Private Investment in the Public Realm

by James A. Bacon

The American suburbs built since World War II have many deficiencies, not the least of which are expensive, fiscally unsustainable infrastructure and a proclivity toward traffic congestion. But the greatest drawback of all gets the least attention: the poverty of the public realm. Outside of shopping malls, there really is no public realm in the post-World War II suburbs. Streets are not designed for walking. There are no plazas. Parks are accessibly mainly by automobile. The only gathering places are found indoors — libraries, churches, fitness clubs and the like.

But tastes are changing, and a new generation of real estate developers understands that creating quality public spaces — particularly streets, sidewalks and parks — allows them to charge premium prices for their buildings. The key insight they have grasped is that humans are social creatures. Yes, people like their privacy of their homes, but they also enjoy being around other people. They like to walk. They like to watch other people. They like gathering in groups.

Developers in the Richmond region have gotten the message that there is a large unmet demand for “walkable urbanism,” places that make it easy, even delightful, for people to walk around. Walkability goes deeper than the utilitarian function of allowing people to substitute walk trips for car trips, thus reducing traffic congestion. People like walkability because it facilitates social interaction. Sadly, most efforts to build walkable communities in the Richmond suburbs have been underwhelming.

That’s why I’m paying close attention to the development of Libbie Mill-Midtown in Henrico County. Gumenick Properties may be paying keener attention to the quality of the public spaces they’re building in the 800-acre, $434 million project than has any other suburban developer in the history of the Richmond region. As a sign of how seriously Gumenick takes the public realm, the company has engaged the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization launched by William Whyte, the pioneer who first studied the sociology of small public spaces from a scientific perspective.

Little of what Gumenick is doing is new — it’s just been forgotten. Company spokesman Ed Crews describes the project as “retro.” Libbie Mill-Midtown seeks to create “what the urban environment was a century ago,” before counties outlawed mixed-use zoning and developers designed communities largely around the car.

As I explained in a recent post (see “The Invisible Parking Garage“),  Gumenick is building a pedestrian-friendly community. The mixed-use  project is laid out in a street grid with wide sidewalks. Great attention is paid to defining the pedestrian street space and providing a variety of destinations within easy walking distance of apartments and town homes. Gumenick donated land for construction of a new Henrico County library, and plans call for lots of street-level space for restaurants, shops and local services.

Parking is only one dimension of the challenge. The landscape of the Richmond region is pocked with ugly sediment ponds installed to manage storm water. Occasionally, someone sticks some gazebos by them or turns them into something visually interesting like a man-made wetlands. But Gumenick is investing the resources to transform its storm water pond into the focal point of the entire development.

The rendering above is a conceptual sketch of what that lake might look like. The final design will depend upon the buildings constructed around it. But there will be trails, a fountain, plazas, an amphitheater and places where people can touch the water. One of the key insights learned from the Project for Public Spaces, says Crews, is not to fill in the public space with fixed benches and other objects. Instead, provide portable furniture that people can rearrange to accommodate the size of their small groups.

Shane Finnegan, vice president of construction, says the plaza will be built for flexibility in order to accommodate a wide range of activities. For instance, to accommodate tents for farmer’s markets and other events, the design calls for embedding hold-downs in the pavement. Alternatively, the community might bring in taco trucks and a marimba band. The programmatic element of bringing in events and concerts will be important in Libbie Mill-Midtown, as it is in downtown Richmond, Innsbrook and other areas. The difference is that in Libbie Mill, the physical space will be designed from the beginning with that programmatic element in mind.

“This won’t be built in a day,” cautions Crews. Indeed, the project is expected to take 10 years to complete, depending upon market conditions. There needs to be a critical mass of people living and working in the neighborhood for activity in the public spaces to take off.

Bacon’s bottom line: Gumenick is betting that investing in the public realm will pay off. I’d wager that the company has it right.

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  1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    What’s wrong with inside? The McLean Community Center consists of two buildings funded by a special tax district. The MCC is heavily used seven days a week by both residents and non-residents alike for meetings, entertainment and other events. Indeed, the MCC governing board is proposing a major expansion and remodeling to accommodate even more community use.

    1. Nothing’s “wrong” with inside. Indoor public facilities are a necessary part of any community. But it is a problem if the *only* public domain consists of indoor facilities.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        With the weather in D.C. (damp cold in the winter and hot & humid, with little breeze, in the summer), there isn’t that much pleasant time to be outside. We’ve used our deck (except to BBQ) maybe 10-15 times since 2008.

        I do think that some of the smaller pocket parks in Tysons are getting some use. And I do see some people eating outside in the revamped plaza outside my office complex.

  2. larryg Avatar

    interesting. are public realm facilities the responsibility of the private sector?

    or are they the responsibility of govt – who can incentivize the private sector with tax breaks, TIF districts, etc?

    ultimately – doesn’t the taxpayer pay for public realm facilities?

    what the private sector can do – is some kind of quid-pro-quo .. provisioning of public realm facilities in exchange for something that benefits the private sector.

    so a question – how does this differ from say – those stadium deals which are also public realm.. right?

  3. John B Avatar

    In my reading of what Jim is saying it appears this is somewhat different from the old proffers type approach which in the case of Chesapeake, for example where the city council have tied themselves in knots. Gumenick may be saying that their approach will make their project more marketable (read: profitable). Nothing wrong with that. To me it’s no different than one builder who sells the same house as another builder but enhances his product with extra attention to landscaping for enhanced visual appeal. Renters/buyers do pay attention.

  4. larryg Avatar

    what motivates a developer to build an amenity that everyone can use instead of only the folks in his development?

  5. John B Avatar

    Larry, in a mixed use development it’s also to draw traffic to his rental properties & ergo demand a higher/SQ Ft lease. I feel more comfortable shopping (also read safer) patronizing an attractive well maintained facility rather than a dump. Sure there are times to shop a flea market but for me and lots of folks not so much.

    1. larryg Avatar

      Oh I’m with you – but what constitutes a public realm vs a private amenity?

      I’m not counting retail business and the like as a public realm. I’m counting things like free public spaces, trails, parks , etc.

      does the private sector build these spaces gratis or do they expect the govt/taxpayer to give them incentives or pay for it with TIF?

      we shift words and concepts sometimes – and I try to keep it honest.

      Philanthropy is no quid-pro-quo usually. someone gives land for a park or library – but few, in any, developers do that without something in return.

      generally speaking – private-provided stuff has “strings”.

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