Category Archives: Land use & development

Movable Walkways for Potomac Yard Metro?

We have all encountered moving walkways in airports. I’m wondering why we haven’t seen them in other places. Perhaps the darn things are just so expensive to build and maintain. But that may change. A moving walkway is one of the options being considered in the planned $370 million Potomac Yard Metro station to be built near Amazon’s HQ2 project in Arlington County.

There are four broad design options, according to the Washington Business Journal. All but one would require a 765-foot trek to the fare gates: Continue reading

Uh, Oh, Virginians Are Driving More. A Lot More.

Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled. Data source: Virginia Department of Transportation

Now that we’ve learned that Millennials have the same driving habits as previous generations — as soon as they can afford to, they buy their own cars and drive them just as much (see previous post) — we can dispense with the delusion that their enlightened consumer preferences will induce them to abandon the practice of driving solo in their own cars and take to buses, bicycles and mass transit in large numbers regardless of what else is happening in the economy.

After writing the previous post, I decided to revisit some numbers that I haven’t seen published in years — Vehicle Miles Traveled in Virginia. The updated numbers are startling. After hitting a seven-year plateau, VMT between 2014 and 2017 resumed the upward climb on the same trajectory as seen during the 2000s real estate boom and heyday of suburban sprawl. Continue reading

More Money for Fairfax Affordable Housing — to What End?

Want more affordable housing in Fairfax County? Allow developers to build more of this.

The Fairfax Board of Supervisors is adding $5 million to its affordable housing budget next year, raising the total expenditure to $15 million. The Washington Post report of the budget action provides few details other than the fact that the money will fund an extra affordable-housing staff position and two positions for a new Office of Environmental and Energy Coordination.

The sum is a drop in the bucket for Virginia’s largest locality. Unless Fairfax is serious about increasing the supply of housing across the county — not just in Tysons, where residential growth will be choked by traffic congestion issues — the board action represents nothing more than virtue signalling. It’s a way of saying, “We care,” without really doing anything.

According to Zillow, the median home value listed in Fairfax County today is $619,000. An extra $5 million could subsidize the cost of 100 middling-cost houses — maybe 200 lower-priced houses — a year in a locality of 1.15 million people. Continue reading

Antifragile Urbanism, Skin in the Game, and Building What Works

Michael Mehaffy

One of the most important movements to emerge from the late 20th century was New Urbanism, a critique of autocentric suburbanism and architectural modernism that argued for human-scaled development patterns. The most important philosopher to emerge in the early 21st century is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan,” “Antifragile,” and “Skin in the Game,” among others. I have drawn from the ideas of both for this blog. Now, I’m delighted to see a short, readable essay that synthesizes the two.

In an article published in Public Square, “Beyond resilience: Toward ‘antifragile’ urbanism,” Michael Mehaffy applies Taleb’s concept of antifragility to the building of better places. If you’re looking for detailed policy proposals, this essay is not for you. If you’re looking for more fruitful ways of looking at policy proposals, then you will be  rewarded. Continue reading

Affordable Housing: Thinking Outside the Container

Sheila Gunst shows off the kitchen in a modified, 320-square-foot shipping container.

Sheila Gunst estimates that there are 33 million cargo containers around the world, half of which are empty. Many of the empties languish in United States because China ships $400 billion more in trade goods to the U.S. every year than the U.S. ships back. After making multiple trans-oceanic trips, used containers stack up in port cities like Norfolk by the thousands.

And therein lies a business opportunity. The shipping lines can recycle them as scrap metal… or sell them to someone like Sheila, an interior designer living in the Richmond area, who dreams about refashioning them into inexpensive dwellings. Continue reading

The Woonerfs Are Coming!

The Wharf, a nine-block woonerf near the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

Enter a new term into the vocabulary of Virginia land use: woonerf.

Woonerfs, according to this brief treatment by real estate information firm CoStar, is a word of Dutch origin meaning livable landscape. Increasingly, developers in the United States — and the Washington region in particular — are adopting the Dutch/Flemish technique of creating public spaces where pedestrians and vehicles have equal priority. (Woonerf is pronounced, as in the Dutch, vu-nerf.)

“You invent streets but take all the rules, the curbs, the signposts away and so people can walk the street, and cars enter at their own risk,” said Stanton Eckstut, a founding partner in EE&K and designer of the Wharf project in D.C., which features a woonerf.  These street-like spaces welcome pedestrians, bikes, cars, strollers and dogs alike.

Part of developer JBG’s plans for National Landing, which will be home to Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington and Alexandria, includes a woonerf-like pedestrian pathway connecting two major office towers. Continue reading

Does Virginia Beach Have the Right Investment Priorities?

The City of Virginia Beach has shelled out $265 million in public funds to support 13 major public-private development projects from the Cavalier Hotel renovation to the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts. Those projects have attracted more than $1 billion in private investment, said Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer in his state-of-the-city address two days ago. “That’s a solid return that has meant money for schools, public safety, roads and other essential city services.”

“I have not always been on board with every public-private partnership as considered, but I do know a good deal when I see it,” Dyer said, according to the Virginian-PilotBut the city’s overall approach to P3s has paid off, he contended. The city has a AAA bond rating. All of its public schools are accredited. And the crime rate is the lowest it has been since the 1960s.

Bacon’s bottom line: Public-private partnership always warrant close scrutiny. Private interests have every incentive to seek public subsidies in order to maximize their private returns, and studies ginned up to support P3 projects often are loaded with dubious and unsupported assumptions. But if a locality works to minimize risks and ensure that each project is cash-flow positive, I can be converted on a case-by-case basis.

Virginia Beach is an especially interesting case because its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and its low-lying elevation make it especially vulnerable to the rising sea level. Continue reading

Charlottesville’s Parking Gamble

Rendering of the Center of Developing Entrepreneurs.

The People’s Republic of Charlottesville is undertaking an interesting experiment — the city has approved development of the Center of Developing Entrepreneurs (CODE), a Silicon Valley-inspired office space, that provides only 74 parking spaces downtown for as many as 600 workers. Worried that the project will aggravate the parking shortage around the Downtown Mall, some local businesses have expressed their unhappiness.

The Center should provide useful insight into the evolving economics of parking. Local governments typically require developers to provide a minimum number of parking spaces per resident or worker. Other downtown businesses have had to abide by the rules, but suddenly CSH Development, developer of CODE is exempt, sparing it considerable development expense. Nearby businesses fear that workers at CODE will swamp the limited supply of public parking.

“I don’t blame [developer Jaffray] Woodriff,” said Jacie Dunkle, owner of the Tin Whistle Irish Pub and the Salad Maker, according to C-ville.com. “I blame the city. It never required him to have more spaces, even though people are struggling to find parking in the city as it is.”

But some economists have argued that most Virginia localities have excess parking, which takes up space that could be devoted to other urban uses. Free marketeers suggest that the market, not government decrees, should determine the supply of parking spaces, and environmentalists advocate limiting parking as a way to curtail automobile use, reduce CO2 emissions and save the planet. Continue reading

Proffers: They’re Baaaaack!

Gentlemen may prefer blondes but localities prefer proffers.  A proffer is an arrangement between a locality and a land developer whereby the developer offers something of value in order to get a rezoning request approved.  Why do developers want land rezoned?  For residential development they want to build more homes on the land than the land’s current zoning allows.  Why would localities object to these rezoning requests?  Theoretically, the locality’s strategic and financial plans are based on providing services at an overall population density dictated by the current zoning.  Adding more density increases the locality’s costs for services like public schools.  Localities are understandably worried about the unfunded mandates that up-zoning can cause.  How do proffers help?  Items of value (money, land, astroturf, etc) are given to the locality by the developer in order to fully or partly cover the additional costs to the locality of development at higher density than was planned.  These proffers reduce the developer’s profit margin on the project at hand so they are not popular with the development community. Continue reading

Hollowed Out Henrico

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

Henrico County has a huge problem with encroaching slums that it has only recently begun to acknowledge and deal with. According to county data published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today, 57,000 properties — about 54% of all parcels in the county — will be eligible to apply for a tax abatement program designed to combat blight.

The previous tax-abatement program applied only to property owners with homes assessed for less than $250,000 and older than fifty years. In a vote yesterday, the Board of Supervisors expanded the tax abatements, lifting property taxes on improvements for 10 years, up from seven, for certain residential properties, and making it easier for commercial and industrial properties to participate.

“We’re trying to boost up incentives for people to reinvest in their homes and build up neighborhoods,” said Director of Finance Ned Smither. “In general, we are seeing more commercial and residential properties that need to be more dressed up.”

Unfortunately, the cure may be worse than the disease. Continue reading

Amazon as Un-Apple

Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California.

When Apple decided to build a new corporate headquarters, it designed a massive structure that resembled a flying saucer. The facility was an architectural marvel but it was entirely self contained, permitting no interaction with the surrounding community. It was impossible for employees to walk to work from home, and the campus was located far from public transit. For all practical purposes, the only commuting options were riding in cars, vans, and corporate buses.

Amazon might compete with Apple for the title of world’s most valuable company, but Amazon has a very different philosophy regarding real estate and facilities. Think of Amazon’s East Coast headquarters in Arlington and Alexandria as the un-Apple. Amazon does not regard itself as a company apart. To the contrary, the company wants to embed itself into the urban fabric. Here’s how the Washington Business Journal described Amazon’s thinking:

Amazon.com Inc.’s second home in the D.C. region will be a neighborhood — not a campus — of largely locally hired employees who eat at local restaurants and maybe bring their dogs to work, according to Holly Sullivan, who was among the leaders of the e-commerce giant’s HQ2 search.

Continue reading

Tax Break Powers Opposition To Huge Solar Farm

If the East Coast’s largest solar generation facility, proposed for Spotsylvania County, is rejected by its Board of Supervisors this week, one of the reasons will be the major tax advantages sought by that industry and granted by the General Assembly.

The tax exemption is at the heart of the final argument put forward by one of the opponents in Sunday’s Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star:

“Put plainly: Future tax revenues are going down, not up, if the project goes forward. A current estimate is that this $600 million project will only generate some $8 million over its lifetime and, as shown below, our current incremental expenses greatly exceed that,” wrote Alfred King, who lives in a neighboring subdivision but carefully avoids any not-in-my-backyard rhetoric.   Continue reading

Taking Some Pain Out of Eminent Domain

Senator Frank Ruff of Clarksville. Taking some of the pain out of eminent domain.

Four successful bills heading for Governor Ralph Northam’s desk may combine into a measurable shift in Virginia’s condemnation laws in favor of the targeted landowners.  They may also spark a race to the courthouse between now and when some go into effect July 1.

The biggest financial impact may come from Senator Frank Ruff’s Senate Bill 1256, which eliminates state tax on any capital gain resulting from the forced sale.  The subtraction for any capital gain applies to both individual and corporate landowners and applies to any transaction after January 1 of this year.  Too bad if you took that check in December.   Continue reading

More Land Use Tricks: Coconut Grove Edition


My wife and I have reached that stage in life where we’re too old to go sky diving, parasailing, rock-climbing or otherwise risking our lives, but we’re too young to spend all day sitting and watching the world go by. So when we travel, we like to walk and observe. We’re in Coconut Grove right now, which is part of the Miami metropolitan area, and we have spent considerable time strolling through the older neighborhoods and along the retail corridors. One building that struck me was the structure above, which provides office and retail at the ground level with a parking deck above, all done with whimsical Gaudi-eque touches.

From a functional perspective, the building provides public parking while also maintaining the integrity of the walkable streetscape. The modernist architecture, which might stick out like a sore thumb in downtown Richmond or Old Town Alexandria, works perfectly in Miami.

I like to keep zoning mandates to a minimum, so I don’t know if I would require parking deck builders to build with street-level office or retail, but I sure would encourage it. Every locality should review its zoning code to ensure that it does not prohibit this elegant approach to reconciling walkability and automobility.

What We Can Learn from Naples: Covered Sidewalks Edition

Here is a photo of a storefront on Naples, Fla.’s 3rd Street that extends over the sidewalk to the edge of the street — reminiscent of many buildings in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The addition of columns, archways and covered sidewalk creates visual interest, provides a variable experience for pedestrians along 3rd Street, and allows the property owner to gain a few dozen square feet of space on the second floor of his building.

To my mind, it’s all gain, no pain. There is no downside to this configuration. Yet I don’t recall seeing anything like this anywhere in Virginia. Why would that be? Could it be that local zoning codes prohibit it? Could it be that our public officials who write and vote upon our zoning ordinances have no imagination?

Static zoning codes are the enemy of creativity, innovation and evolution of the urban form.