Regional Economic Development: Vision Hampton Roads

15 01 2010

The first comprehensive regional economic development plan has been released and is awaiting public comment. Entitled Vision Hampton Roads, the plan is designed to diversify our economy while at the same time making us eligible for federal grants. Visit VisionHamptonRoads.com to read the report and to voice your opinion. The public comment period is open until February 5th.

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Cities Without Suburbs – A Book Review

14 01 2010

Cities Without Suburbs - By: David Rusk

I recently finished reading a book by David Rusk called “Cities without Suburbs.” I highly recommend this book to everyone. The book argues in support of regional cooperation and/or consolidation of suburbs with their historically central cities. Going beyond your typical benefits of regional cooperation, this book explains, with evidence, that there are many benefits for regional consolidation of services. He thoroughly identifies the problems facing inner cities today including, increasing poverty rates, decreasing tax revenues, and the inherent problems with solving complicated social, transportation, housing, economic, and budgetary problems when cooperating with a number of municipalities. Using census data, he explains why cities that have expanded their boundaries to encompass their own suburbs have historically done much better than cities that are unable to expand their boundaries.These locked-in cities lose revenue, resources, and opportunities in the long run to their independent suburbs. This same reason is also why suburbanites fight consolidation/annexation. They believe that their suburbs are doing well and that they don’t want to take on the inner city’s problems. There are a couple of problems with this philosophy, however. First, history and statistics have shown that suburbs that are independent from their central city do not grow as fast as suburbs that are connected to their city. In fact, the average income for the entire region is lower for regions that are segmented versus those that are not. Second, when connected to their suburbs, central cities have fewer problems and the region as a whole has a lower crime rate and a better quality of life.

While I have always felt that a regional Hampton Roads would be a good thing, this book got me thinking that it should go further than that. It is certainly a step in a positive direction to have regional organizations. Certainly don’t get me wrong. Our current institutions such as HRT, SPSA, HRPDC, HRTPO etc all have their problems but when it comes down to it, they make certain things simpler for our area. Imagine if each city had to run its own bus service. You would have to transfer to another bus every time you crossed a city boundary. What if each city had to compete individually for transportation money from the state and federal government? You think we get shorted our share now? Despite current and planned or possible future regional entities, we still need to go further.

Let’s look at one thing that our region does. It may seem minor but think about it. Tourism. Our region has many great tourist attractions. From the Virginia Beach Oceanfront and Ocean Breeze to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens/Water Country and everything in between such as Nauticus and the Wisconsin, Hampton Roads has a lot to offer. Each city spends millions a year in tourism advertising money to attempt to attract visitors to patronize their respective city. While places like Virginia Beach and Williamsburg spend money to directly advertise their attractions, other places such as Chesapeake advertise to attract visitors to stay in their hotels, hoping to capture tourists’ shopping dollars at Greenbrier, etc. The reason this has to be done is because otherwise, Chesapeake makes no money off of Virginia Beach’s tourists. If our cities were one jurisdiction, however, things would be much different. We could combine our money to advertise for our regional attractions and the whole area would benefit. The area of Chesapeake would benefit just as much from tourists that came to Greenbrier as from those that never shopped west of Lynnhaven.

The same goes for transportation. Think of our major projects. The HRBT is a good example. As it stands, Hampton and Newport News want an expanded HRBT. Norfolk, however, is against it because the outcome on our side of the water would be destroyed properties. If we were one city, though, we would be much more likely to support it. An expanded HRBT would almost certainly be a catalyst for a better business climate on the Peninsula. Norfolk doesn’t really care about that. Hampton voters can’t vote for Norfolk’s City Council. As one city, the Peninsula’s economic climate would be Norfolk’s economic climate meaning that the expanded HRBT would benefit the city. Same goes for the Dominion Blvd. project. Peninsula, Norfolk and VB leaders can see how it is important to Chesapeake and the region overall. Secretly, though, they also know that Chesapeake residents are not their constituency. They can support Chesapeake’s project but at the same time they are obligated to do what is best for their constituency.

We can look at social issues. Public housing for example. First, current housing projects were built in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, and Hampton simply because the cities were there. Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Suffolk and the counties of Hampton Roads did not have the capacity to support large scale housing projects at the time. Current housing policy no longer supports concentrated ‘projects.’ Studies have shown that everyone does better when the poor are dispersed throughout the middle class housing areas. This dispersion keeps the poor from feeling hopeless about their situation. Their income rates increase as does the pass rate for their school children. College attendance and graduation rates increase. Despite the objections by some middle class areas, the property values do not decrease and crime does not increase. In cities that are serious about this policy, overall crime rates tend to decrease and overall income averages go up. In our area, however, due to our segmented cities and therefore our segmented housing authorities, the residents of the current projects cannot be transferred to other cities using funds from their home city to pay the rent. This condition severely limits the ability of our housing authorities to successfully assist the poor residents of the housing projects. As one city, the authority could move residents freely around the region to make sure that they have the best opportunity to advance their situations.

I think that this can be accomplished with the right amount of public support. This will not be easy, however, and will take careful consideration to make a thorough proposal to the General Assembly (required for consolidation in Virginia). This will require public education and public input to make sure that all issues are addressed. I know that not everyone will support this but that is typical of any major proposal. I also know that if we could consolidate our area so that the central cities encompasses 60-75 % of our regional population that we would be a force to be reckoned with at the state, federal, and economic levels.





Jillian’s Move: Good or Bad for Waterside?

28 12 2009

I think that it can be a good thing. Waterside needs to be remade into a venue that relates more to the original purpose of the building. They need a quality seafood place, independent shops (like “All About Virginia & More” and “All about Racing & More”), locally owned restaurants, and above all, LARGE  windows that give an open, public view of the waterfront. That is what the purpose of Waterside was and still should be. It is the same reason why we invest so heavily in Town Point Park. The waterfront is and ought to be the public’s domain.

Norfolk - mid-1980's - zoom in and pay close attention to the number of people at Waterside

The image above shows a Waterside full of people. It shows a Waterside tha tis not dependent on taxdollars to survive. That is what we need to rebuild. Do not tear the building down. Renovate it. Make it bright inside again.

Back to Jillian’s. They don’t need to be inside waterside. They should remain Downtown, but not in Waterside. Same goes for Hooters, Outback, and Joe’s. By themselves, they are all good places. They simply do not belong in a venue like the one that I have described. They can stay Downtown, definitely. In fact, it would improve Downtown as a whole to have those restaurants move OUT of Waterside and INTO a street-front property. The amount of pedestrian traffic would surely increase traffic and revenue to the other stores. This move is not an end, but a beginning. A good beginning.





Fairfax Gets It, Why Can’t We?

9 12 2009

Fairfax recently released a new 10-year plan aimed at making transit travel more attractive the vehicle travel. The plan would increase service and frequency, create new routes, and use innovative techniques such as tying traffic lights to bus schedules, so that they never wait at lights. They also plan on utilizing dedicated bus lanes and fixed-route-style fare collection on some bus routes to speed the buses through stops. These new routes, including their already planned BRT routes, would work in unison with METRORail to make transit commutes faster than traditional, usually single-occupant, private car transportation.

My only question is why can Hampton Roads not come up with something this comprehensive. We did work on a plan for the future of transit but it seems to be viewed more as a dream and less of an actual this-is-what-we-need-to-work-for plan. Think about it. You see city after city create plans and actually follow them. Our area can do that too. Virginia Beach has been working on the Southeastern Parkway for 23 years now because it falls into their now-outdated plans to make the Corporate Landing office park successful. Why can’t we work this hard to make transit plans come through? If you ask any city, they will tell you that they want it to work, but nobody seems to be actually pushing for it.

In my opinion, the reason for the lack of drive for this issue is the lack of regional cooperation. Fairfax’s plan will work and has support because it only deals with one locality, Fairfax County. It ties into existing routes that go into other municipalities, but the plan itself, only expands service inside county lines. Here, however, our plan encompasses Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, James City County, and York County. In fact part of our Transit Vision Plan extends service toward Moyock, NC. How in the world do our leaders think that they can make something this expansive work if they can’t make simpler regional systems work. It is hard enough to get two cities to work on a bus route together let alone a system including both light rail and commuter rail. We need a functional regional government. If our localities could combine services and resources, we could actually overcome the problems that we face now. Look around. we are facing budget cuts all the time and money can no longer be guaranteed by the state. We have to help ourselves. Nobody else is coming to our rescue.





Transit Oriented Developments

7 12 2009

If you ever read the PilotOnlie comments, then you will know that there are just some people in Hampton Roads that just don’t get it. They just don’t get how there can be people who don’t want to live in a sprawling suburb. They just don’t get that there are actually people that want to move out of Virginia Beach and into Norfolk. They just don’t get that you actually should know what you’re talking about before you form an opinion.

Most recently, the Virginian-Pilot ran an article about HRT’s new facility that they were building. In fact, I have posted already on this. For a refresher, HRT’s new building was supposed to incorperate a mixed-use development, but now the developer is putting it on hold until the economy improves. My favorite comment so far is by the Virginia Beach Taxpayers’ Alliance’s  Vice Chairman and Transportation Chairman, Reid Greenmun. Now, this man is affiated with the VBTA, so we know that by default he is against all change and somehow wants the city to print its own money and stop wasting their tax dollars doing crazy things such as repairing schools/roads/etc. His comment is as follows:

Gosh, that must touted mythical TOD (Transit Oriented Development) HRT has been pitchinf to justify its light rail boondoggles is now shown for the myth it really was – and in this case HRT is not willing to stick with their own TOD plans! Gosh, if tens of millions of state, local, and federal taxes are available to be used to subsidize the planned HRT TOD project (LEADS “green” roof and all)- and HRT can’t make it happen with all that FREE tax money thrown into the “deal”, just imagine how unlikely it is that any PRIVATE developers will be able to find the hundreds of millions needed to build the promised TOD in VA Beach, along the old Norfolk Southern right of way. The light rail TOD ROI myth is being exposed for the sham it is – right here in River City folks!

As you can see, he (and the VBTA) is severely misguided on the concept of a TOD. If we follow his definition of a TOD, every neighborhood that happens to be built near a bus line is a TOD. This is completely and utterly wrong. In order to be a TOD, the development has to have been built because of the transit line that it sits near. The HRT mixed-use development was not being build because the buses ran through. It was being built because the developer saw potential for profit. This is the same reason that the other development  was built right across the street from the HRT building: not because of HRT, but because a developer saw profit potential in an underutilized area.

Existing Development between Granby St. and Monticello Ave. HRT building can be seen in bottom right corner.

Furthermore, if TOD were “mythical,” how can Mr. Greenmun explain actual TODs in Northern Virginia? Take the following example in Arlington, VA:

This TOD is located around the Ballston-MU Station located on the Orange Line of the DC METRO

This suburban neighborhood is located only one mile from the TOD, above. It is not located on a transit stop

TODs are not myths, as Mr. Greenmun believes. They are simply not well known around Hampton Roads because there are so few of them. They do exist here, however. Both the Belmont @ Freemason and the Wachovia Center developments are TODs. The Wachovia Center development is also a mixed-use TOD. Both of these projects have a Tide light rail stop on the same block. As Hampton Roads’s light rail lines grow and become well-used, these TODs will begin to sprout up along the routes. In fact, Virginia Beach is planning a TOD off of Newtown Road because of Norfolk’s light rail stop.

Wachovia Center (TOD) - Under Construction

Belmont @ Freemason (TOD) - Under Construction





US Development – Preserving Norfolk’s Past

5 12 2009

The Virginian-Pilot has reported that a South Carolina company, US Development, has purchased the Union Mission building, formerly the Navy YMCA building. They plan on renovating the structure and converting the building into 90 apartments. These units will be priced for the middle class, starting at $800/month. In addition to this great move for the Union Mission building, the company also announced that they have similar plans for at least 4 additional historic downtown properties, totaling $100 million and 1,500 new apartments. This is a excellent opportunity for the City of Norfolk and its residents. The increase in affordable living space downtown will increase the amount of people that live downtown. Most of these new, middle-class renters will be more likely to walk where they need to go and/or take public transportation. This, in turn, will be better for downtown shops and restaurants, the mall, and even the upscale apartments and condos, which will be more desirable when the street-scape is flourishing.

Norfolk has spent so much time and effort erasing our past that we have already lost so many buildings. Not too long ago (2007), Norfolk demolished three historic buildings to construct a four-star hotel. At the time, they couldn’t wait. It just had to be done right then or the building would not get built and the world would end. So they tore them down. Going on three years later, the still-vacant lot sits, covered in grass and gravel. The city says that they are waiting for the economy. I wonder how they could be waiting if it was supposed to be built two years ago when the economy was good.

Regardless, it is about time that we had a developer who had an actual interest in preserving historic buildings instead of tearing them down. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new path for Downtown. The district will actually grow, without the city’s help. More residents are needed Downtown to truly make a successful downtown. It is a shame that our council could not see that. Instead, they tore down buildings and catered toward the wealthy and the upscale. All of that is nice, but it won’t survive without the people of the middle class.





Green Metropolis – A Book Review

9 11 2009

Green Metropolis - By: David Owen

Last Thursday, I purchased the book Green Metropolis, written by David Owen. This book was an incredibly well thought out, well researched book. Contrary to the popular held opinion that ‘being green’ involves CFLs and recycling, Owen argues that the greenest city in America is not in Maine or Oregon, but rather New York. In fact, he argues that New York City is the greenest city in America. I was confused too, at first, because the image that I (and most people) have of NYC is a dirty, concrete jungle full of traffic jams and smog. According to Owen’s research, despite the dirty nature of NYC, the city uses less energy per person than any other city in the USA. He uses gasoline as an example and compares NYC to Vermont. Most would agree that wehn you think ‘green,’ you are thinking about something that looks like Vermont: trees, clean air, clean water, etc. According to Owen’s statistics, Vermont residents, on average use 545 gallons of gasoline per person per year, whereas Manhattan residents use only 90 gallons of gasoline per person per year.

It is an interesting theory that the more compact a city is, the more energy efficient it is. There are many examples in this book that I think are important lessons for area, especially since the light rail will be opening next year and we want to expand it and we want it to succeed. Owen talks about light rail. He references it in multiple places. First, in order to be successful, he reinforces the fact that the area served by light rail (or any transit system) needs to be dense.  He references a specific density of seven people per acre. This gives us something to think about if we want to have a regional mass transit system. Hampton Road’s overall density is .625 people per acre. Of course that includes rural counties such as Surry and Isle of Wight. Norfolk’s density is 6.82; much closer to the 7/acre number referenced by Owen as essential for successful transit.  When you consider that there are many places in Norfolk that are not ever going to be ‘dense’ (such as the 1300 acre Norfolk International Airport), we really do have a good start. Virginia Beach has a little bit to go. Their density is only 2.67 people per acre. Granted, half of the city is rural, we will give them the benefit of the doubt and give them 5.4 people per acre. That takes into consideration that most of their people live above the self-imposed ‘green-line.’ In the past few years, they have made great strides increasing density. Town Center is a good example. The recently proposed redevelopment of the Newtown Road ‘Strategic Growth Area’ is another good start (also an attempt to capitalize off of light rail without officially supporting it). We must continue to make the corridors around the light rail lines and proposed light rail lines more dense. I specifically emphasize proposed because if we can make these corridors dense now, it will be easier to get funding and ridership once they are built.

Another thing that Owen’s emphasizes in his book is that, in order to make density and transit more effective, we have to stop catering to cars. If we keep building new roads and highways, we are only reinforcing the automobile’s ease of use. If it is cheaper and easier to drive to work than use transit, why would you bother? Instead, we should use a combination of tolls, gas taxes, congestion pricing, etc. to make driving more costly and less inviting. The proceeds from these revenue streams could be used to expand the transit system. We have to remember, though, that while we want to make driving more uninviting, we do not want to make transporting goods more costly, which would only raise prices of everything and hurt the economy. Truck traffic could face free tolls, lower diesel taxes, or designated lanes (these lanes would be removed from regular lanes, increasing congestion and making car travel even more uninviting). I am not saying to do this overnight, but it is certainly worth it. With a denser area that focused on efficient transit rather than wasteful suburbanism, Hampton Roads would be more likely to compete with other areas.

These are just some of the ideas that would be useful in creating a more efficient, more environmentally friendly metropolitan area. I strongly suggest that everyone reads this book. Especially those who identify themselves as environmentalists. Current ‘environmentalism’ is destroying the planet. Hybrid cars are terrible ideas and only firm up and strengthen our dependence on oil. Read this book. No matter who you are, you will gain something. No matter who you are, your opinions on environmentalism will change.

…in the long run, a car’s fuel gauge is far less significant, environmentally speaking, than its odometer. In the same way that life in Manhattan is inherently energy-efficient, whether or not residents consciously try to conserve, life in the suburbs and beyond is inherently wasteful, no matter what kind of cars the residents park in their garage, or how assidously they swap incandescent lightbulbs for compact fluorescents. It’s miles traveled, not miles per gallon, that make the difference. A sprawling suburb is a fuel-burning, carbon-belching, waste-producing, water-guzzling, pollution-spewing, toxic-leaking machine, and, unlike a Hummer, it can’t be easily abandoned for something smaller and less destructive. We’ve spent a century erecting our way of life. Now we must reconfigure it.

-Excerpt: Green Metropolis – By: David Owen