How to Squeeze 40,000 More People into Richmond

Mark Olinger. Photo credit: Style Weekly.
Mark Olinger. Photo credit: Style Weekly.

by James A. Bacon

According to growth projections cited by the Urban Land Institute, the population of the Richmond region is expected to grow by roughly 200,000 households (430,000 people) by 2035. Where will that growth go? How much of it can be absorbed by existing urban areas, and how much will end up, by default, as sprawl-like development in outlying jurisdictions?

Mark Olinger, planning director for the City of Richmond, says the city could grow to a population of 250,000 over the next two decades — an addition of roughly 40,000 residents. The resulting investment has the potential to transform the city, he says. “Richmond can be one of the great midsized cities in America.”

The city population peaked around 1970 at 250,000 residents. But households were larger then than they are today; more people packed into houses and apartments than they do now. Today’s population contains more singles, more empty nesters and more single-parent households. Therefore, a population of 250,000 today will require considerably more housing units. Where will those units go?

Some neighborhoods will see very little change, Olinger told me last week during lunch at Comfort, a downtown restaurant. The residents of Windsor Farms, a neighborhood of million-dollar homes, like things exactly the way they are. The same can be said of historic neighborhoods like the Fan, Church Hill and Ginter Park. But there’s plenty of under-utilized land in the old Manchester district, south of the James River from downtown, Scott’s Addition, an old industrial zone off Interstate 64, and along the old federal highway corridors like Broad Street, Midlothian Turnpike and U.S. 1.

Those areas can be re-developed with mixed-use buildings at much higher residential densities. Because those areas are zoned for commercial and industrial, they need not inpinge upon single-family dwellings where homeowners want to preserve the character of their neighborhoods. With greater density, such corridors also can be served by Bus Rapid Transit (see “Will Broad Street BRT Pay Its Own Way?“), which would ease traffic congestion.

Before coming to Richmond in 2011, Olinger served as planning director of Madison, Wisc., which, like Richmond, is a state capital with a large university downtown.  Many of the challenges are the same, including the fact that roughly half the real estate — owned by the state and local government, churches and universities — is tax exempt.

Olinger also shares Mayor Dwight Jones’ vision of re-developing Richmond’s crime-ridden housing projects as mixed-use communities that bring jobs into the city’s poorest neighborhoods and, as a bonus, bust up the concentrations of poverty associated with crime and other social pathologies.

Though optimistic, Olinger does not understate the challenges. “People talk about infill as if all the infrastructure is in place,” he says. “Yeah, we may have sewers but they’re 100-year-old sewers.” Creating the kind of walkable, bikable streetscapes that Olinger would like also costs money.

The good news is that S&P has just upgraded the city’s bond rating to AA+, giving Richmond cheaper access to capital than, say, Washington, D.C.,  Baltimore, New York or Los Angeles. But the city still falls short of the AAA rating commanded by the likes of Charlotte, Minneapolis and Columbus. And to maintain the rating, Richmond must stick to strict debt management policies that limit debt to 10% of total budgeted expenditures and 4.5% of total taxable assessed real estate values. Capital spending financed by the General Fund (not including utilities) was $112 million for Fiscal Year 2013 but will fall to $41 million by FY 2017.

Another challenge is making the city a desirable destination for families with school-age children. Home builders are creating plenty of product for singles and empty nesters but not much that’s suitable for traditional nuclear families.

Still, says Olinger, the city has great architecture and a great scale. “It’s got good bones. If the bones are good, there’s always the chance that people will come back.”

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7 responses to “How to Squeeze 40,000 More People into Richmond”

  1. Pretty thoughtful thinking. Congrats. The good thing about Detroit with respect to Richmond is to compare and contrast what Detroit did to cause it to empty out to surrounding suburbs with what Richmond might do – to effect an opposite effect – to attract new residents.

    We all should know by now – what a terrible legacy a failure to educate kids brings on. We can blame parents and teachers but it won’t make things better to do that.

    Kids grow up into twenty-something who if functionally illiterate are doomed to a life of living with others of similar fates with limited options for making a living without engaging in criminal activities.

    Kids of parents who themselves are unemployed/underemployed and/or functionally illiterate are not going to get successfully educated the same way that kids who have educated parents get educated. At risk kids are “high maintenance” kids who CAN be reached but not with conventional education efforts.

    It takes a different educational approach – that requires specialized teachers and schools and I’m not convinced that voucher schools are the answer unless those schools are fundamentally different from the public schools that are failing. I’m all for the competition but wary of for-profit predation of vouchers and doing no better with the demographically disadvantaged.

    These things are key. People can live in areas where there is hope for things to get better – but they won’t live in areas where the leaders do not recognize this. A neighborhood with a good school and a community policing presence will attract people better, in my view, than one with top-notch sewers and bikeability.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    The population of Louisville, KY grew by 133.1% from 2000 to 2010. It was America’s 58th largest city in 1990. It is America’s 27th largest city today.

    If the city fathers (and mothers) of Richmond would stop staring at themselves and look at places like Louisville instead they would be a whole lot better off.

    Why is Louisville thriving, Jim?

  3. I don’t know enough about Louisville to tell you why it’s thriving. But I would suggest this: If the city grew 133% in a single decade, it is either the biggest boom town in the United States (a story that has gone unnoticed by the national media) or something other than organic population growth and development is going on — perhaps an annexation.

    But if you know something about Louisville that I don’t, please illuminate. I would like to know what the magic sauce is.

    As for looking at other communities, that’s something that Richmond metro regions do on an annual or semi-annual basis. They traipse off to other cities to see what they can learn. (The last city was Boston. Before that, if I recall correctly, it was Jacksonville.) I’m not sure that much comes of those efforts, but regional leaders, for all their flaws, and they are many, are not “staring at themselves.”

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      As you have guessed, Louisville’s recent success is from a variety of factors.

      First, there was a city / county merger – annexation is too aggressive a word for the good people of Louisville. One aspect of proper planning is a willingness to revisit outdated governance structures. Is Arlington really a county? Is Virginia Beach really a city? Why is Virginia the only state where cities are never within counties? Should the City of Richmond and Henrico County really be fiercely independent entities tied together only by the corrupt politicians in our state government? Is that the best way to plan and manage? While Virginia sits on broken governance structures states like Kentucky continue to evolve. Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Nashville, Louisville are all examples of entities created from city – county mergers. In these cases, the formerly incorporated cities retain some autonomy. Virginia has created a number of independent cities but hasn’t created any consolidated city-counties.

      Why does Louisville International Airport carry the third most air cargo of any American airport? UPS’ 5 year, $1B Worldhub expansion at Louisville International Airport. I guess having sufficient road capacity to move freight around can make a difference in the economy.

      Why does Ford have an assembly plant in Louisville? Because the transportation system and airport are well run and modern. Parts come in and Ford Escapes roll out. One per minute.

      The University of Louisville is ranked #160 among national universities. VCU is ranked #170. However, Louisville puts great emphasis on sports. My bet is that the “free advertising” that comes from top sports programs will enable UL to steadily rise in the rankings. Last year, UL had 8 Fullbright scholars. The University of Virginia had 7.

      Why did Louisville open a major arena in the middle of a recession?

      Why did Louisville convince GE to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in an assembly plant?

      Why did Louisville buy and connect a string of parks into a major bicycling and hiking park?

      Why did Louisville turn a decrepit bridge into a park?

      So, what are we seeing?

      1. A governance structure that allows localities significant flexibility in how they organize.
      2. An understanding of the economic value of modern infrastructure and the benefits of consolidating businesses with common needs in a single area.
      3. A public university that is trying to leverage excellent athletics into broader appeal to potential students.

      All of which is counter to the philosophy in Virginia. In Virginia our civic leaders sit on their hands and wait for good things to happen (while helping themselves to plenty of “gifts” of course). In Louisville the civic leaders go out and get things done.

      Watch this video:

      Now, if you want to be depressed – go to Richmond’s economic development site and watch that video.

  4. Louisville became a consolidated city-county in 2000 and increased in size from 62 square miles to 385 square miles over night thus the huge population jump. Louisville had a declining population for decades leading up to the consolidation.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Louisville became a consolidated city – county in 2003 but your point is otherwise correct.

      My point is that re-developing a city like Louisville (or Richmond for that matter) requires re-thinking the governance structure.

      49 states have cities within counties. Only Virginia does not. Are we that smart or are all of the other states right? Even in the three cases where other states tried the “Virginia independent city experiment” – Baltimore, St Louis and Carson City – how did that go?

      Isolating localities from each other under the “management” of a part time nanny state just doesn’t work.

      Virginia has enjoyed economic success because the federal government gushes money through the state.

      Other places (like Louisville, KY) enjoy economic success because their elected officials take chances and make investments for success.

      Jim Bacon wants Richmond to “be all it can be”. I’d suggest the first question to address is the bizarre governance arrangement of cities in Virginia. Is Richmond big enough to succeed? Can it succeed while the surrounding counties do whatever they want?

      1. Don, you raise valid issues, and many intelligent people share your perspective. At times, I do, too. Ed Risse proposed creating a regional governance structure for government functions (such as transportation and land use) that had regional impact. That makes sense. But I’m not convinced that regional governance is absolutely critical to regional success. There is no reason that local governments in a region can’t negotiate collaborative institutions such as water-sewer treatment, regional jails and other things when it makes economic sense to do so.

        Put another way, you could give the Richmond region a consolidated and/or regional government tomorrow, and you might get a small gain in efficiency. But I’m not sure how much else would change. More roads for economic development? Hah! The last two big roads we built for “economic development” were the Pocahontas Parkway (a financial bust) and Rt. 288 (which would have been a bust if it had been funded by bonds instead of subsidies from the General Fund). What a laugh. Regional government won’t cure stupidity.

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