Tour Examines Future of Broad Street Corridor

Saunter (v.) - To walk about idly; to stroll
It was anything but an idle stroll as four busloads of Richmonders traveled Broad Street Oct. 24 on a route encompassing Willow Lawn on one end and Rocketts Landing on the other.

The 3rd Annual River City Saunter drew 150 participants who explored city properties in all stages of revitalization, climbed to rooftops to admire views and examine solar panels, and questioned experts and elected officials about sustainable development.

Organized by the Partnership for Smarter Growth (PSG), the Broad Street journey was designed to simulate the proposed Bus Rapid Transit route, a high-frequency, limited-stop service that will employ special buses in addition to dedicated lanes along much of the route.

Tour guide Larry Hagin, director of planning at GRTC, pointed out that at peak times currently, there may be 50 buses per hour moving in one direction that have to clear 41 traffic signals between Willow Lawn and downtown.

“If we’re going to get people out of the car, we have to get the bus to move around that,” said Hagin, noting that the Bus Rapid Transit concept includes giving signal prioritization to the BRT vehicle.

BRT would also help ease traffic congestion by attracting suburban riders to a park-and-ride center, which Hagin suggested would ideally be located in the Staples Mill-Willow Lawn area.

“For a park-and-ride lot to be successful, you need two things,” said Hagin. “Proximity to the interstate, and proximity to a roadway that carries a ton of traffic. The Staples Mill area has both. It has huge potential.” What’s more, added Hagin, the area has large parking lots in the vicinity of the Anthem headquarters, and vacant residential property that should soon be developed.

At the opposite end of the BRT route, Hagin said that Church Hill residents had lobbied for the line to continue along Broad Street, but Main Street and Rocketts Landing won out.

“We want to put the line where there’s better bang for the buck,” said Hagin, “and Rocketts Landing has better bang for the buck from a time-saving standpoint and a residential density standpoint. Rocketts Landing is almost a mile long -- eight city blocks of potential ridership.

“We want to be there, and Rocketts Landing has been working with us since Day One.”

Both the Willow Lawn area and Rocketts Landing developments are occurring under Henrico County’s new Urban Mixed Use (UMU) zoning code, which GRTC considers “highly transit supportive” in density and design.

Firehouses and Skyscrapers
At the first stop along the route, riders disembarked to visit the home of BWCH Architects, designers of Harvie Elementary School, the renovated Gayton Library, and other Henrico landmarks. Located at 1840 West Broad Street, the BWCH site was formerly an early-20th-century automobile dealership before being rehabilitated and transformed into an office building.

Departing from the Renaissance Conference Center in Richmond, the group also visited an adaptive reuse apartment complex near the Convention Center with photo voltaic systems and solar thermal panels. The building, formerly a funeral home warehouse, represents the first multi-family LEED (homes program) project in Richmond and the first in the state to combine that distinction with National Park Service Historic Preservation certification.

At Broad and Second streets, participants explored an Art Deco skyscraper that has been vacant for 10 years and is ripe for repurposing. From 1930 to 1971 (when it was surpassed by City Hall), the Central National Bank Building was Richmond’s tallest building.

At 21st and Main riders visited a three-story firehouse, constructed in 1899 and given new life as a mixed-use corner building boasting first-floor restaurant space and loft apartments. Tour guide Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, noted that the firehouse is just across the street from the site of Henrico County’s former courthouse, which moved in 1974 to the western government complex.

Rising to the Occasion
After the tour, riders and tour guides (who also included Rachel Flynn, director of planning and development review for the city, and attorney and civic leader Bill Pantele) reassembled at the Renaissance Center for refreshments, exhibits, an art auction and roundtable discussions.

Keynote speakers Donald McEachin and Kathy Graziano, a state senator and city council president, discussed state and city roles in encouraging urban revitalization and reinvestment in transportation and existing infrastructure.

Developers, architects, planners and other experts also shared perspectives on projects such as revitalization in Manchester and the new Courthouse Village in New Kent County. Both projects were among the five profiled in a new release from the Southern Environmental Law Center, entitled “Smart Growth is Smart Economics: Sustainable Development in the Greater Richmond Region.”

Innsbrook, the office park that is Henrico County’s largest employment center, was also one of the profiled projects.

Attorney Trip Pollard, author of the report, cited plans to redevelop Innsbrook from a suburban office park into a more compact, walkable mixed use town center as an example of what’s to come as communities adapt to the changing market and look for alternatives to sprawl.

With its low-rise buildings and massive surface parking lots, Innsbrook is a classic example of ‘70s-era sprawl. In the report, Innsbrook founder Sidney Gunst is quoted as saying, “You even have to get in your car at Innsbrook to get lunch.”

In recent years, vacancy rates in the office park have risen to around 25 percent. As Gunst points out, “People want a different lifestyle. . . Companies want the choice for their employees to live close to their jobs, or they will go somewhere else.

“Either we rise to the occasion or we will be obsolete.”

No Quick Fix
“Smart growth benefits our environment, our health, and our wallets,” Pollard writes in the report, adding that the economic case for smart growth is particularly compelling in light of the recession and the real estate slump. Among the benefits of smarter growth he cites are lower infrastructure costs for localities, enhanced economic competitiveness and job growth, shorter commutes and reduced energy consumption.

But despite the economic benefits of smart growth and the market trends fueling momentum for it, there are still a number of barriers. Government transportation and land-use policies still favor sprawl, and changes in regulations and public investment priorities are needed to attract investment in walkable, mixed-use development. Providing improved transportation choices is key -- but funds are scarce, and there are no guarantees of obtaining federal funding even for relatively modest projects – such as the designated BRT lane on Broad Street.

As Rachel Flynn pointed out, however, suburban sprawl was decades in the making. It’s unrealistic to expect anything but a gradual shift to sustainable communities.

“Basically, it was suburban growth that caused the exodus [from the city],” said Flynn. “Now people want to be in urban settings again. . .

“Revitalization just takes time. You can’t change overnight what took 40 years to go downhill.”

“Smart Growth is Smart Economics: Sustainable Development in the Greater Richmond Region,” is available at http://www.SouthernEnvironment.org and www.psgrichmond.org.
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