Civic Elites Prefer Density, Transit in Richmond

Richmond region settlement patterns, circa 2013.
Richmond region settlement patterns, circa 2013.

In May about 300 people gathered at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center to participate in a Reality Check visioning exercise for the Richmond region. Everyone crowded around tables and placed Lego boxes on maps to indicate where they thought 450,000 new people and 200,000 new jobs expected for the region ideally should be located should be located by 2035. Teams at 28 tables produced 28 different visions of the future.

Yesterday, ULI-Richmond unveiled the composite results of those 28 efforts. As the RVA Reality Check Results summarizes the results of the exercise: “Participants overwhelmingly chose to grow in a more dense pattern than currently exists. Every single group of participants built more densely, and some significantly more so. Further, most groups carefully avoided building on undeveloped land, showing a strong preference for preserving undeveloped land and using current infrastructure.” Virtually every group concentrated much of the new development in downtown Richmond and nodes like Innsbrook office park.

Seventy-five percent of the participants expressed a  preference for preserving historic and natural resources, especially the James River; roughly 80% for expanding multimodal transportation options (i.e.mass transit); and 68% favored more mixed-use development.

By and large, I share those Smart Growth preferences. But it’s hard to know what to make of the findings. First of all, the participants were a self-selected group of real estate professionals, environmentalists, government officials and citizen activists. How representative are they of the community at large? Not very. For all practical purposes, Reality Check reflects the views of the civically engaged elite, not the general population.

Composite vision for Richmond settlement patterns, 2035.

Secondly, the exercise largely ignored economic and financial constraints. Background data provided the participants gave some sense of the infrastructure costs incurred by different categories of development, but people seemed to take at best cursory notice. Missing from the exercise were (a) market supply and demand data, (b) the constraining effects of city and county zoning policies, and (c) information on density levels required to make mass transit economically justifiable.

I wouldn’t call Reality Check a meaningful guide to Richmond’s future. But it does encapsulate the preferences of the region’s civic elite — the people who drive transportation, land use and development decisions. It’s pretty clear that there is a major disjuncture between what the elite would like and what the City of Richmond and outlying counties are zoned to deliver.


Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


8 responses to “Civic Elites Prefer Density, Transit in Richmond”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    By in large, most people buy what is built. Historically, sprawl has been far easier to build. It’s upfront costs, and the skill sets needed to develop it, are relatively speaking quite low. Its back end costs are typically hidden at first but can and do often rise to high and unsustainable levels over time.

    Dense Urban development is the reverse in all respects. Hence its hard to get started. Far too often it fails to offer people the alternative they need.

    The challenge is finding ways to overcome these initial obstacles to denser more urban growth. One way is finding ways that shift the vast sums of money now spent on funding roads that open up hinder-land sprawl to revitalizing urban / suburban infill with well designed mixed uses.

  2. I heavily discount the exercise called “Reality Check”. It actually attracts people who favor dense settlement patterns – for others as an antidote to more ‘sprawl’ where they live in their subdivisions!

    Second – the people who run it tend to operate manipulatively in “encouraging” density by citing all the disadvantages and costs of “spreading out” vs “going up”.

    Third – they tend to focus development density on existing transportation corridors – but they do not assume more autos – but transit.

    As in the current conundrum in Tysons -and in RIchmond – we still are a pretty car-culture world… and Reality Check has a social engineering feel to it for my likes.

  3. Landowners who own land in areas selected for dense development naturally support density. They stand to make lots of money. Local governments like it as they see more tax money to spend. Some individuals want to live near walkable shopping, parks, etc. There are also elites who want to push development to defined areas because they don’t want it near them. And some people/groups support density for ideological reasons.

    I don’t mind number 1, so long as the development addresses the infrastructure impact on existing residents, both in terms of capacity and costs to expand. Local government needs to look at long-term costs and revenues, not just cash flow.

    I think it’s great for the market to address demand. The desire to keep development outside one’s neighborhood is reasonable. It just needs to be visible. Ditto for ideology.

  4. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    As Jim has pointed out many times, people need the choice. Without having options and alternatives before them, people have no way to decide and select for themselves where and how they want to live.

    For far too long sprawl (forgive the too loose use of the word) has been people’s almost singular alternative. Since the 1950s they’ve been offered too little of anything else, despite the immense change that has been going on in our culture. When culture and innovation change our world, the places where we live, work and play need to adjust accordingly.

    And while making their choices, peoples logic comes into play, but far more than we suspect, there is something far deeper at work. As mentioned before, I remember seeing Lake Anne in Reston back as it was being built. I just wanted to move in there. Why? Because I wanted too.

  5. My perspective is that of a place that used to have 15,000 people and one high school until I-95 was built. 50 years later, we have 120,000 people and the vast, vast majority of them have jobs in NoVa and live in very conventional subdivisions in very traditional 3-4 bedroom single family detached with a front and back yard – AND they endure commuter hell 5 days a week to keep it. AND many of them (not all) relate that they had “no choice” but to move 50 miles from work and worse than that – they have “no choice” but to drive solo every day – and worse that that – they just totally resent the idea that someone could pay a toll to get a less congested more reliable ride.

    So my question is: are these folks “real” and if they are have they made that proverbial choice?

  6. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    And so we agree exactly.

  7. DJRippert Avatar

    The key metric is cost per sq ft of finished home. People will go to great extremes to ride that curve down.

    1. well, they’ll take the Commonwealth Transportation funding to great extremes to satisfy their “need”, “choice”, or in some cases “I have no choice but to commute 100 miles a day solo at rush hour and I resent giving those who carpool/vanpool/bus getting a better deal than I”

Leave a Reply