Tag Archives: smart growth

Drip… Drip… Drip… Another Richmond Company Moves from the Burbs to Downtown

Bob Hilb

The Hilb Group, a fast-growing insurance brokerage with more than $125 million in revenue, has made the decision to move its headquarters from the suburban Stony Point office to the Riverfront Plaza in downtown Richmond.

CEO Bob Hilb told Richmond BizSense that he had been looking for a new location for a year in anticipation of the lease expiring on his 5,000-square feet office in 2017. “While it’s a great building, it has turned into very much a medical office space,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that; it just doesn’t fit our vibe.”

And what’s that vibe? It’s all about the Millennials.

The downtown office will have a more modern, open layout — “a little less wood and more glass,” said Hilb. The company will move only 17 of its 800 employees into the new 9,000-square-foot digs, but he expects the number to grow as the company continues to roll up smaller, independent insurance agencies around the country.

“A lot of a people in our business, you walk into their office and it’s like you’ve walked into a hunting lodge,” he said. “As we grow, there’s no question that being able to attract millennials and having a really nice progressive office makes a difference.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Technically, the Hilb Group’s relocation is a Richmond-to-Richmond move. But Stony Point, located on the far western edge of the City of Richmond, was developed as a classic suburban office park surrounded by parking lots and trees. Walking to the nearby “pedestrian” mall is impractical. The office park is accessible only by automobile. The Hilb Group’s new location in the Riverfront Plaza will be in the heart of downtown near the James River.

Meanwhile, the urbanization of the City of Richmond continues apace. Union Presbyterian Seminary is moving ahead with the development of a $50 million, 301-unit apartment complex in Ginter Park, a single-family neighborhood, despite stiff opposition by neighboring property owners.

And the city planning commission has signaled its intention to rezone Scott’s Addition, a light industrial area transitioning to mixed-use residential and commercial, under a new, more urban zoning classification. Local businesses, says the T-D, would see changes to parking regulations, square footage restrictions and the allowance of small-scale manufacturing.

New Energy in Downtown Norfolk

Hilton Norfolk the Main. The Bacon family stayed here during my dad’s funeral. We had other priorities at the time than hitting the rooftop bar. But we may be back!

Hampton Roads may be stuck in the economic doldrums, lagging the state and national economic growth rate over the past decade, but considerable change — positive change — has been taking place under the surface. Spurred by booming residential development, the city of Norfolk’s downtown is looking more vibrant than any time I remember seeing it.

My impression of downtown Norfolk was shaped in the summer in 1973 when I interned with the Virginian-Pilot as a college student. I would venture across Brambleton Ave. to buy lunch at a sandwich shop whose name I can no longer recall — great Italian hoagies, though — and would stroll down Granby Street, fascinated by the gin joints and titty bars catering to sailors and merchant seamen. The words that come to mind are sleazy and dilapidated. Norfolk was still an important regional finance center, so people were willing to work downtown, but no one, other than homeless people, would dream of living there.

Over the succeeding decades, city authorities pumped millions of dollars into urban revitalization projects of varying merit. The Waterside retail development. Hotels and conference centers. Nauticus. MacArthur Mall. The cruise ship terminal. And probably a lot more that I can’t recall offhand. It was an uphill battle as downtown retail collapsed, the local banking industry was absorbed by out-of-state giants, and, other than the location of the Norfolk Southern headquarters, the private sector showed few signs of vitality.

But something happened the past few years while I wasn’t paying close attention. Downtown residential is hot. Drive down Boush Street, and you’ll see wall-to-wall townhouses and apartment buildings for blocks on end. A major bank tower is being converted from commercial to residential. And Hilton’s Norfolk the Main hotel has just opened an amazing new facility. I’m sure there’s a lot more going on that I’m not aware of. But downtown appears to be developing a great restaurant scene, and I expect it is experiencing a revival of small-scale retail and service businesses catering to the growing residential population.

Downtown Norfolk has several assets. It has inherited a grid street system, a wealth of pre-20th century architecture and a mix of office, retail and residential development. It has cultural amenities such as the MacArthur Museum and the Chrysler Museum (just outside of downtown). And it has a fantastic working waterfront.

Before my dad passed a month ago, he and my stepmom lived in a high-rise senior living facility on the waterfront just a few blocks from downtown. From the 12th floor, they enjoyed a panoramic view of the Elizabeth River with its port cranes, shipbuilding docks and all manner of vessels chugging up and down the waterway.  My dad would stand out on the balcony with his telescope and inspect every inch of the landscape. The view isn’t anything you would call beautiful, but it is mesmerizing — there is so much going on. It never gets dull.

I haven’t spent enough time in Norfolk to get a keen sense of what is happening downtown. Who is moving into all these apartments and condos — Millennials or old guys? Are there a lot of start-ups forming? Is an ecosystem of innovation taking root? Is the changing look of downtown an impressive but economically sterile trend, or does it portend a wave of entrepreneurial energy? I can’t say. What I can tell you is that Norfolk is not stagnating. It is changing. It is reinventing itself. And I can’t help but think that’s a good thing.

Three Land Use Trends to Watch

Construction booming in Tysons despite 17.5% office vacancy rate.

Three articles today may help us divine the future of residential and commercial development in Virginia:

Rebound of the exurbs? For many years, I was committed to the proposition that metropolitan development had reached a tipping point in which the forces favorable to urban re-development were stronger than the forces driving suburban sprawl. The exurbs — low-density tract development on the metropolitan fringe — seemed to be in full retreat as market preferences shifted toward walkable, mixed-use development in central cities and inner suburbs.

There still seems to be an unfulfilled demand for walkable urbanism, but I may have been to quick to write off the exurbs. Jonathan Fox, a principle at the Fox Group, argues in the Washington Post that median home prices in Washington’s inner suburbs flat-lined in 2016 while prices in outlying communities such as Marshall, Warrenton, Lorton and Middleburg have experienced double-digit increases in median home prices and strong gains in cost per square foot.

“As home prices and the cost of living continue to increase in Washington,” writes Fox by way of explanation, “there will be more demand for affordable housing which is often found in farther out regions of the counties.

My question for Fox: Is he focusing on real estate prices in the oases of small-town walkability in outlying communities — Warrenton, for instance, is highly walkable — or does his analysis include the surrounding tract development? If so, are walkable communities out-performing tract communities?

Tysons redevelopment is booming. But… The Tysons area may have a 17.5% office-vacancy rate, but re-development is going gangbusters. Traditional supply-and-demand logic does not seem to apply, says Gerald Gordon, president of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority, as reported by Inside Nova.

Tysons tenants are engaged in a “flight to quality,” moving from older buildings to new ones with the latest amenities. “The new space is more expensive, but it sits right on top of a Metro station,” Gordon said.

But redevelopment away from the Metro stops may prove a challenge. “We’re going to have to work hard just to stay in place,” Gordon said. “When I first got here, office users were taking an average of 265 square feet per employee. Today, it’s anywhere between 80 and 140. So you have to bring in twice as many jobs to fill the same space.”

Moral: As employers figure out how to use less office space — more collaborative space, more mobile office technology, more “hoteling” — high commercial vacancy rates will continue to be an issue. There will be a lot of obsolete office space on the market.

Bifurcation of retail. Everyone knows that Amazon.com and other online retailers are gutting the traditional retail industry. But that doesn’t mean everything will be purchased online. People still like to shop as part of an entertainment or social experience. My wife’s cousin calls it “retail therapy.” A related phenomenon is what I call “girlfriend shopping” — shopping as a bonding experience. While Amazon.com makes shopping ridiculously easy, it’s not what you’d call an enjoyable experience.

Tom Goodwin, head of innovation for Zenith Media, argues in Bloomberg that physical retailers can create a competitive advantage that trumps price and convenience.

“Shopping is the world of adding experiences,” he writes. “It’s the interactive perfume lab in Selfridge’s, the selfie opportunities in Harvey Nichols, the Hardware club experiences in Harrod’s or the extravagant laboratories of Le Labo. Coffee shops seem to have learned this, it’s the unnecessarily long wait, the drama of the brew, the theatre of the leather bound menu in Intelligensia coffee.”

Market forces will push retailers in one of two directions — more frictionless, low-cost shopping online or more experience-rich shopping in the physical world.

Bacon’s bottom line: I don’t get the sense that local governments in Virginia have absorbed two important lessons. First, technology has rendered obsolete the space-intensive offices of yesteryear, and the demand for commercial space is shrinking. Old office parks will rapidly lose their market appeal. Counties will see their tax bases shrivel. Second, retail activity continues to move moving online, which is rendering shopping centers obsolete and redundant. Again, counties will see their tax bases shrivel.

The future belongs to those who can adapt. Office activity will shift to centers of walkable urbanism; access to mass transit is a major bonus (although, in an Uberized world, I’m not persuaded it is absolutely essential). Retail activity likely will do the same. When people want to enjoy shopping as an experience, they want to enjoy the experience outside the store as well. Strip shopping centers and aging malls don’t have much to offer.

Nobody knows where all this heading. (That includes your humble futurist and prognosticator). Things are changing too fast for planners and politicians to figure it out. How will self-driving cars alter the equation? How will Transportation-as-a-Service change the way think about where they live, work and play? There’s lots of speculation, but nobody knows. We won’t know until the market figures it out. The communities that prosper will be those that are the most flexible, adaptable and willing to experiment with new forms of transportation and land use.

Owens & Minor Goes for Millennials, Walkable City

Owens & Minor wants Millennials,and Millennials want 15-minute, livable communities. Graphic credit: Institute for the Future

Good economic news for the Richmond region: Medical supply giant Owens & Minor Inc. announced plans Thursday to open a client engagement center in downtown Richmond that will employ 500 people. Jobs will average about $53,700 in annual pay.

In making the announcement Governor Terry McAuliffe made much of the fact that Richmond competed against 60 other cities in a year-long search process. Less was made of the fact that Owens & Minor, which is located in the Mechanicsville suburb of Richmond, chose to locate in the central city rather than one of the region’s outlying counties.

The reason? “We want to attract the millennial generation,” CEO Cody Phipps told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We did our research. The millennial generation is going to be 50-plus percent of the workforce in the next few years, and they want to live in urban areas. They want to be downtown. They want to work in a state-of-the-art space. We like that we can draw from the universities around here.”

Owens & Minor will make Riverfront Plaza in downtown Richmond its newest home.

Owens & Minor will make Riverfront Plaza in downtown Richmond its newest home. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

I don’t know who conducted Phipps’ research, but I know of one outfit in town that does specialize in generational marketing — The Institute for Tomorrow, which is affiliated with the Southeastern Institute of Research (SIR). (I worked for SIR about ten years ago.) Two days before Owens & Minor’s announcement, Managing Partner Matt Thornhill tweeted presciently, “Winning communities of tomorrow are 15-minute livable communities.”

By way of elaboration, he blogged about recent research conducted for the Virginia Secretary of Transportation. In a survey of 600 people around the U.S. who had just moved or were considering moving more than 100 miles, four out of five agreed with the statement, “Having access to stores, restaurants, and services close to my home (within about 15 minutes) is very important to me.” Almost as important was living withing a 15 minute commute of work.

It is often said that Millennials want to live “downtown” where it’s hip and cool and there are coffee shops and microbreweries. According to a recent Urban Land Institute study, though, only 37% of Millennial consider themselves to be a “city person,” wrote Thornhill; 36% classified themselves as “suburbanites” and 26% as “small town/country” people.

While there is nothing inevitable about Millennials wanting to live and work downtown, they are “hard-wired to be in community with each other,” Thornhill observed. “Thanks in part to doing school projects in teams from their middle school years onward, Millennials like to collaborate and trust in decisions made by the wisdom of the crowd. … They want neighborhoods where they can walk, bike, and use transit to get around.”

This community mindset, opined Thornhill, will drive the growth of “activity centers” of 15-minute livable communities. Activity centers don’t have to be in traditional cities (although most are).  “Builders, developers, urban planners, and government officials are now catching up to the changing preferences of consumers and looking for ways to in-fill activity centers across their metropolitan landscape.”

Thornhill stops his analysis there. But as I think about the Owens & Minor decision, it’s not clear that urban planners and government officials actually have gotten the message. While most of the City of Richmond fits the definition of a 15-minute walkable community, there are only flyspecks of walkability in neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield counties. In Henrico County the one area that potentially has the critical mass to compete with downtown Richmond, the Innsbrook Office Park, was rezoned for urban mixed use back in 2010. But re-development has stalled for more than six years due to inflexible application of the zoning code.

Absent a dramatic change of thinking and practice in the suburban counties, it looks like the future of the Richmond metropolitan region belongs to the city. Everything old is new again: Richmond possesses the key elements of walkability — moderate density, mixed uses, grid streets and timeless architecture — inherited from a past era of urban grandeur. The counties are stuck with suburban sprawl. Expect to see more headlines like Owen & Minor’s in the region’s future.

Integrating Uber with Mass Transit

Photo credit: Washington Post

Photo credit: Washington Post

by James A. Bacon

Arlington County is toying with the idea of replacing under-utilized bus lines in the northern part of the county with ride-sharing services provided by Uber Technologies Inc., and Lyft Inc. The service could offer rides to and from Metro stations at Ballston, East Falls Church and Courthouse

Subsidizing the ride-sharing services would be more cost-effective than operating full-service bus lines with low ridership,  Marti Reinfeld, the county’s interim transit chief, told the Washington Post

“What we would be supporting is picking up residents in their neighborhood and taking them to one or two designated stops, most likely a transit station,” Reinfeld said. “The county will subsidize that at some level.”

The idea is still conceptual, but Arlington officials confirm that they have held conversations with Uber and Lyft, both of which have sought similar partnerships elsewhere in the United States.

Bacon’s bottom line: Every transit operation in Virginia with money-losing routes ought to be thinking the same way.

The first step is to prune under-utilized and money-draining bus routes and concentrate resources into the most robust transportation corridors, offering greater frequency and reliability of service, in turn increasing ridership on those routes. This is what Houston famously has done, boosting ridership at no extra cost. The same consultants behind that transformation are working to rationalize the Richmond bus system.

The second step is to work with Uber, Lyft and anyone else with a bright idea to create a shared-ridership feeder system, in effect substituting vans and carpools for near-empty buses. Subsidies might be useful in order to stimulate the start-up of these services, but ideally they could be phased out over time as the concept takes hold and ridership builds to profitable levels.

A third step worth considering — requiring input from Uber, Lyft and others on what would be cost-effective — would be to invest in remodeling bus stops, rail stations and intermodal facilities to accommodate the easy ingress and egress of vans and carpools. The more seamless the connection between Uber-like services and mass transit, the more attractive the set-up is to passengers, and the more likely the idea is to succeed.

While I am no fan of subsidizing any mode of transportation, I acknowledge that there is no getting rid of money-losing transit operations, and we must do the best job with them we can. If subsidizing shared Uber rides instead costs less money, then there is a net gain to taxpayers.

Rocky Mountain High Real Estate Values

Street scene in Aspen, Colo.

Street view in Aspen, Colo.

by James A. Bacon

According to a 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Aspen, Colo., could boast of having the most expensive real estate in the country. I don’t know if that’s still true, but I wouldn’t be surprised. As I sit here blogging at Ink! Coffee, looking upon a patio filled with Pellegrino umbrellas and baskets of bright mountain flowers while perusing the real estate ads in The Aspen Times, it quickly becomes clear that this is a place where I could never afford to live. A 3,414-square-foot home with a view of Aspen Mountain and within walking distance of downtown is on the market for $4,995,000. Select neighborhoods in Manhattan might be more expensive on a per-square-foot basis — I don’t pretend to know the national real estate market — but there cannot be many places that are.

Prone as I am to over-thinking absolutely everything, I have been asking myself, how did Aspen get to be one of the most desirable locations in the planet, while small mountain towns in Virginia with comparable natural beauty slide into senescence? Does Aspen provide lessons that Virginia communities can learn from — not with the unrealistic aim of becoming a playground of the one percent, but with the modest goal of attracting tourists and retirees, supporting jobs, lifting the tax base, and paying for amenities that make life more enjoyable for the people who live there?

In the article that follows, I will endeavor to address those questions, fully cognizant that anything I say is based upon the hasty and superficial impressions. My methodology is simple: I stroll around town with iPhone camera in hand and an eye to observing land use, architecture, transportation, and the retail scene. As always, I pay attention to the quality of the public sphere and the “small spaces.” When possible, I engage people in conversation. As it happens, Aspeners (or Aspenites, whatever they call themselves) are incredibly friendly and eager to talk about their fair city.

Aspen got its start in the late 1880s as a silver-mining boom town. When the silver boom went bust, so did the town. Fortunes did not revive until 1946 when Friedl Pfeifer, a former Austrian skiing champion, linked up with industrialist Walter Paepcke and his wife Elizabeth to form the Aspen Skiing Corporation. The town’s most enduring resource, as it turned out, was not silver but world-class skiing.

The inter-mountain west has many  popular ski resorts, but none has done as well as Aspen at winning name recognition and attracting the super-rich. One key to its phenomenal success, I would suggest, is its silver-mining inheritance: a downtown laid out in a classic grid street pattern, a number of handsome brick buildings, and a municipal government intent upon preserving that heritage. Aspen has something that many of its ski-resort peers does not: walkability. Admittedly, Aspen isn’t the only walkable ski town — Jackson, Wyoming, springs to mind — so pedestrian ambiance is not exclusively responsible for vaulting it into the real estate stratosphere. But a comparison with Virginia/West Virginia ski resorts such as Wintergreen, Snowshoe and Massanutten lacking downtown districts suggest that walkability is a critical differentiator.

Downtown Aspen, comprising about two dozen blocks, is a destination in itself, and real estate ads tout houses’ proximity to the urban center. While the “Mountain Modern” style of architecture often presents a jarring contrast with the 1880s-era buildings, the overall effect is still magical. Visitors come to Aspen, fall in love, and gladly pay a premium to buy a house or condominium that allows them to live here.

Aspen5

Not only are historic buildings from Aspen’s silver-mining past architecturally distinctive but they help define the walkable street space.

Walkability

One of the first things my wife, friends and I noticed when strolling around downtown was the paucity of cars. Traffic was negligible. I assumed the empty streets reflected the lassitude of the summer season at a skiing destination. But a friendly acquaintance, a commodities trader who moved here from Chicago, assured me otherwise. We were, in fact, experiencing peak downtown traffic. Summer tourism is booming, and a lot of people bring their own cars and four-wheel drives to take advantage of the hiking, fishing, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting.

While cars may be scarce, human beings are everywhere. The ability to live here without driving is a prime attraction. People can meet most of their daily needs by walking and biking. The commodities trader said he goes a week at a time without ever stepping in a car. Another acquaintance, a native Philadelphian who lives here eight months of the year and does business in New York, said when he recently sold a Jeep he’d owned twelve years, it only had 15,000 miles on it.

Uncongested streets are the result of thoughtful design. Aspen hews to the rules of classical urbanism. For starters, the buildings define the street space. Rather than standing out and saying, “Hey, look at me” with egocentric starchitect designs, they conform with one another in size, height and relationship to the street. By abutting the sidewalks, their facades delineate the public space of the sidewalk realm. While you won’t see many cars driving around, plenty are using the on-street parking — and that’s a good thing. Parked cars and building facades bracket the pedestrian domain as a distinct space. This pedestrian realm, as I shall describe, is adorned by flower gardens, rain gardens, statuary, street seating, and window shopping that make it extraordinarily inviting. Continue reading

In Praise of Carytown

carytown

by James A. Bacon

One of the Bacon family’s favorite places to go in Richmond is Carytown, an eight-block retail strip embedded in Richmond’s Museum District. Some of our favorite restaurants are there — Can Can Brasserie if we’re in the mood for French, Amici’s if for Italian, Cappola’s if for subs. For soon-to-be empty nesters like us who parachute in from the ‘burbs, the food is the main draw. But not the only one. I look for any excuse to visit Carytown… just because.

As much as I cherish Carytown, I was astonished to see that Cushman & Wakefield profiled it as one of America’s top “cool streets,” giving it a tongue-in-cheek rating of “prime hipness” on its hip-o-meter. I’m so un-hip it hurts. I’m the opposite of hip — I’m pih. Moreover, other than the culinary scene, I’m not accustomed to anyone uttering the words “Richmond” and “hip” in the same breath.

But I do agree, there is something very special about Carytown. Moreover, there are lessons to be learned from its success. Along with Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Chicago’s Logan Square and other cool streets profiled in the report, Carytown is an urban laboratory, a live demonstration showing how retail can thrive in the age of failing malls, shrinking chain stores, and ubiquitous e-commerce.

According to Cushman & Wakefield, Millennials are the generation that defines what’s what’s cool, fashionable, and chic. Almost by definition, cool streets are areas that draw large numbers of Millennials as patrons and entrepreneurs. Urban Millennials are looking for affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods. The cool streets in the Cushman & Wakefield survey meet those criteria. They tend to be older, affordable neighborhoods developed decades ago when grid streets were the norm, went to seed and now are coming back. Tony, long-established retail districts are too expensive to attract Millennials, either as patrons, entrepreneurs or residents living nearby.

Cool streets are dominated by small, independent businesses. They are eccentric and eclectic. They are never dull and predictable. As such, says the report, they are incubators for new retail concepts.

Carytown, notes the report, is home to about 300 boutiques, shops, restaurants and bars in about 950,000 square feet of retail inventory. Rents vary from $12 to $40 per square foot. Millennials account for 43.1% of the population, one of the highest percentages of the cool streets surveyed, and average household income exceeds $81,000. Vacancies are extremely low and rents are rising, but there are no major redevelopment projects underway.

A couple of observations about how Carytown came to be Carytown.

First, Carytown did not emerge from some master planner’s vision. It evolved organically. This stretch of West Cary Street was built in the 1930s as an extension of the Fan neighborhood, and the standard practice of that time was to lay out the city in grid streets, with buildings abutting and facing the street. Other than the magnificent old Byrd Theater and a converted church, none of the buildings are architecturally distinctive. But the cellular structure of the small, street-facing buildings is perfect for shops, boutiques and small restaurants.

Second, the City of Richmond has stayed out of the way. Other than building a two-story parking deck on a side street, the city has busied itself with projects in other parts of the city. It has not spurred “redevelopment.” It hasn’t blessed the district with big plans.

Third, the district combines automobile accessibility with walkability. Parking lots and the parking deck are either tucked away behind the buildings or concentrated in the shopping centers on the west end — they do not violate the integrity of the streetscape. The sidewalks lining Cary Street create a hospitable environment for pedestrians, with visually interesting shops on one side and parked cars creating a buffer from traffic on the other.

Fourth, only modest attention has been given to “place making.” Those features that exist have come largely at the initiative of the businesses themselves — on-street dining, statues and artwork on the sidewalks.

Carytown is a classic example of organic, from-the-bottom-up development that costs taxpayers almost nothing but adds immeasurably to the quality of life. It’s not the only model for urban revitalization, but it’s a darn good one.

Walkable Urbanism Is Still on a Roll

The Clarendon area of Arlington is a good example of suburban "WalkUP" development.

The Clarendon area of Arlington is a good example of suburban “WalkUP” development.

by James A. Bacon

Skeptics of a sustained urban revival have pointed with some glee to the fact that most commercial and residential development in the United States continues to take place in “suburban” jurisdictions rather than central “city” jurisdictions. Yeah, they say, there’s been an urban revival in the past decade, but the broader development trends haven’t changed very much.

That line of reasoning is profoundly misleading because it is based on an underlying assumption that the growth in “suburban” jurisdictions is comparable to the scattered, disconnected, low-density development that dominated growth and development between World War II and the Great Recession of 2008.

The fact is that much growth and development in suburban counties consists of walkable urban spaces, or what smart growth theorist Christopher Leinberger calls “WalksUPs.” In a newly published report underwritten by Smart Growth America, “Foot Traffic Ahead,” Leinberger and Michael Rodriguez found that WalkUPs, walkable areas of mixed-use development, gained market share compared to traditional suburban areas in every one of the 30 largest metropolitan regions in the country between 2010 and 2015.

Metropolitan Washington is an exemplar of the larger trend. Renowned for its sprawling Northern Virginia suburbs, the Washington region in fact has the second highest ranking under Leinberger’s methodology. It has 44 WalkUPs accounting for 53% of all office space, 20% of retail, and 23% of multi-family housing in the region. In contrast to the New York metro, where 94% of WalkUP space is located in New York City proper, Washington, D.C., accounts for only 53%of metro Washington WalkUP space — the rest is found in Arlington, Alexandria, Bethesda, Md., and other communities outside the core city.

The data presented in this report suggests [a] structural shift is now taking place; walkable urban development has returned, occurring in some metros more quickly and in some more slowly. Our analysis shows that walkable urbanism has gained market share in the office, retail, and multi-family rental product types over drivable sub-urban, possibly for the first time in 60 to 70 years.

Richmond was not on the list of cities analyzed, but anecdotal evidence suggests the same dynamic is occurring in midsized cities, too. The City of Richmond proper is redeveloping rapidly, adding more new residential than it has seen in decades. But “suburban” counties are urbanizing, too. Some of the biggest real estate projects underway in Henrico County where I live are re-developing land as mixed use projects at higher density, and even the new stuff tends to incorporate mixed-use elements.

Remarkably, the return to urbanism appears to be persisting in the face of the lowest gasoline prices (adjusted for inflation) in history. The move back to walkable urbanism appears to represent a fundamental and long-lasting societal shift.

Pulse Has a Pulse after All

Click for larger image.

Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

When last I blogged about Richmond Pulse, the Bus Rapid Transit plan for the city’s Broad Street corridor, the projected cost had leaped $11.5 million over its original $50 million estimate. While I support mass transit in the right circumstances, I saw little good coming from this project, in which state and federal authorities had helicoptered dollars upon the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) and the city had done little to create the conditions — zoning for appropriate land use, funding streetscaping and planning for intermodal connectivity — needed to make the project a success.

I was worried that I might have offended my old buddies in the local Smart Growth community by my unsparing criticism of the transit project. As it turns out, I need not have worried. They shared the same concerns. Indeed, they have been working feverishly through the planning process to correct the obvious deficiencies.

“Typically plans for transit projects sit on the shelf for years while agencies try to find funding,”  says Trip Pollard, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, “but in this case, while some planning certainly had been done, the funding got ahead of the planning.”

The project, which runs 7.6 miles from Rocketts Landing at the east end of the city to the Willow Lawn mall at the west end, is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2017. Planners have moved into high gear trying to catch up. Two important studies should be complete this fall.

The Richmond Regional Transit Vision Plan will create a regional transit vision plan to stakeholders and the public that will guide transit development in the region through 2040. The idea is for Pulse to be part of a more comprehensive regional transit system.

The Broad and East Main Street Corridor Plan will focus on the Pulse corridor, identifying where development should occur, what development should look like and how it should happen.

Meanwhile, the Richmond Transit Network Plan will rethink the design of the city’s bus network in the context of Pulse. For example, will Pulse free up GRTC resources to improve service on other routes? How can regular bus routes interface with Pulse? Can GRTC optimize its bus service in other ways? Jarrett Walker + Associates, renowned for its re-engineering of the Houston bus system, will conduct the study. That should be complete next year.

As a bonus, the U.S Department of Transportation is providing technical assistance in the Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot Initiative to promote Transit-Oriented Development in the low-income Fulton community, whose residents are expected to use the BRT to reach jobs in the West End.

While implementation of the Pulse project has not exactly risen to a top-of-mind issue in Richmond’s highly competitive mayoral race, “there is a mobilized civic community,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Civic leaders are determined to make sure the project is done right.

The Smart Growth community has a lot riding on this project. If Pulse crashes and burns, it will undermine political support for more mass transit funding in the Richmond region. Conversely, if the project is successful, it could pave the way for a regional system.

More Small Spaces

king_street

King Street, Charleston, S.C.

by James A. Bacon

I can’t overstate how important the creative use of small spaces is to evoking the aura of authenticity and charm that people love. As with so many things, small spaces-as-works-of-art cannot be managed from the top-down; it must burble from the bottom up. Each of the small spaces highlighted here, drawn from my recent trip to Charleston, S.C., originated as a work of passion and creativity by an individual property owner. Added to and improved incrementally over the years, they they form an impression that no central design authority — be it a municipal government or a giant private developer — could possibly replicate.

This series of photos was taken along King Street, a marvelous, walkable retail-restaurant district. Richmond’s Carytown is comparable, though definitely a poor cousin. I haven’t visited Old Town Alexandria in several years, but I recall similar street scenes. Otherwise, Virginia has nothing else that comes close.

funky_gate
King Street does many things right. It has many historic buildings, and recent redevelopment maintains the same sense of human scale. There are no blank spaces in the street — no large parking lots, no blank facades. Indeed, what stands out is the way property owners have made the most of every niche available to them. The result of many individual actions is a collective masterpiece.

portalThe photograph immediately above shows a funky iron-forged gate that cordons off an enclosed outdoor dining space visible to King Street.

The photo at left shows an oval porthole in a wall, also on King Street that reveals another enclosed outdoor dining area. This arrangement provides more privacy, yet still creates a visual delight for pedestrians.

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