Category Archives: Land use & development

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.

Continue reading

“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

Richmond’s Pulse Stimulates Mid-Rise Development

Artist’s rendering of proposed Broad Street tower

by James A. Bacon

Sometimes it seems like the City of Richmond can’t do anything right. City Council just nixed a $1.5 billion redevelopment plan for the Navy Hill district in downtown. And no one can figure out where, or how, to build a new minor league baseball stadium. But the city has hit a couple of home runs. It’s preserving the James River as a magnificent park running through the center of the city. And, overcoming considerable controversy, the city managed to build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system along the Broad Street corridor.

Not only did Richmond find $65 million to cover the Pulse’s capital costs, it created the appropriate zoning along Broad Street to encourage the re-development of fraying urban and suburban land along the route. The fast-bus service was designed to support the kind of mid-density, mixed-use “walkable urbanism” that many Richmond residents are looking for. It took a while, but it now appears that the city’s foresight is paying off.

Minneapolis-based The Opus Group has filed for a special use permit to erect a 12-story residential tower on the corner of Broad and Lombardy streets near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. The 168-unit apartment would replace a Sunoco gas station and convenience store. The top floor would sport an outdoor terrace with commanding views, while the ground floor would provide 3,400 square feet of retail space. Continue reading

Consistency? Seek it Not at the General Assembly

The Virginia Constitution grants exemption from local real estate taxes for veterans with 100% service-related disability and for the Gold Star families of those killed in action, a move enthusiastically endorsed by voters in 2010. But in a House Finance Committee subcommittee this morning Virginia’s local governments presented the General Assembly with a bill.

The subcommittee endorsed two bills to provide localities reimbursement from the state treasury for the real estate taxes foregone. House Bill 363 from Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, would allow the reimbursement once the tax exemption amount exceeds one percent of the overall local real estate tax revenue. House Bill 1496 from new Del.Martha Mugler, D-Hampton, did not set a threshold and would reimburse all lost revenue.  Continue reading

Why Navy Hill?

The most controversial issue facing Richmond City Council these days is the proposed Navy Hill project, a $1.5 billion urban renovation project in downtown Richmond backed by the NH District Corp., Dominion Energy CEO Tom Farrell, and Mayor Levar Stoney. Backers argue that transforming under-utilized land, much of it surface parking lots, into mixed use development will generate $1 billion in incremental new revenue for the city over 30 years and support 9,300 permanent jobs. The key sticking points are whether to build a new Coliseum, adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the project cost, and whether to extend the special tax district, which would generate tax revenue to pay off the project bonds, far beyond the boundaries of the project itself. — JAB

by Brian Glass

I’ve been  a Commercial Real Estate Broker in Richmond since 1986. I’ve seen the failure of the 6th Street Marketplace, The Farmer’s Market makeover, and the restoration of Main Street Station and train shed — the latter two with buckets of federal money — none of which have worked out financially for the city. These fiascos show that the City of Richmond needs the private sector when it comes to re-development projects. NH District Corp. fits the bill. Here’s why:

Blight. The area proposed by NH District Corp. for re-development is blighted, with the Coliseum, built in 1971, at the epicenter. We refer to the Coliseum as “functionally obsolete.” The City has an opportunity not only to replace the Coliseum but to provide approximately 2,000 apartments, a percentage of which would be dedicated to “workforce housing,” a high rise hotel, commercial office space of up to 1 million square feet, the renovation of the historic Blues Armory, a long-sought GRTC bus transfer station, infrastructure improvements, and some retail. Continue reading

Now the Cherokee Want to Build a Casino in Virginia


by James A. Bacon

Indian ancestral lands are sacred — sacred, I tell you!

Until they’re not. As is apparently the case in Washington County, where the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the vast majority of whom live in North Carolina, have proposed to build a casino.

The eastern Cherokee, who operate the Harrah’s Cherokee Resort Hotel and Casino on tribal land in western North Carolina, have called the proposed Washington County side part of its “beloved ancestral home,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Sure. Just the place for a casino, resort hotel, 15,000-seat outdoor concert venue, recreational facilities.

As RTD writer Michael Martz notes, the proposal complicates a policy challenge facing the General Assembly as it considers the legalization of casino gambling and other gaming ventures in the state. Last year, the state enacted a law allowing the Pamunkey Indian Tribe to build a casino in either Norfolk or Richmond, and permitted the construction of commercial casinos in Danville, Portsmouth, and Bristol on the grounds that they experienced declining population, high poverty and high unemployment rates. Needless to say, developers of a proposed casino in nearby Bristol are vehemently opposed to a Cherokee-related casino very nearby.

I haven’t delved into this deeply, but my gut reaction is that this Indian casino thing is a racket. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: $$$$$ Edition

They didn’t ask this question until now? Will the wave of Amazon-inspired development in the Pentagon City area of Arlington County overwhelm the region’s transportation network? “Arlington planners, and nervous neighbors, want to know,” reports the Washington Business Journal. Some neighborhood groups are wary that the point of the planning review is to clear the way for a major up-zoning in the area. “They fear the county could determine that the neighborhood has the transportation infrastructure to handle more residents and allow for density increases — even though they believe the opposite is true.”

Meanwhile, JBG Smith Properties and other developers are pitching massive new projects around the new Amazon HQ. Not coincidentally, the WBJ reports, “JBG Smith ramped up its political giving in Virginia with control of the General Assembly on the line.” JBG Smith’s Virginia campaign contributions this electoral cycle: $34,206.

Glad to hear that “Black Enterprise” is still a thing. The Mount Olive Baptist Church in Culpeper wants to create a network of support, mentorship and information for African-American small business owners. Black business ownership is increasing, but black entrepreneurs face big challenges. The goal of the network is to help them gain knowledge about finances, start-up capital and the industrial/managerial skills it takes to grow successful enterprises, reports the Star-Exponent. As the politics of grievance and victimhood have taken hold nationally, we don’t hear much about black enterprise these days. I cannot help but note that this initiative comes from a black church, not a foundation-funded think tank staffed by white intellectuals.

Can you say “overreach”? Virginia Tech will spend $5 million to $10 million to launch a biomedical research facility in Washington, D.C. by early 2021, the university announced yesterday. On a campus of a new Children’s National Hospital campus, four or five Virginia Tech research teams will conduct research on cancers of the brain and nervous system. Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands said in a statement the partnership fits Tech’s ambition “to solve big problems and create new opportunities in Virginia and D.C. through education, technology and research.” Continue reading