The Densification of Richmond

Pressure is intensifying to redevelop Richmond’s retail enclaves at greater densities. But locals love the Libbie & Grove shopping district just the way it is. Is there a way to accommodate both?

by James A. Bacon

The Libbie & Grove shopping district is little known outside the west end of Richmond but it is much beloved by the people who live nearby. There is nothing especially distinctive about the architecture of the shops and restaurants – indeed the styles are very much mix and match. Some of the buildings, like a 7 Eleven and BP gas station, are major eyesores. But the retail district has an indefinable aura that makes it a great place.

The Westhampton Theater, the only movie theater in Richmond that plays independent and foreign flicks, is a major draw for the city’s wine and brie crowd. Phil’s Continental Lounge, a neighborhood restaurant and bar from another era, draws more of a beer and bubba clientele. Peter-Blair displays what just be might the world’s gaudiest assortment of bright, preppy neckties. There are numerous eateries in the area, and they all provide sidewalk dining. It’s fun to walk around, windowshop and bump into people you know.

For a fleeting moment, one might say, the Libbie and Grove area has achieved a state of urban grace. Everybody loves it, and no one wants it to change. But, as former Beatle George Harrison once crooned, all things must pass.

Artist’s rendering of the Highline Developments project at the corner of Libbie & Grove
The mixed-use building would replace a BP gas station.

Highline Developments BP LLC has asked the city for a special use permit to build a four-story apartment and retail center where a BP gas station now stands. The project would offer several amenities, not the least of which is replacing the ugly gas station. Plans call for 24 parking spaces behind the building with another 53 underground, expanding the supply of desperately needed parking in the area. The ground floor would be devoted to shops and restaurants, while 22 apartments would reside in the upper floors. Perhaps most notably, the building would be architecturally striking. A cupola would provide a visual focal point the district now lacks.

There would be another big bonus for the city. The mixed-use building would generate roughly $150,000 in property tax revenue in place of a gas station that contributes only $11,000 in property taxes now. If the City of Richmond to wants to rebuild its tax base, it will have to encourage the higher-intensity development along its commercial corridors.

But the project has a major drawback – it’s big. The four-story structure will dwarf nearby buildings. The roof height would be 53 feet; the cupola would soar to 68 feet. That compares to 35 feet for the Westhampton Theater, the tallest existing building. By setting a precedent for developers to propose more tall, mixed-use buildings, it will forever change the character of the retail district.

The Richmond region is at a crossroads. The tide of development is shifting from the metropolitan periphery back toward the urban core. The new dynamic is most visible downtown, in Shockoe Bottom, the Canal district and the old Manchester neighborhood across the river. While a handful of downtown projects generated controversy because they would block the river views of established homeowners, redevelopment has been relatively free of conflict with adjacent neighborhoods. But not everyone who wants to move back into the city wants to live downtown. Developers are betting that there is pent-up demand for luxury condomium living in an affluent neighborhood like Libbie & Grove.

Pressure to re-develop traditional Richmond neighborhoods at greater density will only intensify. The question is, can the city accommodate the redevelopment, which is far more efficient from an infrastructure-utilization point of view than building in a green field on the metropolitan edge, or will resistance from neighbors limit the city’s evolution? Given the city’s status-quo vision for the city’s west end and outspoken community opposition, the answer is not at all clear.

You won’t find any grand mansions near Libbie & Grove, unless you cross River Road to the estates near the James River or travel a ways down Three Chopt Road. The houses are understated in the old Virginia manner but well-to-do. St. Catherine’s School, with its manicured grounds and stone school buildings, is within a short walking distance of the shops, while the Country Club of Virginia lies just beyond. St. Stephen’s, one of Virginia’s largest and wealthiest Episcopal churches, is only a block or two away, and the University of Richmond, St. Christopher’s School and Saint Mary’s Hospital are just down the road.

The red patch shows the location of the proposed mixed-use building. (Click for a more legible image.)

Though known as “Libbie & Grove,” the retail district technically follows Libbie all the way down to Patterson Ave. and encompasses several blocks of commercial activity there as well. The city’s Master Plan supports the status quo for the area, noting, “Opportunities for redevelopment or change in use … are extremely limited.” The plan’s guiding principles state that, in general, residential areas should be protected from commercial encroachment and that, in the specific case of Libbie/Grove, “the vitality of the commercial service centers … should be maintained by placing limitations on the extent and character of expansion to those areas.”

In 2010 the city embarked upon a review of the Master Plan for Libbie & Grove at the request of the area’s City Council representative Bruce Tyler. After a series of public hearings, stakeholders reaffirmed the Master Plan’s land use recommendations for the district. However, Scott Boyers, a CB Richard Ellis broker and investor in the Highline Developments project, says the review was a two-step process. The first phase, which is complete, created a “framework” for the area. A follow-up phase, which has not yet occurred, would address specific zoning densities, heights, sizes and setbacks. “My project was thoughtfully conceived in good faith with respect to the Master Plan and the process to complete the plan,” he told Bacon’s Rebellion. Read more.

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  1. chris bonney Avatar
    chris bonney

    You’re not kidding about the sacred ground of Libbie & Grove. I suspect there are still people bemoaning the loss of “Doc’s” (Westhampton Pharmacy) just west of L&G.

    Areas like Libbie & Grove may be little known outside their immediate environs. But most mature cities have areas like this–retail villages serving older affluent neighborhoods–and as such they are an important part of the local retail culture. Part of their charm is that their buildings are older, and therefore more affordable for small retail businesses. They’re also funkier in their lack of distinction. Tenants can doll them up in a hundred different interesting ways. For this reason, these neighborhoods tend to have a lot more personality, and attract more differentiated businesses. (Look at the way Carytown has gone from being a forlorn district of rundown buildings in the 60s and 70s into a much more vibrant retail corridor now.) They are also key to keeping and attracting people to live in the neighborhoods nearby.

    The introduction of a mid-rise buildings at the intersection of Libbie & Grove does have some things to recommend it. Bringing more people to live in the neighborhood would breathe some fresh live into the retail corridor. And there’s no denying that a project like this will repay the municipal investment in infrastructure much faster than the existing or a lower density land use. But the price paid for this is that in building an arguably more efficient mixed use project here you replace funk and differentiation with bland style and higher retail space rents.

    You don’t have to look far to see how this plays out. Small retailers are getting priced out of redeveloped areas of places like Bethesda, Maryland. We’re facing the very same situation on 31st Street here in Virginia Beach. The developer of the mixed use project would like to have some of the displaced merchants come back. But there’s no way they can afford the “new and improved” rent. And where they once had a building they could paint and decorate to both make it more interesting and to extend their visual reach, they now have a few bland front windows that look just like everyone else’s front windows.

    I don’t think a 4-story structure there will kill Libbie & Grove. But I do hope they’ll dress it up some and put whatever parking is required well underground.

    1. Interesting observation about the funk factor. Reminds me of Jane Jacobs’ observation that a dynamic city needs to have a good share of old, run-down buildings. She was thinking about cheap places for entrepreneurial start-ups. But the logic applies to retail, too.

      Makes me wonder what these new cities in Korea and China will be like. All high-tech. And all new. No personality. No funk. I don’t think I’d want to live in any of those places — no matter how fast the Internet connections.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Isn’t the future of the Westhampton Theater uncertain? That would be a huge loss, since only the Hollywood stuff runs at the multi-screen suburban theaters. Being a second tier market, Richmond only gets serious movies later if not at all.

    1. Yeah, I heard they’re having difficulties. But I bet the community would rally behind them if it looked like they were going to close their doors.

  3. shayla684 Avatar

    We need to remember that bigger is not always better. It is true, older spaces can sometimes be more within reach of small businesses. It’s not all about what big real estate (and big political donations) wants to do. Rents will escalate and, as the article mentions, if one developer is allowed to initiate changes in zoning and density, that may lead to large scale changes throughout the city. There are areas in northern Virginia, such as Arlington, where rent has gotten so high that if someone loses a job, they may be on the street in a matter of a month(s.) We are talking about middle class people with salaried jobs. Whatever Richmond decides to do needs to be dependant on citizen input and there needs to be a long term vision of what is best for the city. Once again, after height and density changes go into effect, it may initiate a watershed of change that cannot be turned back. The city needs to think about long term sustainability and what that means to the retail industry. It does NOT need to make sweeping changes just because big real estate and its political cronies have whipped up people’s economic woes and inactions to the point where they are too tired to resist or think about the impact of proposed changes.

  4. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    “For a fleeting moment, one might say, the Libbie and Grove area has achieved a state of urban grace. Everybody loves it, and no one wants it to change. But, as former Beatle George Harrison once crooned, all things must pass.”

    All things need not pass. The question for people to answer concerning additional infill within Libby Grove should be how can we reinforce and enhance the atmosphere, spirit, and usefulness of Libby Grove. So that Libby Grove daily builds even more community and social capital, enriches even more the lives of those fortunate enough to spend time there, and the whole town within which it thrives. That is the essence of the question. The right set of answers will find ways to move Libby Grove into the future by reinforcing and building wisely on the foundation of its past.

    1. reed fawell Avatar
      reed fawell

      When a neighborhood goes about deciding how best to infill their existing commercial streets so as to reinforce and enhance those aspects that they find so appealing, it is often useful to catalog all significant pieces of its current fabric that lend to the street its present appeal, and explain why.

      James Bacon did this in a quite brief, yet very telling way, with a visual tour of a slice of Barcelona Street scape. Perhaps he or others could do the same with Libby Grove. Catalog what gives it it’s present charm, its unique and alluring mix of uses – their interior spaces, exterior looks, and how they work together. And what is there now on the street that actively works to interfere with its ability to fully realize its potential. And, alternatively, what practical uses are missing that might enhance existing beneficial uses.

      1. Good ideas, Reed. I’ll try to do it if I can find the time.

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