Sunday, May 26, 2013

Looking down the road

On Tuesday, May 14, about 300 people gathered at VCU’s Stuart C. Seigel Center to participate in Reality Check RVA, to brainstorm about growth in the Richmond Region. Reality Check, organized by the Richmond Chapter of the Urban Land Institute (ULI,) was described as an exercise to envision the region’s economic development and community growth

The region is comprised of the City of Richmond, town of Ashland and counties of Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico and New Kent. Its population is expected to add 450,000 people by 2035. According to the United States Department of the Census, this influx will be driven by job creation and a general southward demographic shift.

The goal of Reality Check, billed as a game, was to bring people from all parts of the region with difference perspectives about land use together and let them speculate about where the new jobs and homes fit best.

Attendees, called players, included elected officials; planning staff; representatives of non-profit agencies and ordinary citizens. Players from Goochland included: District 2 Supervisor Manuel Alvarez, Jr.; Dan Schardein, deputy county administrator for community development; Tom Coleman, principal planner; Sally Graham, executive director of Goochland Free Clinic and Family Services; Ed Lawton of the Goochland Chamber of Commerce Board; and GOMM.

Following introductory remarks, the players took seats at one of 30 ten chair tables covered with a large map of the region. The maps were laid out in a half mile grid with current land use depicted by various colors. No jurisdictional boundaries were depicted.

Before getting down to the nitty gritty of placing news jobs and homes on the map using Lego blocks, each table came up with a set of guiding principles. These tended to be universal “feel goods” like protecting the James River and encouraging diverse communities with people of all ages, socio-economic levels and so on.

Then, the players shaped their version of the region’s future growth.

Residential units were represented by either tan for medium density (80 to 240 units per half square mile, about three quarter of a house per acre) or yellow (between 320 and 960 units per half mile) but stacked, their numbers multiplied. For instance, a stack of 12 yellows could represent as many as 8,000 residential units per half square mile, or 25 per acre, approximately the density of West Broad Village.

Jobs, represented by blue blocks, were tucked in areas where players believed supporting infrastructure exists and can be easily expanded. No differentiation was made among types of jobs.

At the end of the exercise, each block was entered into a specially designed GIS database by map square. Complete tabulation of all of the results will take a while, but an initial compilation indicated that the players kept the majority of housing and jobs in the center of the region, roughly inside the Interstate 295 Route 288 ring. Even though this was a “vision” exercise, the players acknowledged that jobs and homes tend to follow supporting infrastructure.

In addition to housing and job blocks, players had blue yarn to indicate rail transportation and orange yarn to show new roads. Some of the players put blue yarn along existing railroad tracks, which could ease construction of light rail. Some Goochland players tucked a tiny piece of orange yarn over Tuckahoe Creek to depict a badly needed bridge to connect western Henrico and Rt. 288 in West Creek.

Goochland’s population is expected to increase, perhaps to 50,000 by 2035. That’s a little more than twice the current 21,000. Most of the residential growth will be east of Manakin Road, with some around Courthouse Village and perhaps in nodes near I-64 exchanges. We need to take these projections with a grain of salt. Several decades ago, Goochland’s population was projected to be 35,000 by 2000.

Discussion about the wonders of rail transit ignored the fact that, unless all users live above rail stations, they will still need to use a car to get to the train!

Granted, Reality Check was a broad “visioning” exercise, but the devil is in the details. Instead of building light rail, which is expensive and unable to respond rapidly to changes in development patterns, buses powered by natural gas present a more cost effective and flexible manner of providing mass transit.

High speed rail between Richmond and Washington will result in the region becoming the latest outlying suburb of the Nation’s Capital. Do we really want that? Beefed up rail between Richmond and Virginia Beach sounds great to anyone caught in tunnel traffic. Who’s going to take a bunch of kids to the beach for a week on the train?

Generic jobs, as used in Reality Check, are very different from real jobs. No mention was made of the impact of the new 460 express route from Norfolk to I-95 on the region. This road already in the works will bring lots of opportunities for logistics-type businesses, and their jobs, to locate in the interstate corridors. It’s no accident that Amazon recently built two large distribution centers there. Expect more to follow.

The afternoon keynote speaker spent a good bit of his rambling buzzword-laden speech discussing ways to attract the millennials, their creativity, and high salaries to the region.

Right now, the millennials seek cool urban settings with lots of unique restaurants, festivals, and walkability.  Places like West Broad Village are their preferred habitat.

Will that change as they move through life? Remember how the Boomers started the urban pioneer movement by rehabbing decayed city housing? When their kids started school, they morphed into their parents and headed for the suburbs.

Given the emphasis placed on the younger, connected generation, it was surprising that little mention was made of possible changes that technology could bring to the world in the next 20 years. Remember that two decades ago, the internet seemed like science fiction. Maybe in the future, everybody won’t go to a central work location every day.

We also have little idea who these millennials will bring with them. Can we expect their parents to follow them to be close to grandchildren? Will their love of unique restaurants spawn a boom in neighborhood eateries that employ chefs, wait staffs and so on?

What about their kids? Will they go to public schools or private? Will they be warehoused in daycare or go everywhere with the ‘rents?

Perhaps the real goal of reality check was to get players thinking about everything that goes into ensuring that our region grows in a mutually beneficial and healthy manner. That’s a good thing.

It’s past time for places like Goochland to add some sort of mixed use zoning options to their land use toolbox. (See for details)

A graph showing the percentage of people who live and work in the same jurisdiction indicated that folks in the region commute. Henrico was the highest with 41 percent of residents who live and work in the same place. In the Richmond region, housing choices range from farms to high rise with reasonable commutes, which seems to say that we like options.

Reality Check provided no new information about the future. We know the region will grow, but we have little information on exactly who is coming.

Participation in Reality Check is the latest indication that Goochland has an interest, and a voice, albeit a small one, in the workings of the Richmond Region.

Going forward, the county’s task is to decide how best Goochland can benefit from the changes and implement proactive policies to ensure that growth is appropriate rather than overwhelming.
One map of the future. Notice the orange yarn over Tuckahoe Creek.



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