Richmond needs more neighbors

Late last year, the Minneapolis City Council voted to ditch single-family zoning and allow duplexes and triplexes in every. single. neighborhood. It’s a bold decision that’ll create more affordable housing, reduce racial segregation, and begin the work towards more sustainable climate policy.

Richmond 300 is our opportunity to do the same, demonstrate that we “get it,” and proactively set the bar for progressive housing policy in mid-sized cities. The question is whether we have the guts to do it.

Here’s a few good bits from a New York Times editorial on how cities across the country should follow Minneapolis’s lead:

The number of housing units completed in the United States last year, adjusted for the size of the population, was lower than in any year between 1968 and 2008. And the problem is most acute in major urban areas along the east and west coasts. Housing prices, and homelessness, are rising across the country because there is not enough housing…

People who think of themselves as progressives, environmentalists and egalitarians fight fiercely against urban development, complaining about traffic and shadows and the sanctity of lawns…

Single-family neighborhoods rose to prominence across the country after the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1917 that zoning based on race was unconstitutional. “Single-family zoning became basically the only option to try to maintain both race and class segregation,” said Jessica Trounstine, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Merced, who has studied segregation.

What works for your neighborhood?

If you visit the Main Library (101 E. Franklin Street) between today and Tuesday, take a look to your left as you enter the building and you’ll see artist Carl Patow’s WORKS WHEN installation.

From Carl’s website:

WORKS WHEN asks residents of Richmond, VA “what works for them in their neighborhood”. They place a small pearl on a handheld stylized map of the city, locating their neighborhood.

Each tile is an artifact – documentation of a conversation about the community in which the participant lives. On the reverse of the tile, they write a sentence about their neighborhood that includes the words “WORKS WHEN”.

Over 300 tiles are assembled geographically on a large simplified floor map of the city. The accumulated tiles offer insights about what is important for neighborhoods to function and  for communities to thrive.

First, this is an excellent example of broad community engagement, that, at least in my experience, folks could actually have time for. No one wants to fill out your three-page survey while they’re running in to the library to check out a book, apply for a job, or use the 3D-printer(!).

Second, the stylized map of Richmond—marked only by the river and Broad Street—is clever but definitely compresses the city’s less dense neighborhoods while expanding those where more people live. That’s similar to what transit maps frequently do, the London Underground Map being one of the most famous examples.

If you’ve got time over the next couple of days, stop by the library, check out the piece, and read some of what works for folks in their neighborhoods.

Pulse paradise, or put up a parking lot?

I want you to think of your favorite place you’ve ever visited in a city. Picture it in your mind. Maybe a public square? A park? People walking around, a restaurant with tables and chairs on the street? A lot of “life” is happening, right? Look around and what do you see? Buildings of two to five stories, maybe taller? A frequent transit line nearby? Wide sidewalks? There are all kinds of things that make this place great, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t picture a giant parking deck!

That’s why it was so disappointing to hear about a 790-space parking garage being built next to the new Whole Foods at Hermitage and Broad. Right next to the Fan, this area is very walkable, bikeable, and next to a brand new Pulse Bus Rapid Transit station that was built specifically for this development. There are a ton of ways to get here, so it seems odd to be building one of the largest parking decks in the city!

Contrary to what you may have heard, Richmond already has a lot of parking. You can almost always find parking if you are willing to walk a block or two (about how far you might have to walk through a big-box retail parking lot in the suburbs). And the areas where the demand is highest are also the areas with the best transit and biking conditions: Downtown, Shockoe Bottom, the Fan, Carytown, Manchester, etc.

All those reds, yellows, browns and greens are parking: almost half our downtown!

But maybe, you say, parking in this area is really difficult? As part of the Pulse planning study, the City hired consultants to watch the corridor and count how many street parking spots are being used. Surprise, surprise: most of them sit empty.

A sea of blue: 86 parking spots, mostly unused all day.

The new Sauer development, of course, could bring more people to the area. But while the old plan was to build a 10-story apartment building as well as a six-story parking deck, the new plan includes only an office building, which is generally unoccupied after close-of-business. Using Google Maps, we can clearly see how much off-street parking there is during the day and how much of that parking sits unoccupied.

Look at all that parking, and look how little of it is used!

This Pulse-adjacent district is basically more parking than not, and almost entirely filled with one- to three-story buildings—and that’s not counting the four-story parking deck the Science Museum is about to build. How could this neighborhood need nearly 800 more parking spaces? You don’t ever want to check the zoning ordinance, but I did, and the minimum required parking spaces for this office tower is 132 spaces. When other mid-sized cities are significantly reducing or removing parking minimums altogether because of their harmful effects, building six times the required parking next to a Pulse station in a neighborhood full of mostly unused parking is not the way to design a good city.

Let me tell you about how parking hurts Richmond. It induces people to drive more instead of walk, bike, or take transit. It pushes things further apart and makes them harder to access, which also reduces our physical activity and our health. It induces people to live further out, hurting development in the city. It takes up a lot of space. It pushes aside other development, like this 10-story apartment tower, and makes them smaller and more expensive than they could be because of the built-in cost and space of required (but possibly unwanted!) parking. It costs the city money in lost property tax revenue. And it heats our air, which in particular hurts those people not able to drive around in an air-conditioned car.

And the worst part about this is that the City requires parking (p.239) usually well in excess of the market demand, when it should be limiting this development that’s harmful to our neighborhoods. 1st District Councilmember Addison even tried to reduce some of these parking minimums, but his legislation was withdrawn after four months of no movement by Council.

If we want to make our city better, we need to change how we look at parking. We need to stop building parking decks to the sky. We need to design our cities and public spaces for people, not the storage of their personal property.

Call for Community Leaders!

From today’s email from the Richmond 300 (City Master Plan Update) team, which is looking for (and paying for) community engagement assistance:

The Dept. of Planning and Development Review (PDR) and the City Planning Commission need you to help us reach Richmonders and engage them in creating Richmond 300, the city-wide Master Plan. If you or someone you know is active in engaging communities that are typically not involved in planning efforts, please consider applying for a micro-grant of $5,000 to help us include even more Richmonders in the Richmond 300 process. In the fall 2018 engagement effort, PDR reached over 1,000 individuals, but PDR would like to reach even more Richmonders and a more diverse set of Richmonders in the next stage of the process, which will be in fall 2019. 

The application is due on July 1, 2019. Late applications will not be considered.
Please submit using one of the following methods:

  • Online Application: complete the application online. Online applications are due by July 1, 2019 at 11:59 PM. Late applications will not be considered.
  • Email Application: complete the PDF application and email it to richmond300@richmondgov.com. Emailed applications are due by July 1, 2019 at 11:59 PM. Late applications will not be considered.
  • Mail Application: mail the application to Richmond 300, 900 E. Broad St, Room 510, Richmond, VA 23219. Mailed applications must be postmarked by July 1, 2019. Late applications will not be considered.

One mid-sized city to rule them all

Richmond, Virginia is a mid-sized American city, and, like hundreds of other mid-sized American cities, it’s totally awesome…while, at times, totally frustrating. Also, like other similar cities, Richmond has made a lot of recent progress in creating a more beautiful, sustainable, and equitable urban environment, but there is, of course, still tons of work to do. To speed up this process—so Richmonders a couple generations from now aren’t still waiting on a city-wide network of protected bike lanes or frequent transit into the surrounding counties or even just sidewalks in Scott’s Addition—Richmond should learn, borrow, and steal as much as we can from our peer mid-sized cities. That learning/stealing should go both ways, too—Richmond has plenty of smart people willing to share smart lessons with folks across the country. To that end, we think Streets Cred can help.

The “mid-sized” part is really important. Sometimes hearing what new amazing thing one of the five Big Transit Cities™ has done to decrease bunching on their subway with 3-minute headways just doesn’t resonate with the average Richmonder, or Charlottean, or Columbusite. But when you start discussing what Spokane, Washington has done to increase transportation options for people living in concentrated areas of poverty so they can access grocery stores, jobs, and schools—well, now we have a better apples-to-apples comparison. Focusing on the problems facing mid-sized cities and their solutions, providing that comparison, that’s what we are trying to do with Streets Cred. We sure as shoot can learn from the experiments, pilots, mistakes, successes, and proven best-practices of other mid-sized cities. If we’re not doing that, we’re messing up.

Also, to be completely honest: We will rant or rave about Richmond-specific things that really suck or really rule. A closed sidewalk in Carytown with no pedestrian access alternatives really sucks. We will yell at you about it! A new bike lane that was done as part of a routine paving project totally rules—and we will sing its praises! Be prepared! We hope that our region’s elected officials and decision makers—and other folks from other mid-sized cities—are listening and learning about what works and what needs fixing.

Finally, we are always looking for contributors. If you have something to say about transportation, land use, planning, design, placemaking, urban policies—stuff like that—send us a message and we will work with you to give you a platform. All aboard!

Let’s Bolt

Mayor Levar Stoney announced the launch of Richmond’s first dockless electric scooter program today in Monroe Park along with Will Nicholas, Bolt’s Executive Vice President of Operations.

Bolt Mobility is the first company in the city to be permitted to operate and will deploy 500 e-scooters within the city limits. They’ve also committed to locating 35% of that fleet in low-income areas of the city. The scooters are available to the public for rent for 25 cents per minute ridden. Bolt also offers a program called Bolt Forward, which gives a 50% reduced fair for qualifying individuals with lower-incomes.


Mayor Stoney lookin’ sharp on his inaugural scooter ride.
Will Nicholas, Executive Vice President of Operations for Bolt Mobility delivering remarks about Bolt’s partnership with the City of Richmond and introducing Mayor Stoney.
Richmond City Mayor Levar Stoney addressing the crowd at the launch of Bolt scooters today. Immediately following, he put on a helmet and took a ride through Monroe Park.

VCU back on the bus (for the next three years)

Big, huge transit news out of VCU:

Virginia Commonwealth University signed a three-year paid agreement with the GRTC Transit System on Tuesday to fund unlimited transportation access on Pulse Bus Rapid Transit, local and express routes for all VCU, VCU Health System and Virginia Premier students and employees effective Aug. 1.

Unlike basically every other mid-sized city in America, Richmond is right smack in the middle of an unprecedented increase in bus ridership—and VCU’s unlimited rides program has been a huge part of that growth. At the moment, VCU-adjacent folks make up 12% of GRTC’s total ridership (you can check out ridership trends by route for the whole system in this PDF). V-C-U! Go Rams, go!

VCU’s original pilot program with GRTC, which was set to end on July 31st, cost the University $1.2 million. With way more VCU folks riding buses all over town than originally expected, the effective cost per ride for the University went way down. Ultimately, this starts to become an equity issue with some rides costing less than other rides. That’s why it’s good to see that VCU will increase their financial support for GRTC immediately, and then continue to increase it each year, presumably paralleling projected ridership increases.

Under the new agreement, VCU will pay GRTC $1.42 million for services in the first year, $1.57 million for the second year, and $1.65 million for the third year to cover the cost of ridership for students and employees on local routes and the Pulse and to maintain 10-minute headways for the Pulse.

Additionally, the University has shown its commitment to encouraging people to get on the bus by eliminating their Campus Connector.

In an effort to eliminate redundant services and contribute to the cost of the new partnership, VCU will eliminate its Campus Connector transportation service, effective July 1.

Heck, why not even go a step further and eliminate the M Lot Route as suggested by @_smithnicholas_?

Now, how can the Commonwealth of Virginia create the same deal for their Richmond-based employees? Or what about SunTrust? If Richmond’s other major employers decided to “get on the bus” so to speak, we’d see some real mode shift take place in the city.

The fundamental principle is this: Mid-sized cities can quickly increase public transportation ridership by spending money making things fast, frequent, and reliable. It works! Take it from Richmond!