Category Archives: Land use & development

Seattle’s Pocket Parks


I’m back in Richmond, batteries recharged. Many thanks to Steve and Dick for keeping the fires of rebellion stoked in my absence. Laura and I visited the great Northwest, a region extending from Seattle and Victoria (British Columbia) in the south to Juneau and Glacier Bay in the north. As always, I kept my eyes peeled for examples of place making that might prove instructive to Virginians. Today, let’s talk about pocket parks. Seattle has lots of them.

By way of preamble, there are some things Seattle gets wrong. The city has one of the most acute affordable-housing issues in the country, and it has a homeless problem to match. We encountered numerous homeless people downtown, some of them begging, some of them sleeping in doorways or on benches, and a couple of them sprawled unconscious on the sidewalk. When we were walking off our jet lag early one morning, a woman dropped her pants in plain view and relieved herself on the pavement. So, I’m under no illusion that Seattle is an urban paradise.

But the city does have a lively downtown. The streets remain busy during nights and weekends — at least they do on balmy, sunny days like those we were lucky enough to experience. Downtown is highly walkable. The secret is wide sidewalks, vibrant streetscapes and pocket parks. Continue reading

Density as an Answer

It seems that our leader, Jim Bacon, is on the cutting edge of new thinking about how to address the rising cost of housing.  (Of course, this is no surprise to BR readers.)  An article in yesterday’s New York Times describes how planners, economists, and environmentalists across the country have begun to advocate more density.

The target of the critics is detached, single-family residential zoning. “It is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home,” the authors contend. They created maps, included in the article, depicting the residential area within many cities (and some suburbs) that is zoned for detached, single-family residential units. (There are no Virginia localities shown.) There are real contrasts. In New York City and Washington, D.C., only 15 percent and 36 percent, respectively, of the residential land is zoned for detached, single-family homes, whereas in Minneapolis and Charlotte, N.C., the percentages are 70 and 84, respectively. Cities in the western part of the country have even higher percentages restricted to detached, single-family units.

Some areas are taking action. Minneapolis has recently ended detached, single-family zoning; Oregon is considering legislation that would allow options as dense as fourplexes in larger cities and duplexes in smaller cities; and Seattle has upzoned six percent of its single family-zoned land. As expected, there has been strong opposition from homeowners in these areas. In the California legislature, such opposition has stalled a bill that would affect local zoning statewide.

It is remarkable how much effect small changes could make. According to the authors’ analysis, “Over time, if just 5 percent of the largest single-family lots in Minneapolis — lots of at least 5,000 square feet — converted to triplexes, that would create about 6,200 new units of housing, according to UrbanFootprint [a software program]. If 10 percent of similar-sized lots in San Jose, Calif., added a second unit, the city would gain 15,000 new homes.”

It may be time for policymakers in Virginia to begin looking at such changes.  As for me, I am glad I bought my detached house with a yard, small as it is, thirty years ago.

Bacon Bits: Dulles and Danville

Unfriendly skies. Washington Dulles International Airport is the most expensive airport in the United States to fly from. In a survey of the 45 largest airports, Travel Pulse found that the average ticket cost $427.37. On the other hand, travelers do get a bit more for their money, such as free carry-ons and seat selection.

Question: Why is Dulles so expensive? Pricy airports tend to be hubs for traditional airlines like United and American, the survey author said. So, are the airlines the problem? Or has Dulles squandered money on ill-conceived capital projects — expanding to accommodate growth that never occurred? Our friend Reed Fawell might have something to say on that topic.

Danville’s revival. If you haven’t visited the City of Danville in the last 20 years, perhaps you should. My wife and I drove through downtown a few months ago and she was blown away by how vibrant it was. It turns out that James Fallows, a senior writer for The Atlantic, was similarly impressed. In a recent article he explains that the city maintained a viable economy into the 1970s and 1980s based on textiles and tobacco, did not experience the same hollowing out of its industrial infastructure, and saw no need to tear them down, as was the fashion in many other cities in the era of “urban renewal.” The textiles-and-tobacco economy collapsed in the 1990s, but the brick manufacturing structures were preserved.

Today, Danville has more “antique architecture” than downtown Charlotte or downtown Atlanta, even though those cities are vastly larger. The revival of former tobacco and textile buildings in Danville’s “River District” has created a unique environment of walkable urbanism that may seed the city’s renewable.

The Virtues of Incremental Development

Would you rather live here….

One more angle to think about when appraising Amazon’s HQ2 project in Arlington… A single developer, JBG Smith, will have a disproportionate impact on the evolution of the urban fabric in the National Landing district of Arlington and Alexandria. In theory, a single big developer can mobilize more resources, carry out better planning and execute a more uniform standard of design than could an uncoordinated army of small builders.

… or here?

Not so fast. Over on the Strong Towns blog, Daniel Herriges compares “Texas donut” approach typical of Dallas, Texas – a monumental ediface consuming an entire city block — with the incremental approach of traditional development in Charleston, S.C.

“Incremental development doesn’t mean slow, small, or cautious. Incremental means many hands,” Herriges writes. “The ‘increment of development’ is how big each project is, but says nothing about how many projects are taking place. Continue reading

Moral Hazard and Sea Level Rise

Ann Phillips. Photo credit: Free Lance-Star

Why aren’t Virginia localities acting more aggressively to protect themselves from rising sea levels? You don’t have to believe in catastrophic global warming to acknowledge that sea levels are creeping steadily higher worldwide or that subsidence caused by shifting tectonic plates and shrinking aquifers is aggravating flooding in Virginia’s Tidewater.

A big reason for the complacency, says Navy Adm. Ann Phillips, is that people think someone will bail them out. Virginia’s coastal-adaptation czar, appointed by Governor Ralph Northam, drove home the point last month at a College of William & Mary forum. Reports the Free Lance-Star:

“As I talked to people about what options are, in passing, to deal with the future, I have a sense that many homeowners feel that the cities are going to bail them out. And that the cities feel that the states should bail them out, and that the state thinks the federal government should bail them out.”

Continue reading

The Waters Increased Greatly upon the Earth

Over the past decade or so, as I traveled with my family to Sandbridge Beach, I watched in amazement, and a touch of disbelief, as large, upscale houses sprouted from the landscape that was once flat, treeless farmland.

The development was Asheville Park.  It was approved in 2004 for 499 homes on 474 acres. The construction slowed noticeably during the 2008-2010 downturn, but then picked up.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit, deluging the area with rain. Asheville Park became impassable for days and homes and cars flooded. Incredibly, “All of this area was approved for rezonings without looking at stormwater,” according to Barbara Henley, a member of city council. (She was not on the council when the development was approved.) Of the 35 proffers associated with the approval, there was no mention of stormwater and how to control it. Hurricane Matthew demonstrated that the pipes and outfalls were too small and a retention lake was shallower than planned, leading to flooding.

The residents of the development have been up in arms, demanding that the city take action. After all, these were homes for which they had paid several hundred thousand dollars and being flooded was not supposed to be part of the deal. The city has come up with a long-term plan to alleviate flooding, estimated to cost $35 million. The immediate fixes will cost $11 million. The city has reached an agreement with the developer in which the approved number of houses will be reduced by 44 and the developer will donate land for the construction of a retention pond by the city. In addition to a retention pond, the work will include the construction of a gated weir and a pump station. Finally, new building permits will not be issued for the next phase of the development until specific parts of the drainage system are fixed.

There is not much else the city can do about Asheville Park. The developer still has the right to construct more than double the number of houses currently there. However, the city has obviously learned from this experience and is taking steps to take sea level rise into consideration when evaluating future developments. Continue reading

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