So what if the place is slightly surreal, as if Disneyland's Main Street, USA, really were a place where you could live and work? Forget all the naysayers. I have seen the future and it is West Broad Village.
For decades, Richmond's outer suburbs have been developed site by wooded site or farm-by-farm, to accommodate a singular function — a single-family residential community here, an apartment complex there, a retail mall across the way, an office park around the bend. Each destination was separated by a few yards, miles or acres of asphalt.
While often profitable for developers, this single land-use approach required expensive infrastructure and proved environmentally and aesthetically destructive. Navigation of these spaces required countless hours of driving time, expended human energy and innumerable tanks of fuel.
West Broad Village breaks the mold. It's an upscale, 115-acre, mixed-use assemblage of townhouses, apartments, offices, shops, eateries, a park, big-box (but not too big) stores and even a branch of the Children's Museum of Richmond. It lays claim to being Richmond's first suburban community to embrace so-called new urbanism on a scale ambitious enough for us to sit up and take notice.
New urbanism is a term bantered around loosely, but few developers have actually come close to following its tenets. It calls for structures to serve a mix of functions and be placed in adjacent, often dense configurations. Pedestrian-oriented, pre-automobile small towns and cities once functioned this way. Think houses with front porches that face sidewalks, or offices within a stroll of shops where folks might live above the store. Think walking or cycling to your hair stylist or to a bistro for a night out.
Tightly configured West Broad Village is wedged between the heavily traveled thoroughfares of Broad Street, Three Chopt Road and the John Rolfe Parkway. Interstate 64 is a quarter of a mile away. The planned community is only a mile from busy Short Pump Town Center and Interstate 295. Its location, at the center of western Henrico's often maddening residential, commercial and vehicular tangle, makes the physical contrast between this contained, pedestrian-oriented place and all that swirls beyond it especially dramatic, if not disconcerting.
To veer off Broad Street Road and into the village via Gathering Place, passing between two tall, brick gateposts, resisting the lure of Whole Foods Market; and then parallel parking on Old Brick Road — yes, the development's main street is paved in red bricks — is to enter a design paradigm unusual to suburban Richmond.
Glancing around panoramically, the four- and five-story buildings that stretch for five blocks have the nostalgic and decorative look of an under-the-Christmas tree village blown up to human scale.
A large clock face on a tower of the South University building, which anchors the corner of Old Brick Road and Strolling Lane, tells time with Roman numerals, adding a vintage touch to a development that saw its first residents in 2009. At each village intersection street names affixed to traditional-looking fixtures recall Henrico's, indeed the nation's, rural past. There's Redbud Road, Tractor Barn Place, Barn Owl Lane, Geese Landing and Fish Pond Lane.
But just when West Broad Village, designed by Antunovich Associates of Chicago and Arlington, architecturally verges on a cross between a nostalgia fest and a Potemkin village, other features catch the eye. The block-long Aloft Hotel, its lobby often busy with hipsterish businesspeople clicking away on their laptops, has a cantilevered roof that projects a colorful and contemporary vibe. Nearby, high above sidewalk cafes and expanses of glass encasing the ACAC Fitness and Wellness Center, you see protective fencing surrounding two rooftop tennis courts. This mix of activities, building types and architectural styles suggests cleverly, if not convincingly, that West Broad Village grew over time.
The compact zeitgeist of West Broad Village also signals something else. Western Henrico County, once the fresh symbol — and reality — of Richmond's post-World War II future, of affluence and unlimited growth potential, has matured. Born of the 1940s, it is now a septuagenarian suburb that's run out of spaces to sprawl. Having been built out to the Goochland County line, western Henrico has diminishing expansion options — except to build more densely and upward.
In November the Henrico County Board of Supervisors approved a long-term comprehensive plan allowing buildings to soar in certain places as high as 250 feet (about 25 stories). At public hearings, some residents howled — that's not why they moved to the suburbs. But a lot of other people moved there too. The county's population in 1950 was 57,340. Today it's 310,000 — an increase of 440 percent.
Does West Broad Village offer a template for an urbanized county?
West Broad Village is known to many Richmonders as the home of Whole Foods Market, which opened in 2009 as one of the first features of the development, and nearby Trader Joe's, in an adjacent shopping center but a convenient walk from the village. Anyone venturing beyond these popular grocery stores and into the still-evolving neighborhood knows much more is going on.
"We're creating critical mass," says Jeffrey D. Doxey, president of NAI Eagle, a unit of Markel/Eagle Partners LLC, which owns many of the commercial parts of the development. He says two additional restaurants — Chuy's, a Tex-Mex chain, and Carrabba's Italian Grill — recently signed leases and will open at choice corners. They'll join such restaurants as Kona Grill, Keagan's Irish Pub, Halligan Bar & Grill and Bonefish Grill in the village.
The residential population is growing too. All of West Broad Village's 337 apartments are occupied. Of the planned 545 townhouses, 340 were built and occupied as of last month.
"We've just broken ground on what we call urban brownstones," says Bud Ohly, president of Eagle Construction, the project's builders. Because these 22 four-story residences back up to a commercial block, Ohly says, outdoor living spaces will be on the front. "But we're running out of building lots," he says.
The brisk selling is undoubtedly a good sign in a housing market that's still tepid after the recession. But there's something else happening here. For the first time, the suburban set is warming to the idea of truly dense residential neighborhoods.
Other projects have tried and failed. Think Westchester Commons in Midlothian, a planned new urbanist shopping center just off state Route 288 that was intended to include apartments and condos constructed above retail shops. Today it's just a confusing to navigate strip shopping center with traffic circles and a few sidewalks that dump into giant parking lots. At the former Cloverleaf Mall site a few miles to the east, there are plans for 600 apartments next to a giant Kroger grocery store and other planned retail shops. The Cloverleaf project, called Stonebridge, offers some hope for a dying commercial and retail corridor, but it's still in the early stages of development.
And there is a critical piece missing in the West Broad Village project, as well as at the others: job centers. To create a truly self-sustaining, carless neighborhood, the new urbanism manifesto calls for creating substantial numbers of jobs nearby. Otherwise, places like West Broad Village are little more than commuter suburbs that do almost nothing to address sprawl.
But it's a start. While not yet an oasis in traffic-snarled Short Pump, it's being embraced by residents eager to ditch their cars and meet the neighbors.
Early on a recent, mild weekday, Leslie Atkinson walks the family dog near Duckling Drive. She's seen two sons off to school and her husband has headed for his studies across town at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Ginter Park. Atkinson is dressed casually with a dark scarf. Her sunglasses block the sunshine, which ricochets across the clean surfaces of three-story, traditionally designed townhouses. Small, well-maintained front yards are planted uniformly. A block or so away, a tarp protects a large community swimming pool. The classical features of the adjacent clubhouse, if you squint, look Jeffersonian. Atkinson's puppy sniffs at a swath of turf in a vacant area dotted with protruding utility hook-ups that await the next round of townhouse construction.
"We like the convenience of being able to walk to things and the mix of young and older people here," says Atkinson, whose family moved into its townhouse a year ago from Wilmington, N.C. "There's even a community a garden," she adds, pointing toward an open area beyond Whole Foods. "We wanted an urban neighborhood."
While some might wince at the concept of West Broad Village being urban, it is different. True, the development sits hard against Broad Street Road, across the highway from the more traditionally suburban Brookhollow shopping center. But contrasts are stark: Brookhollow's asphalt parking lot becomes its defining characteristic and shoppers probably drive from store to store there.
West Broad Village puts multiple activities — living, working, shopping and playing — within short walking distance of each other, adhering to a rectilinear street grid.
This technique has been championed since the 1980s by the Miami-based, husband-and-wife planning team of Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany, which has advised St. Mary's Hospital on the master plan for its campus, including the controversial future development of the old Westhampton School on Patterson Avenue.
"I've lived here twice," says apartment resident Katelyn Melo, who lives on Old Brick Road and commutes daily to her state job downtown. After college, she moved into West Broad Village in 2010 because it was convenient to her job at the Richmond Country Club in Goochland County. She later moved into Richmond, to a Monument Avenue apartment. But in June she moved back. She cites security, ease of maintenance and, like Atkinson, the generational mix of neighbors.
"I have several law students, grad students and young professionals on my hall and a lot of families with children," she says. "I'm sometimes aware that people are having a party, but it's not like they're shooting the roof down. There's enough ambient noise that I don't feel alone."
She parks her car in a garage that leads directly into her building. So does she ever get out to walk? "Many evenings I don't get home from work until 7:30," she says, "so I just walk across the street and pop into Whole Foods."
Lynne Demestre, who owns a townhouse, is a Henrico County native who attended Douglas Freeman High School and Virginia Commonwealth University. She recalls when the area was open land: "I've known Richmond all my life and remember when this was the Pruitt property," she says, referring to the former farm on which West Broad Village was built. "I wasn't an advocate at first."
But Demestre says when she lost power for two weeks in May because of local storms at her 7-acre Goochland home, she moved. "I decided I can't do this anymore," she says. "My children are grown and I was looking for something with a community feel. There are front porches and the village is very dog-friendly." Walking her Lab mix, Finley, is a conversation starter. "In the country I didn't have close neighbors," she says.
While residents may extol life at West Broad Village, most agree that it isn't quite utopia. Before walking back to her house, former North Carolinian Leslie Atkinson gestures in the direction of Broad Street and its relentless flow of traffic: "But then there's that."
"I do everything I can to avoid Broad Street," Demestre says.
Indeed, the location of West Broad Village works against the very idea of new urbanism. The project isn't centrally located, says Trip Pollard, director of the land and community program for the Southern Environmental Law Center, and isn't connected to public transit. "It's pretty much only accessible by the car," he says.
While it has some elements of new urbanism, Pollard cautions against celebrating such projects too soon. "It has some of the positive elements but I would say it certainly could have been better in design and centrality," Pollard says of West Broad Village. "Given that location and the county zoning, we don't make it easy to do more true mixed-use developments."
Broad Street has long been Richmond and Henrico's primary east-west thoroughfare. In the early 19th century, the original downtown stretch was widened for railroads to run down the center. By the end of that century, electric streetcars followed the same route, but stretched westward. With the advent of the automobile, a stretch along Broad became lined with dealerships. Car showrooms and lots eventually extended past the Boulevard, then west of the Henrico line near Malvern and Westwood avenues.
With the close of World War II in 1945, there was tremendous need for new housing for American GIs and their families. Because no new house construction was under way during the war years, Congress responded with legislation authorizing funds to build five million new houses through the Federal Housing Administration and the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944.
But if there was anything returning GIs wanted more than homes, it was automobiles. The city of Richmond was quick to respond. In 1946 the city administration unveiled the Bartholomew plan, a transportation study that recommended building major new highways linking the center city with the emerging suburbs to allow residents to come and go with greater ease.
Commercial activity followed on the heels of new construction. In 1956 Richmond's first suburban shopping centers were opened, including Willow Lawn on West Broad Street near Staples Mill Road. The center's success spurred office-building construction in the vicinity of Fitzhugh Avenue and Byrd Street.
Thus, after centuries of the downtown being the hub of commercial activity, Richmonders had alternatives to driving downtown to shop and work.
And with a critical mass of the middle-class being drawn to the suburban West End, a plethora of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, stores and other services were built to serve an increasingly fluid customer base.
Ironically, it was believed that by pulling the residential areas away from the downtown, the central business district would be enhanced by having improved access to the city center.
Then came the most expensive and ambitious construction project in the nation's history. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act, directing the federal government to pay 90 percent of the cost of a new 42,500-mile highway system.
"The automobile and the suburb combined to create a drive-in culture that is part of the daily experience of most Americans," said Columbia University professor and historian Kenneth Jackson, author of "Crabgrass Frontier: the Suburbanization of the United States," when he spoke at the opening of the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen in 1999.
The interstates, along with Innsbrook and Short Pump Town Center, pulled development even farther west.
So traffic on West Broad Street is something Richmonders have accepted as part of life for more than half a century. Every other development operated on an established suburban pattern — pulling off Broad and into either a landscaped parking area or into a strip mall, all parts of the same post-World War II pattern.
West Broad Village is different. While even downtown developments such as Riverfront Plaza and the James Center were built on a suburban zeitgeist, West Broad Village is adopting if not an urban, then something of a small-town aesthetic. One thing that's noticeable is that there aren't acres of free parking. There are parking decks and more modest surface parking options. There are sidewalks, which make it only a stroll to nearby businesses, shops and restaurants.
And there are families. "When I look out of may office window in the mornings and late afternoon and see the yellow Henrico County school buses pulling in," developer Ohly says, "I know that this has become a neighborhood." S
What used to be far from Richmond -- where cows used to graze -- now stands a community with townhouses, restaurants, pubs, salons, upscale gyms and groceries. West Broad Village: urban suburbia. The future of America?
Video by Briget Ganske