An Island of Urbanism in a Vast Suburban Sea

Rendering of proposed Innslake apartment building.

The re-development of Innsbrook, the largest office park in the Richmond metropolitan area, into a mixed-use urban district is getting closer to reality. Developer WAM Associates, led by Joe Marchetti Jr., has enlisted WVS Cos., a developer of walkable urban places such as Rocketts Landing, to develop two apartment buildings and a structured parking deck around an existing office building, reports Richmond BizSense.

Taking advantage of an Urban Mixed-Use district zoning zone enacted by Henrico County several years ago, Innslake Place would add 350 apartments and 261 structured parking spaces adjacent to an existing office building. WVS is contributing money to the project and will help guide it through Henrico’s development review process.

The vision for years has been to transform the office park into an urban district with grid streets, mixed uses and greater density. Western Henrico County is largely built out. If the county is to grow its tax base, it must build up. And Innsbrook, which has excellent Interstate highway access and is the largest employment center in the Richmond outside of downtown, is the most logical place for the county to urbanize.

While Henrico scored an economic development coup earlier this year with its big announcement of the Facebook data center, the City of Richmond has been winning the competition for office projects. Downtown is undergoing its greatest transformation in decades as big corporations, small businesses and apartment dwellers flock to downtown, Scotts Addition, and other city districts. Innsbrook has not built a new office building in years.

By itself, Innslake Place is a relatively modest project. But Henrico residents can reasonably hope that, if financially successful, the project will create a nucleus for more re-development in the Urban Mixed Use district. Once Marchetti and his partners demonstrate that there is a strong market for mixed-use development and a live-work-play lifestyle in Innsbrook — and that it’s possible to get a project through Henrico’s zoning and planning process — the floodgates will be released.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

15 responses to “An Island of Urbanism in a Vast Suburban Sea

  1. “The vision for years has been to transform the office park into an urban district with grid streets, mixed uses and greater density.”

    Richmond discovers Reston 60 years later.

    “Western Henrico County is largely built out.”

    Do you ever wonder if Hammurabi ever looked out over Mesopotamia and thought, “Babylon is largely built out”?

    “City of Richmond has been winning the competition for office projects.

    As far as I can see D.C. is beating the crap out of NoVa in the same regard. Too bad Virginia has a centuries long structural anti-city bias. Cities should be within counties. Annexation should not be considered a dirty word. Localities should have both more autonomy and more accountability. Let’s be honest – we’ve got it all wrong. What might have made sense to Thomas Jefferson back in Jefferson’s day would no longer make sense to Thomas Jefferson if he were alive today.

  2. I often DO wonder if the way that Virginia does cities and counties in conjunction with the Dillon Rule is a serious impediment to more functional settlement patterns.

    Of course the issue of how a city or town within a county gets chartered sounds a little like annexation…. but I mostly profess ignorance on the issue though I suspect there are Clown Shows in other states also.

    • Oh, Virginia is pretty unique in its bizarre approach to cities. It’s absolutely the only state where cities aren’t routinely within counties. I haven’t looked into annexation policies but having cities and counties separate guarantees that any effort at annexation will become a major political food fight. The Thundering Herd of Corruption in Richmond “temporarily” banned all annexations while they study the matter. I think that was something like 30 years ago. The biggest “city” in the state is a county that woke up one morning and declared itself a city (Virginia Beach). The so-called “city” has a population density of well under 1,000 people per sq mi.

      The net result of this anti-city bias is the America’s 12th most populous state without any real cities (sorry Richmond and Alexandria). You really need to get down to the 23rd most populous state (South Carolina) before you start to see Virginia-like city demographics.

      There’s nothing accidental about this. There’s also no reason it can’t be changed. For the last 100 years and for the foreseeable future cities are where wealth is created in America. A state with an anti-city bias is downright crazy.

      The only reason Virginia isn’t Mississippi is because Virginia was lucky enough to end up with the Federal government as a neighbor.

  3. right… but I’m asking for all those other states .. how do cities and towns form within the county? Would it be a process not unlike the on in Virginia where the would-be emergent town or cities would be an adversarial process where the county would oppose it usually?

    In all other states.. you see the word “Greater” as in Greater Houston where “Houston” itself is really as amalgamation of several towns and cities that are located in several counties that make up “Greater” Houston.

    In Virginia an independent city has its own police force and schools.

    That does not seem to be the case in other states.

    I REALLY AM speaking from a position of ignorance here .. BUT . I do not think I am alone AND because I really don’t know on a comparative basis – I simply am unable to posit an informed view.

    It could well be that the “Virginia Way” is an armpit of a governance but it might also have some advantages that all the other states do not have. I just don’t know.

    • The basic concept in most states besides Virginia is: when an area’s population/commercial base expands enough, it receives a charter from the state to provide more intensive gov’t services (utilities, police, etc.) However, the city/town is rarely completely “separate” from the county as in Virginia. Most places still have some shared services/governance. In Virginia, everything is separate between a city and county unless the gov’ts agree to share some function.

    • I think a lot of places in Fairfax County, including McLean, would like to be independent cities to get away from Fairfax County’s land use regulations and lack of services for the tax dollars paid. McLean, Great Falls, Oakton and Clifton area schools have larger class sizes than most other non-Title 1 schools in the County. We play the same role vis a vis Fairfax County that Fairfax County plays vis a vis the state. We subsidize the hell out of the bigger government. I don’t think McLean would like to be a town because of the need to pay taxes not only for county services, but also for local ones. For example, residents of the town of Vienna pay taxes to support the Vienna Police Department and the Fairfax County Police Department. They pay for their own land use staff as well as the county staff.

      But there is no way in hell that Fairfax County would allow splitting higher tax areas from the rest of the County.

      • “But there is no way in hell that Fairfax County would allow splitting higher tax areas from the rest of the County.”

        As the City of Fairfax proved in 1961, it doesn’t always matter what Fairfax County thinks.

        The bigger issue is whether Fairfax County would really care if the new city of McLean was still a part of Fairfax County, like it would be in all 49 of the other US states. I think that the total separation of cities from counties in Virginia is a huge inhibitor to ideas like McLean becoming a city.

        I wonder if an anti-modernist like Jim Bacon might even agree to change the state constitution if becoming an independent city (within a county) required an agreement to pursue a high density, mixed use walkable human settlement pattern*. If Tysons (nee Tyson’s Corner) wants to be a city it would have to agree to a lot. If it agreed, Fairfax County can be damned if they don’t like it.

        * – Just kidding on the anti-modernist term but “caveman” seemed too harsh. Lol.

        • Don – what you are missing is that the goal of many in McLean is to no longer be a part of Fairfax County. So long as McLean is part of Fairfax County, we will suffer large class sizes and high taxes. I don’t mind paying taxes to help poor kids in Title 1 schools. I resent the fact that the County has the largest class sizes in areas that pay the most tax. There is no good reason to treat non-Title 1 schools differently.

          Tysons contributes about 10% of the real estate taxes for Fairfax County. Far from what the Rosslyn Ballston Corridor pays, but still significant. Fairfax County will never allow Tysons to become a city/

  4. “In Virginia an independent city has its own police force and schools.

    That does not seem to be the case in other states.”

    Off the top of my head I think the other cities do have their own police and schools. Chicago is in Cook County, IL and there is a Chicago Police Department and Chicago School System. Cook County’s largest city is Chicago but there are other cities as well, such as Park Ridge – hometown of Hillary Clinton. I believe there are also unincorporated areas of Cook County which are policed by the Cook County Sheriff.

  5. There are a lot of new apartments in Tysons. In fact is an oversupply. But by and large, they are renting and some are being rented to Tysons workers. That is a good result.

    But efficiency apartments in these new buildings often rent for $3000 per month. A bit pricy for many workers. And how can a family live in an efficiency apartment? New urban areas are generally very expensive places to live. And the more expensive the apartment/condo, the more likely the residents drive one or more cars.

    Most of the business tenants are companies that have consolidated offices or moved to new locations at the 4 rail stations. That too is a good result.

    But traffic is only getting worse. The American Legion Bridge is functionally obsolete and cannot handle the volume of cars heading from Virginia jobs to homes in Maryland and vice versa — cars heading to Maryland jobs from homes in Virginia. Of course there is also through traffic on a major interstate route – I-95.

    Other major highways (e.g., Route 7, Route 123 and Route 193) are also at capacity. Drivers are using their experience and apps such as Waze to bypass choked main roads and are using neighborhood streets to get to the on-ramp to the Inner Loop of the Beltway at Georgetown Pike (Route 193). I’ve seen photos of cars backed up 25-30 cars trying to snake through neighborhoods. I’ve heard people complain they cannot get out of their homes between 3:30 and 6:30 pm. A 10-minute trip can take 30-40 minutes. And when they can, these cars race through local streets to make up time. They blast their horns at locals trying to back out of their driveways.

    And it’s not just cars. I’ve seen two big dump trucks race down my 30′-wide street with parking on both sides.

    Development means more traffic. Of course, this situation is much worse because of the decades of development Fairfax County allowed without first ensuring there would be adequate transportation facilities. I’m not sure there is a workable solution for Fairfax County. Supervisors, dead and alive, Republicans and Democrats alike, destroyed it by their failure to link land use to transportation.

  6. What does it take in Virginia for a city or town to form within a county?

    also… in the other 49 …. if a city/town within a county is not “independent” like in Virginia does that imply that the County still has some level of authority over that town/city? (otherwise they WOULD be independent like in Virginia)?

    This is not an idle question. Say … Innsbrook or similar develops into a full-fledged mixed-use cityscape and want more independence from Henrico? How would they do that? Or is it still allowed or has it been effectively outlawed so there can be no more independent cities/towns in Virginia?

    I KNOW that recursion is still possible.. several towns have done it in the last few years.

    • The basic answer: it’s up to the GA to grant a municipal charter, whether city or town. But yes, a city is independent of its county in VA and a town is not (eg, Vienna and Herndon are towns within Fairfax, but Falls Church and Fairfax City are independent of the County). Beyond that, there is more expertise here from others.

  7. One more. Do cities and towns work they way they used to since the advent of Interstate highways and beltways?

    I think they are fundamentally different in some profound ways … and the interstates and beltways have transformed the way that land use is done because of auto-centricity… everything works off the auto – even these mixed-use developments with grid streets… they truly are “islands”… surrounded by an auto-centric world and they themselves do not exist without autos… basically small enclaves have been created… but in a way they’re not at all “functional” like cityscapes were before the advent of Interstates and Beltways.

    • I don’t see that Vienna is any less its own urban area than Falls Church. Yet different status today. Both were early railroad suburbs that today are well served by interstates and other roads. Cf. Haymarket vs. Manassas. It seems to me the main difference is how much political clout they had back when the getting of town and city charters was going on (early 20th c.), the latter to escape the Dillon Rule restrictions on counties.

Leave a Reply