Richmond’s New Growth Corridor

Pulse construction on West Broad Street. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In 1950, the population high water mark for many American cities, about 230,000 people lived in the city of Richmond. A few years later, when the city annexed a large swath of Chesterfield County, population peaked around 250,000. Then, as suburbanization took hold and average household size shrank, the population declined steadily over the following decades to less than 200,000.

After a half-century of decline, the city’s demographic fortunes kicked into growth gear again. As young people and empty nesters flocked to the metropolitan region’s urban core, the population rebounded to 210,000 by 2015.

That upward trend is far from spent, says Mark Olinger, the city’s planning director. Indeed, if no big issue arises, such as a spike in the crime rate, he says, “I can see the city getting up to 300,000 by 2037.”

If he’s right, such a surge would represent one of the biggest booms in the city’s 235-year history. The idea is not implausible. Following a national pattern, Millennials crave the excitement of life and work at the urban center, real estate developers are building housing to accommodate them, and employers are following the workforce. The real estate action in the Richmond metropolitan area right now is in the city, not the once-dominant suburban counties of Henrico and Chesterfield.

The big question is how long the boom can continue. Much of the new housing stock has come from the conversion of old warehouses and industrial buildings, fueled by historic tax credits. As the stock of old buildings gets used up, it is harder to find locations to build. The omnipresent NIMBY impulse restricts any development that would change the character of established residential neighborhoods.

One way to avoid the NIMBYs is to focus growth in aging commercial corridors that have long been separated from established residential neighborhoods — in particular, the Broad Street corridor west of downtown. West Broad was developed according to standard suburban zoning codes with large lots, loads of parking, and one- and two-story buildings. For the most part, the architecture is hideous and not worth saving. Historic preservationists will not get exercised to see it bulldozed.

Last month Richmond City Council effectively designated West Broad as a major growth corridor by adopting a zoning framework that allows for development at significantly higher density in a true urban pattern. City officials hope that the opening of the $53 million Pulse bus rapid transit line this fall will jump-start re-development along the corridor, especially around the transit stops. In turn, higher-density development will feed ridership to the system and support it financially.

The economic justification for the Pulse suggested that the BRT system would generate $1 billion in additional assessed property value. The way Olinger talks, that estimate is conservative. He sees tremendous potential for the stretch along West Broad around the Cleveland Street,  Science Museum, and Allison Street stops. This “Greater Scott’s Addition area,” as he calls it, encompasses about 700 acres — roughly twice the size of Richmond’s famed Fan district. At present, the assessed value of property in Scott’s Addition is roughly $850 million, while that of the Fan is between $2.3 billion and $2.5 billion.

According to AreaVibes,com, the Fan district has a population of about 13,000. Extrapolating from Olinger’s property assessment numbers, re-developing Greater Scott’s Addition at Fan densities would accommodate 75,000 additional people and add some $3 billion to $4 billion in assessed value to the city’s tax rolls. Is that remotely realistic?

The Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia forecasts that the four core localities of the Richmond Metropolitan Area — Richmond, Chesterfield, Henrico, and Hanover — will gain 193,000 people by 2040. The UVa group expects the city of Richmond to account for only 20,000 of that increase. But demographic forecasts tend to project trend-lines from the past, missing inflection points caused by emergent influences such as the construction of the Pulse and rezoning of the Broad Street corridor.

To realize Olinger’s aspirations, the city must get the details right. Transit-oriented development requires more than mass transit and mid-rise buildings. The glue that ties the two together is the streetscape. People won’t walk quarter- to half-mile distances to BRT stations unless the streets are inviting to pedestrians. And right now, the Broad Street corridor is a relic of ’50-s, 60’s- and 70s-era suburban, autocentric design, violating almost every principle of walkabilty.

Acutely aware of the discrepancy between vision and reality, Olinger says the city will make significant commitments to West Broad walkability in coming years. Under the new zoning code, buildings will help define the pedestrian zone. Building entrances will face the street. Commercial uses will be closer to the street; residential uses will be set back slightly (though less than under a suburban zoning code) to foster privacy and create semi-private spaces. The code will discourage monolithic building facades and encourage lively, varied sotre and office fronts. Landscaping will help define a “streetwall” to mitigate disruption caused by surface parking lots. Indeed, the code aspires to move surface parking off West Broad Street-facing lots into underground parking or behind-the-building lots.

The state will provide $6 million for streetscape improvements over “the next few years,” and private interests will contribute millions more. Whole Foods, which would build a new store on West Broad Street as part of a C.F. Sauer redevelopment project, has created a one-block streetscape plan it is willing to pay for, says the planning director. “They want to make that whole stretch look good.”

Broad Street has fairly wide sidewalks — sidewalks are 18 feet wide in the area near the proposed Sauer redevelopment — which provides a lot of room to work with. The sidewalks can accommodate trees, outdoor dining, and street furniture. Olinger talks about re-orienting the street lights, now used to illuminate traffic lanes, to provide pedestrian-oriented sidewalk lighting instead. At this early stage of re-development, he does not foresee spending public money on fancy crosswalks and brick sidewalks, which are nice but not essential to the pedestrian experience. “We want to make streets inviting to walk — comfortable, safe, and engaging,” he says.

Under the new zoning code, West Broad Street will have its own unique, corridor-like look-and-feel distinct from surrounding neighborhoods. Maximum building heights will be lower on the south side of WestBroad, with its established residential neighborhoods, but could rise as tall as 12 floors on the north side. Four- to five-story buildings would be the norm. “We’re creating this corridor as its own place,” says Olinger.

The challenge is getting from West Broad Street as it is constituted now — largely a walkability wasteland — to the urban corridor Olinger envisions. It would be hard for a private developer to justify plopping down a 12-story building next door to a fast-food joint or auto parts store. The best bet for early re-development is in the Great Scott’s Addition area, where considerable mixed-use investment is taking place already, and near the Science Museum, a major civic landmark. If early projects succeed in attracting tenants and residents, they will attract imitators up and down the corridor.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Richmond has going for it right now is the lack of effective competition from Henrico or Chesterfield. The political establishments of both counties understand that they need to update their zoning codes to allow the kind of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that people increasingly desire, but they are literally two years or more behind the city in allowing such development on a wide scale. Don’t be surprised if Richmond plays fast catch-up with its prosperous neighbors in growing its population and tax base.

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15 responses to “Richmond’s New Growth Corridor”

  1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    “The omnipresent NIMBY impulse restricts any development that would change the character of established residential neighborhoods.” The key issue, as it is with all development/redevelopment, is traffic.

    Sure, there are lots of people who like other people keeping their property as it is, especially when there is undeveloped land. But in my years of observing and then being involved in Fairfax County land use cases, most people don’t automatically oppose development or redevelopment if there are reasonable proffers and development conditions. However, fewer and fewer people buy the argument that “smart” development doesn’t create worse traffic. And they are tired of seeing more traffic congestion that degrades their quality of life.

    Development generates more traffic. Local government fails to obtain appropriate proffers that address the additional traffic.

    Fairfax County’s TDM plan for Tysons is a joke. It relies chiefly on annual or even biennial self-administered surveys for developers/land owners to measure and report how employees or tenants get to work. Meanwhile, the traffic in northeastern Fairfax County continues to grow. Silver Line ridership is well below projections. Added capacity on the Virginia Inner Loop, not matched with added capacity at the American Legion Bridge and the Maryland Inner Loop, has the Beltway backed up from the ALB often to Tysons. And drivers trying to avoid this traffic jam, often aided by Waze, are flooding not only minor arterials, but also narrow residential streets in McLean and Falls Church.

    I’ve seen photos of 20-30 car backups on residential streets. People complain they literally cannot get out of their driveways during the afternoon rush. And we are seeing neighborhood streets, including my 30′ wide street with parking on both sides serve as truck routes for heavy dump trucks. Our elected officials from Congresswoman Comstock to Supervisor Foust are trying to force VDOT to provide traffic calming and turn restrictions while pushing Maryland to commit to fixing its bridge and Beltway.

    Unless and until local government uses its zoning powers to force adequate proffers or rejects land use proposals that actually can handle the added traffic, you will see principled people opposing development. And let’s admit it, Smart Growth is no more than a hollow slogan.

  2. S. E. Warwick Avatar
    S. E. Warwick

    In 2016, the General Assembly kneecapped the ability of local governments to use proffers to offset capital cost of growth. Now they are forced to dance around the issue with every rezoning request to avoid litigation. Those jurisdictions dependent on VDOT for road construction and maintenance have little say in what gets built or fixed.

    A classic example of this is the poorly designed “malfunction junction” intersection of Rt. 288 and Broad Street Road in eastern Goochland, which is getting worse as the area grows. VDOT claims that intersection improvements there have been approved and funded, but may not be completed before 2020. A connector between Ridgefield Parkway and Tuckahoe Creek Parkway to Rt. 288 would relieve some of that congestion, but never makes it to the drawing board because Henrico is still peeved that 288 was routed through Goochland instead of in its territory.

    Also, a few years ago, there were predictions that the Richmond region would add 450,000 new residents by 2035 as a result of in migration from northeastern states.

    Traffic is a huge issue, but so are core services that people take for granted including law enforcement, fire-rescue, and schools. Richmond police and fire folks, for instance, had no raises for eight years and those promised were recently delayed due to some sort of bureaucratic mix up. It’s getting harder to recruit cops and fire-rescue providers. At what point do people leave or stop moving to a place that cannot provide core government services regardless of the tax rate?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I think localities DO have a responsibility to plan for traffic from their approved zoning decisions. Prior to 2016 – very few jurisdictions actually did collect proffers and used that money for transportation.

      And even today – even without proffers – they can set up Transportation districts with supplemental taxes to pay for the infrastucture… so I’m not really buying the “our hands are tied” claim.

      It’s not VDOT’s fault. They have limited funds .. and they have to prioritize and allocate… and in areas where there is growth -unless the locality takes greater responsibility – the money for transportation infrastructure is just not there … Localities collect millions of dollars from personal property
      for vehicles as well as decals… do they allocate this to transportation?
      Blaming VDOT and doing little to nothing nothing themselves is not responsible and it breeds NIMBY.. and for good reason.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      re: ” At what point do people leave or stop moving to a place that cannot provide core government services regardless of the tax rate?”

      that’s a bit of a curious perspective given the fact that core services do come from taxes… and I’d presume that if you live in an area where taxes are collected and core services not provided.. there’s some kind of an issue with what’s happening to the money collected.. a governance or malfeasance issue.

      At any rate – “core” services are also a functioning transportation system and even without proffers – localities have the ability to require setting up transportation tax districts for new development and growth. They do not have to approve without requiring tax districts. Further – localities collect millions of dollars from taxes on vehicles… by all rights this money OUGHT to go for transportation.. and real estate taxes for schools and public safety.

      Again this goes to governance – and what people want – and are willing to pay for. The idea of blaming these failures on something else or VDOT is just evading responsibility… for local governance.

      For instance, we CHOOSE to pay higher taxes so we DO have a 24/7 fire and EMS service – as opposed to CHOOSING not to have it and rely on an all-volunteer fire/rescue service which we actually did choose – years ago – and which some places still choose to do instead of increasing taxes to have a 24/7 professional service. It’s a choice.. not something you have no control over. it’s the same deal with transportation. You can choose to NOT require transportation tax districts for new development and not use money from taxes on vehicles …or not.. but blaming something or VDOT for those choices is irresponsible blame shifting from your own choices.

      in my view… of course..

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    For some reason.. I’ve never found Richmond and it’s traffic to be the hellhole that NoVa is… and that area that Jim is talking about is not generally single-family detached subdivisions.. either…

    But TMT’s view is real and he is not alone by a long shot and he and folks like him also need to be part of any process although I’m pretty sure there is no way to satisfy them because the more development you have – the more auto traffic you are going to have… the “walkability” areas are basically enclaves surrounded by and served by vehicles.. rather than lifestyles without vehicles.. Even in places like NYC .. when you get out from the skyscrapers… it’s wall-to-wall city-style homes with cars on the streets in front of them…

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      The TDM goals set forth in the Tysons Comp Plan at Table 5 are not the problem per se. The goals are measured in terms of “trip reductions of traffic generation estimates provided by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE).” They are the highest at locations within 0-1/8 mile of a rail station and increase as the distance from the station increases to 1/2 mile. There are also lesser TDM obligations for new construction outside the 1/2 mile ring.

      And the obligations increase based on the level of development from 2010 to 2050 at the following stages of development 45 MSF to 84 MSF to 96 MSF to 113 MSF. At the 0-1/8 mile, the obligation jumps from 45% to 65%. At the 1/8 to 1/4 mile, we go from 35% to 55%. Etc.

      I have no information to believe that these targets are wrong. Nor do I know facts that suggest they should be tougher.

      The chief problems are measurement and enforcement. The County appears to be looking at self-administered surveys that are conducted once annually or sometimes every other year. And like in Lake Woebegone, everyone is above average. Meanwhile traffic congestion and cut-through traffic are growing to unacceptable levels.

      Fairfax County has dropped the ball on this one. In fact, the ball has rolled right off the playing field.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        The key to cut-through traffic is traffic calming devices… but there is a paradox in that the more lollipop subdivisions there are – the more it funnels traffic onto connecting roads. People from the single entrance subdivisions are part of the problem…

        The other thing is that development evolves .. what used to be suburban residential with arterial connectors – becomes more dense and commercialized and the arterials serve everyone not just the folks who bought a house 30-40 years ago.. when the arterials were must less used. The arterials were designed to ultimately accommodate more traffic and houses built directly on those arterials was also “bad planning” both on the govt and the homebuyers part.

        obviously my view…

  4. LocalGovGuy Avatar

    A key component to any new urban walkable success story is neighborhood schools. Any information on plans for small, neighborhood schools?

  5. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Any development, rezoning or plan amendment that triggers an obligation to file a 527 TIA with VDOT should include a TDM plan. Let’s move beyond the smart growth, feel good words and get builders to put some skin in the game.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Just to be clear: ” Transportation demand management, traffic demand management or travel demand management (all TDM) is the application of strategies and policies to reduce travel demand, or to redistribute this demand in space or in time”

      the second part: ” or to redistribute this demand in space or in time””

      and Trip Generation predictions and standards…

      so questions:

      do we , should we expect different trip generation from the same kinds of development?

      Trip generation … TAZs – Transportation Analysis zones, right?

      If all this is standard then what would we expect from Fairfax or Richmond to reduce the trips? not have dense development or expect people in that development to not take auto trips like others in similar development would?

      whats a strategy with realistic expectations?

  6. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    TDM for Tysons is different from TDM in Richmond. Any building near heavy rail, e.g., Metrorail, should have very aggressive TDM reduction requirements, such as those in Table 5 and noted above.

    While Fairfax County rejected access to bus transportation as adequate for TOD densities, I think a second look would be reasonable for development next to fixed RoW, such as light rail or BRT in dedicated RoW. And with TOD must come TDM requirements.

    Further if a locality allows for rezoning on the grounds that the development will be mixed use and walkable with access non-dedicated RoW, TDM should apply. Table 5 sort of addresses this in its TDM requirements that are beyond 1/2 mile of a Silver Line station. Rezoning to much lower levels (I want to say a FAR no more than 2.0) brings requirements rising from 25% reductions to 45% reductions as total development in Tysons increases. For bus-related development in Richmond, I’d recommend the City look at Tysons development beyond 1/2 mile and adjust accordingly based on the approved FAR. Development to a 1.0 FAR should require less TDM than development to a 2.0 or higher FAR.

    If a landowner/business can move auto traffic outside the heavy morning periods and heavy evening periods, say before 7 am, before 3 pm, or after 8 pm, for example, I think that should also get some TDM credit. But anyone can follow a rule for a day or two. There needs to be some better compliance measurement than a self-administered annual survey.

    I suspect that as 5G technology roles out with smart vehicles, even daily measurement will become reasonably accurate and cheap. For example, parking passes could include RFID chips that could measure whether a vehicle was parked in a TOD zone. Some type of rolling average could be use to measure compliance.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    @TMT – is it more like “adherence” than “compliance”? Is there a realistic way to “enforce” ?

    In terms of “walkable” … which basically means no vehicle or restricted vehicles… what does that really mean in terms of development? Does it mean apartments where there is no auto parking and if you live there you have other means to travel beyond your apartment?

    How about Smart Growth …the kind that is based on the idea that people will live near their work… walkable… or walkable to transit than then takes them to a station where they can then walk to work?

    re: TDM in Tysons is not TDM on Broad Street?

    why… if there are “principles” that the development is based on ? I think I agree by the way but it makes me then think are there real baseline standards for TDM such that if you don’t satisfy those benchmarks.. it’s not really TDM but rather TDM-lite or faux-TDM?

    Lots of buzz-words and I end up wondering back to where you say “compliance” which if you’re talking about AFTER the development is built – and it’s not functioning / performing as was originally proposed… do parking garages start getting build and people commute with autos instead?

    We had a development like that in Fredericksburg and after two years -the plazas for walk-only mobility got converted to parking for cars.. because the businesses on the plaza were going broke and it was turning into a bunch of vacant store-fronts… once the parking was put it – the businesses returned.

    Been awhile since this topic has been batted around and you sound like you’ve learned much more about it so interested in your take.. your pro/con impressions since you actually live in an area that is doing it as opposed to folks who speak in theoretical terms.

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    “The real estate action in the Richmond metropolitan area tight now is in the city, not the once-dominant suburban counties of Henrico and Chesterfield.”

    Hmmm. Not exactly. Home sales are heaviest in Chesterfield right now. There is lots of new construction. Henrico less so because there’s a shortage of land. Richmond is getting a lot of attention, but I am not sure the figures bear this out.

  9. DLunsford Avatar

    We can only wish them well. Having had the chance to see the tail-end of a vibrant downtown (both Thalhimers and M&R as well as all of the cool little shops) as a VCU student in the late 70s early 80s. Not to mention the later phases like Sixth Street Marketplace and the brief retail version of Main Street Station, we can only hope this isn’t another pipe dream. I was down on a Sat last December for the Nutcracker and I was astonished at how desolate it was. But it sure was easy getting parking and no traffic!

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