Pulse construction on West Broad Street. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In 1950, the population high water mark for many American cities, about 230,000 people lived in the city of Richmond. A few years later, when the city annexed a large swath of Chesterfield County, population peaked around 250,000. Then, as suburbanization took hold and average household size shrank, the population declined steadily over the following decades to less than 200,000.
After a half-century of decline, the city’s demographic fortunes kicked into growth gear again. As young people and empty nesters flocked to the metropolitan region’s urban core, the population rebounded to 210,000 by 2015.
That upward trend is far from spent, says Mark Olinger, the city’s planning director. Indeed, if no big issue arises, such as a spike in the crime rate, he says, “I can see the city getting up to 300,000 by 2037.”
If he’s right, such a surge would represent one of the biggest booms in the city’s 235-year history. The idea is not implausible. Following a national pattern, Millennials crave the excitement of life and work at the urban center, real estate developers are building housing to accommodate them, and employers are following the workforce. The real estate action in the Richmond metropolitan area right now is in the city, not the once-dominant suburban counties of Henrico and Chesterfield.
The big question is how long the boom can continue. Much of the new housing stock has come from the conversion of old warehouses and industrial buildings, fueled by historic tax credits. As the stock of old buildings gets used up, it is harder to find locations to build. The omnipresent NIMBY impulse restricts any development that would change the character of established residential neighborhoods.
One way to avoid the NIMBYs is to focus growth in aging commercial corridors that have long been separated from established residential neighborhoods — in particular, the Broad Street corridor west of downtown. West Broad was developed according to standard suburban zoning codes with large lots, loads of parking, and one- and two-story buildings. For the most part, the architecture is hideous and not worth saving. Historic preservationists will not get exercised to see it bulldozed.
Last month Richmond City Council effectively designated West Broad as a major growth corridor by adopting a zoning framework that allows for development at significantly higher density in a true urban pattern. City officials hope that the opening of the $53 million Pulse bus rapid transit line this fall will jump-start re-development along the corridor, especially around the transit stops. In turn, higher-density development will feed ridership to the system and support it financially.
The economic justification for the Pulse suggested that the BRT system would generate $1 billion in additional assessed property value. The way Olinger talks, that estimate is conservative. He sees tremendous potential for the stretch along West Broad around the Cleveland Street, Science Museum, and Allison Street stops. This “Greater Scott’s Addition area,” as he calls it, encompasses about 700 acres — roughly twice the size of Richmond’s famed Fan district. At present, the assessed value of property in Scott’s Addition is roughly $850 million, while that of the Fan is between $2.3 billion and $2.5 billion.
According to AreaVibes,com, the Fan district has a population of about 13,000. Extrapolating from Olinger’s property assessment numbers, re-developing Greater Scott’s Addition at Fan densities would accommodate 75,000 additional people and add some $3 billion to $4 billion in assessed value to the city’s tax rolls. Is that remotely realistic?
The Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia forecasts that the four core localities of the Richmond Metropolitan Area — Richmond, Chesterfield, Henrico, and Hanover — will gain 193,000 people by 2040. The UVa group expects the city of Richmond to account for only 20,000 of that increase. But demographic forecasts tend to project trend-lines from the past, missing inflection points caused by emergent influences such as the construction of the Pulse and rezoning of the Broad Street corridor.
To realize Olinger’s aspirations, the city must get the details right. Transit-oriented development requires more than mass transit and mid-rise buildings. The glue that ties the two together is the streetscape. People won’t walk quarter- to half-mile distances to BRT stations unless the streets are inviting to pedestrians. And right now, the Broad Street corridor is a relic of ’50-s, 60’s- and 70s-era suburban, autocentric design, violating almost every principle of walkabilty.
Acutely aware of the discrepancy between vision and reality, Olinger says the city will make significant commitments to West Broad walkability in coming years. Under the new zoning code, buildings will help define the pedestrian zone. Building entrances will face the street. Commercial uses will be closer to the street; residential uses will be set back slightly (though less than under a suburban zoning code) to foster privacy and create semi-private spaces. The code will discourage monolithic building facades and encourage lively, varied sotre and office fronts. Landscaping will help define a “streetwall” to mitigate disruption caused by surface parking lots. Indeed, the code aspires to move surface parking off West Broad Street-facing lots into underground parking or behind-the-building lots.
The state will provide $6 million for streetscape improvements over “the next few years,” and private interests will contribute millions more. Whole Foods, which would build a new store on West Broad Street as part of a C.F. Sauer redevelopment project, has created a one-block streetscape plan it is willing to pay for, says the planning director. “They want to make that whole stretch look good.”
Broad Street has fairly wide sidewalks — sidewalks are 18 feet wide in the area near the proposed Sauer redevelopment — which provides a lot of room to work with. The sidewalks can accommodate trees, outdoor dining, and street furniture. Olinger talks about re-orienting the street lights, now used to illuminate traffic lanes, to provide pedestrian-oriented sidewalk lighting instead. At this early stage of re-development, he does not foresee spending public money on fancy crosswalks and brick sidewalks, which are nice but not essential to the pedestrian experience. “We want to make streets inviting to walk — comfortable, safe, and engaging,” he says.
Under the new zoning code, West Broad Street will have its own unique, corridor-like look-and-feel distinct from surrounding neighborhoods. Maximum building heights will be lower on the south side of WestBroad, with its established residential neighborhoods, but could rise as tall as 12 floors on the north side. Four- to five-story buildings would be the norm. “We’re creating this corridor as its own place,” says Olinger.
The challenge is getting from West Broad Street as it is constituted now — largely a walkability wasteland — to the urban corridor Olinger envisions. It would be hard for a private developer to justify plopping down a 12-story building next door to a fast-food joint or auto parts store. The best bet for early re-development is in the Great Scott’s Addition area, where considerable mixed-use investment is taking place already, and near the Science Museum, a major civic landmark. If early projects succeed in attracting tenants and residents, they will attract imitators up and down the corridor.
Perhaps the biggest advantage Richmond has going for it right now is the lack of effective competition from Henrico or Chesterfield. The political establishments of both counties understand that they need to update their zoning codes to allow the kind of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that people increasingly desire, but they are literally two years or more behind the city in allowing such development on a wide scale. Don’t be surprised if Richmond plays fast catch-up with its prosperous neighbors in growing its population and tax base.