Category Archives: Land use & development

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.

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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.

Diabetes, Trees, and Land Use in the Bayou State

So, here we are in the heartland of obesity and diabetes. The adult obesity rate in Louisiana is 36.2%, sixth worst in the country, and the diabetes rate is 13.9%, also one of the worst in the U.S. I have seen many speculations as to why Louisianans are so unhealthy, but the one that struck me is diet. Louisianans love their sugar, as the wife and I learned in our visit to the Bayou State this weekend. While staying in Baton Rouge, we were exposed to our first King Cake, an insanely sweet and delicious confection sprinkled with sugar crystals on top. Today, we stopped to enjoy some chickory coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. How to describe beignets… Let me quote the Food Network: “Start by mixing water, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl” … Pure carbs. I have spent the past few days warding off diabetic shock.

Baton Rouge is best described as a state capital surrounded by miles of suburban sprawl. The sprawl is leavened by the fact that its suburbs are served by a grid road network — we didn’t see any cul de sacs — with the result that our navigation devices gave us about a dozen alternative routes to get from Point A to Point B, and congestion was never an issue. The neighborhoods we drove through, consisting mostly of one-story buildings set upon ample but not excessively large lots, looked quite pleasant. Continue reading

Amazon Deal Highlights Virginia’s Competitive Advantage Over Maryland

Many Virginians have qualms about the $550 million in job-creation incentives plus more than $1 billion in promised transportation and higher-ed investments it took to recruit a $2.5 billion Amazon facility to Northern Virginia. But things could be worse. Maryland offered an $8.5 billion package — and didn’t land the deal. The Washington Post is asking if the Old Line State, which pitched a Montgomery County location, has lost its economic-development mojo.

For the record, Maryland officials are putting on a positive face. They are delighted that Montgomery County was one of Amazon’s 20 finalists, and they say that the facility’s location in Arlington/Alexandria will send positive economic ripples throughout the Washington region.

But Montgomery County — the Fairfax of Maryland — has studiously refashioned itself over the past few decades as a walkable urban community with access to abundant mass transit, just the kind of urban fabric Amazon was looking for. The county has access to the same high-tech labor pool as Arlington and Alexandria, which snagged the deal. And the state offered $6 to $7 billion more in inducements than Virginia.

Anirban Basu, chairman of the Maryland Economic Development Commission, has been asking himself, “Why would Amazon turn away billions of dollars in subsidies to go across the river?”

Experts quoted by the WaPo pointed point to site-specific factors that favored Virginia. National Landing (the rebranded location in Crystal City and Potomac Yard that Amazon selected) is closer to downtown Washington, D.C., and so close to Reagan National Airport that Virginia has offered to build a walkway to link it to the Amazon office complex. National Landing has direct access to a Metro station, which the Commonwealth has offered to upgrade. And most of the property involved in Virginia’s bid is owned by a single developer, JBG Smith.

And who would believe this? Northern Virginia’s transportation infrastructure compares favorably to that of Maryland.

Northern Virginia’s transit and road networks also outpace the Maryland suburb’s. Virginia recently expanded its part of the Capital Beltway with tolled express lanes, and the second phase of Metro’s Silver Line, which will extend the subway to Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County, is slated to open in 2020.

Finally, Basu cited Virginia’s “creative stroke of genius” in lining up $1.1 billion in higher-education support to build the computer-science talent pipeline. Virginia’s plan includes $250 million toward Virginia Tech building a $1 billion “Innovation Campus” near the future Amazon hub.

I would add another factor not mentioned in the WaPo article. Amazon has a history of working closely with Virginia officials and its largest utility, Dominion Energy, fostering development of Amazon’s cloud-services business in Northern Virginia. The company knows it can get things done in Virginia, whereas Maryland, where it has had little experience, is more of a cipher.

But Maryland’s competitiveness issue runs deeper. “One of the reasons Maryland created such a large incentive package for Amazon is because we know our business climate is not as competitive,” said Basu, whose Baltimore firm, the Sage Policy Group, conducted the state’s economic impact study of Amazon’s potential benefits but was not involved in the bid.

As the WaPo quotes regional economic analyst Stephen S. Fuller, 25 years ago economic activity in the Washington region was split equally among Northern Virginia, Washington and the Maryland suburbs. By last year, Northern Virginia’s share had grown to 48 percent, while the Maryland suburbs held about steady with 31 percent, and Washington had dropped to 21 percent.

Think about that. For all of Northern Virginia’s horrendous problems with traffic congestion, autocentric land uses, skilled labor shortages, lack of a top-tier research university, local-government unfunded pension liabilities, and some of the highest taxes in Virginia, it has been kicking Terrapin butt for two-and-a-half decades as measured by job creation. Writes the WaPo:

[Basu] has concluded that Amazon must have rejected the state’s “antiquated” regulations and higher taxes for corporations and top-earning residents. Amazon has said salaries at the new headquarters will average $150,000. Unlike in Virginia, Maryland jurisdictions impose a local income tax in addition to the state tax.

According to the Tax Foundation, Virginia is has a more favorable tax climate than Maryland almost across the board.

Personal income taxes
Virginia ranked 35th
Maryland ranked 45th

Corporate taxes
Virginia ranked 10th
Maryland ranked 22nd

Sales taxes
Virginia ranked 10th
Maryland ranked 18th

Property taxes
Virginia ranked 30th
Maryland ranked 42nd

Only in “unemployment insurance taxes” does Maryland compare favorably to Virginia, with a 28th ranking compared to Virginia’s 43rd.

Bottom line: Virginians get to keep more of their paychecks. When you’re  a company recruiting high-end business and technical talent, that counts for a lot.

Update: I have edited the original version of this story to distinguish between Virginia’s “incentives” paid directly to Amazon and state and local promises to invest in transportation and higher-ed.

How Walkable Urbanism and the Talent Pipeline Won the Amazon Deal

Conceptual rendering of Virginia Tech’s proposed $1 billion campus in Alexandria near the proposed Amazon campus.

More information is coming out about the wheeling and dealing behind Virginia’s incentive package that coaxed Amazon, Inc., to locate a $2.5 billion campus in Northern Virginia. It turns out that many of the key pieces in Virginia’s incentive package were initiatives that had been in the works for years. Virginia is putting resources into projects that, most likely, it would have funded eventually anyway.

Amazon wanted an urban location and it selected the Crystal City-Potomac Yard area of Arlington and Alexandria, currently being rebranded by the largest property owner, JBG Smith, as National Landing. A decade ago JBG Smith had commenced the yeoman’s work, with no immediate prospect of reward, of winning the local planning and regulatory approvals to re-develop the aging edge city into a walkable, high-density, mixed-use area — just the kind of urbanism Amazon was looking for.

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech had engaged in preliminary planning to build a major academic campus in Northern Virginia. The idea was mainly conceptual when Amazon announced his national HQ2 competition, but Tech had a scaffold upon which to build when the state began scrambling to put a deal together.

It helped that Commonwealth’s point man for selling Amazon, Stephen Moret, was not a conventional economic developer. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership president takes a broad, integrative approach to the profession that transcends the assembly of real estate deals. Having recently earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in higher education management and serving as a member of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, Moret is well versed in the critical need to build the talent pipeline. He is also conversant about the connections between land use, workforce, innovation districts and economic development.

I haven’t talked to Moret since the Amazon deal was closed. But I recall a conversation a year-and-a-half ago in which he casually blue-skyed an idea for promoting corporate investment in Southwest Virginia by creating a New Urbanism-style development zone around the campus of the University of Virginia-Wise. In that vision, the real estate was almost incidental. Moret’s idea was to create a knowledge-based community with access to UVa-Wise students and graduates that a corporate investor would find attractive.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Amazon project is the same idea writ large — very large. The $550 million in direct employment subsidies constitutes only a modest piece of the deal. What really sold Amazon on Northern Virginia was the prospect of setting its corporate facility (a) in a walkable urban community, (b) in close proximity to a technology-oriented university campus, (c) in order to create a dynamic innovation ecosystem with Amazon at the center, (d) in a metro area with one of the largest tech-savvy labor pools in the country.

Building the talent pipeline. Both the Roanoke Times and the Washington Post have published articles highlighting how the educational piece of the incentives package came together.

As the Roanoke Times writes, Virginia Tech’s proposal to build a $1 billion, one-million-square-foot campus near the Amazon facility was the cornerstone of the talent-recruitment piece of Virginia’s bid.

Virginia Tech had been planning some sort of campus near the nation’s capital since President Tim Sands arrived at the university four years ago. Tech didn’t have a location in mind or much more than a general sense of what the Innovation Campus could be.

“If the first time we had thought about it had been 14 months ago, this probably wouldn’t be what it is,” Sands said during the gauntlet of interviews after Tuesday’s announcement. “We were ready and the timing was perfect.”

Moret was unaware of Sands’ Northern Virginia ambitions when he first reached out to schedule a conference call with college and university leaders around the state last year.

He discussed the HQ2 bid with everyone and laid out early plans to roughly double the number of computer science graduates the state produced each year as part of the HQ2 bid.

He also asked if anyone was interested in the possibility of opening a campus near Amazon in the Washington, D.C., area.

“Virginia Tech reached out right away and said, ‘Hey, we’ve actually been working on this idea for a few years. And we’re prepared to put in a very large investment to make this happen,’” Moret recalled.

George Mason University also stepped up in a big way with plans to expand its Arlington campus. But the GMU campus will not be tightly integrated geographically with Amazon’s like Tech’s will be.

Crystal City rendering by Torti Gallas + Partners

Investing in walkable urbanism. Writing for the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Public Square Journal,  Robert Steuteville provides background on the urban planning piece of the deal.

Crystal City can be thought of as a large suburban retrofit—guided by a plan and form-based code that won a 2009 CNU Charter Award for Torti Gallas + Partners and Kimley-Horn and Associates. That plan and code, adopted by the county in 2010, entitled the new, higher-density development and put in place a framework to create a more walkable urban neighborhood over time.  …

The area was originally built without a master plan, and that changed with the recent master plan. “It’s high-rise suburban. It wants to be higher density, with a more urban mentality— away from cars and with retail on the street that is accessible to people,” says John Torti of Torti Gallas. “It has the potential of becoming a wonderful place.”

Steuteville’s article provides the following graphic comparing a mile-long segment of Rt. 1 as it looks now with the plan transform it into a more walkable, urban boulevard:

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Local Governments’ Alarming Capital Spending Ratios

Reinvestment ratios for Virginia cities and counties have been declining in recent years. Source: Moody’s. (Click for larger image.)

I’ve been strenuously making the point over the past several months that there are many ways for state and local governments to run hidden deficits. One of those is deferred maintenance — an issue that has played out most prominently in the debate over aging, run-down school buildings. What I never realized is that there is a way to measure the extent to which local governments kick the maintenance can down the road. It turns out that we can track what Moody’s calls the “median capital asset reinvestment ratio.”

I cannot find an exact definition of this ratio, but, generally speaking, it expresses a local government’s capital investments as a ratio of its assets. A higher ratio indicates that local governments are spending more — building new buildings and infrastructure and/or renovating, retrofitting and otherwise updating older facilities. A lower ratio is a tip-off that a local government might be falling behind on repairs and maintenance.

The chart above shows that Virginia localities had healthy capital asset reinvestment ratios a decade ago, but those ratios have declined sharply in recent years — barely reaching replacement value for Virginia counties. As Moody’s writes in a recently issued report on the credit quality of Virginia localities:

The condition of capital assets has suffered from a lack of investment. Asset quality will likely improve if local governments make capital investment a priority. But funding will be a challenge, given the already above-average fixed-cost burdens many Virginia local governments carry.

A slowdown in capital investment is reflected in another statistic, the median age of capital assets.

Median age of capital assets, Virginia cities and counties. Source: Moody’s.

As this graph shows, the average age of Virginia’s capital assets is steadily and relentlessly increasing for both cities and counties. Needless to say, there is variability between jurisdictions. Some localities do a better job of maintaining the level of capital investment than others. The Richmond Public School System is noteworthy for doing a particularly poor job — keeping open more schools than justified by the number of students and scrimping on maintenance and repairs. But the problem goes far beyond the City of Richmond.

Growth Ponzi scheme. In past posts I have discussed Charles Marohn’s concept of the “growth Ponzi scheme,” a malady afflicting fast-growth counties. Under the logic of the growth Ponzi scheme, counties encourage inefficient growth (low-density, autocentric, segregated land uses in contrast to walkable, mixed-use projects) to get a quick hit of revenue from new development. Typically, developers pay for their own roads, water and sewer, plus proffers and impact fees, and then turn the assets over to counties for maintenance, so counties have only modest up-front costs. After 20 or 30 years, however, the assets need replacing and aging and tax-inefficient projects now cost more than they reap in revenue. Counties have kept the system going by soliciting more growth.

Eventually, the Ponzi scheme sputters and stalls. Counties run out of new land to develop. Recessions put an end to growth. We can see this happening in the top chart. In the go-go days of the early 2000s (not seen on the chart) and even in the recession, Virginia counties dedicated considerably more to capital investment than did cities. They built a vast, costly infrastructure of roads, utilities and other public amenities. Since then, maintenance has consumed an increasing share of capital spending. Absolute levels of capital spending may look robust compared to past levels, but as a ratio of assets, they’re not.

If you think Richmond Public School buildings are a blight, just wait twenty years and see what happens to the infrastructure quality of Virginia counties as they continue to under-invest in capital spending.

Essential ratios. There are undoubtedly complexities and nuances to the capital spending I’ve discussed here. And a general statement that applies to one locality may not apply to another. But these ratios are critical to evaluating the fiscal health of local government. Every city and county manager should have these ratios at their fingertips. Every council and board member should know them by heart. If they don’t, they have no idea what they’re doing, and they should be booted out of office.

Shoreline Resiliency Funds for Hampton Roads?

In 2016 former Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a bill that set up a revolving loan fund to help homeowners and businesses elevate their properties to safeguard against sea level rise. Just one problem, says the Virginian-Pilot. The fund has no dedicated revenue source. Two years later, “the well is dry.”

Now the Virginia Conservation Network is calling for the state to contribute $50 million to the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund. “The coastal communities need help,” says Karen Forget with Lynnhaven River Now, a member of the environmental network. “This is a huge, really unprecedented, issue for the coastal communities all up and down the East Coast. We definitely need assistance.”

Virginia’s coastal tidewater region is highly vulnerable to flooding caused by land subsidence and a rising sea level. The inundations are increasing in frequency, and, according to some, will get worse as global warming intensifies and sea level rise accelerates. Even if you don’t buy the alarmist global-warming scenarios, there is no disputing that the sea level has been rising at a steady rate for more than a century and will continue to do so, or that land around Hampton Roads has been subsiding and will continue to do so. The flooding of coastal Virginia is one of the most predictable crises in history.

The million-dollar questions are (1) what should we do about it, and (2) who should pay for it? It’s not surprising that representatives from the Hampton Roads metro area are begging the state for money. Who can blame them? That’s what everyone does. And there is a case to be made that in a Commonwealth such as Virginia, we’re all in this together, and other regions should help out.

However, when Hampton Roads asks for $50 million, a not inconsiderable sum, the rest of the state need not write a blank check. Let’s face it, it will take a lot more than $50 million to adapt to rising sea levels — it will take billions of dollars — and we can safely say that this request for state funds will be only the first of many in the years ahead.

While inland Virginia has a moral obligation to help Coastal Virginia, the obligation is not an open-ended, no-strings-attached commitment. Coastal Virginia needs to take actions, which, at the very least, will stop increasing the region’s exposure to flooding. Ideally, the region should take steps to reduce its exposure to flooding. And that will mean curtailing coastal development.

Now, I’m a free-market kind of guy, and I think people should be able to build where they want to (as long as they don’t cause harm to others). So, if someone wants to build a $5 million house on the beachfront, be my guest. But I don’t believe people have no right to expect society to insulate them from the risks they’re taking by, say, subsidizing their hurricane and flood insurance. Nor do I believe that they have a right to insist that society provide infrastructure — flood-proof roads, water, sewer, electricity, etc. — at any cost to beachfront dwellers need to sustain themselves in the facing of rising waters and increase funds.

That $50 million revolving fund will be used to help people put their houses on stilts. That may be a reasonable use of the money (although I’d like to see the fine print). But it doesn’t come close to addressing the massive unfunded liability Coastal Virginia has created for itself. Inland Virginians should extend a hand of assistance to their brethren on the coast — and insist they get serious about reducing their liabilities.

Update: Today’s Washington Post headline: “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say.” Yeah, right. That’s what they said ten years ago…. and twenty years ago. Those of us who remember past doomsday prophecies have become inured. But you don’t have to believe in global climate catastrophe to acknowledge that flooding risks on the Virginia coastline are real and slowly but steadily getting worse.

Has City Population Growth Leveled Off?

Source: Demographics Research Group at UVa

After a decade of strong growth, the population of Virginia’s cities may be leveling off, says Hamilton Lombard with the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group. The rising cost of housing in Virginia cities is pushing households into neighboring counties, he says.

The major swing group is households with young children. For decades, families with young children moved from cities to counties in search of better schools. After the 2007 recession, Lombard contends on the StatChat blog, many families found it difficult to purchase a home, so they rented in cities where a larger share of the housing stock is rental homes. As a result, the share of children in city populations increased, leading to an unexpected surge in school enrollments in many cities. Over the past 10 years, cities accounted for seven of the 10 fastest-growing school divisions.

Lombard expects cities to hang on to their population gains, but he suggests that continued population growth will be difficult to maintain. The main problem is the difficulty of building new housing. In Virginia cities, vacancy rates are declining, and housing prices are increasing. Prior to the recession, for example, owner-occupied housing in both Charlottesville and Richmond was 27 percent cheaper than in surrounding counties. By 2016, housing was only 12 percent cheaper in Charlottesville and eight percent cheaper in Richmond.

Concludes Lombard:

In the coming years, home construction levels will need to increase for Virginia cities to continue growing at recent rates. Some cities, such as Richmond, have seen more home construction. But building new homes in cities can be difficult; most development in cities is infill which often requires more paperwork and faces more public opposition than greenfield developments.

If cities are not able to supply enough housing to meet demand, the recent trend of falling vacancy rates and rising home prices will likely continue, along with slower population growth.

Bacon’s bottom line: I concur with Lombard’s analysis. Cities have limited space for infill development, and established neighborhoods resist re-development at higher densities. There is a significant unmet demand for walkable urbanism found in the traditional neighborhoods of Virginia’s cities, both large and small, but people have to live somewhere and they will buy what they can afford, even if the surrounding amenities are not what they would prefer. I expect we will see “sprawl by default” — scattered, low-density, single-use development, not because it’s what the market demands but because that’s what counties zoned for in the go-go days of the early 2000s and that’s what’s in the supply pipeline.

Shocker: Positive Signs from Washington Metro

I have relentlessly criticized the Washington Metro system for years, but I have to give credit to management under General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld for trying to steer the dysfunctional mass transit system in a fiscally sustainable direction. Today’s media reports highlight two straws in the wind.

First, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (MWATA) is trying to revive a plan to redevelop portions of the Huntington Metro campus in Fairfax County, according to the Washington Business Journal. An effort to redevelop a 1.15-acre parcel failed four years ago. But Metro has expanded the project scope to 12 acres.

The selected developer for this larger project would not only design the 12-acre site but also help WMATA determine the need for replacement transit facilities — the three parking garages at Huntington Metro Station had a combined usage rate of 61 percent for fiscal year 2018. WMATA recently closed an 885-space garage on 6 acres located on the south side of the station, where it sees an opportunity for redevelopment if parking demand doesn’t merit replacing.

Heavy-rail transit stations significantly increase the value of adjacent properties. Mass transit systems in other countries employ “value capture” strategies to extract some of that increased value to defray the cost of building and operating their stations. For the most part, Washington’s Metro system has failed to do that. Rather, property owners reaped windfall gains from the public’s massive investment. (A partial exception is taxation of property owners in Tysons to pay for a modest portion of the cost of building the Silver Line extension.) However, Metro frequently did build parking structures around its stations, some of which may be severely under-utilized. The potential exists to redevelop that property in light of market conditions that favor dense, mixed-use development around Metro stations.

Although the WBJ doesn’t frame the story this way, it appears that Wiedefeld is trying to extract maximum value from the limited property Metro does own around the Huntington station. If this redevelopment project is successful, it might be a template for extracting value from other Metro parking lots and garages.

Second, Metro is looking at the potential for privatizing operations of the Silver Line extension encompassing six new stations in the high-tech corridor between Tysons and Dulles International Airport, and beyond. Reports the Washington Post:

On Tuesday, the transit agency issued a request for proposals from private companies willing to perform maintenance and operations on the line extension, which is under construction by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. …

Metro has hinted for the past two years that its intention was to outsource the Silver Line service, suggesting that such a decision could save taxpayers millions of dollars in the long run. In January, the agency issued a “request for information” from potential contractors interested in the job.

Now, Metro says that hiring a private company to fill new Silver Line jobs, rather than adding to the ranks of unionized employees, will help control operating and maintenance costs, “including future pension costs, which have grown to unsustainable levels.”

Paul J. Wiedefeld

Wiedefeld said the effort is intended to help the transit agency start “living within our means.” “Competitive contracting is one tool to hold down pension cost growth, while providing quality service for customers.” Laughably, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 responded that outsourcing services would result in poor service for riders and subpar maintenance of infrastructure. Worse than the service and maintenance provided by the union workforce? That would be something!

Virginia has boosted its financial commitment to Metro to reduce a massive capital spending shortfall on the understanding that the mass transit authority would undertake meaningful reforms. Wiedefeld is making an honest effort to deliver on that promise, pursuing strategies that were never part of Metro’s past playbook. Whether he succeeds or not is a different question — that depends in large measure upon market conditions and cooperation from Metro’s labor unions. But he’s giving it his best shot.

Bacon Bits: In with the New, Out with the Old

In with the new…

Data Center Alley too hot to handle. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has sold 424 acres west of Dulles International Airport to data-center developer Digital Realty Trust for an eye-popping $236.5 million — $558,000 per acre. MWAA will place $207 million in a segregated account used to reduce costs that airlines pay to do business at the airport. The transaction expands the large and growing data-center presence of Digital Realty in Loudoun County, reports the Washington Business Journal.

Virginia’s next big solar project? Solar developer Community Energy has applied to build 125-megawatts in solar capacity in Augusta County, reports PV magazine. To offset concerns about neighborhood impact, Community Energy plans to surround the facility with a buffer of vegetation and put into place measures to diminish the limited audio output. Instead of purchasing the land, the power company is leasing it from landowners, providing farmers an ongoing revenue stream rather than a lump-sum payment.

Out with the old..

Gutted newsrooms. Ned Oliver with the Virginia Mercury has quantified the shrinkage of news staff at Virginia’s largest daily newspapers in recent years. After quietly laying off another eight newspaper employees at the beginning of the month, the Richmond Times-Dispatch newsroom has gone from 42 news and sports reporters in 2010 to 26 today, from nine to six photographers, and from 20 to 13 editors. The Virginian-Pilot has dropped from 67 reporters to 33, 35 editors from to 22, and eight photographers to five. Newsroom staff at the Roanoke Times has eroded by 35% to 25 reporters, 11 editors, and three photographers.

“Meanwhile,” writes Oliver, “there is still no clear model for metro and community newspapers to make up for the loss of all that ad money to digital giants like Google and Facebook.”

Tarheel coal ash overflow. In an event sure to impact the debate over coal ash in Virginia, heavy rains from Hurricane Florence eroded a coal ash facility at a Duke Energy power plant near Wilmington, N.C. The utility is investigating the possible release of about 2,000 cubic yards of the material — enough to fill two-thirds of an Olympic-size swimming pool, according to the Herald-Sun. It was not clear whether any of the ash, which contains traces of heavy metals, reached public waterways.

The release reinforces the necessity of removing coal ash from unlined, uncapped containment ponds where electric utilities have been restoring the coal-combustion residue for decades. Environmental Protection Agency regulations were designed to prevent incidents like this by consolidating and capping coal ash ponds. While environmentalists, regulators and utilities haggle over whether it’s better to store the material in lined landfills, a process that could take two to three decades, existing containment ponds remain vulnerable to extreme weather events like Florence.

Looks like a Taking, Feels like a Taking

Bike valet parking outside the Northside Richmond bike lane briefing.

The parallel struck me early in the meeting – this is like the pipeline process.  The people who want this bike lane are not deterred by what it does to the people and businesses directly on the route and disregard all concerns as unfounded.

Of course, the property owners along Richmond’s Brook Road do not actually own any of the pavement which would be converted from multi-vehicle use and dedicated to bicycles only. This may not qualify as a taking. But as they try to maneuver out of their driveways through the bike lane, see the one remaining travel lane occasionally blocked by emergency or service vehicles, and wonder if anybody will ever buy their house in the future, they will feel like they lost something.

Some of them came out to a community meeting Tuesday night to say so but found themselves up against the same kind of organizational techniques so effectively used in favor of the pipelines. The proponents had turned out their crowd and had people there to park their bikes and hand out shirt stickers.  When the moderator asked for questions, proponents instead made statements of strong support. It was a while before an opposing view was heard.

Joe Citizen just walking into a neighborhood meeting these days without planning and preparation and inclined to politely follow the rules is going to a gun fight with a pen knife.

The Experts were all for it, of course – city engineers and planners.  They’ve done their studies, thank you very much, and don’t need any more.  The “road diet” concept is Settled Science.  There is a consensus among 92.3 percent of traffic engineers (I made that number up) that adding bike lanes by eliminating car lanes stops speeding and saves lives (I didn’t make that up, that got said several times.)

It was just eerie how easily you could have substituted the Atlantic Coast Pipeline for the Brook Road bike lanes and little else said would have changed.  The bike lanes have federal agency blessing!  There is even federal funding!  Anybody who doesn’t fall in line is just not rational and need not be taken seriously (which explains the rude behavior poured on the Doubting Thomases who did speak).

The Richmond Times-Dispatch story on the meeting was abysmal, just rotten reporting. I don’t know the reporter, but he missed half the story. He implied all 250 people came to speak up in favor of the bike lanes, but plenty in the crowd did not join in the applause for statements of support and several made excellent point in opposition.

My bet is the reporter didn’t even know one of the speakers with concerns was former Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer, and not quoting any of the many others raising questions was just shameful bias. On the other hand, the paper’s photo essay included several shots of skeptics, including Homer. But that didn’t tell the reader what was being said.

The pedestrian, bicycle and trails coordinator for the city staff, Jakob Helmbolt, made some telling statements. Most of the opposition flows from concerns the lanes will disappear just as surge of growth is expected. But when somebody asked about the huge open tract at the north end of the route near Azalea Avenue, ripe for commercial development and traffic growth, Helmbolt said he would consider that “at the time of development – that’s when the traffic impact study occurs.”

This 301-unit complex going up on Brook Road has proper zoning to expand.

Of course, once Brook is on its “diet” any developer may go elsewhere. Proponents even claimed that cutting down the road to a single lane each way will stop future apartment development. If they made that official with zoning changes, some of the opposition would melt.  But tell me again why that would not be a taking?

Somebody asked about turning right across the bike lines and Helmbolt dismissed that with: “The signalized intersections will have dedicated right turn lanes which will be shared,” he said. But there are scores of intersections without signals and all those private driveways. That’s the problem.

Big property owners on the route who were represented in the room but said nothing included Virginia Union University, a rapidly-growing private school, the Virginia Commonwealth University Children’s Hospital and CSX, which has a major gated crossing at the southern end of the bike lane route. A woman representing the industrial properties near those tracks, who will see their freight trucks restricted to that single lane and forced to turn across the bike lane, expressed strong opposition.

The meeting was all sparked by a proposed ordinance seeking to block the bike lanes, reversing earlier votes of support from City Council with less attention paid. Just when that ordinance might be taken up for a vote, or when the bike lanes will be created if it fails, never came up. I’m sure many are hoping that once the work is done and gas starts flowing, oops, I mean the bikes start using their protected lanes, things will quickly be forgotten.

The Berkeley of the East Coast

Has the City of Charlottesville become the Berkeley of the East Coast, a college-dominated town populated with enough leftists to enforce their destructive brand of politics? Maybe not quite yet, but when anarchists are referring to the liberal Democrats on City Council as “fascists” (view the video above), it could be getting close.

“While Charlottesville’s government continues to spin wildly off-center, raucous public meetings and accompanying calls for social, economic, and legal anarchy come at great cost,” writes Rob Schilling, a local radio host who bills himself as the first and last Republican since 1986 to get elected to the Charlottesville City Council, in the Bearing Drift blog. Consider the following, taken verbatim from his article:

  • Most recently, local developer and perennial City Council ally, Keith O. Woodard, cancelled the long-planned $50 million West 2nd project, citing an “adversarial” relationship with the City and “uncertain” process. The development was expected to net Charlottesville nearly $1 million annually in direct tax revenue.
  • Adding insult to injury, Charlottesville City Councilor, Mike Signer, himself was General Counsel on the Project Team for WillowTree at Woolen Mills. In such capacity he presumably helped negotiate app developer WillowTree’s exodus from Charlottesville into neighboring Albemarle County—a $20 million, 200-job boon for Albemarle’s economy and another crushing financial blow to the City, this time delivered by a Charlottesville elected official.
  • Nine years on, the rusting hulk of the Landmark Hotel on Charlottesville’s downtown mall stands as a monument to ineffective, bumbling, incompetent governance. The economic implications are manifest; no rational developer would risk large-scale “investing” here presently.

Says Schilling: “The escalating social and civic anarchy promulgated by the current crop of councilors has impelled Charlottesville into a rapid downward spiral, wherein nothing much may be left to ‘tear down’ when all is said and done.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Charlottesville enjoys a historic opportunity for urban revival as broad economic forces across the nation propel investment capital and people back into traditional downtowns and urban neighborhoods. In other Virginia metros, businesses are moving from the suburban jurisdictions to the urban cities, not the other way around. It would be a shame — and an object lesson to others — if the crazies ruined everything.