Downtown Richmond Falls in Love with the Mid-Rise

The old...

by James A. Bacon

Still need proof that the momentum of growth and development is shifting back to traditional downtowns? Consider this: Roughly 3,000 apartment units are under construction in the Richmond metropolitan region — and half of them are located downtown.

The new. (Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch).
Present… (Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch).

That gem of a factoid was buried in a Times-Dispatch article about the construction of two mid-rise buildings on the edge of Virginia Commonwealth University. A $13.6 million, seven-story structure on Grace Street, owned by the VCU Real Estate Foundation, will be used for classrooms, faculty office, media relations and retail space. A $20 million, 11-story building, developed by private investors, will have 150 apartment units open to anyone, not just students, who wants to rent them. With amenities including a fitness center, rooftop lounge and recreation room, rents will run between $920 and $1,500 per month.


The new buildings replace two older structures, one currently used by VCU and the other a seedy, one-story retail building.

The Square Apartments are significant not only for the impact they will have on the urban fabric north of VCU but the fact that, unlike so many downtown apartments, it does not rely upon historic tax credits to make the financing work. (I’m taking a leap in making that statement, but I feel safe in making it — the old structure was destroyed to make way for the new. Nothing of historic value is being preserved.)

Most apartment construction downtown consists of adaptive reuse such as the old Central National Bank building, an art deco treasure, the old Massey Energy headquarters building, and the old warehouses in Shockoe Bottom. The supply of historic buildings that can be retrofitted into apartments is rapidly dwindling. For downtown and neighboring precincts to continue growing, the market will have to be able to supply mid-rise buildings erected on tear-down lots. The Square Apartments demonstrate that such projects can get financed and built. There is no shortage of run-down properties in the Broad Street corridor with no redeeming architectural value that can be converted to mid-rises.

The Richmond real estate marketplace is turning its back on sprawl in way impossible to imagine a decade ago, when development across the region consumed land more voraciously than anywhere else in Virginia. The City of Richmond is debating the merits of mixed-use development focused on a new ballpark in Shockoe Bottom versus mixed-use development focused on a new ballpark on the Boulevard near Interstate 95. Meanwhile, much of the growth in neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield Counties consists of re-developing land at greater density. In Henrico, for instance, Gumenick Properties is recycling an 80-acre tract of lower income housing into 994 single-family houses and 1,096 apartments in a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, Crosland Southeast is converting the old Cloverleaf Mall in Chesterfield into a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood that includes 350 multifamily residences.

That’s not to say that traditional suburban development — scattered cul-de-sac subdivisions and shopping centers — is dead. But the momentum has clearly shifted. The Richmond region is slowly mending itself.

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16 responses to “Downtown Richmond Falls in Love with the Mid-Rise”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    The problem with your theory is that while the city of Richmond’s population did grow by 3.4% between 2010 and 2013 Chesterfield County’s population also grew by 3.4% over the same period. However, since Chesterfield has a larger population more people were added to Chesterfield than the city of Richmond. Chesterfield added about 10,000 people over the past 3 years while the city of Richmond added about 7,000 people. During that same time Henrico County grew at 3.3% adding another 10,000 to its population.

    It might be fair to say that Richmond isn’t getting any more spread out but it’s hard for me to see how the area is mending itself.

    For what it’s worth, Arlington County grew 9.4% during the 2010 – 2013 timeframe (adding 20,000 people) while Loudoun County grew 11.4% (adding 35,000 people).

    Even the very ex-urban Prince William County grew 7.3% (adding 29,000 people) over the 2010 – 2013 period.

    Your thesis has been that human settlement trends irreversibly changed in 2008 with the onset of the so-called Great Recession.

    It seems to me that the exurbs are growing as fast as the urban areas since 2010.

  2. Before 2007: Exurbs got all the growth. Cities shrank.
    After 2007: Exurbs got some of the growth. Cities increased population for the first time in decades.

    You don’t call that a shift in momentum?

    I’ve never said, “the suburbs are dead.” I’ve never said, “the suburbs won’t grow anymore.” Never. I’ve said the momentum of growth has shifted. Is that statement really so hard to agree with?

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      Here is what you actually wrote – “That’s to say that traditional suburban development — scattered cul-de-sac subdivisions and shopping centers — is dead.”

      Perhaps a typo?

      1. Egads! That was a typo. I have corrected the original post to say, “That’s not to say that traditional suburban development … is deadl.”

  3. Also, you have to consider what kind of growth and development is occurring in Henrico and Chesterfield. An increasing proportion consists of walkable, mixed-use communities. That growth may not be located in “the city.” So what? Parts of both counties are adding density and walkability.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Now you’re getting somewhere. At some point you have to follow the numbers. The cities are not racing past the suburbs and exurbs. They are shrinking less than they used to shrink – I’ll buy that. They are keeping up on a percentage basis – I’ll buy that. But to say there is no reason to build new roads in places like Chesterfield and Loudoun counties seems more than a stretch.

      Personally, I don’t give a rat’s ass if Rail to Dulles reduces congestion. I do hope that it creates more densely populated, walkable areas in Fairfax County. That would be progress enough in my opinion.

  4. Walkable is nice. I’ve been doing more of it lately. But there is still a big issue with living in a multi-family building – cheek to jowl with my neighbors. I suppose that, if I live to be old enough, I won’t be in a SFH. But my hearing will likely be shot to hell so living cheek to jowl might not be so bad.

    And I expect my kids will do multi-family for a while when they get out of school because that’s all they can afford. But if they want to live in New York, I suspect they will move there. If the economy weren’t so crappy, would so many people in their 30s still be living like they were in their 20s?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      I can imagine living in a small detached house where you can walk to stores and restaurants. What the hay – my kids are moving out and I just don’t need the room I used to need. In fact, I remain appalled at the attitude of people living in Great Falls regarding walkability. They cling to some misbegotten belief that Great Falls is semi-rural. Semi-rural? In 2014? I actually own a second home in the middle of a corn / soybean field. That’s semi-rural! And, oddly enough, that second home is in an area where there are endless bike / walking lanes on the roads and bike paths through the woods.

      What a shame that the people who live in Great Falls can’t see the extra value that making the neighborhoods more walkable would bring.

  5. Great Falls would be an awesome place for bike and PED!

    make it happen DJ!

    1. The biggest problem in Great Falls would be right-of-way and the need for VDOT to widen and straighten roads.

      I know of a number of sidewalk/trail projects in McLean and Falls Church that are just sitting because one or more homeowner will not agree to provide or give up RoW. The supervisors are loath to condemn land. Both Fairfax County and VDOT screwed up years ago when the original development occurred by not insisting on RoW for sidewalks or trails. But they didn’t want to upset the developers.

      1. so DJ and his neighbors are the problem?


        1. DJRippert Avatar

          No doubt about it. It even worse than TMT says. There is a gas pipeline running straight through Great Falls. It’s kept cleared by the gas pipeline company. You could build a walking / biking path along the gas pipeline right of way in the blink of an eye. But people object. They don’t want “strangers” biking through the neighborhood. Jeesh.

          1. same exact problem down in Stafford and Spotsy exurbaniania…

            see.. these folks do NOT want shareable walking/biking infrastructure – at all.

            they do not want those who do not live there – traipsing through their community.

            Call it a culture value.

            some folks are fine leaving their house and stepping out onto a sidewalk, street, bike trail where there are tom, dick and harry strangers..and sketchy looking folks.

            others are not so comfortable.

            isn’t it funny that Jim Bacon lives in a place where residents would react the same way to strangers in their midst ..yet he advocates settlement patterns with all manner of weirdos milling around where you live.

            I wonder what Jim Bacons HOA would say about a bike trail proposal through their community?


      2. DJRippert Avatar

        The only valid argument is that widening the roads would wipe out a lot of trees.

        Every year a person or two, usually kids, die on the roads in Great Falls. The roads really aren’t safe. They should be widened and shoulders, side walks and bike paths built. Because Great Falls has no county sewer the houses are all on big enough lots to have septic systems. That’s usually a minimum of two or three acres. Taking away a small part of those lots to widen and straighten the roads wouldn’t do anybody a drop of harm.

        What kills me is the general belief that the property values would be reduced if Great Falls lost the so-called semi-rural look and feel. I personally believe the property values would go nowhere but up if we made the community walkable and bike friendly.

        1. Great Falls sounds like a Highfalutin version of Stafford/Loudoun “sprawl”!

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