Reinventing the Suburban Office Park

Sidney Gunst built Innsbrook as a state-of-the-art suburban office park in the 1980s but says he would do it very differently today.
Sidney Gunst built Innsbrook as a state-of-the-art suburban office park in the 1980s but says he would do it very differently today.

Article published in June issue of Henrico Monthly magazine:

By James A. Bacon Jr.

In September 2010, the Henrico County Board of Supervisors put its stamp of approval on a plan to transform the county’s largest office park, the Innsbrook Corporate Center. The idea behind the plan, called Innsbrook Next, was to convert a smattering of office buildings surrounded by parking lots and connected by winding, unwalkable roads into Henrico’s de facto downtown. Planners envisioned millions of square feet of mixed-use development: office towers, parking garages and apartment buildings with stores and restaurants on the ground floors.

Not only would Innsbrook Next breathe new life into Henrico’s largest employment center – between 15,000 to 25,000 people work there, depending on whom you talk to – it represented a sea change in planning policy for the county. Having filled up with traditional, low-density suburban development, the affluent, western half of the county had nowhere to grow but up. To accommodate more growth and more jobs, Henrico had to begin urbanizing. Innsbrook Next would concentrate much of the expected growth into a district that would cause minimal disruption to established neighborhoods.

Nearly five years later, little has happened. A partnership of Markel Corp. and Highwoods Properties submitted a plan to develop the first phase of Innsbrook Next with 2.2 million square feet of mixed-use buildings. The county granted the needed zoning approvals, but the developers backed off. Dominion Virginia Power, a major property owner, submitted plans to convert overflow parking into a townhouse complex. But when county staff balked at aspects of the proposal, Dominion withdrew the project.

Then, earlier this year, the Dixon Hughes Goodman CPA firm announced the relocation of its headquarters office from Innsbrook to downtown Richmond. A prominent reason given was to make it easier to recruit talented young employees looking for urban amenities. Soon after, insurance firm Rutherfoord said it would consolidate offices, including its Innsbrook headquarters, in the new Libbie Mill-Midtown project at West Broad Street and Staples Mill Road, which had gotten the jump on Innsbrook in building what urban planners call “walkable urbanism.”

Across the country, suburban office parks are having a tough time. Built mainly in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, their age is showing. The buildings have lost the sheen of newness. Mechanical systems are wearing out, and maintenance costs are rising. And most challenging of all, young people prefer to work in urban settings where they can walk to restaurants, galleries, music and entertainment. For decades, downtown areas hemorrhaged tenants as companies decamped for the suburbs. Now the reverse is happening: Some businesses are moving back to the city.

Innsbrook property owners see clearly where the market is heading. Henrico County government leaders do too. Innsbrook needs to transition to a walkable, urban community, almost everyone agrees, in order to remain competitive. The question is whether Henrico is equipped to oversee the transition and whether the planning department has the tools to accomplish it. There is considerable grumbling from developers that county officials are stifling investment by interpreting zoning rules too tightly and squeezing developers too hard on infrastructure costs.

“Why is Innsbrook not developing at the pace that was envisioned?” asks Sidney Gunst, the entrepreneur who built Innsbrook in the 1980s and now maintains a role in the project as a partner in the shopping center near the park’s entrance on Broad Street and as a member of the property owners association. “The bureaucracy is bogging it down, discouraging innovation.” He doesn’t blame individual planners, but he thinks the county’s urban mixed use zoning designation, the planning department’s primary tool for encouraging new urbanism, is flawed; the code is designed for a project built from scratch, not for a project like Innsbrook Next that must incorporate existing buildings. “It’s a bad system,” he says.

“Henrico has an opportunity to be one of the premier addresses [in Virginia] if they would take the shackles off and be creative,” says architect Burrell Saunders, chief executive of Saunders + Crouse who led the Innsbrook Next design. “The question is, do they want to get on board and compete or do they want to watch time pass?”

But Henrico officials are generally bullish. They see Innsbrook Next as a great plan and say they’re simply ensuring that developers stick to it rather than take expedient shortcuts during a soft economy. After peaking around 30 percent during the worst of the recession, vacancy rates at Innsbrook have fallen to less than 6 percent, says County Manager John Vithoulkas. Businesses are expanding, soaking up existing real estate as pressure mounts to build new office buildings. “While you don’t see activity occurring now,” he says, “we have a sense … that something is ultimately going to happen.”

Planning Director Joe Emerson does not see the loss of Dixon Hughes Goodman and Rutherfoord as consequential. Office parks always experience churn, he says. “You’ll always see people move around” as companies’ office needs change or they seek better deals. Innsbrook has tremendous competitive assets, he says, and businesses will continue locating there.

The Markel-Highwoods project could start the ball rolling. Highwoods is marketing the land aggressively. “We’ve been in contact with multiple, high-end apartment developers as well as a wide variety of potential office customers,” says Walton Makepeace, vice president in charge of Highwoods’ Richmond operations. “We’re always canvassing for office tenants. We’d love to start with a pre-lease with a six- or eight-story building with structured parking.”

Once that strategic piece falls into place, Emerson predicts, Innsbrook’s transformation will take off. The Markel-Highwoods project would create a nucleus of grid streets for smaller property owners to plug into. “Once that moves forward, everything moves forward.” Continue reading.

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  1. larryg Avatar

    I keep distinguishing between what I call “rooftop” jobs and net jobs.

    Rooftop jobs are those businesses that serve the needs of the population – goods and services. Net jobs are those that produce goods and services that are sold beyond the boundaries of the rooftop arena.

    I do that on purpose because when we talk about mixed use and office park jobs – we do not really see the difference between rooftop companies that compete against other rooftop companies.. and displace each other as newer ones come on the scene and older ones depart… there are no “net” jobs other than whatever increase in rooftop businesses are needed to serve increased populations.

    rooftop jobs are everywhere from the largest urban areas to the smallest places in SW Virginia … the only difference is the number – and that number is roughly proportional to the population. lots of rooftop business in urban areas, a lot less in rural areas – but in both places you need plumbers, insurance, medical, phone, etc.

    the magic of the urban areas are businesses that sit on top of rooftop commerce and those businesses have a symbiotic relationship with peer businesses -i.e. a company that makes HVAC systems needs a company that makes HVAC control systems… a reinsurance company needs a financial services. , etc.

    so when we look as Innsbrook – what kind of businesses are we looking at – rooftop or net?

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    Density requires transit and transit with a fixed infrastructure. Bus routes can be canceled or moved and cannot support TOD. And rail is incredibly expensive to build and to maintain and operate. Keep in mind that the Silver Line phase 1 did NOT meet the federal funding guidelines based on costs and benefits. And, when all is said and done, Tysons will generate even more SOV traffic after it becomes an urban, walkable community with high-quality mixed use development and desirable amenities. So far, Silver Line ridership looks promising as does the number of residential units being built and leased. Most commercial activity is from businesses consolidating their offices into a single Tysons one. Intelsat’s arrival is the one exception, but even there, 30% of the building is still see-through in nature.

    People considering the urban fad should look at, and learn, from Tysons.

    1. You keep missing the point on the Tysons redevelopment. If the Silver Line wasn’t built then I doubt the Tysons redevelopment would have happened. And where would the people who are moving into Tysons gone to live instead? They would have spread out across the county in the kind of haphazard urban sprawl that everybody on this blog seems to deplore. Instead, they will live in much higher density Tysons. The question isn’t whether there will be more traffic as the Tysons population grows. The question is whether those Fairfax County residents will drive more living in Tysons then they would have driven if they lived in the typical sprawl. It’s not the total miles that count – it’s the miles per person.

      Now it seems that even the preppies in Western Henrico have loosened the top button of their hot pink Oxford cloth button down shirts and looked past the ends of their own topsiders long enough to figure things out. White collar businesses need talent and the talent wants to live in walkable, high density places – whether or not they are inside the city limits. I guess 50 years of observation of Reston, Rosslyn – Ballston (Arlington) and (increasingly) Tysons is sinking in.

      Small cities are being reborn all over the southern United States. High density areas in the suburbs are being reborn all over the United States. And … some large city neighborhoods are being reborn as well. Meanwhile, rural America seems to be in decline and some city neighborhoods and suburban areas are failing.

      The big question is whether the places that are thriving have lessons that can be applied to the places that are stagnating or in decline.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        The other problem with the Silver Line is that the bulk of the costs are being paid by Dulles Toll Road users who get no real benefit, instead of the landowners who are making hundreds and hundreds of millions from the added density.

        The Comp Plan specifies Tysons cannot grow beyond 84 MSF unless a number of other rail projects are completed, including expansion of the Orange Line at least to Centreville. Two other, unspecified rail lines should be built. Who should pay the bulk of their capital costs?

  3. Cville Resident Avatar
    Cville Resident

    I’m interested in this: Where do public schools fit in the “new walkable urbanism” design? Are these developments making provisions for schools?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Sprawl is just fine with me. It generally saves me money in the form of lower taxes.

      Since Fairfax County officials say that most residents of the county don’t pay enough taxes to cover the service they use over time, why does increasing county population help existing residents? If people don’t live in Tysons, but live elsewhere (Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William) existing taxpayers don’t need to build schools, police stations, etc.? You can’t have it both ways. The County says we need more commercial than residential, but then says we need more residential. Which is it?

      Now the good part of Tysons is the tax district that requires new and old residents of Tysons to pay a real estate tax that is 5 cents higher than the basic county rate for non-rail transportation.

      It’s also telling that the big sponsors of “smart growth” organizations are people who live in rural and quasi-rural areas. Fauquier County denizens who don’t want their quality of life changed.

  4. larryg Avatar

    I had commented in a prior thread about the idea of patchwork isolated enclaves of “mixed-use” basically fragmented in terms of walkability.

    I’m thinking that these faux “urban” scale developments surrounded by suburbs.. are neither fish nor fowl. in some respects.

    let me add – there are places in Canada where beyond the things named – there are schools, and move theaters, gymnasiums… places where people gather from all around the surrounding community – some riding there on ATVs,… or in vans.

    I harden back to the days of Malls where the idea was that – yes you could walk -from one end of the dang place to another – and yes.. it had all kinds of things inside from shopping to dentists to restaurants to you name it.

    The Mall of America is the grandaddy…as it has amusement rides and aquariums..

    another place is the underground at the Pentagon…. and these two places have a real authenticity of their own… at least in my view.

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