Challenged in Chesterfield

Chesterfield County makes an interesting petrie dish for studying development. The county of 300,000 residents has a vast overhang of land zoned for residential housing– enough for 43,000 new dwelling units, according to Scott Bass’ article in Style Weekly. And the Board of Supervisors continues to rezone more land, at least for quality projects such as the proposed mixed-use Roseland development near the intersection of Midlothian Turnpike and Rt. 288, which is adding 5,000 houses, condos and apartments to the building stock. The Southern Environmental Law Center is projecting growth of 125,000 housing units by 2030.

Most of the development, however, is small-scale and piecemeal: following the classic suburban pattern of walled off shopping centers and cul de sac subdivisions. There are very few mixed-use neighborhoods (although some are on the drawing boards). The pod-like pattern of development offers very little connectivity between the different pieces. As a consequence, Chesterfield residents rely upon a relatively small number of connector roads and arterials to get around. Compounding the problem, the county actively discourages mass transit.

Despite the gift of newly constructed Rt. 288, paid for by the state, traffic congestion is heading to gridlock. The county lacks the means to build its way out of its jam. Although Chesterfield collects proffers of $15,600 per house on land rezoned today, houses on property rezoned in the early 1990s may yield proffers of as little as $2,000. The state, which runs Chesterfield roads, has very little money to contribute. And unlike Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the Richmond region is not empowered to raise taxes for regional road projects.

Meanwhile, NIMBYs, reacting to the increased pressure on roads, schools and county finances, want to curtail growth through such ill-conceived measures as minimum lot sizes that would smear growth over larger areas that are even more expensive to serve with roads, utilities and public services.

What’s a county to do? One proposal I’ve heard is to give the go-ahead to developers of large, mixed-use projects who have the knowledge and financial backing to build well-planned, well-conceived communities. Given a choice between living in pedestrian-friendly communities with a wide range of amenities available nearby or living in disaggregated, auto-dependent subdivisions, people will flock to the quality projects. The good stuff will get built, the argument goes, and the bad stuff won’t. Maybe. The hitch is that the large mixed-use projects are located on the urban periphery and rely upon Rt. 288 and a handful of other roads for connectivity with the rest of the metro area. Those roads will quickly get overloaded.

The other strategy is revitalization of older suburbs, an example of which is the re-development proposed for the aging Cloverleaf Mall just off the Chippenham Parkway. But re-development works only when developers can increase density, and that doesn’t appear to be something that Chesterfield is willing to do on anything other than a spot, case-by-case basis.

In next week’s e-zine, I will explore a third strategy: Encourage transit-oriented development along a commuter rail line running from the proposed Roseland project on Rt. 288 through Midlothian and into downtown Richmond. Follow Arlington’s example in zoning for higher density around the rail stops. And use Community Development Authorities to pay the up-front cost of setting up the heavy rail operation. Read the details Monday.

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21 responses to “Challenged in Chesterfield”

  1. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    Sounds like an interesting story.

    I am not sure you are talking about “commuter rail.” It is more like “light rail” or a 1920s “interurban.”

    There are a lot of differences having to do with length of trains, frequency of trains the bottom line is carrying capacity and hours and directions of operation.

    “Commuter rail uses standard “high steel” locos and cars that that take a long time to get up to speed and a long time to stop.

    As you know, in spite of the State jobs that are focused near the Centroid, the long term objective must be two or three Balanced Communities in Chesterfield if there is to be Mobility and Access.

    Too bad something could not start at Brandermill.


  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “…The hitch is that the large mixed-use projects are located on the urban periphery and rely upon Rt. 288”

    and this describes the current state of the art in places like Stafford and Spotsylvania where we are seeing just “wonderful” mixed-use proposals …. right off of I-95 for all those folks that want to work in NoVa and live in a “quality” development outside of NoVa.


    this is the basis of my original comment about how “smart” – “smart growth” is when.. it’s 50 miles of commuting away from those folks day jobs.

    and that begs the question … about the rationale with respect to mixed-use developments – in general.

    Mixed-use in Alexandria is NOT the same as mixed-use in Chesterfield courtesy of Rt 288.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    This whole situation sounds eerily similar to the plans for 29 North of Charlottesville

    The problem with the one transit line is that its extremley limiting that you have to work extremely close to the line. It might work a bit downtown but I am assuming many people also work in the burbs

    Still it looks like a good idea to build up the transit corridor via Arlington. The question is is there a high demand for young professionals and other to live in the resulting condos

    My limited impressions are that Chesterfield is more family oriented


  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    let’s pretend we trade cars for light rail for mixed-used developments for the daily work commute.

    Does it change anything if that development is still .. say 50 miles from where most of the residents work?

    What if.. there is no rail but instead direct bus service – even perhaps bus rapid transit?

    What exactly is the intrinsic value of mixed-use development in situations like Chesterfield?

    I can see the NIMBY issue clearly.

    If you look at the total amount of potential development – mixed-use is going to generate much higher increases in population growth than if the land was limited to one house per 5 or even 50 acres.

    What is the benefit to Chesterfield (and it’s residents) to essentially set the county up for a build-out growth scenario that is 5-10 times higher than if they only allowed low-density development?

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I might be on the wrong track but I’ll ask the question anyhow…

    What CRITERIA would one use to determine how appropriate GREENFIELD multi-use projects are?

    I think folks agree that multi-use is wonderful for infill redevelopment

    and we know that plopping a multi-use project down in the middle of a rural area – especially a rural area that lacks the external infrastructure (like water/sewer) or “right-sized” roads…

    so what criteria can be used to determine if a multi-use project is beneficial or not to a given location?

    Take 1000 acres right off of I-95 in Stafford County.

    Would that be a beneficial location for a dense multi-use development if most of the residents still commuted to NoVa?

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    The problem with Chesterfield is that supervisors never found a rezoning they didn’t like back in the late 80s and early 90s. These were local, country, Old County folk who were not the most sophisticated people in the world. Or the brightest. They had no idea what their decisions meant or, for that matter, cared. Development was good. Period. And guess what? They were all Republicans.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    same problem exactly with Stafford and Spotsylvania

    but mixed-use is not allowed by-right.

    I has to be approved.

    What are the benefits to Chesterfield, Stafford, Spotsylvania citizens and taxpayers to approve high-density, mixed-use rezones if good-salaried jobs are not part of the deal

    I can see… a truly wonderful mixed-use opportunity for say.. a Microsoft or a GOOGLE or even a new Homeland Security headquarters – ANYTHING that will bring good jobs… just hug the new company and cooperate/collaborate mixed-use around the new company and then you would have folks biking and even walking to their jobs.

    but.. just a mixed-use development whose residents still need to commute to their jobs many miles away… how does that benefit a locality?

  8. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Larry, I appraise development projects for their impact on a “micro” level and a “macro” level, or, to put it another way, the local impact and regional impact.

    Traditional “suburban” (scattered, disconnected, low-density) development is inefficient on both the micro and macro level. (If people want to live in those kinds of communities, that’s OK as long as they are willing to pay the cost of providing them with transportation, utilities and public services.)

    Quality New Urbanist projects can be efficient on a micro level — clustering houses, creating pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streetscapes, creating a mix of residential, retail, services and some jobs — but inefficient on a macro level. That is, they can function well locally but create the kind of issues you raise: half the workforce still has to commute 50 miles to work, which strains the regional transportation system. That was the criticism leveled against Haymount in Caroline County, for example, which was an exemplar in most every other way. The same criticism can be leveled against some of the New Urbanist projects proposed for Stafford, Spotsy and Chesterfield.

    In defense of those projects, I would contend that creating New Urbanist communities in the wrong places is less bad than allowing traditional suburban development in the wrong places!

    The ideal arrangement is to create good urban design (mixed uses, moderate density, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, protection of greenspace, etc.) in the *right* places. What constitutes the “right” place? It is a place where the project will plug into, and contribute to, a “Balanced Community” with a balance of housing, jobs, retail and amenities. In a Balanced Community, a much smaller percentage of the workforce will find it necessary to commute long distances to their jobs.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Fair enough:

    1. – what is the benefit at the micro scale for mixed-used projects predominately for commuters?

    2. – what is the benefit at the macro (regional) scale for mixed-use projects predominately for commuters?

    3. – why benefits accrue to Chesterfield for building such mixed-used developments if in doing so – their ultimate build-out population numbers are much higher than for low-density development scenarios?

    you mention the cost of roads.

    The numbers of folks who would commute from low-density development is 1/10 the numbers of folks who would commute from high-density mixed use developments.

    so .. you still need the commuter road – but a much smaller road – right?

    these are Devil’s Advocate questions but the reason I ask them is for folks to know and understand their own rationales when dealing with realities.

    we say we want a better way of developing settlement patterns and to help move us away from being primarily an auto-dependent society

    we say .. mixed-use reduces auto-dependent impacts…

    does it really achieve it’s stated goal – if the mixed-use is a commuter/bedroom community?

    Doesn’t mixed-use on the fringes of NoVa/Richmond/et al really make the auto dependent commuting issue – BIGGER – and in fact, MUCH MUCH BIGGER than if you limited such development to low-density?

  10. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    Having a way to answer questions such as yours is exactly the reason we developed Regional Metrics and have worked to articulate:

    The Clear Edge,

    The Centroid,

    The Zentrum,

    The Core,

    The Countryside,

    Balanced Communities,

    Balanced But Disaggregated Communities.

    The short answer to your question is that inside the Clear Edge around the Core of a New Urban Region any new project, whatever the scale should help evolve Balanced Communities that make up the Regional Core.

    If the project does not make that contribution, the fair allocation of location variable costs will go a long way toward discouraging the project, even “mixed use projects” in the wrong location. For example a New Urbanist Traditional Neighborhood Developemt (TND) that adds yet another “Town Center” that is not the “center” of any organic component of human settlement.

    The same is true for projects inside the Clear Edge around larger urban agglomerations (Beta Community scale or larger) in Urban Support Regions.

    Outside the Clear Edge around the Core of New Urban Regions (e.g. in the Countryside that is part of every New Urban Region)or

    Outside the Clear Edge around urban agglomerations in Urban Support Regions

    The project should support the evolution toward a Balanced But Disaggregated Community.

    Again, if the location varible costs are fairly allocated — no, not new “controls” — these projects will we discouraged.

    In your sketch hypothetical higher denisty “mixed use” projects in dysfunctional locations and lower density projects in the same loctaions would both be discouraged.

    The degree of “badness” would depend on the net flow of “communters” among other things. This dysfunctional flow would be reflected in the allocation of costs.

    Hope that helps.


  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    so .. if I was a planner for the “people” of the county – the residents and taxpayers, would it be a benefit to set specific criteria…

    How about:

    * – no more than 50% of the homes inside mixed used can be commuters?

    * – that housing that costs no more than the salaries paid be made available to the folks who DO live AND work inside that mixed use?

    In other words – ever job in that mixed use can, if desired, obtain housing in that mixed-use development.

    Would the two things above be a fair mandate for the “market” to, in fact, provide, what it claims to be providing?

    Would it be a fair way to balance the needs of taxpayers with new growth?

  12. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    let’s go one step further.

    Let’s give density bonuses and/or allow the selling of housing “credits” for mixed-use that exceed the minimum “benefit” criteria…

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    The Centroid? The Zentrum? Aren’t you mixing up vitamin pills with land use concepts?

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    errr.. .yes…

    Let’s do an interview with the Senior Planner in Spotsylvania.

    Interviewer: “Have you incorporated the Centroid, Zentrum and the Core concepts into your Comp Plan yet?”

    Planner: “Say what?”

    Interviewer: “You know.. what is your plan for implemententing Balanced Communities?”

    Planner: “huh?”

    Interview: “Don’t give me that dumb look. I know dang well that you guys had a workshop on that exact subject just last year”.

    Planner: “geeze.. oh THAT WORKSHOP – I never totally understood .. by the donuts were good”.

    EMR – (tearing his hair out) “Gawd O’mighty… WHEN R U Guys going to “get it?”

    Senior Planner: “Do you think you might come back and tell us again?”

    EMR – unholstering his stun gun….. “enough of you heathens”.

    🙂 .. just kidding folks…

  15. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Larry re your 10:42 comments:

    What you propose is a “regulatory” way to approach the issues we raised. You are on the right track re the parameters.

    The way we have used this strategy in the past is to say: OK here are the parameters for you to meet in phase one (e.g. number of trips per household, number of jobs that match affordablilty of dwelling, etc.)if you meet those you can go on to phase two, if not, no phase two until you do.

    In pratice the developer comes in with proposals for what he can do and there is a negotiation.

    The best example of this working in real time is Reston Town Center. We did it first on other projects.

    What I am saying prospectively is that the fair allocation of cost would replace this phase by phase negotiation.

    The phase process works in the right context. No big project is only approved once. There are revisions after revisions. 15 as I recall at Burke Centre, perhaps more.

    It takes smart developers, smart governace practitioners and smart citizens involved in the process.

    We had all three at Burke Centre, Fair Lakes and other projects.

    Your 2:56 comments:

    Fun but no banana.

    You give far more weight to what the “senior planner” thinks or knows.

    In Spotsy and elsewhere it will be up to you and your friends to learn the ropes and then let the Supervisors know they will not be in office long unless they learn the ropes too.

    They then tell their planning commissioners what the parameters are and they also tell the Planning Director what he needs to do and what his staff needs to do in preperation for the upcoming annual performance review.

    It is up to you, that is why PROPERTY DYNAMICS and HANDBOOK are so important.


  16. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll offer myself as an example. I live
    (Brandermill), work (Magnolia Green), and play (where ever I can) in Chesterfield. Within a mile radius is everything I could ever need. If not for the kids, I could survive without a car.

    Chesterfield has several proposals currently under review that offer a mix of uses. Roseland is attempting to navigate the zoning process, Watkins Centre broke ground just today, and as mentioned earlier, Cloverleaf Mall is getting a facelift. We have many people that praise the principles new urbanism at the public podium and in the same sentence, complain about 4 units/acre.
    4 units/acre isn’t high density to anyone who has ever read a land use textbook. The devil is in the design, not the density.

    We do have a serious problem with connectivity around here. From what I hear, the powers that be are even considering eliminating our connectivity policy. Yes, we have one. However, when thee NIMBYS begin to quietly whisper discontent about a proposal connecting to their neighborhood, the officials waive the policy. The result… So many stub roads to nowhere.
    Then the very same people complain about the few connectors and major arterials because they are so congested.
    The problem is a lack of understanding about proper land use. I have requested the county hold a “Land Use 101” conference on the subject for some time now. I am hopeful someone will listen. The county’s current and future transportation answers are coming in the form of developers building the roads, CDAs, and now, impact fees. (we are 30 days prior to the committee phase. At this point, I am still on the committee)

    If projects are zoned and designed with the understanding that higher density (and a smaller footprint) must accompany a percentage of open space and a percentage of employment generating uses, as EMR suggests (I think)it will work. We have strayed away from linking traffic generation and density. We should re-examine the benefits of this at zoning. I never met Mr. Plaxco, and I know he was eccentric, but he was talented in his visions of mixed use communities. Unfortunately, not all of them came out of the ground and matched the origional vision.

    We do need commuter rail, and it is a shame it can not start in Brandermill. That would be wonderful. The most recent report on commuting patterns surprised me a little in that so many people are coming from Amelia and Powhatan. I welcome these people, but I was surprised by the numbers.

    I appreciate the dialogue as there aren’t many fellow tree hugging, sound land use advocating, developers that I have found.

  17. Tyler Craddock Avatar
    Tyler Craddock

    I appreciate the dialogue as there aren’t many fellow tree hugging, sound land use advocating, developers that I have found.

    But Andrea, that’s why I like to cut them down. They are easier to hug that way!! 🙂

    Disclaimer: Before everyone gets all upset, that was a joke!

  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: schitzo attitude towards connecting roads.

    agree. Folks want their own subdivisions to be one gigantic cul-de-sac with it’s own dedicated signal on the arterial…

    .. then those folks look for “cut throughs” when the artierials get too many signal lights and become congested.

    I cannot prove this of course but I do have my suspects.

    Neither the developer nor the BOS will hold firm on the intent to have connecting roads in new subdivisions.

    The BOS doesn’t want to lose votes and the developers don’t want to lose sales to other developments that got BOS waivers for connecting roads.

    But part of this has to do, in my mind, with a lack of a master transportation plan to start with and an almost slavish idea that connecting roads – the more the better – everwhere is a substitute for thinking more comprehensively about transportation and land-use.

    We just had a rather large development go online and basically it had a spine road with side feeder roads and the spine road was connected at both ends to primary/arterials – and it works quite nicely.

    The problem is had this development been done.. in smaller, piecemeal fashion – none of the smaller ones would have wanted to be “the one” with the spine road and so there would not have been one.

    I keep thinking.. we don’t do water/sewer this way. Imagine if each development had to build it’s own direct line vice tapping into the adjacent lines for existing subdivisions…

    and this strategy simply would not work – unless the county made sure that the pipes being put in the ground had enough capacity for BOTH developments.

    The same thing needs to be done with respect to roads… and the problem all along has been that VDOT does it’s thing – not as an effective collaboration with the counties and the development community but rather along the lines of “we’ll get to this when we get time and we’ll decide what needs to happen.. so hold tight until we get back to you”.

    In other words – VDOT doesn’t seem to care about connectivity and maintaining/improving system preservation/effectiveness

    … they sometimes seem more than happy to put up a gazillion traffic signals then advocate for a new “bypass” when the original road loses it’s functionality.

    Local planners do the best they can but at the end of the day between the BOS, homeowners and VDOT – it’s such an uphill fight that there is no benefit to trying to do it right. If you are a planner and you stick to your guns – you get to find a new job.

  19. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Andrea, I find it fascinating to find out that Chesterfield County has a “connectivity” policy… and discouraging to find out that NIMBYs actively undermine it. I guess it’s the same old story — everyone *else’s* project should provide connectivity, just not mine.

  20. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Back to this thread:

    What would be useful would be for those that believe that mixed-use promotes “better” development would be to cite the alleged benefits and then to show actual existing examples that perform – as advertised.

    This would be easy to do.

    go to an existing mixed-use development and:

    1. – figure out the numbers with respect to who lives and works there.

    2. – do traffic counts and compare to traditional development

    The conventional-wisdom yadda yadda refrain is ” a place where folks can live and work” and don’t have to drive everywhere”


    But of the 10 auto trips a day per home, the 2,3 or 4 5 minute trips to the grocery store for Pecan Ice Cream are not the problem.

    The problem is the twice-daily rush hour commute.

    That’s where everyone who ever bought Pecan Ice cream on one night two weeks ago – shows up every single day – twice a day on roads that are just fine for Pecan Ice cream shopping but woefully inadequate for everybody-and-their-dog on-the-road-at-once commuters.

    I am starting to suspect that “mixed-use” is the son of “development pays for itself” school of advertising.

    Have we, in effect, moved on to more sophisticated portrayal of development – that doesn’t perform much more differently that more conventional development.

    Is the truth that most exurban Multi-use does NOT provide a legitimate opportunity for residents of the development to truly live and work locally?

    The people who work at these multi-use developments do not earn enough money to live there, much less walk/bike from where they do live to where they do work.

    Strike ONE.

    And the people who can afford to live there – have to commute – some distance – to a job that pays enough salary to afford one of the homes in the develoment.

    Strike TWO.

    So the truth is that one group of people live in mixed-use and a separate group work there – and BOTH groups use autos to get to/from their jobs – at rush hour.

    Strike THREE.

    And yet.. places like Chesterfield, Stafford, etc have developers, elected officials, even folks who claim “smart growth” credentials are on the bandwagon

    … in my mind – without a clue – or at best without a need to actually want to verify/validate mixed-used performance with claims.

    Mixed-use in exurban green-field locations adjacent to transportation corridors is bedroom communities on steroids.

    The simple reality is that most do not perform as advertised.

    If you have 100 acres next to 288 in Chesterfield – you are much, much better off allowing only 200 people to live there rather than a thousand because virtually all of them will commute up on 288 twice a day and simple math will tell you that 200 cars on 288 is better than 1000.

    If you wanted to do something that would eat up the available capacity on 288 as quickly as possible – do the mixed-use…

    I’m not opposed to mixed use at all.

    I just think that we are fooling ourselves if we do not require performance criteria as a condition of approval.

    I guarantee folks that if you put performance criteria as a condition of approval – you’d see a lot less mixed-use proposals.

    and developers would then switch to the next unproven but appealing-sounding concept to gain rezone approvals.

  21. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    Jim- I can understand why you would be surprised that we have an actual policy. In fact, when a development proposal goes into the community, the people that live in adjacent subdivisions on the stub roads demand the new development not connect to theirs. They “don’t want all of that traffic on their quiet street” (and obviously don’t look at the plat of their subdivision before purchasing their home). So, they raise hell, and the planning commission and BOS waive the policy at zoning above the objections of the fire department and planning staff. The existing residents don’t understand the nature or necessity of connectivity and there is a lack of willingness to fully explain why it became policy in the first place. The citizens of Chesterfield need an honest, safety related education.

    Tyler- Actually, if you leave the trees, you can hug them standing because you will have enough oxygen in your blood to stand up! 🙂

    Larry- I can prove your theory about cut through’s. Take a piece of land on the corner of two major arterials at a major intersection within 150’ of several hundred residential units.( Charter Colony Parkway/ Old Hundred Road and Genito ) Add a high traffic generating use and a site plan that ENCOURAGES cut through to avoid the signal. Now, if you live on the other side of Genito, try to make a left onto the road during rush hour.
    I can tell you from direct personal daily experience it’s a risk. At the time that particular site plan was approved by the commission, my warning (hell, outright screaming about safety) didn’t matter. And now people use it as a cut through every day to get onto Genito Road to avoid Hull St.

    As for mixing uses- local ordinances aren’t currently structured to encourage a mix of uses that truly provide what is necessary. Chesterfield is currently rewriting the subdivision ordinance and there are a few new zoning categories in the pipeline. With some luck,( our staff has the skill) we could see ordinances that promote mixing uses by providing for various types and levels of employment, commercial, service, and recreational opportunities combined together inside village cores within large scale communities. I don’t mean another “downtown”; how many of those are really needed? But rather a true TND with more appropriate densities located to take advantage of existing infrastructure.
    There are also existing communities that could be used for performance based criteria developmet. That is a good idea.

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