An Evaluation of the Mechanicsville Turnpike, Richmond VA

By Dom Nozzi

In June of 2009, I was asked to join a bus tour in Richmond to determine whether a particular commercial corridor should be included in an upcoming event sponsored by a local sustainability and sprawl citizens group. The event would strive to illustrate examples of sprawl and what Richmond could do about it.

The bus tour starts on the I-195 expressway belt in Richmond, a highway belt that has and continues to induce suburban sprawl, a severing of urban neighborhoods from other neighborhoods and the city center, and draining the (local trip) lifeblood out of the Richmond City Center.

The Mechanicsville Turnpike roadway corridor seems to be a rather classic case of strip commercial development. An “Anywhere USA” Generica. Noteworthy features found on this high capacity, unsafe, high-speed, 5- to 8-lane road predictably include huge retail and office development setbacks (often behind excessively large asphalt parking lots), an absence of a sense of place, and a lack of on-street parking. The hostile nature of the road has clearly contributed to pushing buildings back from the roadway, and making it unlikely that business owners will be willing to bring front building facades and entrances up to the road. Buildings have increasingly turned their backs to the roadway.

The road is punishing and unrewarding, and the dispersal of commercial properties and lack of residential mixed use combines to create a near absence of walking, bicycling or transit use. These features, along with the enormous amounts of surface parking, creates a “park many times” setting, where every trip to another store in the area must be made by car (out on the already overcrowded roadway), rather than a “park once” environment, where people can walk from store to store.

These design attributes makes the corridor unviable for quality transit service. A “Plan B” for a transformation toward transportation choices is thereby effectively foreclosed.

The generic, hostile character is surely one that is unable to induce any level of civic pride in the community. The unpleasant, unlovable roadway, in contrast to more attractive, vibrant streets, makes travel along the corridor seem longer than it really is.

The road is a car-only, car-happy design that delivers a route lacking in any form of transportation choice. The result is a self-perpetuating cycle in which traffic congestion has been responded to by a history of widenings—the addition of travel lanes or turn lanes. Because the resulting bigger road becomes significantly less safe, pleasant or convenient for pedestrians, bicyclists or transit users, the newly widened road recruits new motorists who were, at times, formerly non-motorists, thereby increasing overall auto dependency, and increasing the number of residents urging elected officials to pursue costly, free-flowing, car-happy design. Such design creates additional barriers for non-car travel, which thereby induces even more car dependency and more traffic congestion. Commonly, this downwardly spiraling cycle continues indefinitely (or until the public sector is no longer able to afford to continue the road-widening cycle).

Given all of the above, it goes without saying that the building architecture along the corridor is “icon” (or “franchise”) architecture which is typical for an Anywhere USA development style, as the road is now highly conducive to Big Box retail franchises. Such retailers seek out larger roadways that are able to draw large volumes of cars from a regional consumer-shed.

Similarly, due to the high-speed roadway and large building setbacks, retailers are compelled to employ jarring, sign-cluttered, brightly lit and day-glow colored features necessary to capture the attention of distant, higher speed motorists.

With modestly-sized roadways, Big Box retail is impossible. With large roadways, Big Box is inevitable. The rise of Big Box retail in the wake of the nationwide construction of large roads has led to the creation of “power centers”, where these large retailers become predatory “category killers” that induces retailers to compete with competitors by engaging in a form of “arms race” in which retailers are continuously striving to out-size their competitors. One result of this one-upsmanship is the exponential growth in excessive per capita retail square footage in places such as Richmond over the past several decades.

Clearly, the large capacity of this multi-lane roadway has expanded commercial markets outward from the Richmond urban area, as is seen by the on-going march of new developments (often a conversion of residential to office and retail) and “For Sale” signs sprouting up as one moves from the Richmond center to more remote, single-use locations. Typically, these For Sale signs are an indicator that the landowner is seeking to cash-in on these roadway changes by converting farms to large-scale residential, office or retail pods that can only be reached by car.

The historic and on-going march of residential development in more peripheral locations is largely fueled by the well-known “travel time budget.” Research has found that throughout history and cross-culturally, humans have, on average, sought a living arrangement where the round-trip commute travel time from home to work, school, or whatever is traveled to on a regular basis, is approximately 1.1 hours. Some travel more and some less, but the average is just over an hour. When roads are widened or speeded up, then, the equilibrium point is re-established by homes springing up in even more remote locations from the job or school or activity center location—because the widened road enables the more remote household to continue to maintain the 1.1-hour commute time.

Suggestions for the September Tour-de-Sprawl and the Turnpike

First, I believe that the tour should include a visit to a local example of a walkable, Smart Growth development. If possible, there should be both old and new examples, and an opportunity for the group to get out, walk around and experience how such places “feel.”

Should the community wish to transform the corridor to be more walkable and less sprawl- and strip-inducing, the first step will need to be a transformation of the road. This would probably mean some form of road diet, where travel and turn lanes are removed.

In an interim period before a road diet program can be implemented, it may be necessary to impose growth boundaries as a way to stem sprawl and strip market forces induced by over-sized roadways in the region.

Financial incentives that currently fuel the strip commercial sprawl found along and beyond the corridor will need to be addressed. One change will need to be financial institutions, which need to become more comfortable financing Smart Growth development. Currently, such financing is unlikely as lending institutions tend to prefer conventional, car-oriented development with a track record. Smart Growth projects will need to be shown as profitable in the Richmond area before lending can be expected for such projects.

Another way in which conventional, local financial incentives can be leveraged to induce redevelopment and infill along this corridor is via a “land value tax” (LVT). This tax, according to Wikipedia.com, is an ad valorem tax on the value of land. This ignores buildings, improvements, and personal property. Because of this, LVT is different from other property taxes on real estate — the combination of land, buildings, and improvements to land… Most taxes distort economic decisions. If labor, buildings or machinery and plants are taxed, people are dissuaded from constructive and beneficial activities, and enterprise and efficiency are penalized due to the excess burden of taxation. This does not apply to LVT, which is [set at a fixed rate] regardless of whether or how well the land is actually used… Proponents allege that [the LVT] encourages landowners to develop vacant and underused land [to a higher, more active use] or to make way for others who will. The claim is that because LVT deters speculative land holding [often as downtown surface parking lots], dilapidated inner city areas are returned to productive use, reducing the pressure to build on undeveloped sites and so reducing [sub]urban sprawl. For example Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the United States has taxed land at a rate six times that on improvements since 1975, and this policy has been credited by its long time mayor, Stephen R. Reed, with reducing the number of vacant structures in downtown Harrisburg from about 4,200 in 1982 to less than 500. LVT is an ecotax because it ostensibly discourages the [the under-use of in-town locations, and, in turn, the financial incentives to build in sprawl locations].

One hopeful trend on the national level is that there is a growing frequency of conventional shopping malls and strip commercial areas to be redeveloped as more walkable (albeit somewhat artificially created) town centers and “main streets” incorporating residences. One reason for the growth in such development is the relative profitability of such developments.

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2 Comments

Filed under Bicycling, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking

2 responses to “An Evaluation of the Mechanicsville Turnpike, Richmond VA

  1. yason

    While I’ve never been in Richmond, VA, this was a good explanation of the situation, once again nicely underlining the self-inducing madness of current automobile-based trend of urban development.

    As I’ve done before with “interesting” urban developments, I really wanted to peek into this monstrosity myself and decided to “drive” through it via Google Street View. For other non-US readers, here’s the link in its own monstrosity:

    http://maps.google.com/maps?ei=xmavS-qpAYHZ-Qa95qyYDQ&ved=0CAgQ8gEwAA&ll=37.562473,-77.405891&spn=0.002892,0.015256&z=17&layer=c&cbll=37.562393,-77.405872&panoid=-h2ErKopXMdTRtZCZh9TLg&cbp=11,25.45,,0,0.82

    The coordinates on the 2D map are a bit off the road, and the road itself seems to be called both Mechanicsville Turnpike/Pike at times but the view seems to confirm that I hopefully found the correct artery. At least it’s an ugly road! 😀

  2. You might want to check out Urbantools.org for more about LVT. The annual gathering of the Georgists (after Henry George, whose name is most commonly associated with land value taxation) will take place in Albany in July. See http://www.cgocouncil.org/ for more information.

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