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.