Can Richmond Grow without Sprawl?

Rendering of composite build-out scenarios, RIchmond metro, 20-30 years out.

by James A. Bacon

About three years ago the Virginia Chapter of the Urban Land Use Institute organized a Reality Check exercise in which dozens of government leaders and community activists hovered around maps of the Richmond region and used Lego blocks to propose where the projected growth of 200,000 residents and 200,000 new jobs over the next 20 to 30 years should be located. Overwhelmingly, participants envisioned a metropolitan area that grew up, not out, increasing density in the urban core and along key transportation arteries.

It’s a vision that I largely share, although I often find myself wondering, given the zoning rules that empower Not In My Back Yard resistance to development near existing residential neighborhoods, just where those new housing units and employment centers will go.

The question seems all the more relevant as, three years later, I observe the controversies swirling around the Libbie & Grove neighborhood in Richmond’s West End. If growth is not acceptable in the core locality which in the minds of ULI participants is where the growth should occur, is the region doomed to another generation of sprawl?

The Libbie & Grove neighborhood is bisected by two streets, Libbie Avenue and Grove Avenue, which host a cluster of  restaurants and boutique shops in a pedestrian-friendly environment. Property prices in this affluent neighborhood are high, and the existing one- and two-story commercial buildings are under-utilizing the land they sit upon. Developers are continually coming up with new proposals to erect three- and four-story buildings in their place. And residents predictably object, fretting about the impact on parking and fearing that larger buildings will be incompatible with neighborhoods of single-family dwellings. In the face of neighborhood objections, a string of developers has modified and down-scaled their plans to lower densities than the land values would support.

The City of Richmond has seen a resurgence of urban vitality in recent years, but most of the redevelopment has occurred either by retrofitting existing buildings or by building in commercial or industrial districts far from existing neighborhoods. When redevelopment occurs near established neighborhoods, they often spur an outcry, as the would-be developers of apartment towers near Church Hill, whose plans would interrupt views of the James River, found out.

Assuming the ULI’s growth projections are remotely accurate, does the city have the capacity to absorb a meaningful share of new population and jobs, or will NIMBYism and zoning codes force the growth into outlying counties in the form of more the same jumbled, low-density, auto-centric growth that has prevailed over the past half century?

I raised these concerns in a recent chat with Richmond Planning Director Mark Olinger. He was optimistic that Richmond has plenty of capacity to absorb more population and business growth.

There is considerable untapped capacity in the old Manchester district on the south bank of the James River opposite from downtown, he said. Manchester, once an independent city, had largely collapsed — a Detroit on the James. The area was so far gone that residents saw no down side to people investing there. I heard a figure recently from a credible source that the area has received more than $1 billion in real estate investment in recent years.

Additionally, no one objects when old industrial areas get converted to mixed use commercial and residential. Thus, Richmond is seeing steady investment along the riverfront and canals, most notably in Rocketts Landing area and nearby Stone Brewing site, as well as in the Scotts Addition area of Interstate 64. Once a pocket of small-scale warehousing and manufacturing, Scotts Addition now is evolving parcel by parcel into a mixed-use neighborhood, albeit at lower density than one typically associates with mixed-use projects.

That doesn’t leave much else in the city that can accommodate major growth without running into the NIMBY buzzsaw… except, suggests Olinger, the Broad Street corridor, which runs through Church Hill, downtown and Virginia Commonwealth University out to the Willow Lawn shopping center.  While much of the corridor is built out with historic buildings that are untouchable from a re-development standpoint, and some of it is hopeless, ’50s- and ’60s-era sprawl, a good chunk of the corridor does lend itself to re-development, replacing one- and two-story buildings with two-, three- and four-story buldings.

But even that gets tricky.

Completing the Pulse — the Bus Rapid Transit project along Broad Street — would create a mechanism for moving more people through the corridor and supporting greater densities and higher real estate values, Olinger says. He knows the Pulse project is controversial, but he thinks that the investment in mass transit should be viewed in the larger context of supporting the re-development of a transportation corridor that is critical for the long-term growth of the region.

On the other hand, I have been conversing with neighborhood activists who are distressed by an $11 million overrun for the project originally slated at $50 million due to ordering buses with doors opening on one side rather than two, which required an expensive reconfiguration of the BRT stations. Project foes fear that, like so many other mass transit projects, we’ll see more overruns before the project is complete. They also question whether the project will do anything to reduce congestion in the corridor, wondering if it makes sense to dedicate two traffic lanes to the transit system and force cars into the remaining lanes. Moreover, they contend, the city could achieve a comparable reduction in bus travel times simply by using existing buses and signalling stoplights to give them preference over other traffic.

As a city planner, Olinger is not involved with the Pulse, which is being run by the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC), and he cannot comment on the specifics of the project. But if Richmond is going to find more places for people to live and work in the region, he says, the Broad Street corridor is a prime candidate — and the corridor needs a transportation infrastructure to match.

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13 responses to “Can Richmond Grow without Sprawl?”

  1. fredinrva Avatar

    Be wary of the explanations you are getting from neighborhood activists. They may not always be accurate.

  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    In developing its Transit Oriented Development policy that is contained in the County Comp Plan, Fairfax County concluded that rail transit is necessary for dense TOD development because many people will simply not ride buses and bus routes can easily be changed or even eliminated. The policy does not address bona fide Bus Rapid Transit with a dedicated right-of-way. Based on my experience with transportation and land use, I suspect locations near BRT stations can handle more density than ordinary bus routes.

    But keep in mind that even with the Silver Line and billions of transit investments over years, the main mode of transportation into Tysons will be SOV for the entire planning horizon. Does Richmond expect a different result? If so, why?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’ve been to a couple of Reality Check exercises and they’re basically fairly bogus – exercises in which the group is manipulated into “stacking” legos… by being told that extending roads, water, sewer, etc are not good things to do….

    I dare say – for Richmond that if you surveyed all the folks in the Metro Area – i.e. Richmond and the suburbs – and asked them if they prefered to live “dense” in multi-story buildings – you’d find out pretty quick what people really want – and that’s the “problem” – you cannot have top-down, command & control governance that “decides” what kind of settlement patterns are “best”.

    the whole concept is odious.

    I’d be the first to admit – that sprawl is enormously consumptive of resources but I’d also say that living cheek by jowl – even if it means you can walk a block to your favorite coffee shop or other urban cultural benefits – that having neighbors on both sides and top and bottom is just not what many folks want in terms of quality of life.

    young folks – yes.. hell they like living in Dorms !!! but at some point as they …. let’s say … “mature” – they start to realize that NOT having the guy next door or the gal upstairs vibrating your walls and floors is a true quality of life issue!

    People LIKE living in single-family homes … there are no two ways about it. We have 300,000 folks living in the Fredericksburg Area and well over 60,000 of them get up every morning at 4am and commute 50 miles to the DC/NoVa area – just so they can afford to live in a single family detached in a subdivision.

    Ditto in Richmond, Henrico, Chesterfield , etc…

    Take those legos to folks who live in single family subdivisions and see how they get stacked!

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry makes some good points. Interestingly, early in the Tysons re-planning process, there were a couple of community workshops where Legos were stacked. But out of the same events, people expressed strong opposition to those levels of density that they had just created with plastic toys.

      So what did the Task Force do, propose an option with about double the density. That, in turn, provoked a revolt among many individuals and citizens groups, such that the Fairfax County BoS took Tysons re-planning from the Task Force and gave it to the Planning Commission.

      This is not an argument against density in Richmond or Tysons. From what I’ve seen, many people are renting the expensive apartments in Tysons. And commercial buildings constructed at the rail stations are seeing new tenants, a number that have moved from other Tysons locations. To the extent urbanization means more choices, that’s good.

      But Tysons is also putting great pressure on state and local government to add public facilities necessary to support more people. A good example is police protection. So far, the Fairfax County PD has added nine officers to the McLean District, which covers McLean, Tysons and a swath of land that extends to the already developed Merrifield area, to cover Tysons. How many more officers are needed to police Tysons, which is experiencing a significant increase in all types of crime except murder and kidnapping, while continuing adequate coverage for the surrounding neighborhoods? And what are the associated costs?

      I believe the County has seen about $1 billion in increased real estate assessments from Tysons. But that was not enough to prevent an average increase in real estate taxes of around 4.5%. And that’s a level supervisors have called unsustainable. Will Tysons pay for itself, like the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor in Arlington appears to do? And, if so, when?

      The message to Richmond is not to stop thinking about density, but to do so with open eyes and heavy community involvement.

  4. Blackbird Fly Avatar
    Blackbird Fly

    Great write-up, Bacon. I definitely encourage you to write about these topics more often; it’s clear you have a passion for contemporary urban planning. When attending First Fridays on Broad Street and seeing the corridor come to life, it is easy to foresee that sooner rather than later Broad will become one of the finest urban streets in all of the South. It has a Brooklyn before gentrification vibe that oozes potential and gritty coolness. I posit that it is exactly the type of environment millennials crave, and in general Richmond has a lot to offer which matches the values of millennials. Add that to the fact that millennials are living independently in Richmond at the highest rate in the nation (a sure proxy for how well millennials are doing here), and it is easy to project that growth in the city will continue.

    In regards to the Pulse, I think GRTC needs to negotiate with VCU to have the BRT replace VCU’s current “Campus Connector” bus. GRTC could offer access to VCU students at a price way less than VCU pays the GROOME company which currently runs its buses. At a time when VCU just contentiously raised tuition again, they would not be able to justify continuing to run a redundant and more expensive bus line. Plus this scenario could be mutually beneficial because even if GRTC does not get much money from VCU; VCU’s endorsement of the Pulse would have immense effect on how the public view the line and having VCU students riding the line would likely encourage other “choice riders” to also take the bus. VCU would simultaneously be a deep benefactor of the increased property values and life breathed into the corridor which courses through campus.

  5. Have any American cities ever grown without sprawl? Even Staten Island has roughly the same population density as Fairfax County. Westchester County (north of NYC) has a population density of about 2,200 per sq mi, considerably lower than Fairfax County (but easily high enough to indicate sprawl). In fairness, Westchester seems better planned with high density areas like Yonkers, Rye and While Plains interspersed with near rural density in places around Armonk.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” Have any American cities ever grown without sprawl?”

    excellent question. and add this one – are there any existing cities that don’t have sprawl on their margins – perhaps as a fairly organic growth dynamic?

    Let me also tweak Jim B a bit on this because he proclaims himself a free-market guy where people pay their own way – but building and configuring urban “places” for millennials and others is fundamentally a governmental function – not without the incentivizing of the private sector – but things like water, sewer, police, trash pickup, streets, pedestrian crossings, etc.. ALL of those things – infrastructure and amenities – are typically done by government or with leadership of the govt.

    The “free market” will not, on it’s own seek to provide affordable housing for lower income workers in cities unless the govt intervenes – and really – that’s what transit – which is not a for-profit private sector operation – is also about.

    So sometimes reading BR is like getting mental whiplash between the blog posts – where one will rail against the “abuses” of govt and the next one just fawns all over itself over “good” settlement patterns but just mentions govt tangentially like it’s some kind of thing present in the urban environment that “helps”…. rather than being – fundamentally – the secret sauce in virtually every area that is being espoused as a “good” settlement pattern.

    This is the same govt, by the way, that has a gazillion of those nasty “Obama-style” regulations… right – including ones that make housing less affordable and perhaps – along with the for-profit private sector – actually responsible for – sprawl.

    What do I want from Jim Bacon?

    For him to admit that we need government. That as bad as government can be and for all of it’s flaws and abuses that we get a regular diet of in BR – that at the end of the day – if you want good stuff going on in Richmond – without a good and effective govt – you get Mogadishu or worse… and yes – it’s very much a Command and Control – top-down exercise… at times.

  7. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    This is a long term, perennial problem. Weak ineffectual local urban governments rarely can overcome these urban density increases where strong affluent NIMBY neighborhood fight back, despite the inherent weakness of the NIMBY arguments. Hence scare tactics, demagoguery, and narrow parochial interests too often carry the day. This has in happening in NW Washington now for 50 years without solution. That is one reason why Washington region metro subway struggles to get its head above water year after year. Many urban DC places refuse to do their share to make the subway work for everyone instead of a few.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      The worst initial, strategic decision about Metrorail was not to construct a third set of tracks.

      Tysons offers lessons on both what not to do and what to do. To change the character of a community that certainly affects its neighbors, there needs to be input from all stakeholders and all legitimate concern need to be addressed in any final plan. Further, those reaping benefits from redevelopment need to make substantial financial contributions to the public infrastructure needed to support the density.

      When planning was in the hands of the Tysons Land Use Task Force, the public was shut out and, in return, there was constant and solid citizen opposition to the proposals for change. Once the Fairfax County BoS took the planning away from the TLUTF and gave it to the Planning Commission, the public had the opportunity to provide input and to get that input addressed. The result was a compromise plan that virtually every stakeholder supported in testimony to the BoS on June 22, 2010.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    Do we want, instead, a STRONG govt that dictates actions over top of NIMBY opposition?

    We seem to go back and forth here on what we want govt to be and to do sometimes.

    From the very same people we get 180 degree opposite views about the role of govt. One day – Govt is Unconstitutionally running amok over people and their rights – the next day – Govt fails to be strong and resolute in doing what needs to be done .

    The thing I do not understand is how we reconcile that dichotomy (and maybe I’m using the wrong word here) in how we elect governance……

    It’s not like some places have not actually specified growth boundaries beyond which they’d not approve certain kinds of development. We do that right now with respect to what services and infrastructure are provided – or not.

    But I do think – the real pedal hitting the metal – happens when “someone” has “plans” for existing infill neighborhoods and the folks that live there are totally not on board with it and so what is the real role of govt in those circumstances?

    I’m sure TMT and perhaps Don will have a few words on this – at least I hope so.

  9. What do I want from Jim Bacon? For him to admit that we need government.

    Larry, this is getting really tedious. I have repeatedly affirmed that government plays an important role in our society. I think government has vastly over-reached its legitimate scope, but that does not mean that government and only government could and should fulfill certain functions.

    There is no whip-sawing of philosophies going on — only your persistent insistence upon stuffing me into an ideological box and your repeated astonishment when I confound your ill-founded stereotype.

    For a refresher, I suggest that you read the “guiding principles” that I have posted on the “About” page since the founding of this block:

    The philosophy articulated by the 21st-century Bacon’s Rebellion is based on the following guiding principles:

    ■ Free markets and the individual pursuit of enlightened self-interest are the most efficient means of allocating resources and creating wealth – most of the time.

    The vitality of the economy and well being of a community also require collective action, either in the civic realm or in the governmental realm.

    ■ Government is a necessary evil which requires constant oversight. Even at the state and local level, it falls prey to organized special interests seeking to acquire funds, influence regulations or curry some other favor.

    ■ Governmental institutions are slower to adapt to changing circumstances than are business institutions. Governments lack the discipline of the marketplace – failure does not result in bankruptcy, liquidation or takeover by a stronger entity.

    ■ Governmental institutions also have no clear “bottom line.” Governments have nothing comparable to sales, profits, return on investment and other vital measures – as defined by Generally Accepted Accounting Principles – that investors use to evaluate corporations.

    ■ The managers of all institutions, whether business, educational, civic or governmental, tend to shun accountability. The rules of governance, by which citizens hold these entities accountable, must be constantly updated. And leaders of these institutions must be subject to continual scrutiny.

    ■ Any proper accounting of the general welfare must include the health of the environment.

    ■ The proper focus of social justice is to create equal rights under the law and to open up economic opportunities for all citizens — not to mandate equal outcomes.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Jim – what you post on your principles is sometimes not followed in your blog posts … and that’s my complaint.

      re: ” but that does not mean that government and only government could and should fulfill certain functions.”

      but you seldom point this out in your commentary and more often than not – do not – and just go off on the “evils” of government then you turn around (whiplash) and talk about urban settlement patterns and what needs to be done to encourage and incentivize it – as if “of course, govt has to do this – and , oh by the way – ONLY govt can do it – and they CAN do it WELL”

      then the next blog post will be about how govt has screwed up the deficit and debt , too much regulation, central banks screwing up the economy, the awful command and control CPP, the Dept of Ed forcing UVA on rape issues, even the VDOE ignoring cheating in local schools, Petersburg becoming Detroit, etc, etc, etc – on an on – a never ending compendium of typical right wing anti-govt ideology – THEN you talk about settlement patterns – done by govt, of course!


  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    forgot TBill and Acbar – and whoever else lives up in NoVA.

    and maybe can draw in the Cville folks by pointing out the Charlottesville is more dense than Fairfax but still only has about 8 people per acre of land.

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