Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Gunst Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Sidney Gunst, the developer of the Innsbrook office park, is probably the best-known developer in the Richmond region. Innsbrook encompasses 850 acres, 100 buildings and seven million square feet of commercial office space; 25,000 people work there. Financially, it was a tremendous success. But Gunst says that if he knew then what he knows now, he would have done things very differently. (See my latest column, "The Gunst Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," in Bacon's Rebellion.)

The problem is that Henrico County's zoning code, like that of most other counties, mandates low densities and the separation of land uses. The resultant scattered, disconnected, low-density development is very expensive to serve with roads and other infrastructure, Gunst says. If he had to do Innsbrook over, he says, it would have a more balanced mix of housing, stores and offices. He would have built a definable town center. And, in places, he would have built at greater density.

Gunst's critique is nearly identical to that of the "smart growth" advocates. But his proposed remedies are very different. Rather than giving more authority to local government -- such as adequate public facilities ordinances -- he says we need to create more flexibility for developers. Builders should be allowed to create a wider range of real estate product, including higher-density projects that make more efficient use of infrastructure.

One thing that Gunst and the Smart Growth advocates agree on: Most county zoning codes need to be re-written from scratch. If Tim Kaine wants to address the fundamental, underlying causes of traffic congestion and strained infrastructure in Virginia, that's where he needs to start.


At 4:37 PM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

There's one major assumption in Mr. Gunst's proposal that is not likely true in many parts of Northern Virginia. He argues that high density building would make more efficient use of the infrastructure.

The problem in NoVA is that the infrastructure cannot support today's population. Under this circumstance, one can make a strong argument that either dense or non-dense growth is not in the public interest.

Two examples might illustrate the problem. Fairfax County Executive Tony Griffin has warned the Board of Supervisors that approval of any growth beyond what is already contemplated in the Comprehensive Plan would exhaust the wastewater treatment system. Approval of additional dense or additional non-dense (sprawl?) development has the very same result. I am very hard-pressed to explain how any of this additional growth that exceeds the capacity of the existing infrastructure is efficient. Perhaps, substituting some dense growth for less-dense growth by amending Fairfax County's Comprehensive Plan (but not exceeding the overall development levels in the Plan) might be more efficient -- at least for other infrastructure items. But no one is proposing that for Fairfax County. The proposals are generally to build more than what is in the Plan today.

On a smaller level, let's look at grocery stores. A dense, walkable development certainly needs access to a grocery store (something a bit more than a 7-11). There are proposals to increase the density of Tysons Corner by adding, inter alia, thousands of condos. The rezoning proposal by the owners of the Tysons Corner shopping center, for example, would add 1000+ condos, but has no grocery store. (I'm advised that it's difficult for developers to attract grocery stores to these types of developments. I assume that's true since I've generally found developers to be smart people who know their business.)

Absent this critical resource (which, of course, must meet consumer expectations for price and quality), these new residents of Tysons Corner would likely need to drive to stores via either Route 7 or Route 123, both of which are already overused.

Of course, state and local governments could tax us (or raise sewer charges substantially) to build the added wastewater treatment facilities or even a new Safeway to accommodate additional growth. But is that efficient? It certainly does not seem to be interest of many existing residents of Fairfax County.

At 5:50 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

TMT, I had a side conversation with Jim on this: I knew you would come through.

It costs a bundle more to re-build or highly integrate, than it does to build new.

Those smaller walkable grocery stores will have less choice and higher prices - translation lower standard of living at higher cost. But there are new condo developments that have their own ground floor grocery, and groceries compete for the space convenient to yuppies with plenty of money. There is some hope.

The problem is that people seem to have a travel budget: they like to travel, and if they don't use it commuting, they are likely to use it going someplace else.

The only thing a comprehensive plan does is keep planners employed in making the changes. It is a farce.

What you need is a dynamic model that responds to every change in the community, age, job base, structure, travel habits, trip generation, etc. Then the model would plan for the expected counterchanges on the fly.

Officials could rapidly approve changes that pass the models muster, and delay others.

Problem is we don't have such a model yet, could be a good one for the new Modeling and Simulation center.

What this comes down to is telling people where they can and can't live (TMT got there first Nyaah Na Na Nyah Na) and where and when they can't go. After all, it is more efficient. Remember the scene from Doctor Zhivago?

Sorry TMT, I agree with you, I just couldn't resist.


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