuming thousands of acres in the countryside.

Once upon a time, when the countryside was inhabited mainly by farmers, that might not have caused consternation. Farmers held a strictly utilitarian attitude toward their land, and as long as a solar facility did not interfere with their farming operations, they wouldn’t have cared. But Virginia’s countryside has fundamentally changed. Farmers no longer predominate. Much of the countryside is now classified as “exurbs” — scattered, extremely low density development, primarily residential. In many places, farming is now seen as an intrusive activity, and homeowners get angry at slow-moving farm tractors clogging commuter traffic on country roads. Homeowners place a tremendous premium on the views from their back porches, the quality of that view affects the price of their property, and they get up in arms over anything that affects that view.

Another facet of this gentrification of the countryside is the proliferation of vineyards, breweries, and restaurants whose owners selected their locations for the beautiful views their patrons would enjoy while dining on the back patio. Increasingly, viewsheds have commercial economic value. Yet another aspect is the issued raised by the American Battlefield Trust of historic viewsheds. In a region with a rich history, such as Virginia’s northern Piedmont, there is strong sentiment for preserving historic viewsheds, both for practical economic reasons, such as preserving the local tourism trade, and for intrinsic reasons, such as protecting hallowed ground.

It’s no surprise, then, that Virginia has witnessed unprecedented levels of activism in opposition to infrastructure projects of any kind, be they natural gas pipelines, electric transmission lines, and now solar farms. The debate gets interesting because foes of pipelines and electric transmission lines have latched onto environmentalist arguments in support of their opposition. The pipelines, in particular, have been portrayed as antithetical to environmental goals of reducing CO2 emissions and combating global warming.

Environmentalists propose to reduce CO2 emissions by ramping up solar production — a land-intensive endeavor. While not as visually intrusive as high-voltage electric transmission towers, solar farms are comparable in visual impact to, say, a buried natural gas pipeline where trees have been cut down along the route.

“View sheds continually rank within the state as very significant to visitors,” said Glenn Stach, author of the American Battlefield Trust study. “Battlefield preservation and the experience of a battlefield today are best protected by the protection of agricultural lands.” Reports the Free Lance-Star:

“A contemporary viewshed policy says five miles is what you should manage, the mitigation of resources within that viewshed is most important,” he said.

The two proposed solar projects both are within that five-mile area. The panels will stretch up to maximum 15-feet during peak times, according to the extensive application submitted earlier this year by Texas-based Greenwood Solar seeking to build a utility scale project on 1,000 acres south of Stevensburg.

A separate project by Virginia Solar seeks to build on 172 acres between Stevensburg and Brandy Station with both following the existing Dominion Power transmission line.

A spokesman for one of the solar companies said the project would be out of view from the county’s “core battlefields, and the solar panels would have low, 12-foot profile.

And, thus, a new battle is joined.

State to Support Shipyard Hiring of 7,000

Rendering of the Columbia-class submarine

Governor Ralph Northam announced this morning a partnership with Newport News Shipbuilding to support the hiring of almost 7,000 people, including the creation of 2,000 new jobs, over the next five years.

These new hires will support shipyard contracts to build components for new Columbia-class submarines in addition to existing work such as construction of Virginia-class submarines, the refueling and complex overhaul and defueling of the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, and the construction of Ford-class aircraft carriers, according to a press release from the Governor’s Office.

Today’s announcement was part of a larger “Build Virginia” initiative to “connect workers throughout the Commonwealth with training and employment opportunities in the skilled trades.” This effort will focus initially on connecting jobseekers and employers in the shipbuilding industry, but will broaden to other industries such as construction and advanced manufacturing.

“Newport News Shipbuilding’s success is important not just for Hampton Roads, but for the entire Commonwealth. Therefore, it is critical that we support growth of this magnitude with an innovative partnership between state agencies that will address the company’s workforce and training needs and supply a pipeline of skilled talent,” said Northam. “We have a responsibility as a Commonwealth to ensure that every single one of these jobs gets filled with a skilled and trained Virginian who is ready to succeed.”

As the U.S. economy reaches full employment and critical skills shortages are hindering expansion in industry after industry, even major players such as Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, are having trouble meeting the demand for labor. The surge in hiring has overwhelmed the capacity of the company’s renowned apprenticeship school, where enrollment is limited to about 225 apprentices.

Virginia has a long history of state support for the giant shipbuilding company, an anchor of the Hampton Roads economy. In 2016, according to the governor’s press release, the General Assembly approved the Advanced Shipbuilding Production Facility Grant Program providing up to $46 million to help Newport News Shipbuilding upgrade its foundry and invest in facilities necessary to build Columbia-class submarines. The company will be eligible for these grants if they make capital investments of at least $750 million and create at least 1,000 jobs in the Columbia-class submarine program.

The governor’s announcement does not assign a monetary value to the initiative. While Northam describes the partnership as “innovative,” the only tangible new commitment noted in the press release is the appointment of Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball to “coordinate support from existing economic development programs.” These include:

  • The Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s Virginia Jobs Investment Program will provide state-funded consultative services and funding to support-employee training activities.
  • A GO Virginia grant and state funding will create the nation’s first workforce program in digital shipbuilding at Old Dominion University. The Virginia Digital Shipbuilding Workforce Program will develop a curriculum that can be shared with education and training partners statewide to prepare the current and future workforce for digital manufacturing jobs in shipbuilding.
  • The Virginia Employment Commission will continue to support Newport News Shipbuilding’s job creation through its Career Works Centers in Hampton and Norfolk, which host hiring events, pre-screen applicants, and support employer interviews.
  • The Virginia Community College System offers training and credentials pertinent to shipbuilding through FastForward, a workforce credential program.
  • The New Economy Workforce Credential Grant Program (WCG) was developed during the 2016 Virginia General Assembly session to sustain a supply of credentialed workers to fill high-demand occupations. WCG funds supported 441 enrollments in welding, pipefitting, machining, milling, and electrical in fiscal 2017, and 767 enrollments in fiscal 2018.
  • The General Assembly also provided funding from January 2012 through June 2014 for marine-skilled trades training. Under this program, Newport News Shipbuilding partnered with three regional community colleges to offer three-week pre-hire training programs in seven trades that have produced over 400 trainees to date, of whom 95 percent have been offered jobs at the shipyard.

Another Warning of Sea-Level Rise

Ashville Park subdivision in Virginia Beach after Hurricane Matthew. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

By 2030, $838 million worth of residential property in Virginia is at risk of being chronically inundated by high tides caused by rising sea levels, directly affecting more than 6,000 people and $8 million in property taxes, according to a new report by the Union for Concerned Scientists. The definition of “chronic” inundation is 26 times per year.

“Sea levels are rising. Tides are inching higher. High-tide floods are becoming more frequent and reaching farther inland. And hundreds of US coastal communities will soon face chronic, disruptive flooding that directly affects people’s homes, lives, and properties,” states the report, ” Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate.” “Yet property values in most coastal real estate markets do not currently reflect this risk. And most homeowners, communities, and investors are not aware of the financial losses they may soon face.”

By the end of the century, the study warns, sea levels could rise by seven feet, exposing 115,000 Virginia homes worth $30 billion to routine flooding.

That’s the worst-case scenario, predicated on the assumptions that global warming-induced sea-level rise is accelerating and that communities are incapable of adapting, and it’s the one highlighted by the report and the Virginian-Pilot coverage of the report. Under the report’s low-rise scenario based on effective global action against climate change, sea levels will rise only a foot and a half, and projected losses would be much smaller.

Scientists skeptical of alarmist global warming scenarios counter that sea levels have been rising steadily by 20 centimeters per century for at least two centuries with no sign of accelerating. The implied sea-level rise globally would be six and a half inches by the end of the century. But the impact varies geographically depending on whether tectonic plates are rising or sinking. In Virginia, the tectonic plate is sinking, suggesting that the impact could be greater locally.

I react negatively to alarmist environmental scenarios, which I think are fed more by wishful thinking that the world is in desperate need of saving. But I don’t dismiss the UCS report out of hand. If these scientists’ worst fears are well founded, Virginia’s coastline could face massive dislocation. Even if the skeptics are right, periodic flooding will get worse — not catastrophically worse but enough to force us to think differently about coastal development.

Given the array of risks, we cannot continue business as usual. I’m not suggesting that it’s time for draconian action, but we can at least stop doing stupid stuff. By “stupid stuff,” I mean we should stop subsidizing coastal development through the National Flood Insurance Program and through implicit promises that state and local government will maintain roads, power lines, water-sewer and beach restoration regardless of cost in the face of increasing floods. Homeowners should bear the costs and risks associated with their decisions to live on or near the water.

Local governments also need to stop zoning for large developments in flood-prone areas. In a separate and unrelated article, the Virginian-Pilot describes the issues surrounding the proposed expansion of the Ashville Park development in Virginia Beach. The developers won zoning approval for the giant, high-quality subdivision more than a decade ago, before periodic flooding became a concern. In 2016 Hurricane Matthew overwhelmed the project’s storm water drainage system, flooding many houses and leaving families stranded for days. Fixes are expected to cost $11 million. The developer will share the cost of the first phase of $2.75 million; the city will cover the rest. Remarkably, the developer claims the right to be able to build up to 400 more houses.

I firmly believe that people should be able to build where they want — as long as they are willing to pay the full cost associated with their location decisions. The problem is not insoluble. Virginia Beach and other coastal localities should establish special tax districts in flood-prone zones, with provisions to expand the geographic scope of those zones as sea levels rise. Property owners in those zones would be assessed a tax surcharge to fund infrastructure projects — storm water drainage systems, flood control berms and dikes, the re-engineering of roads and bridges, whatever — deemed necessary to protect the community. The tax structure should be adjusted to penalize sprawling, low-density housing projects that require greater public investment and reward compact, infrastructure-efficient investment.

The risk of sea-level rise is likely exaggerated, but no one knows for sure. It is not right to transfer that risk — however great or small — from home-owners in flood-prone areas to the tax-paying public. The time to enact reform is now, not when the floods are upon us.

Needed: The Right Parking Policies for a Growing Richmond

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by Stewart Schwartz

Editor’s Note:  The City of Richmond has launched a parking study focused on seven distinct areas of the city and is holding seven public meetings this week. Meeting dates and locations.

Parking is perhaps the most important aspect of a city to get right if we are going to address traffic, make housing more affordable, and create a sustainable, walkable, bikeable city. The City of Richmond is growing, but if it’s to grow without making traffic really bad, we need to get parking right. Too much parking, especially free or underpriced, will lead to more driving and traffic. Too much parking can also drive up building costs and housing prices, making it harder to provide housing affordable to the full range of our workforce.

As we grow, we need to provide good alternatives by expanding our transit system and adding more dedicated bus lanes over time, and adding bike lanes — especially protected ones, and make walking safer and interesting. Combine these with car sharing like Zipcar and Car2Go, taxis, and ride hailing like Uber and Lyft. With all of these options, you may not need a second car, and for some people, any car at all.

Cities around the U.S. are adopting a range of creative parking policies that combine both market-oriented and regulatory approaches to managing parking. These include:

1) Setting the right price for parking on the street so that there is good turnover in retail districts and 20% of spaces are rotating open at any one time.

2) Using residential parking permit programs but pricing the parking passes appropriately and adding car sharing options to the neighborhood.

3) Dropping use of parking minimums and putting in a maximum limit on number of spaces, while exempting small buildings from having to have any parking. Today our city actually has many zoning districts which actually do get parking right — without requiring too much.

4) Sharing parking between users — one example is daytime office parking used for nighttime entertainment parking.

5) Pricing all off-street parking in lots and structures and separating the rental of parking spaces from the apartment lease or condo purchase price, and from the office lease. This makes clear the high cost of providing parking and always results in lower demand.

6) Equalizing employee commute benefits — instead of just offering free or subsidized parking, an employer should also offer a transit pass benefit, or even a “parking cash out” where an employee offered a parking space can “cash it out” for an equal value in a transit pass + cash, or cash + walk or bike to work.

For a comprehensive presentation on modern parking policies, I recommend this presentation to the City of Portland, Oregon by Jeff Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard. Jeff is one of the premier national experts in parking policy. Or for the scientific and technical basis for changing a city’s parking policies, see UCLA Professor Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

If Richmond wants to maintain its quality of life as it grows, the city needs to get parking right. Hopefully, the ongoing study will lead to the adoption of the best combination of market-rate and policy solutions for our community.

Stewart Schwartz is a board member of the Partnership for Smarter Growth and executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Is the Urban Growth Boom Fading?

Image credit: Brookings Institution

Several years ago Brookings Institution urbanist William H. Frey proclaimed the 2010s as “the decade of the city.” A constellation of forces in the knowledge economy, which puts a premium on dense, mixed-use urban environments with access to mass transit, was pulling Millennials and corporations back into central cities. It was a logic that I subscribed to, although I did raise the warning that there were limits to how much growth cities could absorb, given zoning, regulatory and other growth restrictions that limit the pace of urban redevelopment.

Now, citing new U.S. Census data, Frey has found that big city growth rates have leveled off and suburban growth rates are reviving. He writes:

The new numbers for big cities—those with a population of over a quarter million—are telling. Among these 84 cities, 55 of them either grew at lower rates than the previous year or sustained population losses. This growth fall-off further exacerbates a pattern that was suggested last year. The average population growth of this group from 2016 to 2017 was 0.83 percent—down from well over 1 percent for earlier years of the decade and lower than the average annual growth rate among these cities for the 2000 to 2010 decade.

The Washington metro was an exception to the trend. Population of the “primary city” (which I presume refers to Washington, D.C., although it may include Arlington and Alexandria) grew 1.5% between 2016 and 2017, exceeding the 1.0% rate for the suburbs.

In the Richmond metro, the population of the primary city (presumably the City of Richmond) gained 0.8% over the same period, slightly slower than 1.0% rate for the suburbs.

In the “Virginia Beach” metro, the population of the primary city (I’ve got no idea which localities Frey might be counting) actually declined 0.3% while the “suburbs” grew 0.8%.

Frey does not try to explain why the urban growth spurt has slowed. I stick with my original theory that there is an untapped demand for urbanism but urban areas have limited capacity to absorb new growth. Urban-core localities have little vacant land to develop, and strong NIMBY forces inhibit redevelopment at higher densities. Preservationists want to protect historic buildings. Homeowners fear traffic impact. Property owners want to protect view sheds from tall buildings.

NIMBY forces are at work in outlying jurisdictions, too, but there is a backlog of zoned projects from the 2000s real estate boom, and there are vast areas dedicated to industrial/commercial uses that can be rezoned with only modest impact on adjacent neighborhoods.

Bacon’s bottom line: Core urban jurisdictions can’t grow their populations any faster than they can redevelop — and they can’t redevelop very fast. As urban property values rise, many people have no choice but to locate in suburban localities where land values are cheaper. Perhaps the best opportunities for real estate developers in 2018 are in retrofitting the obsolete economic mono-cultures of shopping centers and office parks into vibrant, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that emulate the urbanity of city centers.

Which is a Greater Public Safety Issue: Fires or Pedestrian Fatalities?

Municipal governance, like life, is full of trade-offs. One would think that a Class 1 fire suppression rating from the Insurance Services Office would be an unalloyed blessing. After all, a Class 1 rating ranks a fire department in the top 1% in the nation, which translates directly into lower homeowners insurance rates for residents of that jurisdiction.

So, if you’re a resident of the City of Richmond, which has earned a Class 1 rating after years of effort, or of Henrico County, the first county government in North America to earn the top rating, it should be a source of pride as well as insurance savings to see the validation of your fire department’s professionalism.

“It’s a big win for the city,” spoke Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the city’s honor. “More than anything, this rating demonstrates reliability.”

But there is a downside. Fire chiefs in top-rated jurisdictions also tend to exercise inordinate political clout, an influence that extends to land use decisions. And fire chiefs have been enemies of the kind of compact, high-density development preferred by New Urbanists and other allies of the Smart Growth movement.

Fire chiefs like big, wide streets and rounded street corners that make it quick and easy for their firetrucks to navigate. That’s entirely understandable if your No.1 concern is fighting fires. But wide streets and rounded corners are antithetical to the principle of walkability — cars tend to drive faster, and people take longer crossing the streets, all of which subjects pedestrians to a higher risk of getting hit. This phenomenon is as true in Henrico County as it is anywhere. I well remember attending a design charette for the Tree Hill real estate development and hearing the frustration of the planners at the unwillingness of the Henrico fire chief to compromise on street widths.

That’s no abstract concern. National pedestrian deaths increased 27% from 2007 to 2017 — to 5,984, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration. By comparison, Americans who died in fires in 2015 numbered 2,560, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In other words, pedestrian deaths outnumbered fire fatalities by more than 2 to 1.

Ironically, thanks to building codes influenced by fire chiefs, newly constructed houses are far more fire resistant than old houses. They use better materials, they have smoke alarms, and many come with sprinklers. If fires do ignite, they are slower to spread and do less damage. Fire departments don’t need the huge, street-hogging monster rigs to put out the flames. Pedestrian safety may well be a more pressing threat to public safety. Fire chiefs should not be given veto power over community design.