Tag: richmond

Profiting from transit systems?

Employers explore a new route in recruiting millennial workers

A good transit system can do more than move people around, says David Green, CEO of the Richmond-based GRTC Transit System. It can also attract people that companies want to hire.

Richmond is next up in Virginia to find out how far a transit network can go in spurring economic growth. Under GRTC’s leadership, the city is close to breaking ground on a $54 million, 7.6-mile bus rapid-transit line (BRT) that will run from Henrico County in the west, down the city’s Broad Street corridor to Rocketts Landing, a mixed-use development on the James River east of downtown.

The plan is to begin construction next spring on the project, called the GRTC Pulse, and start operation in October 2017. The Pulse will have dedicated lanes and 14 stations, along with synchronized traffic signaling. During peak demand, buses will run every 10 minutes. Green and others want to extend the system eventually nine miles west out to the rapidly growing Short Pump area in western Henrico.

The project has been approved in principle by Richmond City Council and is backed by Mayor Dwight Jones, but it is not a done deal yet. A group representing 11 neighborhoods called the RVA Coalition for Smart Transit is seeking to delay the plan for a year. City council must approve an operating agreement governing The Pulse in coming weeks for construction to begin.

“This is what businesses are going to be looking for,” Green predicts. There’s a generation influence going on, with millennials in particular attracted to mixed-use, transit-oriented places, he says. Employers are noticing. “If you don’t have these things, if we can’t provide it here in Richmond, we’re going to lose all this talent,” he says.

The Marriott move
Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International Inc., cited those kinds of pressures back in February when he announced the hotel company is looking for a new headquarters location. About 2,000 employees work at its current headquarters in Bethesda, Md. “I think, as with many other things, our younger folks are more inclined to be Metro-accessible and more urban,” he told The Washington Post. Those comments have set off competition for the headquarters among Washington-region localities.

Sorenson was acknowledging a trend well underway in many urban markets as suburban office parks empty out in favor of major transit corridors. But his comments “sent shock waves around the country” because it showed even giant companies were feeling competitive pressures to get and keep the best workers, says John Martin, CEO of Southeastern Institute of Research, a Richmond-based firm with a background in community planning and transportation. “We’ve reached a tipping point in moving to a multimodal society.”

Martin says millennials, in particular, prefer the work, play, live environment that transit systems can support. “Technology has hyper-wired them together,” he says. Community is important, and they “are much more interested in being in activity centers. We’ve found they really can’t have an experience unless they’re sharing it.”

So the quality of the community makes a difference. “We’re seeing sort of emerging millennial hotspots, where some cities are getting a decided advantage,” Martin says. “Companies are saying, ‘Gosh I want to be in those places.’ It’s incumbent upon Virginia’s economic development community … you’ve got to invest in place.”

Developments in technology and in the function of transit systems are part of this change, Martin says. Fare cards are common instead of cash, for example, and there are apps that can tell riders when the next bus or train will arrive. Some transit systems have free WiFi. Traffic lights can be synchronized to let buses move through intersections with fewer delays. Plus, teleworking is more common, as is the rise of a “freelance economy” in which workers are less tied to one employer. “So people are really going to pick a place” based on the quality of life and not necessarily on how close it is to their job, he says.

Martin was to be part of a Dec. 1 event being held in Henrico, called “Transit Means Business,” which had support from transit interests and groups like the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. A similar event was held in Northern Virginia in May. The Henrico event also was to include a panel moderated by Selena Cuffee-Glenn, Richmond’s chief administrative officer. Scheduled panel members included Ted Ukrop, who opened the Quirk Hotel on Broad Street in September, and an executive from Stone Brewing Co., which is opening a new location near the James. Among others who spoke at the event was Aubrey Layne, the state’s secretary of transportation, and Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors.

Good timing
Richmond got lucky when it came to funding the BRT project. About $25 million of its funding came from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER program (which stands for transportation investment generating economic recovery). The state’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation is providing about $17 million; Richmond is contributing $7.6 million; and Henrico will pay $400,000.

Green says “the planets lined up” for the project because a long study on how to do a BRT system in Richmond had just been  completed when the TIGER grant option came along. “We were ecstatic when they announced the opening for applications,” he says. Gov. Terry McAuliffe threw his support behind the project as well.

The Broad Street corridor was chosen for the Pulse system because it has the “highest existing and projected population and employment densities and the most transit supportive land use in the Richmond region,” according to RVA Rapid Transit, an organization that would like one day to see four BRT lines reaching into surrounding counties and intersecting in downtown Richmond. Within a half-mile of the planned BRT line, there are 33,000 people and 77,000 jobs with the potential for more, the group says.

In Virginia, new rapid transit systems have favored rail, which is far more expensive than BRT. The biggest is the D.C. region’s Metrorail system, which last year opened new stations in Tysons Corner and is continuing extension of the new Silver Line to Washington Dulles International Airport. In Norfolk, a light rail project, The 0, opened in August 2011 on a $318 million 7.4-mile corridor. It may be extended to Virginia Beach.

While transit has the power to drive economic growth, it’s still possible for smaller communities who can’t support that kind of investment to create places that will attract people and employers, says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth. Thriving downtowns can have the same kind of success. “It may not be the big employers who come, but it’s still happening with smaller companies, and it doesn’t necessarily require transit,” he says.

But, for bigger regions, “if they’re going to remain competitive, using good transit and transit-oriented development is the key,” Schwartz says.

The Pulse is a major step for the Richmond region and a new test of the appeal transit systems can have, if done well. “Richmond’s never seen anything like this before,” Green says. “We need to make sure we do it right.” As far as expanding into the counties and creating a true regional BRT network, Green thinks the project will sell itself. “Once they experience it, the counties are going to want to expand.”

Read at Virginia Business >> 

Williams: Parks planning needs public input

A recent study of planning theory and practice … suggests that the ineffectiveness of city planning results from two key factors: the tendency of planners to be pulled along by the prevailing political currents and the consistent refusal to formulate a notion of the ‘Good City’ that draws upon the widest possible base of support.”

— Christopher Silver, “Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics and Race”

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, thought Richmond had turned the corner on planning.

He and his wife had moved here the year before, and the public engagement surrounding the Downtown Master Plan “was absolutely inspirational,” he recalled.

But a half-dozen years after that plan’s approval, the 20th century described more than 30 years ago by Silver, a former professor of urban studies and planning at Virginia Commonwealth University, sounds a lot like Richmond in the 21st century.

Last week’s forwarding of the proposed Kanawha Plaza makeover by the Planning Commission had all the traits of Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ approach to public projects — a blitzkrieg of lobbying and behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, a dearth of public say, and a fast-track product guaranteed to leave folks asking, “What just happened?”
From the Stone brewery to the Shockoe ballpark plan to the pro football training center, there has been dissatisfaction over the level of transparency and public engagement.

The $6 million Kanawha Plaza renovation — to be bankrolled mostly by the corporate sector — will execute a plan produced in part by a design firm hired by Dominion Resources. The rehab could be completed in time for the bike race in September.

So much for the concerns of the Urban Design Committee, which were pretty much ignored as the mayor’s team pushed through a plan that calls for a large lawn at the center of the park, a stage like structure, a food truck area, retention of the plaza’s fountain and other grading and landscaping improvements.

At least one planner questioned what would be the lack of shade at the plaza during summer months; another was critical of the “disjointed” process and the lack of input from people who live downtown.

Even with the time crunch, it shouldn’t have come down to this.
Rachel Flynn, former director of planning and development for Richmond and now director of planning and building for Oakland, Calif., noted that numerous cities have forged public-private partnerships to address the design of public spaces, citing Bryant Park and the linear High Line Park in New York and Post Office Square in Boston as successful examples.

“The key was the hiring of excellent landscape architecture firms with very strong track records in creating beautiful public spaces, that are highly popular,” she said in an email last week. “If the city wanted to turn public responsibility over to the private sector, then they should have required the highest design standards.
“The hired firm, KEI Architects, is not a landscape architecture firm — and therefore doesn’t have the experience in designing successful public spaces,” like the aforementioned parks, she said. “Richmond deserved the best landscape architects for this project and the best design for its citizens. What a missed opportunity.”

While Flynn questioned the design, Schwartz lamented the process that led to it.
The Coalition for Smarter Growth has urged Richmond to have a more inclusive planning process, greater transparency and public involvement in the economic development process, and more sharing of information on the city’s website.

“We have a lot of creative talent in this city that we should tap. You get better decisions and outcomes in this city when you bring everyone to the table and tap their ideas,” Schwartz said.

He observed that there’s significantly more public involvement as a routine part of the planning process in Northern Virginia. And he lauded the Sacramento region’s Blueprint along with Envision Utah as broad outreach planning that we would do well to emulate. A byproduct of Envision Utah was a deeply conservative state’s construction of two light rail lines in Salt Lake City.

If that can happen there as a result of collaboration for the greater good, what can’t we accomplish here? For us to be not just a good city, but the best city we can be, we need broader involvement and fewer political power plays.

Or as Schwartz said, “We’ve got to turn away from the old way of doing things where just a few people make decisions about the future of our diverse city.”

A city guided by prevailing political currents, rather than transparency and inclusiveness, is guaranteed to stray off course.

Read the original article here.

Partnership for Smarter Growth puts focus on eastern Henrico

State Route 5 in eastern Henrico County was turned into a main attraction Saturday afternoon by the Partnership for Smarter Growth. The organization hosted the seventh River City Saunter to display tourist attractions, historic elements, natural resources and other economic assets to the region to county officials and residents.

Dollars and sense: City Council aims to ease the pain of Richmond’s approach to economic development

“On the one hand, it makes perfect sense to have an at-large, directly elected mayor,” says Schwartz, who lives in Richmond and is a board member of the Partnership for Smarter Growth here. “But the separation between the executive and legislative branch seems to create inefficiencies, and it can create a system where the executive branch is not as willing to share all the information it should with the legislative branch. “It puts staff in a difficult position because they’re hired and fired by the executive and yet they’re asked to be completely forthcoming by the legislative body.”