Richmond’s Pulse Stimulates Mid-Rise Development

Artist’s rendering of proposed Broad Street tower

by James A. Bacon

Sometimes it seems like the City of Richmond can’t do anything right. City Council just nixed a $1.5 billion redevelopment plan for the Navy Hill district in downtown. And no one can figure out where, or how, to build a new minor league baseball stadium. But the city has hit a couple of home runs. It’s preserving the James River as a magnificent park running through the center of the city. And, overcoming considerable controversy, the city managed to build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system along the Broad Street corridor.

Not only did Richmond find $65 million to cover the Pulse’s capital costs, it created the appropriate zoning along Broad Street to encourage the re-development of fraying urban and suburban land along the route. The fast-bus service was designed to support the kind of mid-density, mixed-use “walkable urbanism” that many Richmond residents are looking for. It took a while, but it now appears that the city’s foresight is paying off.

Minneapolis-based The Opus Group has filed for a special use permit to erect a 12-story residential tower on the corner of Broad and Lombardy streets near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. The 168-unit apartment would replace a Sunoco gas station and convenience store. The top floor would sport an outdoor terrace with commanding views, while the ground floor would provide 3,400 square feet of retail space.

Another 12-story apartment building is planned for the Scott’s Addition neighborhood to the west, as part of a plan to redevelop the former Quality Inn and Suites hotel and surrounding property.

The project at Broad/Lombardy envisions building a U-shaped building featuring studio, one-, tw0- and four-bedroom units, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Amenities include a fitness center, pool, and resident community gathering area. The location is expected to appeal to college students and young professionals.

From an urban planning perspective, the development would provide 79 parking spaces on a below-ground level and part of the first floor. There would be spaces to store about 65 bicycles. The project is located within walking distance of VCU. The developer specifically mentions proximity to the Pulse bus rapid transit line as a plus. This combination of attributes suggests that the project will generate far less car traffic than a comparable project built elsewhere.

Although the project does require a special use permit, it is consistent with the city’s vision for the Broad Street corridor, and the planning department staff is recommending approval.

Bacon’s bottom line: Democrats love mass transit. Democratic lawmakers love it so much they are proposing to shower untold sums of money on it in the next two-year budget in a manner that comes across as indiscriminate. When done correctly, mass transit can make a critical contribution to regional mobility and access. When done incorrectly, it can create a huge fiscal drain on state and local government.

Here’s the key: mass transit needs to grow organically with the human settlement patterns they serve. Mass transit ridership cannot be force fed. It makes no financial sense to provide mass transit service to low-density suburbs where only a tiny percentage of people live or work within convenient walking distance of a bus stop. That’s a recipe for running a lot of mostly-empty buses at tremendous cost.

But Bus Rapid Transit makes sense for the Broad Street corridor, which has a core of medium-density development downtown already and a large inventory properties beyond downtown that can be readily converted into medium-density buildings. BRT, which provides dedicated lanes where buses can operate on more frequent, more reliable schedules, is significantly more expensive than traditional bus service, but can be financially viable if there is (or will be) sufficient density to generate enough ridership to support it.

Richmond’s investment in BRT was a leap of faith: Build it and they will come. The announcement of the Broad/Lombardy project and the residential tower in Scott’s Addition are proof that developers are coming. If these projects are commercially successful, and especially if apartment dwellers are willing to pay a premium to be located on the BRT line, the city assuredly will see more mid-rise development in the Broad Street corridor. More residents translates into more BRT riders, more fare revenue, and lower subsidies.

Re-development of Broad Street as a corridor of mid-rise offices, apartments and stores benefits everyone in the Richmond metropolitan region. It makes far more sense economically for growth to take place where it can utilize the city’s existing infrastructure (streets, sidewalks, water, sewer) than to build new subdivisions that require brand new infrastructure to support it. Hopefully, the Opus Group project will enjoy a quick approval.

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14 responses to “Richmond’s Pulse Stimulates Mid-Rise Development

  1. I know that corner well, having lived and worked on Stuart Circle three blocks away (2009-2018) and used that Lowe’s often. You are right about the tie-in with the bus line, and that’s all good, but Richmond needs more than apartments, coffee shops and trendy restaurants. Too bad the developers of the Navy Hill project were overly greedy, too eager to avoid any risk capital of their own, because what they sought to build had value. Now officially an ex-city taxpayer, so less my problem….

  2. “Mass transit ridership cannot be force fed.”

    Not without some Bloombergian laws being passed…

  3. Richmond is now poised for a future that Arlington County’s Rosslyn Ballston Corridor was poised to realize almost exactly 40 years ago, with the same major elements in place to redevelop an obsolete downtown, anchored and driven by a new powerful mass transit system within an existing failed urban core now newly overlaid with a dynamic mixed use, synergistic master plan, and as proof of the quality of this new potential for what you have done, the first major 1st class out of town developer has come a long way from home and taken the your bait. This is the best proof that Richmond has set the stage a real honest to goodness real estate development opportunity, one that is long term money, value and profit driven, built on real financial projections as opposed to good old boy patronage mixed in with phony baloney crony capitalism.

    So Congratulations Richmond! You’ve entered the modern world of real urban development. Why so late is strange, given that Richmond has some of the world’s best land use lawyers and theorists, but that question of why hopefully now is academic.

    For right now, the key hurdle to be jumped not once, but again and again, is building a strong vibrant pace of synergistic of development driven by strong marketing. Now Richmond has that component too, a smart but world cadre of marketeers with real world experience and tract record to build quick but prudently and skillfully to leverage off your Pulse a truly synergistic, vibrant, dynamic mixed use urban place.

    How else might you jump-start the pace of this great opportunity? There is for sure local work to be done by on the ground highly motivated hands one competent and honest locals to refine, sell, and implement the vision created. If you have done it carefully already, study how we did this next step in the the Ballston Rosslyn Corridor 40 years ago. There is a lot of history there as to how to make this happen, including what not to do, and well as what to be sure to do.

    • Correction to the second to last paragraph in my above comment:

      “For right now, the key hurdle to be jumped not once, but again and again, is your building a strong vibrant pace of synergistic development driven by strong marketing. Now Richmond has that component too – a smart, world class cadre of marketeers with real world experience doing great things, and a track record to prove it, namely to build quick but prudently and skillfully buildings and infrastructure that leverages off your Pulse to create a truly synergistic, vibrant, dynamic mixed use urban place of great long term value and benefit to the entire city and its region.

  4. Someday I’d love to read an article written by one of the Richmonders on this blog about Richmond’s bizarre lack of growth over the last 100 years.

    In 1910 Richmond had a population of 127,628, up by 50.1% from 1900. By 1920 Richmond was charting 171,667 people, up by 34.5% from 1910. Today there are 228,783 people in Richmond (for a CAGR of 0.29% per year). Over that same period the United States grew at 1.15% per year. Other non-NoVa Virginia cities also lagged, Roanoke – 0.68% growth, Petersburg didn’t grow at all, Norfolk at 0.75%.

    Of course, NoVa is different with Alexandria growing at 2.21% per annum.

    In 1910 – 1920 Richmond looked like a lot of other southern cities that were poised for growth and economic expansion. Then came the next 100 years. Over that century Atlanta grew from 200,616 (in 1920) to 500,000 today (a CAGR over 3X Richmond’s). Charlotte grew from 46,338 to 872,498, a compound annual growth of 2.98%. Raleigh grew at 3.02% per year to get to just under 500,000 today. Charleston, SC is still smaller than Richmond but has been growing twice as fast over the last 100 years.

    And on and on it goes. I won’t even bring up Austin and Nashville.

    What happened to Richmond? In fact, what happened to all the non-NoVa Virginia cities? Where is our Charlotte, our Atlanta, our Houston, Dallas or Nashville?

    Why can’t Virginia develop cities?

    • We have Virginia Beach.

      In 1900, Princess Anne County had a population of just over 11,000 people.

      The City of Virginia Beach has a current population of more than 450,000.

      • I don’t count Virginia Beach as a city. It is a county that decided for political governance reasons to re-classify itself as a city. One could argue that I should exclude Nashville since it’s the product of a city-county merger.

        Virginia Beach is great but I try to normalize Virginia’s bizarre approach to cities and counties. I count Arlington as a city since it was part of the City of Washington before it retroceded to Virginia and magically became a county.

    • DJ, I thought everyone knew the obvious answer to this…due to the 1979 annexation moratorium and general Massive Resistancy fight against annexation, all Virginia cities have been capped for growth, unlike literally everywhere else in the country. Our metro population is close to 1.3 M, which is a proper comp to your 1910 number and Nova (a region) for determining if we’re growing.

      There’s a different, more interesting, conversation to be had about whether Virginia’s dwarf cities and the resultant lack of regional co-ordination, planning, and problem solving has hindered growth, but it’s good to start with the right numbers.

      • You may be right about the reason Virginia’s cities are all dwarfs but you’re wrong about the population number to use. Jim Bacon’s column was about the City of Richmond and mass transportation in an urban environment. In fact, he wrote, “It makes no financial sense to provide mass transit service to low-density suburbs where only a tiny percentage of people live or work within convenient walking distance of a bus stop.” Jim’s column and my question both involve the City of Richmond and cities in general. My comps were all population totals from the actual cities … for example, Atlanta. Why did the CITY of Atlanta grow much more quickly than the CITY of Richmond? That urban growth is why Atlanta has MARTA and Richmond is implementing limited Bus Rapid Transit. Jim Bacon tirelessly preaches the benefits of high density, mixed use, walkable urban areas without ever asking why Virginia doesn’t have the raw material (i.e. true cities) to create such areas.

        As for metropolitan areas – Atlanta has between 5m and 6.5m depending on how you count so, even at the metro level, it is about four times bigger than Richmond’s metro area.

        As for NoVa (Region) I never mentioned the region nor provided any population statistics for the region – only its second largest city … Alexandria.

        I am very interested in your theory on why Virginia doesn’t have any real cities (by my definition, more than 400,000 people with a density of at least 3,500 per sq mi.). Virginia Beach and Chesapeake are really counties so, unsurprisingly, they miss by a mile on city-like density. Richmond has the density but misses on the population total.

        If the City of Richmond would have grown at the same rate as the US from 1920 through today it would have 538,611 people and a density of 8,900 per sq mi. That’s a population like Fresno with a density like Seattle. 26 US cities have higher population densities.

        Was the annexation ban really a factor? What happened from 1920 through 1979 when the ban was put in place? During that period Richmond grew at 0.41% per year. Faster than the 100 year period from 1920 – 2020 but less than half the speed of the country as a whole.

        • Yeah, annexation really was that big a factor. Richmond was effectively landlocked decades before the ban, and sits at 60 square miles, compared to Charlotte’s 300+, which is a city most often comped to Richmond. Virginia Beach and Chesapeake are additional great examples, in a sane world Norfolk gobbles up Portsmouth and parts of what’s now Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, and meets your “city” definition. (Not doing my homework on the precise math)

          There are lots of other reasons why our economy hasn’t grown, but the lack of any larger metro planning as always struck me a huge drag on our growth. Even when annexation is limited, in other states cities often overlay counties, which serve to coordinate infrastructure.

  5. wonderbread is right about the competition between Virgina’s independent cities and their boundary suburbs competitors.

    I don’t quite understand how cities like Houston “work” with something like 10 or 12 jurisdictions surrounding it.. with separate administrative functions for things like police and schools.

    But I do know in Virginia there are some county/city collaborations – like the James City/Williamsburg relationship.

    And of course, the independent city thing has not kept NoVa from growing.

    there’s a lot to “know” about this – more than most do know.

    • The City of Houston is fascinating. First, it is huge. 600 sq mi. It is geographically the largest city in the US that was not formed through some kind of county/city consolidation. The county it is within (Harris County) is 1,700 sq mi. Today, about 1/2 of Harris County’s population lives within the City of Houston. Second, the City of Houston has been growing like a weed forever. Since 1860 there have only been two decades where Houston had less than 10% population growth. From 2010 – 2018 Houston has grown by 10.7%. We’ll see where they end up with the next census but I’m guessing Houston overtakes Chicago as America’s third largest city. Given that Houston had fewer people than Richmond 100 years ago – that’s quite a metamorphosis.

      Zoning in Houston is interesting. On three occasions Houstonians rejected referenda establishing separate residential and commercial land use districts. The net result is something of a Los Angeles style collection of employment districts rather than a singe “downtown”. Some say that Houston’s zoning approach (or, essentially, lack thereof) is why Houston has considerable affordable housing. Others say that the regulations that do exist (mandatory lot sizes for single-family homes for example) have hindered walkability.

      With great geographic size, a density of 3,500 per sq mi and an ongoing rapid rise in population Houston has the raw materials to create Jim Bacon’s vision of high density, mixed use, walkable urbanity. In Virginia such progress is hard to imagine since:

      Cities are not within counties limiting any cooperation between cities and counties.
      Virginia cities are geographically very small with the exceptions of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, which are effectively city/county mergers.
      Annexation has been “temporarily” banned since 1979 by The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond.

      Theoretically, Virginia Beach ought to have almost as much potential as Houston (although more than 1/2 of Virginia Beach’s total area is water). However, population growth in Virginia Beach has slowed to a trickle (relative to Houston). 1990 – 2000: 8.2%, 2000 – 2010: 3.0%, 2010 – 2018 (est): 2.8%.

      If Virginia is ever going to break its addiction to the Federal Government it will need to focus on building legitimate cities outside of NoVa. I’ve often thought that the (prosperous) stranglehold of the federal government on Virginia Beach is less tight than the stranglehold of the Feds on NoVa. Maybe Virginia should focus on building up Va Beach into a nationally recognized city instead of wasting its money on the failed experiment of Richmond or flights of fancy like subsidizing high bandwidth broadband in rural areas.

  6. Yeah. Agree. My millennial daughters don’t want to leave!

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