by James A. Bacon
In announcing the creation of three new conservation easements in Henrico County, a recent press release from the Capital Region Land Conservancy made an eye-catching statement. The easements, said the Conservancy, act as a bulwark against rising pressure to develop agricultural land across Virginia “driven most recently by shifts in COVID-era lifestyles and soaring housing prices.”
This was the first time I recall anyone in Virginia making an explicit connection between the COVID epidemic, urban flight, and rising property values for agricultural land. The notion is worth exploring
The conversion of farmland into subdivisions is a long-standing concern. As the Conservancy notes, more than 339,000 acres of farmland were developed in Virginia between 2001 and 2016. In the Richmond region, more than 87,000 acres of farmland have been lost. By 2017 Henrico County had fewer than 100 farms and 10,000 acres of farmland.
The urban renaissance of the 2010s decade blunted the trend toward metropolitan sprawl. The center of gravity in development shifted back toward urban cores in Virginia and the U.S. generally. Now that momentum seems spent. Perhaps the COVID-19 epidemic is driving the reversal, but I suspect that the reality is more complex. It is also possible — consider it a hypothesis — that after a year of protests, riots and rising violent crime rates in many cities, many urban dwellers, concerned about social breakdown, fear for their personal safety. The main thing holding them back is the paucity of rural broadband and connectivity. That barrier soon may fall. Continue reading
Image credit: Style Weekly
By Peter Galuszka
Ever wonder why Dominion Energy found religion and announced a major shift to renewable energy?
The answer is that modern, high technology businesses want it and the Richmond-based utility wants to respond to their desires.
This one of the themes in this recent cover story I did for Style Weekly that explores how Dominion’s major shift in direction is part of several dynamics that are pushing solar wind and other renewables instead of keeping on with fossil fuel.
Here’s the reporting in a nutshell:
- Virginia’s economy is being driven more by data centers, giant box-like warehouses loaded with servers that can handle tremendous amounts of data. Northern Virginia, the incubator of the Internet, already handles about 70% to 80% of the global Net traffic and has a mature and still growing network of data centers.
- The Northern Virginia experience is shifting downstate. Henrico County now has a partially construction data center run by social media giant Facebook. Centers have been announced or are being planned in Southside and Southwest Virginia.
Riverfront Towers. Photo credit: Richmond BizSense
Just a year or two ago, the big momentum in commercial real estate markets was for businesses to relocate facilities from the suburbs to the metropolitan core. Young people wanted to live and work in or near Virginia’s downtowns, and corporations followed the talent. The City of Richmond snagged one prestigious tenant after another. One of those was healthcare logistics giant Owens & Minor, which in 2017 supplemented its suburban Mechanicsville headquarters with a 90,000-square-foot lease in Riverfront Tower downtown.
Now, reports Richmond BizSense, Owens & Minor has pulled the plug on its downtown call center and is seeking tenants to sub-lease the space.
The reason? The company has shifted office workers to remote work in response to the coronavirus epidemic. Employees have adapted well to the work-from-home setting.
“As 2020 progressed, the COVID-19 pandemic compelled us to reevaluate our call center operations. The performance of our call center teammates in the work-from-home era has been spectacular, and the teammates requested that we carry that new business model into the future. We have recently made the decision to exit from our call center location in downtown Richmond,” the spokeswoman said. Continue reading
A horse pulling fiber in Kentucky. Photo credit: Pro Publica
by DJ Rippert
A tale of two places. The next generation of consumer wireless technology is called Fifth Generation or 5G. It is being rolled out in select parts of the United States right now. 5G will be a boon to urban and suburban Virginia. Absent heavy government subsidies, it will likely have a minimal direct effect on rural Virginia. Of course, any technology that favors high population density areas over low population density areas expands the rural-urban gap. The reasons for 5G’s value in high density areas vs low density areas run the gamut from physics to economics. However, there are some engineering scenarios and demographic situations where 5G might be effective in select rural areas without massive governmental subsidies. Those will be discussed later in this post. And, of course, massive government subsidies are always on the table. Continue reading
Rendering of outdoor plaza proposed for the new Regency Mall. Source: Baskervill
by James A. Bacon
The most important urban redevelopment project in Henrico County is taking place at the old Regency Mall, once a typical suburban mall anchored by department stores, surrounded by acres of asphalt, and disconnected from the shopping centers and neighborhoods around it. Once upon a time, the idea of driving to the mall and then strolling around in air-conditioned comfort was deemed the pinnacle of suburban living. But the Macy’s, and Sears, and many chain stores are all gone.
Five years ago, The Rebkee Co., purchased the parcels for the mall and out buildings for a total of $18.4 million with plans to execute a drastic overhaul. Until very recently, the only signs of change were reconstruction of streets accessing the mall and the addition of several stand-alone chain restaurants such as Panera, Chipotle, First Watch, and Starbucks on the periphery. There was no sign that the new owners had any intention to incorporate any element of walkable urbanism. I wrote off the project as a dumpster drive of a project consisting of buying the property at distress prices and generating quick, low-risk returns… in other words, business as usual that would blow an opportunity to create anything resembling urban living in Henrico.
But I may have been wrong. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Rebkee is undertaking a makeover of the mall as a mixed-use facility combining 320 apartments, entertainment, and some retail. Continue reading
By Peter Galuszka
Back in the winter of 2015, Craig Vanderhoef, a former Navy captain, got a disturbing surprise in his mailbox at his retirement home near Afton in Nelson County. A letter from Dominion Resources noted that it wanted to survey his land for a new 600-mile-long natural gas pipeline.
On two occasions, he wrote the utility telling them no. Then he got another surprise. A sheriff’s deputy knocked on his door to serve him with papers notifying him that Dominion was suing him to get access to his property.
In short order, about 240 Virginia landowners were on notice that they too might be sued for Dominion’s proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The county sheriff was notified that he, too, was being sued, although it was an error.
Thus, the stage was set for one of the nastiest environmental and property rights battles in Old Dominion history.
It centered around the Atlantic Coast Pipeline that would run from Harrison County, W.Va. across the rugged Appalachians, down through some of the most peacefully bucolic land in the Virginia., to Union Hill, a mostly African-American community in Buckingham county and on into North Carolina, running through the Tar Heel state’s mostly African-American concentration along its northeastern border with Virginia. Continue reading
Posted in Agriculture & forestry, Energy, Environment, Federal, Government Oversight, Housing, Individual rights, Infrastructure, Land use & development, Money in politics, Politics, Poverty & income gap, Property rights, Public corruption
Vacant storefronts — a challenge and an opportunity
by James A. Bacon
The stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 epidemic accelerated a trend that was already reshaping the American economy: the shift of commerce from bricks-and-mortar retail to online delivery. Traditional retailers are retrenching; malls and shopping centers are hollowing out. If current trends continue, we’ll be seeing a lot more UPS and Amazon trucks cruising through our neighborhoods… and a lot of vacant retail space.
This seemingly irreversible trend will create dramatic challenges and opportunities for Virginia communities. Local governments rely upon the property taxes generated by malls and shopping centers. As those properties empty out and lose value, local governments will see an important revenue source erode. That is a problem, to be sure. But the decline of bricks-and-mortar also presents Virginia localities with once-in-a-generation opportunities. The potential exists to address two of Virginia’s chronic issues: affordable housing and traffic gridlock.
The scarcity of affordable housing in Virginia, especially in high-growth counties, has become increasingly acute in recent years. Construction of new dwelling units has not kept pace with household formation, and housing shortages have pushed up rents and sales prices faster than incomes have risen. Home builders would be more than happy to build more houses, if only they could find the land and gain zoning approvals from local governments to do so. Meanwhile, congestion is reasserting itself on Virginia’s Interstates, highways and arterials. There is not enough money to build our way out of gridlock.
While no solution is perfect, the least imperfect is to recycle old retail districts into “walkable urbanism” resembling pedestrian-friendly places such as Arlington, Reston, or downtown Richmond and Norfolk. Continue reading
The latest to be vandalized: The Richmond Howitzers Monument.
by James A. Bacon
As the City of Richmond becomes increasingly ungovernable in the face of continued protests and vandalism, a lot of people are saying to themselves, “I’m out of here.” Here’s a prediction: Middle-class flight will become the next big thing.
Richmond, like many other cities around the country, has enjoyed a strong economic revival in recent years. The city offered walkable streets, attractive neighborhoods and a lively cultural scene that attracted many young people. Businesses followed their creative-class employees to downtown, Shockoe Bottom and Scotts Addition. Taxes were higher and schools were problematic, but violent crime rates had fallen and people felt safe. Richmond seemed so much more vibrant and exciting than the suburbs of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties.
Everything has changed. Public order is eroding. As the state capital, Richmond has seen weeks of protests, destruction, and now vandalism unchecked by law enforcement. Yesterday, even though Governor Ralph Northam and Mayor Levar Stoney had proclaimed their intention to remove Civil War statues within the scope of the law, “protesters” couldn’t contain their rage. They tore down a third statue.
Stoney’s response: Fire the police chief.
You won’t see members of the silent majority organizing counter-protests. They won’t even post yard signs, for fear of being vandalized. They’ll just vote with their feet. They’ll sell their houses and move to the suburbs. The ‘burbs may be sterile, but they’re safer. Continue reading
By Peter Galuszka
The $8.5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline has won a significant legal victory but the war is far from over.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, has ruled in favor of project operated by Dominion Energy and Duke Energy saying that its 42-inch pipeline can cross under the Appalachian Trail in the George Washington National Forest.
The Court ruled that the pipeline can pass 600 feet underneath the trail and that the U.S. Forest Service has the right to allow a right of way. The Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals had previously ruled that the Forest Service had no such authority.
Dissenting, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan wrote that the U.S. Minerals Leasing Act does give the federal government the right to regulate federal land, including trails. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority ruling, said that plans to bury the pipeline under the Appalachian Trail represent an easement which is not the same as “land.”
The project still faces eight other permitting issues involving the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Continue reading
Posted in Agriculture & forestry, Business and Economy, Economic development, Energy, Environment, Federal, Infrastructure, Labor & workforce, Land use & development, Planning, Politics, Property rights, Regulation
Tagged Peter Galuszka
by Stephen Haner
Producer Michael Moore’s explosive new documentary on the renewable energy industry is indeed causing heads to explode. You’d better take the 100 minutes to see Planet of the Humans before the forces of political correctness drive it off YouTube, where it was approaching 3 million views this morning. The first 30 minutes give you the gist, but if you get that far, you’ll be hooked.
John Maynard Keynes
By Peter Galuszka
John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, advocated government spending and monetary intervention as suitable for modern economies.
When I was a student at a liberal college in New England in the early 1970s, we were taught that Keynes very much had the right idea. As evidence, we had the Great Society programs of Lyndon B. Johnson and, strangely, the Vietnam War. They all relied on vast amounts of deficit public spending.
Since then, free-market types came into favorable light and it all became the magic of the market, little regulation and other panaceas.
According to whom you read, pro-capitalism economist Milton Friedman admitted the necessity of Keynes’ thinking by stating, “We’re all Keynesians now.” President Richard Nixon, a Republican, is also credited with the quote when he took the U.S. off the gold standard.
The phrase is taking on increasing relevance with the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia is no exception. Continue reading
By Peter Galuszka
Veteran photographer Karen Kasmauski, who grew up in Norfolk, has a brilliant online project that shows the human and environmental impacts of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
She is a senior fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, a non-profit group that funded her project that centers mostly in rural Nelson and Buckingham Counties that would be dissected by the natural gas pipeline.
She combines spectacular aerial photos with deep close ups of people.
One of her subjects is Ella Rose, a retiree who lives in a small house in Union Hill. She was living a quiet happy life in her natural setting until she got a letter from Dominion Energy stating that they would be routing the ACP about 150-feet from her house.
Union Hill is a touchpoint for pipeline controversy since it is largely African-American community that ACP officials have selected for a compressor station. It is one of similar localities that seem to be targeted with other loud and disruptive equipment along the pipeline route. Continue reading
Posted in Agriculture & forestry, Consumer protection, Courts and law, Disaster planning, Economic development, Energy, Environment, Infrastructure, Land use & development, Regulation, Science & Technology
Tagged Peter Galuszka
by Kerry Dougherty
There are at least two groups of babbling fools that have been mercifully silent during this emerging pandemic: anti-vaxxers and the so-called New Urbanists.
No one wants to hear from the nuts who refuse to vaccinate their kids right now. The world is praying for a COVID-19 vaccine and these crazies don’t even get flu shots.
The New Urbanists have also slunk away somewhere. To their high-rise co-ops, I suppose, where they’re trying to figure out how to ride the elevator while staying six feet away from their neighbors.
You remember the New Urbanists, don’t you? They were the urban planners who polluted Virginia Beach’s strategic growth office and tried to foist a billion-dollar light-rail system on us, insisting that the only way millennials could be persuaded to stay in our fair city was if we provided them with ant colony living.
The rail stops would become dense hubs of “mixed use” activity where people could live in tiny boxes above high-end stores and markets. While these visionaries praised sardine life, they also scoffed at the suburbs. Continue reading