Category Archives: Land use & development

Affordable Housing: Thinking Outside the Container

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

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

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

The Woonerfs Are Coming!

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

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

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

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

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

Does Virginia Beach Have the Right Investment Priorities?

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

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

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

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

Charlottesville’s Parking Gamble

Rendering of the Center of Developing Entrepreneurs.

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

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

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

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

Proffers: They’re Baaaaack!

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

Hollowed Out Henrico

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

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

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

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

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

Amazon as Un-Apple

Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California.

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

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

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

Continue reading

Tax Break Powers Opposition To Huge Solar Farm

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

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

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

Taking Some Pain Out of Eminent Domain

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

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

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

More Land Use Tricks: Coconut Grove Edition


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

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

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

What We Can Learn from Naples: Covered Sidewalks Edition

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

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

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

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:

Continue reading

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.