Innsbrook ushered in corporate lifestyle
In the late 1970s, there was nothing in the corporate world of Henrico County – or Greater Richmond – quite like what the mind of Sidney Gunst envisioned. Only a few years removed from college, Gunst was dreaming big.
“I had the idea that more was better,” he recalled.
Gunst’s thoughts became clearer as he traveled the country to observe office complexes, selecting pieces of what he saw elsewhere to help hone his vision for Henrico’s Far West End. He envisioned a corporate setting in which employees could feel comfortable amid lush, well-maintained surroundings; enjoy concerts, fitness trails and a library; and generally be surrounded by other like-minded people in a true community setting.
But dreams and ideas alone would not move dirt.
“I was an ambitious young 28-year-old with an idea and no money,” recalled Gunst, who at the time was working for the Pruitt family on a development project in Henrico’s Near West End.
That’s where ambition took over. Gunst approached two real estate investors – Henry Stern and David Arenstein – and sold them on his concept. With their funding and his determination, the Innsbrook Corporate Center soon came to life.
The development of Innsbrook – today an 850-acre community of more than 400 businesses, 22,000 employees, four residential subdivision, a post office, library, shops and concert venue – ranks 18th on the Henrico Citizen’s list of the 24 most significant events in Henrico history.
Bigger is better
As it turns 29 years old this month, Innsbrook is the second-largest employment center in Greater Richmond, and its development helped shape Henrico as a business-friendly county while setting in motion much of the subsequent development of the county’s West End.
Gunst’s motivation was simple.
“I wanted to go the next level of creating a live-work-play environment,” he said. “We were marketing it as the ultimate employee benefit plan.”
At the center of his concept was attractive, cohesive landscaping – something he felt was critical in order to provide the true sense of quality and community that would be key to attracting tenants. A small billboard erected at the site as its first building was being constructed in the early 1980s promised that the community would adhere to “a commitment to excellence.” Gunst was resolute in his determination to live up to that goal, implementing more stringent development and landscaping standards than Henrico County required, as a way to set the standard for western Henrico.
Though he was able to convince his key investors to come on board without much difficulty, convincing a corporate tenant to move to the far reaches of Henrico County – and away from the downtown corridor – proved much tougher.
“It was too far out, could we deliver long-term?” Gunst recalled, citing some of the common hesitancies he heard from businesses at the time. “Nobody wants to be the first one to move in.”
Finally, after two years of discussions, Gunst landed Innsbrook’s first tenant, Hewlett Packard. Construction on its facility began in late 1981, and the company moved into its new home in April 1982. Steadily, others followed. Today, Innsbrook is home to a number of major companies, including Capital One, Dominion Virginia Power, Humana Market Point, Markel Corporation, SnagAJob.com and a plethora of others.
In the mid-1990s, Highwoods Properties began a five-year process of buying out the remaining sites controlled by Gunst and his investors. That process was completed by 2000, and today Highwoods controls about 30 percent of the land in Innsbrook. The rest is owned by individual owners and businesses or real estate investment groups. (Gunst owns the Innsbrook Shoppes and serves on the Innsbrook Owners Association’s board of directors.)
Though his creation has been viewed as the epicenter of Henrico’s business community for decades, Gunst said it’s far from perfect.
“I make the joke that if I had know then what I knew later, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “It was not a fully refined plan.”
That was partially the result of county zoning regulations, which limited what could be built, and partially, Gunst said, the result of his own inexperience.
But the community soon will undergo a rebirth of sorts – a transformation that Gunst believes will make it more like the type of place it should have been to begin with. “Innsbrook 2.0,” as he terms the new concept, will make the community a more fully integrated, efficient place.
The goal is to create a true mixed-use setting, with more residential and retail space in close quarters to the existing office space. With such an extensive network of infrastructure already in place, it makes sense that it should serve more purposes, Gunst said.
He hopes the end result will be an environment in which people are less reliant upon automobiles, thereby helping to create a more sustainable community.
“Why would anybody want to have 22,000 cars leaving at 5 o’clock to drive to a shopping center to take up 22,000 parking spaces, to then drive home and take up another 22,000 parking spaces?” Gunst asked. Providing people with what they need within a short distance should eliminate many of those trips, he said.
Innsbrook doesn’t need to look far to see the same type of concept already taking shape at West Broad Village, in a development Gunst views as complementary. Rocketts Landing, another mixed-use community, continues to grow at the Henrico-Richmond line.
Innsbrook’s build-out as a business center took about 30 years, and Gunst anticipates it could take at least half as long for its rebirth to be completed. Once that happens, he said, “we can double the size, because we are a credible, desirable environment.”
Despite struggling like most others during the recent recession – Innsbrook’s vacancy rate rose as high as 22 percent – the community is now enjoying an upswing, with less than 10 percent vacancy.
The community’s resilience, Gunst believes, is proof that it is more than just a place to work. And though he scoffs at the notion that Innsbrook changed the course of West End development (“I think it would have [developed] regardless,” he said), there’s no debating the role it has played in the type of development that followed.
“I hope that we created a good example for a level of quality that affected people,” Gunst said. “We wanted to create more than Broad Street frontage. The market really embraced it.”
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