Monday, August 9, 2010

Slash and Burn Real Estate

Richmond, Virginia is staying the same (it has always done that well) and changing incredibly fast. A visitor familiar with the past sees the distinctive neighborhoods with the same feel as ever, but often gentrified, with new street signs, even a changed demographic. The last is best explained by the exponential increase in housing prices (a $34,000 house back in the day going for 1/4 to 1/2 million now). If there is a student couple living on Park or Hanover, one is probably a medical intern, not a commercial art junior. I guess all the non-prime-time students (and there are a lot more at VCU now) are all living in dorms or at home. And racking up loan debt no honest person can pay.
Last year Cliff and I stumbled upon the new (yuck) governor's inauguration parade downtown while surveying the desolation there. I've seen more people in an all-night drugstore at 3 a.m. Next to the still-successful National Theater were restaurant and store fronts that had obviously been renovated, opened and closed within a few months. No place open except for, thank heaven, the Beatles-themed pub. But that's it. For the few residents in upper floor condos downtown, not even a grocery store. Who's going to pay rent and a big monthly fee to safely park their car to live in a downtown with absolutely nothing?
And safety is the primary of two essential issues. People shift outward to the stable older neighborhoods (and some of those, as in all cities, slip slowly and inexorably downward with more rentals and more shady characters appearing each year). A dead downtown means higher taxes for those areas, adding to the already inflated costs, and as families grow they move outward again. A family means a car (or two) and the need for more usable space, and the frustration with parking problems from downtown to Colonial Park make the tradeoff of charm vs. convenience no contest.
But I was not prepared for the nuclear explosion that is Short Pump, at the far, far west end of Broad Street. This wasn't even farmland sacrified for quickly built development, like around us here; it was just scrub, back in the day, with maybe three old wood buildings with peeling paint.
The picture at above right is West Broad Village, the boldest concept since the giant Innsbrook business park was built nearby, out beyond civilization, years ago (I didn't think it would work, so far from everything -- shows what I know). Behind a shopping center arises a new downtown that looks more like a Las Vegas mega-development than anything in traditional Richmond, with apartments, first floor parking garages, a pool, an Aloft Hotel and four-story homes with roof decks (again, like Vegas or New York, not our old town). Brick internal streets put the Southern stamp on it, though. Spaces (most empty at this point) on the first level for shops, restaurants, and even 668,000 square feet of offices make it a new downtown springing up like a June weed, all at once. To entice residents, there is a Whole Foods store at one end and a Trader Joe's at the other. So you can live 20 miles out of town and still get a whole lot done on foot (not that many of the BMW drivers will change their ways). Proposed, next to Whole Foods, is a garden and orchard with market, with gardening space for rent! Again, I don't see our lobbyists and executives sweating under the sun, but someone's trying to bring that idea of a new integrated community into reality, like the Columbia, Maryland experiment by Rouse.
This village seems targeted at the childless urban professionals or spunky rich retirees who might have lived downtown or between Cary and the river. The families will still have to move to suburban developments and drive everywhere; but growth and change follows the money not the needs.
It is odd, though, that this Short Pump phenomenon in the 21st century is so similar to the actions of stone-age tribes of the Amazon or Indonesia who cut and burn the forest to make a new village, soon enough deplete the resources and foul the environment, then move further on to do it all again. The difference is that something will grow back in the abandoned village and life will return, but not so with our old downtowns.

1 comment:

  1. It is what it is. The movement wanders and continues to find new adventures.