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Chester's Urban Secret

How a tiny, working-class village is beating sprawl.


They don't seem to mind the city stuff a few feet away. On about 85 acres, Chester Village is a mixed-use residential development that includes $300,000 homes on tiny 65-foot lots with urban alleys and long, narrow houses with garages in the back. It includes 300 apartments, complete with interlocking sidewalks, retail shops and office buildings under construction at the Route 10 entrance. There's a new county library, three public schools, four churches and a Walgreens under construction, all within walking distance.

The five-lane Route 10 may send traffic barreling through the heart of Chester, but the little jaunt off of Centre Street is different. It's bucolic, boasts Phyllis Bass, a retired schoolteacher-turned-community-activist, in her aw-shucks Chester drawl.

"People probably got tired of the same-old, same-old and wanted to try Chester Village Green," Bass says. "People's way of thinking has changed."

Change isn't something folks in Chester typically embrace. Jim Daniels, a local real estate developer who jump-started the Centre Street development, recalls receiving a book on flag etiquette from a "lady with the Girl Scouts" after he erected the flags at the entrance to Chester Village Green. He didn't have them in the right order.

"I put up the Confederate flag, and no one noticed," he says, laughing.

In fact, the developer of Chester Village Green is building on Chester's history as a tiny railroad town, which once served as a midway stop for people traveling from Florida to New York City, and vice versa. Wedged between the busier cities of Petersburg and Richmond, Chester was a convenient, less-hectic place to stop and rest, says Daniels, who first hatched the plan for Chester Village Green more than 10 years ago. "It's really pre-1940s planning," he says.

In actuality, the idea for Chester Village Green first was planted in the late 1980s, says Thomas Jacobson, Chesterfield's director of community planning. Facing blight similar to that of larger cities, Chester was bleeding residents and retail to its outer edges, where land was more readily available and easier to develop. A new Wal-Mart and tons of new residential suburbs were spreading. The village was becoming an afterthought.

"The concept was to create a center for the Chester community," Jacobson says. "The fear in all the discussions of the plan was there was a lot of new development going on along the edges of Chester, and that the center was becoming kind of blighted."

To stem the tide, the county agreed to subsidize a design study in the early 1990s for a unique piece of land along Centre Street that had been purchased by Daniels and two partners. County officials and property owners foresaw a residential development smack dab in the center of the village and hoped to reverse some of the sprawl.

Working closely with the business community, the county hired renowned residential designer Joe Boggs, a new urbanism architect from Washington, D.C. Chesterfield and the property owners split the cost.

Once the plan was completed, Daniels and partner Courtney Wells went searching for a residential developer to build their new urbanist dream. A few expressed interest, but none fit the model Daniels and Wells were pushing.

The banks were uninterested, and there were few incentives to take on the project. New urbanist communities typically are more expensive to build because of the tighter design and higher architectural costs. "We had to be willing to sit there and wait," Daniels says.

Eventually, Daniels landed George Emerson, a well-known local developer who built upper-end suburbs in River's Bend and the Highlands. Emerson is also fond of the more profitable high-end apartments and condos. (He's converting a former American Tobacco warehouse in Shockoe Bottom into loft-style apartments.)

Emerson balked at first. Initially he wanted a typical subdivision, fewer houses and more open spaces. But he changed his mind. After conducting some initial research, Emerson decided many of the ideas made sense. Designing for more space behind the house, for example, instead of in front actually served a certain niche. People who spend $300,000 or more on a home don't like to be backed up against other homeowners, Emerson found.

With the aging baby boomer population looking to retire in low-maintenance houses, smaller yards made a lot of sense. And there was an increasing demand for walkable communities. Still, Emerson wasn't sure how well it would sell.

"I didn't have any idea how it was going to be received," he says. Emerson says he was willing to assume the risk because he got the green light to build 140 apartments.

So far, the development is selling better than expected. About 50 homes have been built in the last year, Daniels says. Ultimately, the plan calls for 140 houses.

"It's been a real shot in the arm," Emerson says of the swifter-than-expected sales. "People want to be in the heart of Chester."

Why Chester? Mark Fausz, editor of the popular Chester Village News, says the village hit its stride when the eastern portion of Route 288 was completed, around the same time that Interstate 295 opened. The recent interest from developers in Chester, he says, also has something to do with the completion of the western portion of 288, which connects Chesterfield with Henrico counties and opens up Chester to a host of potential home-buyers.

Once again, Chester's appeal has something to do with being less hectic than its bigger suburban counterparts. "We've always tried to stay the anti-Midlothian," Fausz says. "Chester's always kind of been a little bit out of the way, kind of considered the country cousin."

The recent success delights Morton B. Gulak, professor of urban design and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"I think what it's doing is providing an alternative and a lifestyle I think is going to catch on," he says, adding that the existing amenities in Chester make it more attractive than typical new urbanist projects. "It's kind of all mixed in together," he says. "That's real urbanism."

Still, there are those who caution against claiming victory just yet. While new urbanism has become all the rage in government-planning circles, some academicians worry the concept has become too faddish and out of touch.

Once the newness wears off, many new urbanist projects across the country have run into problems — financially and physically. Namely, the dreamy concept of living in a walkable community doesn't jibe with the reality that there are more cars than people in the United States, says Dorn C. McGrath, professor emeritus for urban and regional planning at George Washington University.

Narrow streets and small garages make for logistical headaches.

"The new urbanism doesn't handle guests very well. It doesn't handle two-car families very well," McGrath says. "When you have a narrow alley, if Joe has his car out of the garage, you can't get out of yours. … When you live in one, suddenly the realities of contemporary life are upon you."

In the end, people almost always desire bigger lots and wider streets, McGrath says. "It looks good in the studio, but it's not very good in practice."

Phyllis Bass, who was recently named president of the Chester women's club for the fifth time, helped secure the state grant money, about $95,000, to put up more than 200 street lights along Route 10. She's proud of the achievement.

But she worries about traffic as the community grows. "I don't know what we are going to do about that," she says. Of course, she isn't worried about it personally. She lives just south of Chester with her husband, on five-and-a-half acres.

"I married a guy who likes his land," she says. S

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