Category Archives: Land use & development

Behind Dominion’s Shift to Renewables

Image credit: Style Weekly

By Peter Galuszka

Ever wonder why Dominion Energy found religion and announced a major shift to renewable energy?

The answer is that modern, high technology businesses want it and the Richmond-based utility wants to respond to their desires.

This one of the themes in this recent cover story I did for Style Weekly that explores how Dominion’s major shift in direction is part of several dynamics that are pushing solar wind and other renewables instead of keeping on with fossil fuel.

Here’s the reporting in a nutshell:

  • Virginia’s economy is being driven more by data centers, giant box-like warehouses loaded with servers that can handle tremendous amounts of data. Northern Virginia, the incubator of the Internet, already handles about 70% to 80% of the global Net traffic and has a mature and still growing network of data centers.
  • The Northern Virginia experience is shifting downstate. Henrico County now has a partially construction data center run by social media giant Facebook. Centers have been announced or are being planned in Southside and Southwest Virginia.

Continue reading

COVID, Telecommuting and Urban Renewal

Riverfront Towers. Photo credit: Richmond BizSense

Just a year or two ago, the big momentum in commercial real estate markets was for businesses to relocate facilities from the suburbs to the metropolitan core. Young people wanted to live and work in or near Virginia’s downtowns, and corporations followed the talent. The City of Richmond snagged one prestigious tenant after another. One of those was healthcare logistics giant Owens & Minor, which in 2017 supplemented its suburban Mechanicsville headquarters with a 90,000-square-foot lease in Riverfront Tower downtown.

Now, reports Richmond BizSense, Owens & Minor has pulled the plug on its downtown call center and is seeking tenants to sub-lease the space.

The reason? The company has shifted office workers to remote work in response to the coronavirus epidemic. Employees have adapted well to the work-from-home setting.

“As 2020 progressed, the COVID-19 pandemic compelled us to reevaluate our call center operations. The performance of our call center teammates in the work-from-home era has been spectacular, and the teammates requested that we carry that new business model into the future. We have recently made the decision to exit from our call center location in downtown Richmond,” the spokeswoman said. Continue reading

5G and Rural Virginia

A horse pulling fiber in Kentucky. Photo credit: Pro Publica

by DJ Rippert

A tale of two places.  The next generation of consumer wireless technology is called Fifth Generation or 5G. It is being rolled out in select parts of the United States right now. 5G will be a boon to urban and suburban Virginia. Absent heavy government subsidies, it will likely have a minimal direct effect on rural Virginia. Of course, any technology that favors high population density areas over low population density areas expands the rural-urban gap. The reasons for 5G’s value in high density areas vs low density areas run the gamut from physics to economics. However, there are some engineering scenarios and demographic situations where 5G might be effective in select rural areas without massive governmental subsidies. Those will be discussed later in this post. And, of course, massive government subsidies are always on the table. Continue reading

The New Regency, Better than the Old Regency… But Not the Best It Could Be

Rendering of outdoor plaza proposed for the new Regency Mall. Source: Baskervill

by James A. Bacon

The most important urban redevelopment project in Henrico County is taking place at the old Regency Mall, once a typical suburban mall anchored by department stores, surrounded by acres of asphalt, and disconnected from the shopping centers and neighborhoods around it. Once upon a time, the idea of driving to the mall and then strolling around in air-conditioned comfort was deemed the pinnacle of suburban living. But the Macy’s, and Sears, and many chain stores are all gone.

Five years ago, The Rebkee Co., purchased the parcels for the mall and out buildings for a total of $18.4 million with plans to execute a drastic overhaul. Until very recently, the only signs of change were reconstruction of streets accessing the mall and the addition of several stand-alone chain restaurants such as Panera, Chipotle, First Watch, and Starbucks on the periphery. There was no sign that the new owners had any intention to incorporate any element of walkable urbanism. I wrote off the project as a dumpster drive of a project consisting of buying the property at distress prices and generating quick, low-risk returns… in other words, business as usual that would blow an opportunity to create anything resembling urban living in Henrico.

But I may have been wrong. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Rebkee is undertaking a makeover of the mall as a mixed-use facility combining 320 apartments, entertainment, and some retail. Continue reading

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

By Peter Galuszka

Back in the winter of 2015, Craig Vanderhoef, a former Navy captain, got a disturbing surprise in his mailbox at his retirement home near Afton in Nelson County. A letter from Dominion Resources noted that it wanted to survey his land for a new 600-mile-long natural gas pipeline.

On two occasions, he wrote the utility telling them no. Then he got another surprise. A sheriff’s deputy knocked on his door to serve him with papers notifying him that Dominion was suing him to get access to his property.

In short order, about 240 Virginia landowners were on notice that they too might be sued for Dominion’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The county sheriff was notified that he, too, was being sued, although it was an error.

Thus, the stage was set for one of the nastiest environmental and property rights battles in Old Dominion history.

It centered around the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would run from Harrison County, W.Va. across the rugged Appalachians, down through some of the most peacefully bucolic land in the Virginia., to Union Hill, a mostly African-American community in Buckingham county and on into North Carolina, running through the Tar Heel state’s mostly African-American concentration along its northeastern border with Virginia. Continue reading

Beyond COVID-19: New Opportunities in Land Use

Vacant storefronts — a challenge and an opportunity

by James A. Bacon

The stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 epidemic accelerated a trend that was already reshaping the American economy: the shift of commerce from bricks-and-mortar retail to online delivery. Traditional retailers are retrenching; malls and shopping centers are hollowing out. If current trends continue, we’ll be seeing a lot more UPS and Amazon trucks cruising through our neighborhoods… and a lot of vacant retail space.

This seemingly irreversible trend will create dramatic challenges and opportunities for Virginia communities. Local governments rely upon the property taxes generated by malls and shopping centers. As those properties empty out and lose value, local governments will see an important revenue source erode. That is a problem, to be sure. But the decline of bricks-and-mortar also presents Virginia localities with once-in-a-generation opportunities. The potential exists to address two of Virginia’s chronic issues: affordable housing and traffic gridlock.

The scarcity of affordable housing in Virginia, especially in high-growth counties, has become increasingly acute in recent years. Construction of new dwelling units has not kept pace with household formation, and housing shortages have pushed up rents and sales prices faster than incomes have risen. Home builders would be more than happy to build more houses, if only they could find the land and gain zoning approvals from local governments to do so. Meanwhile, congestion is reasserting itself on Virginia’s Interstates, highways and arterials. There is not enough money to build our way out of gridlock.

While no solution is perfect, the least imperfect is to recycle old retail districts into “walkable urbanism” resembling pedestrian-friendly places such as Arlington, Reston, or downtown Richmond and Norfolk. Continue reading

Coming to a City Near You: Middle-Class Flight

The latest to be vandalized: The Richmond Howitzers Monument.

by James A. Bacon

As the City of Richmond becomes increasingly ungovernable in the face of continued protests and vandalism, a lot of people are saying to themselves, “I’m out of here.” Here’s a prediction: Middle-class flight will become the next big thing.

Richmond, like many other cities around the country, has enjoyed a strong economic revival in recent years. The city offered walkable streets, attractive neighborhoods and a lively cultural scene that attracted many young people. Businesses followed their creative-class employees to downtown, Shockoe Bottom and Scotts Addition. Taxes were higher and schools were problematic, but violent crime rates had fallen and people felt safe. Richmond seemed so much more vibrant and exciting than the suburbs of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties.

Everything has changed. Public order is eroding. As the state capital, Richmond has seen weeks of protests, destruction, and now vandalism unchecked by law enforcement. Yesterday, even though Governor Ralph Northam and Mayor Levar Stoney had proclaimed their intention to remove Civil War statues within the scope of the law, “protesters” couldn’t contain their rage. They tore down a third statue.

Stoney’s response: Fire the police chief.

You won’t see members of the silent majority organizing counter-protests. They won’t even post yard signs, for fear of being vandalized. They’ll just vote with their feet. They’ll sell their houses and move to the suburbs. The ‘burbs may be sterile, but they’re safer. Continue reading

The ACP Wins One But The War Drags On

By Peter Galuszka

The $8.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline has won a significant legal victory but the war is far from over.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, has ruled in favor of project operated by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy saying that its 42-inch pipeline can cross under the Appalachian Trail in the George Washington National Forest.

The Court ruled that the pipeline can pass 600 feet underneath the trail and that the U.S. Forest Service has the right to allow a right of way. The Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals had previously ruled that the Forest Service had no such authority.

Dissenting, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote that the U.S. Minerals Leasing Act does give the federal government the right to regulate federal land, including trails. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority ruling, said that plans to bury the pipeline under the Appalachian Trail represent an easement which is not the same as “land.”

The project still faces eight other permitting issues involving the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Continue reading

Construction: Virginia’s Quiet, Strong Man

Scene from Micron’s $3 billion construction project in Manassas. Photo credit: Inside NoVa

By Peter Galuszka

For all the complaints about the COVID-19 pandemic in Virginia – the shut-down restaurants and (temporarily) closed beaches – one industry has been working steadily and quietly all along – the state’s construction sector.

Builders haven’t missed much of a beat since the “state at home” orders started going out a couple of months ago.

In Pentagon City, works still progresses on the two, 22-story towers for Amazon’s new eastern headquarters. In suburban Chesterfield County near Richmond, workers toil adding new drain pipes and four-laning once- rural roads. Four-story apartments overlooking Swift Creek Reservoir are taking shape for the over-55 crowd.

At a loud and garish protest next to the State Capitol against Gov. Ralph Norham’s work-stoppage plans last month, Mark Carter, a contractor from Hanover County, made his views known. “We‘re still working,” he told me. “I’m not for Trump and I’m not a Democrat. People need to work.”

In Virginia, some are. After all, New York state and Boston stopped construction work due to the pandemic. Continue reading

Why Northam Is Such An Important Governor

By Peter Galuszka

This is a bit like throwing chum at a school of sharks, but here is my latest in Style Weekly.

I wrote an assessment of Gov. Ralph Northam that is overall, quite positive. My take goes against much of the sentiment of other contributors on this blog.

They are entitled to their views but, to be honest, I find some of the essays shrill and not really fact based. If Northam wants to delay elective surgeries at hospitals for a week or so, some want to empanel a grand jury.

An acute care health facility in Henrico County becomes one of the most notorious hot spots for coronavirus deaths and it is immediately Northam’s fault even though the care center has had serious problems that long predated the governor’s term in office.

He’s a trained physician who served as an Army doctor in combat during the Iraq War yet he is vilified as being incompetent and incapable of understanding the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s like the constant repetition of the “Sins of Hillary” on Breitbart and Fox News about emails and Benghazi.

Like him or not, Northam is bound to be one of the most consequential governors in Virginia history given the gigantic problem of the pandemic. He’s not a showboat salesman like Terry McAuliffe nor a smarmy, small-time crook like Robert F. McDonnell.

Anyway, here’s the piece.

Heads Exploding Over Green Energy Expose

by Stephen Haner

Producer Michael Moore’s  explosive new documentary on the renewable energy industry is indeed causing heads to explode.  You’d better take the 100 minutes to see Planet of the Humans before the forces of political correctness drive it off YouTube, where it was approaching 3 million views this morning. The first 30 minutes give you the gist, but if you get that far, you’ll be hooked.

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“We Are All Keynesians Now”

John Maynard Keynes

By Peter Galuszka

John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, advocated government spending and monetary intervention as suitable for modern economies.

When I was a student at a liberal college in New England in the early 1970s, we were taught that Keynes very much had the right idea. As evidence, we had the Great Society programs of Lyndon B. Johnson and, strangely, the Vietnam War. They all relied on vast amounts of deficit public spending.

Since then, free-market types came into favorable light and it all became the magic of the market, little regulation and other panaceas.

According to whom you read, pro-capitalism economist Milton Friedman admitted the necessity of Keynes’ thinking by stating, “We’re all Keynesians now.” President Richard Nixon, a Republican, is also credited with the quote when he took the U.S. off the gold standard.

The phrase is taking on increasing relevance with the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia is no exception. Continue reading

Photo Project Spotlights Pipeline Impact


By Peter Galuszka

Veteran photographer Karen Kasmauski, who grew up in Norfolk, has a brilliant online project that shows the human and environmental impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

She is a senior fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, a non-profit group that funded her project that centers mostly in rural Nelson and Buckingham Counties that would be dissected by the natural gas pipeline.

She combines spectacular aerial photos with deep close ups of people.

One of her subjects is Ella Rose, a retiree who lives in a small house in Union Hill. She was living a quiet happy life in her natural setting until she got a letter from Dominion Energy stating that they would be routing the ACP about 150-feet from her house.

Union Hill is a touchpoint for pipeline controversy since it is largely African-American community that ACP officials have selected for a compressor station. It is one of similar localities that seem to be targeted with other loud and disruptive equipment along the pipeline route. Continue reading

Suburbia Is Swell

by Kerry Dougherty

There are at least two groups of babbling fools that have been mercifully silent during this emerging pandemic: anti-vaxxers and the so-called New Urbanists.

No one wants to hear from the nuts who refuse to vaccinate their kids right now. The world is praying for a COVID-19 vaccine and these crazies don’t even get flu shots.

The New Urbanists have also slunk away somewhere. To their high-rise co-ops, I suppose, where they’re trying to figure out how to ride the elevator while staying six feet away from their neighbors.

You remember the New Urbanists, don’t you? They were the urban planners who polluted Virginia Beach’s strategic growth office and tried to foist a billion-dollar light-rail system on us, insisting that the only way millennials could be persuaded to stay in our fair city was if we provided them with ant colony living.

The rail stops would become dense hubs of “mixed use” activity where people could live in tiny boxes above high-end stores and markets. While these visionaries praised sardine life, they also scoffed at the suburbs. Continue reading

Virginia’s New Suburbia

Not your grandfather’s suburb. Artist’s rendering of The View at Tysons re-development project.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s suburbs are undergoing profound demographic changes with tremendous implications for politics and real-estate development strategy, argues Greg Weatherford in Virginia Business magazine.

The suburbs are less white than they used to be. Northern Virginia, unsurprisingly, is leading the way. As of 2018, 49.4% of Northern Virginia residents identified as members of a racial minority, up from 36.5% in 2010. NoVa residents are younger, and a higher percentage, 27%, have been born in another country. Youth and ethnic diversity are demographic attributes that are strongly affiliated with Democratic voters.

The demographic shift is accompanied by changing tastes of suburban dwellers, many of whom no longer place a premium on living in a single-family dwelling in a subdivision. Increasingly, suburbanites are seeking “walkable urbanism” — enclaves where they can live in apartments or condos, don’t have yards to care for, and can stroll down the street to a pub or grocery store.

Weatherford argues that the new suburbia signals a complete reshaping of what we traditionally have thought about the suburbs. Virginia, he quotes Rachael Bitecofer at Christopher Newport University as saying, is “in the middle of a long-term realignment. It is going to have big ramifications.” Continue reading