Live/work/play: A key to Virginia’s urban renewal
Growing up in Richmond, I vividly remember the bright lights and much ballyhooed opening of the city’s Sixth Street Marketplace in the mid-1980s. As a planned center for commerce, festivals and culture, the development promised to spur much-needed urban renewal in Richmond’s Broad Street corridor.
At roughly the same time and 90 miles to the southeast, Waterside, a festival park and retail destination in Norfolk’s downtown, opened to equal fanfare and promise. Like Sixth Street Marketplace, Waterside’s primary goals included bringing people and life back to downtown.
Fast forward to present day, Sixth Street Marketplace no longer exists, having closed years ago. While Waterside still graces the Norfolk waterfront, it faces challenges as a new developer recently agreed to take over the project from the City of Norfolk. With a planned injection of millions of dollars, the new developer hopes to energize the once-bustling center.
Both Sixth Street Marketplace and Waterside provide sobering examples that the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy works better in a Kevin Costner movie than in urban planning.
The good news is that cities and developers alike have learned from missteps and assumptions. This is clear in the emergence and early success of so-called “live/work/play” mixed-use communities in Virginia's metro areas. Much has been written about how these endeavors are popular with certain population subgroups, including millennials, empty-nesters, young professionals, and others looking for a short commute.
However, far less has been published about the greater impact such mixed-use projects have on their respective cities and regions as a whole. Live/work/play communities have proven attractive to residents, businesses and shoppers alike. More importantly, they have spearheaded genuine urban renewal.
The live/work/play concept has turned underutilized areas of urban space into some of Virginia’s most sought after neighborhoods. Just a few examples in Hampton Roads include the Town Center in Virginia Beach and the Wells Fargo Center in Norfolk. Northern Virginia has seen numerous mixed-use communities, including those that pepper Arlington's Courthouse-Clarendon-Ballston Metro corridor. I have had the privilege to help shape two prominent live/work/play neighborhoods in the commonwealth: Rocketts Landing in Richmond and The Bridges in Roanoke, both transformational projects developed on what was formerly industrial blight.
Why have these mixed-use projects seen success, while previous initiatives, such as Sixth Street Marketplace and Waterside, failed to meet expectations?
The answer seemingly lies in the fact that project residents provide life to a development on a 24/7, 360 day per year basis – not only living on-site, but also working, dining, shopping and entertaining.
This regular activity, in turn, makes visiting downtown attractive again, even to those who live in the suburban and exurban communities. The constant vibrancy of the live/work/play model offers energy, options, and a sense of personal security that was lacking in previous, retail-only endeavors.
Simply put, the residents of the live/work/play communities are a “force multiplier” as they not only contribute to the project’s success directly, but they also draw visitors from elsewhere to shop, dine, and enjoy entertainment downtown. It is this force multiplier that was not present at projects like Sixth Street Marketplace.
The lesson to local governments, developers, and urban planners is clear: a one-dimensional retail project, regardless of popular support or any government subsidy, fails to attract people in the same way that a diverse, mixed-use residential project does. Consequently, a key component to real urban renewal lies in these live/work/play communities. Therefore, Virginia’s cities should embrace the model. As famed community activist, Jane Jacobs, once noted: “You can't rely on bringing people downtown, you have to put them there.”
Ryan Jenness is a native of Richmond and partner in the real estate practice group at Hirschler Fleischer in Richmond. A large focus of his practice includes counseling clients on mixed-use projects, including live/work/play communities. He may be reached at (804) 771-9538 or by email at [email protected]