Category Archives: Land use & development

Another Warning of Sea-Level Rise

Ashville Park subdivision in Virginia Beach after Hurricane Matthew. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

By 2030, $838 million worth of residential property in Virginia is at risk of being chronically inundated by high tides caused by rising sea levels, directly affecting more than 6,000 people and $8 million in property taxes, according to a new report by the Union for Concerned Scientists. The definition of “chronic” inundation is 26 times per year.

“Sea levels are rising. Tides are inching higher. High-tide floods are becoming more frequent and reaching farther inland. And hundreds of US coastal communities will soon face chronic, disruptive flooding that directly affects people’s homes, lives, and properties,” states the report, ” Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate.” “Yet property values in most coastal real estate markets do not currently reflect this risk. And most homeowners, communities, and investors are not aware of the financial losses they may soon face.”

By the end of the century, the study warns, sea levels could rise by seven feet, exposing 115,000 Virginia homes worth $30 billion to routine flooding.

That’s the worst-case scenario, predicated on the assumptions that global warming-induced sea-level rise is accelerating and that communities are incapable of adapting, and it’s the one highlighted by the report and the Virginian-Pilot coverage of the report. Under the report’s low-rise scenario based on effective global action against climate change, sea levels will rise only a foot and a half, and projected losses would be much smaller.

Scientists skeptical of alarmist global warming scenarios counter that sea levels have been rising steadily by 20 centimeters per century for at least two centuries with no sign of accelerating. The implied sea-level rise globally would be six and a half inches by the end of the century. But the impact varies geographically depending on whether tectonic plates are rising or sinking. In Virginia, the tectonic plate is sinking, suggesting that the impact could be greater locally.

I react negatively to alarmist environmental scenarios, which I think are fed more by wishful thinking that the world is in desperate need of saving. But I don’t dismiss the UCS report out of hand. If these scientists’ worst fears are well founded, Virginia’s coastline could face massive dislocation. Even if the skeptics are right, periodic flooding will get worse — not catastrophically worse but enough to force us to think differently about coastal development.

Given the array of risks, we cannot continue business as usual. I’m not suggesting that it’s time for draconian action, but we can at least stop doing stupid stuff. By “stupid stuff,” I mean we should stop subsidizing coastal development through the National Flood Insurance Program and through implicit promises that state and local government will maintain roads, power lines, water-sewer and beach restoration regardless of cost in the face of increasing floods. Homeowners should bear the costs and risks associated with their decisions to live on or near the water.

Local governments also need to stop zoning for large developments in flood-prone areas. In a separate and unrelated article, the Virginian-Pilot describes the issues surrounding the proposed expansion of the Ashville Park development in Virginia Beach. The developers won zoning approval for the giant, high-quality subdivision more than a decade ago, before periodic flooding became a concern. In 2016 Hurricane Matthew overwhelmed the project’s storm water drainage system, flooding many houses and leaving families stranded for days. Fixes are expected to cost $11 million. The developer will share the cost of the first phase of $2.75 million; the city will cover the rest. Remarkably, the developer claims the right to be able to build up to 400 more houses.

I firmly believe that people should be able to build where they want — as long as they are willing to pay the full cost associated with their location decisions. The problem is not insoluble. Virginia Beach and other coastal localities should establish special tax districts in flood-prone zones, with provisions to expand the geographic scope of those zones as sea levels rise. Property owners in those zones would be assessed a tax surcharge to fund infrastructure projects — storm water drainage systems, flood control berms and dikes, the re-engineering of roads and bridges, whatever — deemed necessary to protect the community. The tax structure should be adjusted to penalize sprawling, low-density housing projects that require greater public investment and reward compact, infrastructure-efficient investment.

The risk of sea-level rise is likely exaggerated, but no one knows for sure. It is not right to transfer that risk — however great or small — from home-owners in flood-prone areas to the tax-paying public. The time to enact reform is now, not when the floods are upon us.

Needed: The Right Parking Policies for a Growing Richmond

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by Stewart Schwartz

Editor’s Note:  The City of Richmond has launched a parking study focused on seven distinct areas of the city and is holding seven public meetings this week. Meeting dates and locations.

Parking is perhaps the most important aspect of a city to get right if we are going to address traffic, make housing more affordable, and create a sustainable, walkable, bikeable city. The City of Richmond is growing, but if it’s to grow without making traffic really bad, we need to get parking right. Too much parking, especially free or underpriced, will lead to more driving and traffic. Too much parking can also drive up building costs and housing prices, making it harder to provide housing affordable to the full range of our workforce.

As we grow, we need to provide good alternatives by expanding our transit system and adding more dedicated bus lanes over time, and adding bike lanes — especially protected ones, and make walking safer and interesting. Combine these with car sharing like Zipcar and Car2Go, taxis, and ride hailing like Uber and Lyft. With all of these options, you may not need a second car, and for some people, any car at all.

Cities around the U.S. are adopting a range of creative parking policies that combine both market-oriented and regulatory approaches to managing parking. These include:

1) Setting the right price for parking on the street so that there is good turnover in retail districts and 20% of spaces are rotating open at any one time.

2) Using residential parking permit programs but pricing the parking passes appropriately and adding car sharing options to the neighborhood.

3) Dropping use of parking minimums and putting in a maximum limit on number of spaces, while exempting small buildings from having to have any parking. Today our city actually has many zoning districts which actually do get parking right — without requiring too much.

4) Sharing parking between users — one example is daytime office parking used for nighttime entertainment parking.

5) Pricing all off-street parking in lots and structures and separating the rental of parking spaces from the apartment lease or condo purchase price, and from the office lease. This makes clear the high cost of providing parking and always results in lower demand.

6) Equalizing employee commute benefits — instead of just offering free or subsidized parking, an employer should also offer a transit pass benefit, or even a “parking cash out” where an employee offered a parking space can “cash it out” for an equal value in a transit pass + cash, or cash + walk or bike to work.

For a comprehensive presentation on modern parking policies, I recommend this presentation to the City of Portland, Oregon by Jeff Tumlin of Nelson\Nygaard. Jeff is one of the premier national experts in parking policy. Or for the scientific and technical basis for changing a city’s parking policies, see UCLA Professor Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking.”

If Richmond wants to maintain its quality of life as it grows, the city needs to get parking right. Hopefully, the ongoing study will lead to the adoption of the best combination of market-rate and policy solutions for our community.

Stewart Schwartz is a board member of the Partnership for Smarter Growth and executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Is the Urban Growth Boom Fading?

Image credit: Brookings Institution

Several years ago Brookings Institution urbanist William H. Frey proclaimed the 2010s as “the decade of the city.” A constellation of forces in the knowledge economy, which puts a premium on dense, mixed-use urban environments with access to mass transit, was pulling Millennials and corporations back into central cities. It was a logic that I subscribed to, although I did raise the warning that there were limits to how much growth cities could absorb, given zoning, regulatory and other growth restrictions that limit the pace of urban redevelopment.

Now, citing new U.S. Census data, Frey has found that big city growth rates have leveled off and suburban growth rates are reviving. He writes:

The new numbers for big cities—those with a population of over a quarter million—are telling. Among these 84 cities, 55 of them either grew at lower rates than the previous year or sustained population losses. This growth fall-off further exacerbates a pattern that was suggested last year. The average population growth of this group from 2016 to 2017 was 0.83 percent—down from well over 1 percent for earlier years of the decade and lower than the average annual growth rate among these cities for the 2000 to 2010 decade.

The Washington metro was an exception to the trend. Population of the “primary city” (which I presume refers to Washington, D.C., although it may include Arlington and Alexandria) grew 1.5% between 2016 and 2017, exceeding the 1.0% rate for the suburbs.

In the Richmond metro, the population of the primary city (presumably the City of Richmond) gained 0.8% over the same period, slightly slower than 1.0% rate for the suburbs.

In the “Virginia Beach” metro, the population of the primary city (I’ve got no idea which localities Frey might be counting) actually declined 0.3% while the “suburbs” grew 0.8%.

Frey does not try to explain why the urban growth spurt has slowed. I stick with my original theory that there is an untapped demand for urbanism but urban areas have limited capacity to absorb new growth. Urban-core localities have little vacant land to develop, and strong NIMBY forces inhibit redevelopment at higher densities. Preservationists want to protect historic buildings. Homeowners fear traffic impact. Property owners want to protect view sheds from tall buildings.

NIMBY forces are at work in outlying jurisdictions, too, but there is a backlog of zoned projects from the 2000s real estate boom, and there are vast areas dedicated to industrial/commercial uses that can be rezoned with only modest impact on adjacent neighborhoods.

Bacon’s bottom line: Core urban jurisdictions can’t grow their populations any faster than they can redevelop — and they can’t redevelop very fast. As urban property values rise, many people have no choice but to locate in suburban localities where land values are cheaper. Perhaps the best opportunities for real estate developers in 2018 are in retrofitting the obsolete economic mono-cultures of shopping centers and office parks into vibrant, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that emulate the urbanity of city centers.

Which is a Greater Public Safety Issue: Fires or Pedestrian Fatalities?

Municipal governance, like life, is full of trade-offs. One would think that a Class 1 fire suppression rating from the Insurance Services Office would be an unalloyed blessing. After all, a Class 1 rating ranks a fire department in the top 1% in the nation, which translates directly into lower homeowners insurance rates for residents of that jurisdiction.

So, if you’re a resident of the City of Richmond, which has earned a Class 1 rating after years of effort, or of Henrico County, the first county government in North America to earn the top rating, it should be a source of pride as well as insurance savings to see the validation of your fire department’s professionalism.

“It’s a big win for the city,” spoke Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the city’s honor. “More than anything, this rating demonstrates reliability.”

But there is a downside. Fire chiefs in top-rated jurisdictions also tend to exercise inordinate political clout, an influence that extends to land use decisions. And fire chiefs have been enemies of the kind of compact, high-density development preferred by New Urbanists and other allies of the Smart Growth movement.

Fire chiefs like big, wide streets and rounded street corners that make it quick and easy for their firetrucks to navigate. That’s entirely understandable if your No.1 concern is fighting fires. But wide streets and rounded corners are antithetical to the principle of walkability — cars tend to drive faster, and people take longer crossing the streets, all of which subjects pedestrians to a higher risk of getting hit. This phenomenon is as true in Henrico County as it is anywhere. I well remember attending a design charette for the Tree Hill real estate development and hearing the frustration of the planners at the unwillingness of the Henrico fire chief to compromise on street widths.

That’s no abstract concern. National pedestrian deaths increased 27% from 2007 to 2017 — to 5,984, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration. By comparison, Americans who died in fires in 2015 numbered 2,560, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In other words, pedestrian deaths outnumbered fire fatalities by more than 2 to 1.

Ironically, thanks to building codes influenced by fire chiefs, newly constructed houses are far more fire resistant than old houses. They use better materials, they have smoke alarms, and many come with sprinklers. If fires do ignite, they are slower to spread and do less damage. Fire departments don’t need the huge, street-hogging monster rigs to put out the flames. Pedestrian safety may well be a more pressing threat to public safety. Fire chiefs should not be given veto power over community design.

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Parking Space


Following up on thoughts in the previous post about what is to be done about the Washington Metro… Here is a basic maxim to remember: If we want more people to avail themselves of shared ridership, be it commuter rail, bus, or shared ride-hailing services, they need to pay the full cost of their transportation choices. At present, nobody pays the full cost. Just as mass transit is heavily subsidized, so is automobile mobility.

Here in Virginia, motorists pay a portion of what it costs to maintain and build new roads, bridges and highways through retail and wholesale taxes on gasoline. But they also pay taxes on the purchase of new cars, which is unrelated to how many miles they travel and the wear-and-tear they put on the road system. They also pay a sales tax, which has no connection to transportation at all.

Transportation funding is just the tip of the subsidy iceberg. The current system for allocating parking spaces represents another wealth transfer, and the subsidies are all the more insidious for being invisible. However, Donald Shoup, the nation’s foremost academic authority on parking, has published a new book that sheds light on those subsidies. I have not yet read the book, “Parking and the City,” but I crib here from a review in Public Square, a publication of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

The first nationally representative survey shows that urban garage parking is costly to renters, for example. “We find that the cost of bundled garage parking for renters is approximately $1,700 per year, and the bundling of a garage space adds about 17 percent to a unit’s rent,” CJ Gabbe and Gregory Pierce write in Chapter 11. This is true even though many of these renters don’t own cars, and many of these spaces go unused.

A study in San Francisco showed that off-street parking requirements make housing more expensive. Having off-street parking raised the average household income needed to qualify for a mortgage to $76,000, from $67,000. “If the parking requirements had not existed, 26,800 additional households could have afforded condominiums,” report Bill Chapin, Wenyu Jia, and Martin Wachs. Parking reform downtown and in several adjacent neighborhoods allowed for development with 60 percent less parking and a 30 percent reduction in the construction cost of dwelling units—“enough to allow for market-rate housing that is more in line with the typical San Francisco household’s income.”

As of 2009, the average value of a motor vehicle was $5,200. Yet the average cost of an underground parking space is $34,000, and the average cost of an aboveground garage is $24,000 per space. “One space in a parking structure … costs at least three times the net worth of more than half the African-American and Hispanic households in the country,” Shoup points out.

Parking requirements play a part in determining what kind of housing is built and discouraging the “missing middle,” according to researchers. “Because parking can consume so much space and money, parking requirements needlessly reduce variety in the type and location of housing available,” notes Michael Manville.

Policies to promote off-street parking reduced the economic development in cities studied by Chris McCahill, Norman Garrick, and Carol Atkinson-Palombo. “For the six cities we considered, each parking space added since 1960 reduces potential property tax revenues by between $500 and $1,000 per year,” they write. Parking is both a cause and effect of driving, “yet the changes in commuting behavior in cities that added more parking suggest that more parking increases driving.”

Parking is expensive. In a functioning free market, automobile owners would be willing to pay for some of that parking, just as they pay for gasoline, auto insurance, tolls, and other mobility-related costs. But the practice of mandating parking is absurd. If motorists paid the full cost of parking their vehicles, people would own fewer cars, drive less, and choose more shared-ridership transportation modes.

Alas, Virginia’s transportation system, like that of every other state, is so permeated with subsidies, cross subsidies, and subsidies to counter other subsidies, that rational economic decision making is impossible. Political decisions to support “mass transit” or “road building” are driven by ideological, partisan and special-interest considerations. The scale of the misallocation of resources is mind-numbing.

Good Idea: Set Priorities for Land Conservation

Virginia Conservation Land Statistics. Table credit: Department of Conservation and Recreation

Through tax credits for easements, land acquisitions for parks, and other means, the Commonwealth spends millions of dollars every year to conserve land. Under a new policy adopted by the Northam administration, the state will focus resources on safeguarding land with the highest conservation value.

This new strategy will rely upon a “data-driven process” devised by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to rank conservation value. The “scientific analysis” will show where the Commonwealth can get the most conservation value for the buck.

“I believe that we need a land conservation strategy that is focused and targeted toward making measurable progress on our natural resource goals, from restoration of the Chesapeake Bay to providing resilience against sea level rise and other impacts of climate change,” said Governor Ralph Northam in a press release.

The administration said it first will prioritize permanent protection of the top 2% of lands with the highest conservation value and aim for protecting the top 10% within the next ten years. Priorities will include: “protecting watersheds and local water quality, securing and recovering wildlife populations and habitats, making sure agriculture and forestry are viable and sustainable, steering development away from vulnerable and disaster-prone areas, providing access to the outdoors, and preserving sites that represent the history of all Virginians.”

The DCR website “Virginia Conservation Lands Database” page notes that of Virginia’s 25.27 million-acre land area, more than 4 million acres, or 16%, has some form of protection. The main vehicle for preserving lands at present is the land preservation tax credit for up to 40% of the value of donated land or conservation easements. Taxpayers were able to use up to $20,000 per year in 2015, 2016, and 2017, and $50,000 per year in subsequent years.

Bacon’s bottom line: This makes total sense. Indeed, I recall having advocated a priority-setting process at some point in the past. If the state is going to hand out tax credits, which are the functional equivalent of budget expenditures, it should optimize the public value of the easements. It’s astonishing to me that it has taken so long to develop a methodology for ranking the easements, but I’m glad it has finally happened. Kudos to the Northam administration for bringing the program to fruition.

Virginia’s Housing Shortfall

Underproduction as a % of 2015 housing stock.

Between 2000 and 2015, 23 states fell 7.3 million units short of meeting the housing needs of their growing populations — equivalent to about 7.3% of the housing stock of the United States, according to a new study, “Housing Underproduction in the U.S.,” published by the Up for Growth Coalition.

Although not the worst offender, Virginia was one of the states notable for housing underproduction, falling short of demand by 131,000 units over the 15-year period.

Restrictive zoning and development policies in Virginia and elsewhere have created an imbalance in supply and demand imbalance that has dire economic consequences. States the report:

As people migrate toward cities in search of jobs, education and economic opportunities, the demand for housing in our most populous and economically productive regions has far outstripped the production of new housing units. Due to dramatic shifts in generational preferences and household demographic trends, migration to cities over the past decade are at the highest level since World War II, while housing production has fallen to historic lows. This imbalance has led to rapidly rising housing prices, economic displacement of lower income families and communities of color, and increases in homelessness.

Long-term Bacon’s Rebellion readers familiar our Smart-Growth-for-Conservatives critique of Virginia land use and development policies will be right at home with this study. The report blames “restrictive local development and land use policies that reflect opposition to high-density, multi-family urban growth in favor of low-density, single-family, suburban sprawl.” Offending policies include:

  • Zoning restrictions, which create a shortage of zoned, high-density sites;
  • Escalating and misaligned fee structures, such as impact and linkage fees;
  • Poorly calibrated inclusionary housing requirements; and
  • Lengthy review processes that invite gaming and abuse by growth opponents that can delay projects, create unpredictability, reduce incentives to invest and increase the per-unit cost of development.

Not only do dysfunctional housing markets produce fewer units than would be supported by demand, according to the report, they produce units in the wrong locations. The market for housing in walkable, high-density, high-value urban areas is significantly under-served, while housing continues to be built in lower-density suburban communities with a backlog of land zoned for residential.

Average change in home prices by county, 2000-2016.

The study advocates a loosening of anti-development restrictions to encourage  a “smart growth” model of growth that promotes high-density residential development in major transportation corridors. Benefits will include increasing the housing supply, exploiting existing infrastructure, and increasing tax yields to local governments. Four broad tools would achieve these aims:

  • By-right approval. Establish “by right” high-density residential development in a half-mile radius around a transit station (roughly 5 percent of a metropolitan region’s land area).
  • Impact fee recalibration. Recalibrate impact fees to reflect actual costs of infrastructure service for high-density development.
  • Property tax abatement. Use property tax abatement as a gap financing tool to enable denser and more affordable housing production.
  • Value capture. Establish mechanisms to capture value created through up-zones and tax abatement investments to be used as dedicated funding for a range of housing programs.

Clearly, Virginia has a lot of work to do. We’re not as bad as the West Coast, the Northeast, or even our neighbor to the north, Maryland, but we’re the worst state in the Southeast (excepting Florida). The cost of housing is harming our economic competitiveness and hindering our ability to adapt to economic circumstances.

One of the ways to address rural poverty in Virginia, for instance, would be to encourage unemployed or under-employed workers in small towns and countryside to migrate to metropolitan areas offering better employment opportunities. When local governments in metro areas restrict housing development, they block this migration. Lower-income Americans literally can’t afford to make the move. The result is the worst of both worlds: sub-par employment opportunities in rural areas combined with job shortages in the major metros.

The higher cost of housing also helps explain another phenomenon — the shift of Virginia in recent years from a state from a people-importing state into a people-exporting state.

Finally, as the report alludes to, high housing costs disproportionately impact the poor and minorities. High housing costs, not racism, keep minorities trapped in public housing projects and slums. High housing costs block them from becoming homeowners, building home equity, and accumulating wealth, thus perpetuating income inequality.

Where is the General Assembly on the housing issue? Where was the McAuliffe administration? Where is the Northam administration? AWOL, all of them.

Tax the Country Clubs Like You’d Tax Anyone Else

Prime real estate: the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington

As if the General Assembly didn’t have enough image problems, our august representatives are pushing legislation that would provide property tax relief for two Arlington County country clubs, reports the Associated Press. The bill has passed the House with bipartisan support and made it through the Senate Finance Committee.

The combined property bills of the Washington Golf and Country Club and the Army Navy Country Club amount to $870,000 a year — equal to the 11 next highest-taxed country clubs in Northern Virginia. The clubs have spent years in unsuccessful negotiations with Arlington County to lower the tab, so they have turned to the General Assembly.

“What we have here is a question of equity,” says Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville. “It comes back to basic fairness.”

But opponents of the bill say the clubs can afford it. Writes the AP:

Both clubs have long and storied histories and count many of Washington’s elite as members, including past presidents. Top staff at both clubs are paid handsomely, federal tax records show. The general manager at the Army Navy club makes about $400,000 a year, while the tennis director at Washington Golf and Country Club makes about $300,000 a year.

The Army Navy Country Club allows active-duty military officers to join for free and offers other discounts to veterans, while civilians must pay $72,000 to join the club. The Washington Golf and Country Club did not respond to a request for information about its fees, but Washingtonian magazine reported a decade ago that the fee then was $70,000. …

“The bill is a tax cut for wealthy country club owners, including those outside of Virginia, in favor of raising taxes or cutting services for the residents of Arlington,” said Del. Alfonso Lopez, a Democrat who represents Arlington.

OK, nobody feels sorry for the rich, snooty swells who belong to the club. Reverse snobbery always plays well in certain quarters. Screw ’em, they’ve got plenty of money. Let them pay more.

I don’t have much sympathy for the stick-it-to-the-rich argument. But I do have sympathy for a different argument. County board member John Vihstadt said the tax bills for the golf clubs are so high because the property values are so high. Arlington is a dense urban county right next to Washington D.C.

What is the highest and best use of the land? Golf courses for the well-to-do? Or development that provides housing, retail, and office space in the core of the Washington metropolitan area, which is suffering from a shortage of developable land? From an economic perspective, it’s not even close. The land would be worth more if converted to mixed-use development.

Property owners have rights, of course, and no one should compel the country clubs to relinquish their golf courses. No one is talking about exercising eminent domain to take over the land, but I would certainly oppose any effort to do so should anyone propose it. On the other hand, the clubs have no more right to favorable tax treatment than other property owners. The General Assembly needs to butt out and let Arlington make its own land use decisions.

E-Lofts and the Recycling of Old Office Properties

Fairfax County has more than 18 million square feet of vacant office space, with little hope of filling it in the foreseeable future. Having already enacted  zoning changes to make it easier to convert empty buildings in industrial and mixed-use areas to other uses, the county now is considering a proposal to do the same for buildings in suburban neighborhoods. Summarizes a county description of the proposed change:

This could give these offices new life as apartments, schools, co-working spaces, maker spaces or food incubators. As an example, a former, five-story brick office building across from the Seven Corners Shopping Center was converted into Bailey’s Upper Elementary, the county’s first “high rise” school. …

More recently, the board approved the conversion of a 10-story office building at 5600 Columbia Pike into flexible live-work units. The building stood empty for about four years, and it will put the 173,000- square foot building back into use in an innovative way that meets market demands.

The county’s Office Building Repositioning and Repurposing Work Group is particularly enamored with the potential for converting office space into “e-lofts” — highly flexible spaces within a building that can be used as apartments or small offices.

Bacon’s bottom line: Rigid, obsolete zoning codes across the state are hindering the ability of the real estate sector to adapt to changing market conditions. Zoning codes arising from the post-World War II era of rapid suburbanization are hopelessly antiquated and self-defeating today. Aging office and industrial parks are emptying out. Unless we want them to resemble the ghost malls of the retail sector, we must give property owners the flexibility to re-purpose their assets in line with market demand.

The Fairfax initiatives represent a positive step forward. If people want to convert an old office or industrial building into apartment housing, why not let them? E-lofts sound like an especially promising idea. A similar evolution is taking place in Scotts Addition in Richmond. That light-industrial district is rapidly transitioning to mixed offices, restaurants, and apartment buildings. People are perfectly happy to live in the neighborhood despite the continued presence of light-manufacturing activity.

The only problem with the Fairfax proposal is that it doesn’t go far enough. The county should encourage the wholesale recycling of antiquated office properties by permitting greater densities and the construction of new buildings, not just the re-purposing of individual buildings. Zoning codes slow the process of adaptation to a snail’s pace. Time to open up the process and turn loose the animal spirits!

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.