Category Archives: Land use & development

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.

Reinventing Roanoke


Thirty years ago when I worked for the Roanoke Times, the City of Roanoke was obsessed with revitalizing its sleepy downtown. Roanokers were fiercely loyal to their central business district and celebrated every small success. But the odds seemed stacked against them. Midsized cities lacking a major university presence have fared poorly economically in the past three decades. Indeed, Roanoke suffered body blow after body blow as its top employer, Norfolk Southern, progressively shrunk its presence to zero.

But rather than sounding a death knell, the departure of Norfolk Southern freed up railroad office buildings for conversion to apartments and, against all odds, Roanoke’s revival.

As reported by the urbanism website CityLab, the conversion in 2002 of one Norfolk Southern office building into a collegiate and job training center and another into an 87-unit apartment building set downtown on a new path. Backed by historic tax credits and $20 million in city capital projects, developers have converted many old commercial buildings to residential use. In 2000, fewer than 50 people lived downtown. Today, more than 1,800 do.

Writes article author Mason Adams: “The Star City … created a model this century for how small industrial cities can reinvent themselves.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The Roanoke Valley is hardly booming right now. But the city is reinventing itself, creating in downtown the kinds of places that creatives and Millennials want to live. It is undergoing the same kind of transformation, on a smaller scale, as Richmond has. After a wrenching transition during and after the 2008 recession, Richmond now leads Virginia metro areas in economic growth. Hopefully, Roanoke will experience a similar rebound.

Moral of the story: Why is Roanoke’s downtown district and surrounding neighborhoods reinventing itself and not the valley’s suburbs? Because downtown has assets that people now value: walkability, including a pedestrian-friendly street grid and sufficient density to support a wide variety of amenities within walking distance. Downtown also has a large stock of historic buildings. Perhaps most important of all, Roanoke’s zoning code has not impeded the conversion of buildings from one land use in declining demand (office space) into a different land use enjoying growing demand (residential). Roanoke has had the freedom to evolve with changing market demand. Suburban places, embedded in their residential/commercial/retail pods lack are stuck in amber. All Virginians can learn from Roanoke’s example.

More Miscellaneous Morsels…

Corporate Research Center, CRC, aerials, Phase 2, Dairy Farm

Luxury apartments for research park. The Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center, which has more than one million square feet of office space, is joining forces with a local real estate developer to add luxury apartments to the mix, reports the Roanoke Times. The company had previously added amenities to play soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, basketball, and disc golf to its work-live-play options.

“What we’re trying to do is create a self-contained community that has all the amenities at your fingertips,” said CRC President Joe Meredith. “The last amenity that we don’t have is housing.”

The Corporate Research Center, in my recollection from visits a decade ago, was a classic suburban office park, the main selling point of which was its proximity to the Virginia Tech campus. It was a pretty sterile place. Integrating apartments into the mix sounds like a good move — indicative of a larger trend in which suburban office parks are busily reinventing themselves as islands of walkable urbanism capable of attracting Millennials and the businesses that want to hire them.

Longwood revising bias reporting protocols. Longwood University has temporarily shut down its bias incident reporting system, reports Campus Reform, and is rewriting protocols to protect freedom of speech. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) had criticized Longwood for its particularly broad definition of what constituted a “bias” incident.

Director of Citizen Leadership and Social Justice Education Jonathan Page conceded that some of the definitions the school had used were problematic, telling the Rotunda that Virginia Assistant Attorney General Cameron O’Brion advised the university to remove the former protocol and provided recommendations for revision in response to [a] student’s complaint.

“A lot [of O’Brion’s recommendations] were based in how we were not only defining bias and hate crimes, they really didn’t fall in line with how the FBI defined hate crimes, that a lot of the things we defined as bias incidents were really freedom of speech issues,” Page explained. “Some of the language that we modeled came from some private institutions and so as a public institution we can’t have the same stance that privates do.”

The Great Migration Breakdown

Historically, a source of American prosperity has been the willingness of workers to move from regions with poor economic prospects to regions with better economic prospects. Think Depression-era Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl to California. Think Jim Crow-era African-American sharecroppers migrating from the rural South to booming Northern industrial centers.

Since the 2008 recession, the rate of inter-state migration has slowed dramatically, observe Kyle F. Herkenoff, Lee E. Ohanian, and Edward C. Prescott in a new paper, “Tarnishing the Golden and Empire States: Land Use Restrictions and the U.S. Economic Slowdown,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Sluggish geographic labor mobility has coincided with three other trends: a spike in real estate prices in California and New York, an end to the population booms in California and New York, and a slowdown in the convergence in incomes between states. The authors think those trends are intertwined.

“U.S. economic growth has gone hand-in-hand with the regional reallocation of labor and capital,” write the authors. “The pace of resource allocation, however, has slowed. This decline has coincided with lower productivity and output growth, as well as growing home premia in high income states, including California and New York.”

Here is what they think is going on: Land use regulations create housing shortages, which drive up housing prices. Sky-high housing prices price lower-income residents out of the housing market in high-productivity metropolitan regions like San Francisco-San Jose and New York. Despite the superior work opportunities, people leave and people from lower-productivity regions are discouraged from moving in. Millions of Americans remain trapped in lower-productivity labor markets.

Herkenoff et al build an elaborate econometric model designed to gauge the effect of land-use regulations. (The model is way too complex to describe here — I’ll confess, the methodology is beyond my ken.) After running the numbers through their black box, here’s what they conclude:

Reforming land use regulations would generate substantial reallocation of labor and capital across U.S. regions, and would significantly increase investment, output, productivity, and welfare. The results indicate that too few people are located in the highly productive states of California and New York. In particular, we find that deregulating just California and New York back to their 1980 land-use regulation levels would raise aggregate productivity by as much as 7 percent and consumption by as much as 5 percent.

Deregulating all U.S. regions would raise labor productivity by 10% and consumption by 9%.

Under various deregulation scenarios, the authors noted that the “Mid-Atlantic” region, which includes Virginia, would, with California and New York, see the greatest population gains.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is an important paper. I firmly believe that the links described by Herkenoff et al are real — land use regulations restrict the housing supply, which drives up housing prices, which hinders geographic mobility, which hurts productivity gains and economic growth.

These linkages shed light on a two ongoing debates about American society.

Slowing rate of economic growth. Economic growth in the Obama business cycle was the slowest in the post-World War II era. The debate over the reasons for the slowdown has almost totally ignored the land use-housing shortage-migration connection. Economists look for national reasons — aging workforce, dearth of breakthrough technologies — to explain national economic phenomena such as national economic growth. Land use is a local phenomena, so it tends to be overlooked. If Herkenoff et al are right, it will be difficult for the U.S. economy to resume a 3% to 4% annual growth rate, no matter how Congress reforms taxes and the Trump administration prunes national-level regulations. (I’m not defending the status quo in taxes and regulation, just acknowledging that they address only a part of what ails the economy.)

Income inequality. The debate over income inequality in the U.S. has largely overlooked the malign effects of land use regulation. Insofar as incomes have become more unequal in the U.S. in recent decades — I think the extent has been exaggerated, but that’s another debate for another time — the slowdown in the migration of Americans from low-productivity (and low paying) regions to high-productivity (and high paying) regions has played a major role.

Land use is the most overlooked and least understood driver of the American economy. The influence of land use upon the economy is even more pervasive and complex than described in the Herkenoff et al econometric model. But their article is a good place to start the discussion.

Former Apostle of Sprawl Now Touts Walkable Urbanism

Stephen S. Fuller

Fairly or unfairly, I’ve always thought of Stephen S. Fuller, the George Mason University professor and expert on the Washington regional economy, as a guy who made his living providing the intellectual justification for the business-as-usual pattern of real estate development in Northern Virginia. The real estate lobby hired him to conduct innumerable studies and forecasts, which invariably were used to justify opening up new areas to low-density development and support construction of the transportation infrastructure to serve it. As it turned out, his mid-2000s forecasts of population and economic growth stretching into the infinite horizon turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

But agree with him or disagree with him, his views on economic trends in the region carry a lot of weight with important people. So I was startled (in a good way) to read of remarks he made to the Prince William County Chamber of Commerce. Reports Inside NoVa:

While Fuller feels that the county is generally well-positioned for the next decade or so, he warned that Prince William officials will need to find a way to build more high-quality, walkable communities if they want to attract talented young workers (and the companies that covet them).

“What companies want most these days is a good workforce,” Fuller said. “And that puts pressure on areas having good housing, parks, these amenities, more so than 10 or 20 years ago. Businesses don’t go somewhere and think the talent will follow. It tends to be the other way around.”

In particular, Fuller suggested that the county might look at attracting developers of higher density communities to come to Prince William, particularly in areas with access to public transit like Manassas or along the “I-95 corridor.” He’s also bullish on the potential of Innovation Park near Mason’s Prince William campus to attract development, calling it a “gold mine,” though he urged patience from county leaders to not abandon the area if growth looks sluggish.

“You have two or three major nodes that will generate good jobs, you need to build communities around them,” Fuller said.

I disagreed strongly with some of Fuller’s past prognostications. This time, he’s got it right. Prince William is the county that sprawl built. It will not age well. Older, car-centric subdivisions will lose relative value in the metropolitan area compared to walkable urbanism. Over time the middle class will move out and lower-income and working-class households will move in.

While it’s always tempting to keep the growth Ponzi scheme going by busting into the sparsely populated Haymarket area in the western part of Prince William, it makes far more sense in the long run to build walkable communities concentrated in a few nodes that (1) will attract Millennials and employers, and (2) will create development patterns offering a better balance between tax revenue and infrastructure spending.

I don’t know when Fuller became a convert to higher-density, mixed-use development — I haven’t tracked his activities closely in the past few years — but I’m glad to see that he’s made the switch. Given his reputation in Northern Virginia as an economic guru, he can be a force for positive change.

How to Build Strong, Resilient Cities and Towns

Chuck Marohn

Cities and counties across the United States are experiencing chronic fiscal stress, and the reason has nothing to do with Republicans or Democrats and everything to do with what Chuck Marohn calls the “growth Ponzi scheme.”

“Why are cities going broke?” he asked at a forum hosted by the Partnership for Smarter Growth, Coalition for Hanover’s Future, and the Virginia Conservation Network at Randolph-Macon College last night. “We can’t we keep the grass in the parks mowed? Why can’t we keep the library open past 5 o’clock?”

After World War II, the United States embarked upon a massive, society-changing experiment that departed from the accumulated wisdom of millennia of experience of building cities. That experiment, commonly referred to as suburban sprawl, changed the growth paradigm from building places with a pedestrian orientation to building places with an automobile orientation. Over the course of just two or three decades new zoning codes and highway construction transformed the character of cities across the country. Initially, that experiment seemed to work out well. Now the fiscal flaws are evident for all to see, and the system is on the verge of collapse.

In the post-World War II era, developers and government struck a deal: Developers would build a subdivision or shopping center, including roads and utilities, and then would turn over the infrastructure for local government to maintain. Early on, the arrangement seemed like a great deal for government. Taxes on the houses and commercial buildings generated loads of cash flow while the infrastructure cost almost nothing to maintain. In a typical cul de sac development in the mid-1990s, infrastructure would cost the builder $6,600 per development. Less visibly, localities had to spend thousands more on infrastructure outside the subdivision, such as arterial roads and highway interchanges. Everyone ignored the fact that it would take, say, 37 years to recoup the cost of all that infrastructure through property tax revenues. Because infrastructure costs little to maintain when it’s new, new subdivisions proved to be revenue gushers. But over time, roads required more and more maintenance and subdivisions began operating tax-wise at a net loss.

What was the solution? Build more new subdivisions and use the surplus revenues to cover deficits from the old subdivisions. Use good money to cover bad, like a Ponzi scheme. But at some point it’s impossible to build enough new subdivisions (strip malls, office parks, etc.) to cover the deficits. That’s where the nation is now, said Marohn. For thirty years, local governments enjoyed the “illusion of growth.” Now they’re facing the reality of chronic fiscal stress. Absent changed policies, they’ll follow Detroit into the abyss. For many, it is too late.

“We need growth so bad today that we’ll do all sorts of crazy stuff,” Marohn said. “We’re lending money to people we know can’t pay it back. We’re desperate for growth. We have to have it or everything falls apart.”

The United States is hitting the limits of its ability to fund more growth. There is no rabbit to pull out of the hat to rescue the nation from its predicament.

As an example, Marohn cited Lafayette, La., a city that is reasonably well run administratively yet experiences chronic fiscal stress. An in-depth analysis of its development patterns revealed that its downtown and older neighborhoods, which are compact and densely developed, net out fiscally positive but that the majority of the city, especially newer areas built according to suburban zoning codes, net out negatively. The median family in Lafayette makes $45,000 a year and pays $1,500 in local taxes. To cover the cost of the its growing infrastructure liability, the city would have to raise taxes to $9,000. “That will never happen,” he said. “Lafayette will have to make some very hard decisions about what to maintain and what to let go.”

Not all cities are in equally bad shape. Some grew more slowly and built less hop-scotch, low-density sprawl that inflated the expense-to-revenue ratio of its neighborhoods. Some have more flexible zoning codes that allow more adaptive reuse. And some are more willing to change than others.

“We should not accept decline as normal,” Marohn said. The answer is not some top-down Marshall plan. It’s the opposite — a bottom-up approach that emphasizes small, low-risk, high-return investments based on intimate local knowledge. Over time, small incremental improvements — bike lanes, cross walks, tree plantings, sidewalk widenings — can go a long way to rebuilding the tax base. The highest-return investments, he suggests, are those that enhance pedestrian and bicycle mobility. They make places feel safe and inviting. Their scale is a single block or intersection at a time.

The advantage of making small, safe bets is that if nothing gets better, you haven’t squandered much money. You haven’t mortgaged the farm, so to speak. But if the small bets do work out, you learn from experience and replicate the successes. In every community, Marohn says, there is a abundance of “pennies, nickels and dimes laying on the ground.” Over time, small improvements, leveraged by private investment, can create enormous value. “This is how we build wealth: slowly and incrementally.”

Marohn also abhors the rigidity of zoning codes and preaches the virtue of flexibility. Municipal planners suffer from the illusion that they can divine the future and anticipate the proper mix and location of residential, commercial and industrial property for the foreseeable future. But markets are too dynamic for anyone to predict long-term demand for different categories of real estate with consistent accuracy. A resilient city, he says, is flexible. A big-box building surrounded by a huge parking lot, typical of suburban development, is difficult to recycle into a different use. A single building set in a downtown street grid is very easy to switch from one use to another. Flexible development patterns like those found in downtown areas will prove more resilient in times of change than inflexible patterns. “Zoning codes are some of the most destructive things we have,” he said. “We need to rethink them.”

Thirdly, Marohn suggests that cities need to make it easier for entrepreneurs to bootstrap new businesses. While some 240 cities and regions across North America decided to chase the Amazon second headquarters, the economic-development deal of the decade, only one can win. Will Amazon HQ2 be a net gain to a community after a realistic accounting of costs and tax revenues and adjustments for incentives? Color him skeptical. It is more prudent, he says, to foster new business formation, which can be helped through a prudent relaxation of building codes, zoning codes and other regulations.

“If we play the Wall Street game, if we play the Washington game, we’ll get wiped out,” he said. By embracing new fiscal analytics, relaxing zoning codes, and embracing a philosophy of making small, low-risk, high-return public investments, America’s cities and towns can prosper.

Marohn to Bring Strong Towns Insights to Virginia

I have written about Chuck Marohn, founder and chief evangelist of the Strong Towns movement, many times. Not long ago I urged elected officials and citizen activists wanting to revitalize Virginia’s small towns to read his blog. Marohn is, hands down, the leading thinker today about building more prosperous, livable, and sustainable communities” in America’s small towns.

At long last, Marohn is coming to Virginia. As the guest of the Partnership for Smarter Growth, the Coalition for Hanover’s Future, and the Virginia Conservation Network, he will be holding one of his “Curbside Chats” at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland tomorrow (Tuesday) evening.

How can our towns get stronger—not weaker—when our economy changes? How can we repopulate our empty streets and empty storefronts? What can we learn from the earliest days of city building about building better places tomorrow? And how can active citizens, local officials, and ordinary people like you and I make it happen today, no matter how badly we’re starting off?

This live Curbside Chat is an opportunity to hear Strong Towns’ answers to these questions, and to participate in a community-specific discussion about how the Strong Towns approach can improve your city.

This core Strong Towns presentation is a game-changer for communities looking to grow more resilient in an uncertain future.

Find out more here.

Chuck fuses Smart Growth and fiscal conservatism — akin to what I did much less successfully when I published the “Smart Growth for Conservatives” blog. He is acutely aware of the nation’s perilous fiscal condition. While others focus on the entitlement state, Chuck explores the contribution of runaway, low-ROI infrastructure spending — what he calls the “growth Ponzi scheme — to undermining local government finances. He has dissected the damage done by traffic engineers to our transportation system. Among other contributions, he coined the term “stroads” to describe street-road hybrids that provide neither the connectivity of streets nor the higher-speed mobility of roads. He believes in taking lots of small bets with public investment rather than betting the farm.

I hold Chuck in high esteem because he consistently questions the conventional wisdom, much as I try to do in Bacon’s Rebellion. Yet his thinking has not hardened into orthodoxy. He’s always incorporating new ways of looking at the world. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. I highly recommend the event to readers of Bacon’s Rebellion.

Asphalt City to Reform Parking Regs

Wow, what a great way to utilize urban land almost fronting the Potomac River!

The Old Town district in downtown Alexandria is the very model of Smart Growth — it was built during the golden age of urban development when city planners believed in such things as street grids, mixed uses, and urban densities. And in recent years, portions of Alexandria’s downtown have been re-developed according to the same principles. But the city, like many of its peers, succumbed during the post-World War II era to the siren call of suburban zoning codes, and the results outside of Old Town have been dismal.

A key component of any self-respecting auto-centric suburban zoning code was a set of regulations dictating how much surface parking was required for everything from strip malls to garden apartments. It appears that Alexandria planners applied those requirements with relish.

An astonishing 10% percent of the city’s surface is covered by parking lots, a task force comprised of Alexandria residents, developers and city leaders has found. The average peak occupancy of 60 sites surveyed was 59%, reports the Washington Business Journal. Nearly 59% of Alexandria hotel visitors reach their destination by taxi, Uber, or Lyft; 52% of restaurant patrons do not drive. And some landlords are leasing their space to others to utilize excess parking.

While on-street parking serves some beneficial purposes in defining the urban fabric — parked cars create a barrier between pedestrians on the sidewalk and moving cars on the street — excess parking is destructive to the environment and urban design. Impermeable parking lots contribute to storm-water runoff. They trap solar rays and contribute to the urban heat-island effect. Parking lots consume space that could be devoted to higher-value urban uses, either buildings that enhance property taxes or parks that enhance well-being. And they fragment streetscapes, thus undermining walkability.

The task force will submit recommendations to City Council tomorrow.

Among the major changes under consideration: Setting a minimum and maximum parking standard for everyone — as opposed to the minimum-only scenario currently in place — exempting small neighborhood businesses from the parking minimum, and allowing for shared parking between businesses.

Sounds like a big improvement over the current policy, which hasn’t changed in 50 years. But personally, I would go further. Unless a compelling public need can be demonstrated to exist, eliminate all parking mandates, period. Next, reform zoning codes to make it easy for property owners to recycle parking lots into buildings. Finally, convert on-street parking to dynamically priced metered parking that varies with supply and demand. Then you’d be talking real parking reform.

A Reminder that the James River is Richmond’s Greatest Asset

Laura and I ate lunch today at the Conch Republic at Rocketts Landing and enjoyed the perfect temperature, delightful breeze and wonderful views while seated outside on the deck. Rocketts, a residential-retail development retrofitted from old industrial acreage just south of the Richmond city line, didn’t exist when I moved to Richmond three decades ago. But it’s thriving now — and it serves as a great example of how this metro area has changed for the better.

The Capital Trail, which leads to Williamsburg, is visible in the photo above. It wasn’t as busy as Arlington’s biking trail along the Potomac, but we did see many dozens of bikers. We also saw kayakers and recreational boaters on the river today. The Richmond Rowing Club’s crew team puts its sculls into the water nearby as well. Biking, hiking, kayaking, rowing and motor boating — those are amenities that people value when they decide where to live. They comprise the soft infrastructure of the 21st-century knowledge economy. For a long time, Richmond didn’t have it. At last it does.

Bacon Bits: The Latest in Government Ineptitude and Short-Sighted Thinking

It’s Hard to Teach without Teachers. With a week to go before the start of the new school year, the Richmond Public Schools still has about 90 teacher openings, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Why the shortage, which seems to be a chronic issue? Perhaps the school conditions are so terrible that no one wants to work for the city schools. Or perhaps the school administration is dysfunctional that it can’t execute basic tasks. Whatever the case, I’ve seen no reporting to suggest that any other locality in the Richmond region has a comparable problem.

Hopewell the Next Petersburg? The City of Hopewell is now 21 months behind completing its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, and that has some City Council members broiling, as reported by the T-D. One city official points to a $51.8 million in year-end cash and investments as proof that the city’s financial position is OK. But an auditor said he had uncovered about 90 instances of money being transferred without documentation — the same practice that preceded Petersburg’s fiscal meltdown.

What Hurricane Harvey Portends for Hampton Roads. Flood damage in the Houston area will run into the tens of billions of dollars. Much of the cost will be covered by an under-priced, under-funded federal flood insurance program that subsidizes construction in flood-prone areas. (Much of the balance will be covered by an under-funded federal government that will have to borrow the money.) According to Politico, about one percent of insured properties have sustained repetitive losses, accounting for more than 25 percent of the nation’s flood claims. So far, Congress has resisted serious reform, but the program is fiscally unsustainable.

Thought experiment: What would happen to Hampton Roads if federal flood insurance charged actuarially sound premiums? What would that do to property values?

A related question: Who insures infrastructure? Presumably rate payers cover the cost of maintaining electric lines. How big is that subsidy? I’m guessing that state and local governments have no insurance for roads and highways. What is that potential exposure? And how about the implicit subsidies for water and sewer service? People who choose to build and live in vulnerable locations — this now effects me, because I now am a co-owner with my brother and sister of the family beach cottage — should pay the full cost of their locational decisions.

Will that ever happen? Probably not.