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Dollar Zones

Turns out sprawl doesn't just hurt the environment, it crimps the bottom line.



Sidney Gunst, the original developer of the Innsbrook office park in Henrico County, joined the throngs in Kanawha Plaza for the Tea Party rally April 15. A key plank in the Tea Party platform maintains that markets, not governments, are best at solving problems.

Rachel Flynn, the city's planning director, was once called a communist by the preacher Jerry Falwell. Although she likely does not hand out little red books with her memos, it's safe to say that as an agency head for a city, she thinks that governments can at least help.

Although Gunst and Flynn's political perspectives are drastically divergent, they share a vision for the future of real estate development. But both agree on at least one thing: Mixed-use development leads to more efficient use of public resources, and saves already cash-strapped localities — not to mention taxpayers — money.

Instead of keeping shops separate from homes separate from offices, they say they should be allowed to cohabitate. Think Carytown, downtown or Brooklyn for that matter. After years of looking to provide ever-larger lawns and more convenient parking, developers from the city to the counties are beginning to embrace mixed-use development. It's not just about preserving the environment and taking cars off the road, it's also about preserving municipal coffers.

Last fall, Gunst helped launch a program to reimagine ways that Innsbrook could transform itself from a sprawling office park that goes empties after 5 p.m. to a bustling village with a mix of housing styles, retail locations and office space. Last month, Richmond City Council approved two of Flynn's proposed new zoning districts in Manchester that make it easier for business to start in residential areas and vice versa.

“When given a choice, people are choosing urban mixed use, even when we do it in the suburbs,” Gunst says. “That's the market.”

While the projects that Gunst and Flynn are working on anecdotally demonstrate the broad agreement emerging around these principals, a new study, headed up by Trip Pollard, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, quantifies the factors that have led more rural counties to embrace mixed-use planning.

The standard critique of suburban sprawl argues that the cost to the locality to expand the public infrastructure — things such as roads, water lines, sewers — hasn't been balanced by a comparable return in real estate taxes. The population of the Richmond region has grown for sure, but not nearly as quickly as development has. The region has racked up the highest rate of land conversion — from farm land and open space to development — of any metro area in Virginia, and those houses won't pay enough tax themselves. Pollard's report sites estimates that it would cost Chesterfield County $5.7 billion to serve the new development allowed under its current comprehensive plan.

“I think it's widely perceived that the counties are on a wholly different path,” Pollard says, but he sees evidence that at least in theory, “there is increasing awareness that we can't do things like we've always done.” Chesterfield is currently redrafting its comprehensive plan and it will likely emphasize mixed-use development. Henrico County's already does, and is in the midst of a special planning process dedicated to Innsbrook, but it doesn't stop there.

Goochland County's comprehensive plan, Powhatan's 2010 draft plan, and new zoning ordinances in New Kent County all provide for some kind of mixed-use planning.

The study goes on to argue that far-flung subdivisions aren't just becoming less desirable to local governments, but to people as well.

He cites research that examined house sales in 15 different markets and found that “more walkable neighborhoods tended to have higher sales prices,” and says that “the limited availability of alternatives has led to price premiums for houses in mixed-use neighborhoods compared to those in single use subdivisions nearby.”

Like land conversion, the amount of driving has also increased much faster than population, Pollard says. “Between 1987 and 2007 the total number of vehicle miles traveled in the urban area increased by more than 134 percent,” he says “almost three times the rate population rose during that time.”

A nonprofit in Chicago did an analysis of the Richmond region and found that while housing farther from the center of the city costs owners less as a percentage of income, when the cost those same folks pay for housing and transportation is tallied up, it accounts for nearly half of their spending.

“For years we've made it cheapest and easiest to do the most destructive thing,” he says, acknowledging that new development will still be necessary. The region's projected population is predicted to grow by 262,000 people by 2030, requiring about 150,000 new housing units. “That's why it's so important to get the policies right,” Pollard says.

The 850-acre Innsbrook, developed in the early 1980s, has long been seen as one of the key drivers of suburban sprawl into western Henrico. The fact that the original developers are pushing the office park toward mixed-use, Pollard says, is a turning point.

“Innsbrook is definitely the poster child for a lot of things that you don't want to see happen,” Pollard says.

Gunst, its founder, couldn't agree more. “Either we rise to the occasion or we will be obsolete,” he says.

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