Incremental development is the key to unlocking the future of Richmond
Inspired by Michael Bierut’s 100 Day Project, 100 Days to a Better RVA strives to introduce and investigate unique ideas to improving the city of Richmond. View the entire project here and the intro here.
- Idea: Forgo Richmond’s obsession with big projects in favor of incremental development.
- Difficulty: 4 — Politicians run on big ideas and progress never gets accredited to small ideas.
Rome didn’t get the coliseum and then build Rome. The coliseum was the byproduct of centuries of success.Charles Marohn
For decades, cities across the country have been trying to promote development, growth, and a stronger future through big projects like river walks, interstate junctions leading to shopping malls, and baseball stadiums. In Richmond, not having an open conversation about what development or growth means hasn’t stopped the previous two mayors from trying to hit home runs with new plans for baseball stadiums.
Without an idea for what crossing home plate means, how can we achieve a better future? What is progress? In the current plan for the baseball stadium, progress appears to simply be taking on debt in order to expand the local economy now or as Alex Steffan puts it, “stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.”
I’m pro baseball.1 I’m pro slavery museum. I’m pro grocery store in the middle of Richmond’s largest food desert. I am against blindly taking on more debt to build one shiny project that is supposed to catapult Richmond from a middle-of-the-pack city to a shining city on the hill.2 Richmond needs to forfeit the “shiny things” model and focus on growing through incremental steps that also improve the lives of residents.
Strong towns is a non-partisan, non-profit that transformed my opinions on future baseball/downtown development. Its founder, Charles Marohn, has the most articulated explanation of cities’ obsession with big projects.
After WWII, we abandoned the patterns of development used by cities for thousands of years. This change happened for genuine reasons like the invention of the automobile and less genuine reasons like racism and white flight. The horizontal expansion expanded the responsibilities of cities.
Suddenly local governments were paying for more roads, more sewers, more police, and more fire protection. As the postwar boom began to slow, cities suddenly found themselves in financial distress. According to Marohn, “our solution to financial distress has been to generate more and more growth.”
Richmond is no different than other cities. Instead of focusing on incremental growth, Richmond has consistently swung for the fences on projects that would transform this city like the canal walk and the 6th Street Marketplace.
Lost in the “Numbers”
The Shockoe Bottom development project would cost around $200 million, of which $79.6 million would come from the city. According to the Times Dispatch, “city officials estimate that the development plan could generate up to $187 million in tax revenue over the next 20 years.”
Much of that $79.6 million would come from debt. More importantly, that $187 million is an almost meaningless number. Remember what Richmond was like in 1994? Pretending to know what RVA will be, even in 2030, with any level of confidence is covering up inaccuracy with precision.
Outside of the explicit costs, think about the opportunity costs associated with the stadium plan. How many staff hours have already been invested? How much political capital has been wasted? How many businesses in different parts of the city have struggled to plan in the face of so much uncertainty?
Further more, that $187 million isn’t pure growth. Baseball games are leisure activities highly substitutable with going to the movies or going to a concert. Restaurants around the diamond will be filled with many customers no longer visiting other parts of town. The rhetoric being used to sell this plan distracts from the fact that a majority of the “development” in Shockoe Bottom will come from two places: other parts of the city/region and the future.
Municipalities generally take responsibility for parks and recreation services, police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, municipal courts, transportation services (including public transportation), and public works (streets, sewers, snow removal, signage, and so forth).whitehouse.gov
Cities have two functions: providing the aforementioned services and figuring out how to pay for those services.3 The baseball stadium does not provide a service and its potential financial gains are at least a decade in the future.
Incremental growth is the alternative. It allows for trial and error. The cost of a $2 million project that flops is far less than a stadium that flops. Services can also improve property values and encourage people to move to the city. In addition to being a service, increasing green spaces and improving sidewalks will boost property values which boosts revenue. Fixing our schools will help increase the population4 which will also boost revenue.
The city generates $220-227 million per year in real property taxes. There are plenty of ways Richmond could use $80 million in debt to generate $9.35 million per year over twenty years in taxes from increased households and property values while also providing services to residents. The problem is, mayors don’t get elected promising simpler building codes or better sidewalks. They don’t build legacies or move up the political food chain by telling a AA baseball team to figure it out for themselves5.
Lost behind the signs exclaiming “No Shockoe Stadium” on the other side of the debate is the fact that a privately developed Shockoe Stadium would be excellent for the city. Richmond should do everything it can to help with logistics and promote this development while protecting the area’s history.
Moving forward, the city needs to have a discussion about what development means. Unlocking the future isn’t easy but it’s more sustainable that stealing from it. Richmond has what it takes to create incremental and lasting development, it’s just time to stop swinging for the fences on big shiny infrastructure projects.
Love this idea? Think it’s terrible? Have one that’s ten times better? Head over to the 100 Days to a Better RVA Facebook page and join in the conversation.
- Let’s remember we’re talking about AA baseball. If aliens or the founding fathers visited Richmond, I think they’d be shocked at the amount of energy invested in the developmental league of the developmental league. ↩
- I want to clarify that I am not anti-debt. Capital is the fuel of progress, but that doesn’t mean it should be used with reckless abandon. ↩
- I think providing good leadership, protecting citizens, and promoting business fit within these goals. ↩
- The main reason I grew up in Chesterfield County was the schools. Although what makes a school good is highly debatable. ↩
- Professional sports teams are capable of providing their own facilities, they’ve just strategically made cities compete against each other. That football team from DC is worth $1.7 billion. Richmond didn’t pay $10.8 million because Dan Snyder couldn’t afford facilities. They simply paid for it to not be somewhere else even though a city like Richmond could attract these facilities if other cities weren’t willing to use tax payer money to lure them away. ↩