Perambulating in Pembroke

In the latest edition of Bacon’s Rebellion, I profile Burrell Saunders, the lead architect behind Virginia Beach’s Town Center. This project has converted several blocks of suburban strip development in the Pembroke area into a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community with only modest assistance from the City of Virginia Beach. (See “Extreme Makeover.”)

A number of points arise from this column that bear upon ongoing conversations on this blog.

The biggest barrier to re-development of the district was the restrictive city zoning code. Once the city created a special code for the Town Center district, the project began moving.

Increased density does not necessarily result in increased congestion. I visited the Pembroke area from around 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday. The main thoroughfares — Independence and Virginia Beach Boulevards are modestly congested but hardly onerous. Automobile traffic was remarkably light on the side streets.

It won’t take two generations to make significant changes in human settlement patterns. Transportation-efficient development in the right location can have an immediate impact, reducing the number of car trips on crowded arterial roads. Reforming land use in Virginia cannot be dismissed as a long-term solution — it is very much a here-and-now solution.

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5 responses to “Perambulating in Pembroke”

  1. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    This e-mail correspondence comes from Kevin Grierson, who works in the Town Center. Man, I just hate it when people burst my bubble!

    While I agree that the Town Centre has come a long way from the previous “parking lot from hell” look it had, my experience with the area hasn’t been so wonderful. Just a few thoughts:

    1. Traffic congestion is considerably worse than it was, despite the multiplicity of lanes that would put I-95 to shame. And the blocks around the Town Centre are easy enough to navigate on foot–as long as you don’t have to cross Va. Beach Blvd. or Independence Blvd.

    2. The builders of the Town Centre also proved that they shouldn’t always be left to their own devices. Several cars on the 4th floor of the parking garage burned. There was no sprinkler system on the 4th floor of the garage to help put out the flames before they spread. Why? Because the building code doesn’t require them past the 3rd floor.

    3. And finally, call me grouchy, but I really don’t like the separate elevator for parking setup much. We have an office in the Town Centre, but in order to access it, you have to park, take the parking elevator to the first floor, then take the lobby elevator back up. It seems to me that someone could have come up with a more efficient system, at least for the building’s tenants if not its visitors.

    So take care next time you cross the street at Town Centre. And make sure you park your car on the first three floors of the parking garage!

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    It would have been interesting had the new state law that requires traffic studies by VDOT before big developments are approved by local governments been in effect for this VA Beach project. I wonder whether such a study would have shown that this new development produces more traffic — as it apparently does. (I’m not challenging Mr. Grierson, but just wanting to see data.)

    His point about problems when one needs to cross busy, wide streets is well taken. The plans for Tysons Corner involve widening Route 7 to handle traffic. Route 7 is already a pedestrian’s nightmare. I can only imagine what it would look like when it’s wider and busier.

    Speaking of Tysons, it would be a perfect candidate for a VDOT traffic study. Several people whom I know have estimated that, even with the Silver Line, the added density that would be built at Tysons would add approximately twice the new vehicle trips that VDOT projected for Loudoun County’s 28,000 new houses. These individuals include an urban planner and a transportation consultant so I give their swack some credibility.

    Since I’m probably stuck in NoVA for at least some period of time while Tysons is redeveloped until retirement and relocation, I’d like to know the traffic impacts before Mr. Connolly and company approve the land use changes. What do the other readers/commentors think about a VDOT traffic study for Tysons?

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    “What do the other readers/commentors think about a VDOT traffic study for Tysons?”

    For better or for worse, transportation problems in NOVA are going to be just that – NOVA’s problems.

    It’s my understanding that one of the biggest “solutions” that is going to come out of the special session on transportation will be to give NOVA the autonomy to increase taxes/raise fees without much oversight from Richmond. In other words, if NOVA wants it, they are going to have to find way to pay for it.

    I don’t live in NOVA so I am not sure if this is a good or bad idea.

    Since you do live there, what’s your feeling in regards to giving NOVA the playbook in terms of roads?

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Jim, it was gracious of you to publish that email. I know nothing of the project so I was going to refrain from comment. But, like TMT I would be curious to see the before and after traffic data. As a general rule, not an exclusive one, I don’t believe you can increase density without increasing congestion.

    That is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not sure how you balance the positives (more commerce, less land use) with the negatives (congestion, wasted time, pollution). More hybrids (which shut off the engine when not moving) would help alleviate some of the pollution.

    I used to think that NOVA was getting the shaft on transportation dollars, and probably it was for a long time. Now the situation has changed, it seems to me. There is no longer enough political mass or economic capital in the rest of the state, to prevent the urban areas from taking over – or to assist them very much.

    At least if NOVA/HR is paying its own way, in addition to supporting the rest of the state, then it is going to be that much harder for the downstate senators to come up with more ways to screw the urban areas.

    Even NOVA has only so much money. If the rest of the state squeezes hard enough, they may find that pustule erupts, and splatters across the state. Depending on your point of view, that could be good or bad.

  5. I have never been to the Town Center in Virginia Beach. However, I work in the Reston Town Center and I think it’s a great place. It’s mixed use, pretty pedestrian friendly and would be perfect if Metro had a subway stop there. More areas like the Reston Town Center in Fairfax County would make the county a much better place.

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