The Last Link 

Route 288 eases commuting headaches for now. But the new loop also brings development challenges — and increases regional competition.

As officials celebrated beneath an overpass, construction crews continued to work in the distance. Getting to and from the event was challenging — attendees were directed down a part-gravel, part-asphalt Woolridge Road just off of Charter Colony Parkway, which is surrounded by a massive residential suburb that cropped up only a year ago.

Chesterfield County residents are largely ecstatic about the opening of the road. Route 288 reduces commutes to the West End from an average of 40 minutes to fewer than 20 minutes. But some people worry that once the newness wears off, once the trips to Short Pump Town Center become more routine, 288 will create unparalleled development challenges for the region, especially Chesterfield and Richmond.

The impact of 288, essentially a $450 million western loop around metro Richmond, has only just begun.

The future is full of questions: How will Chesterfield manage residential growth around the main 288 interchanges? And how will Richmond compete with an expected migration of businesses toward Short Pump in Henrico County, and the mammoth 3,500-acre West Creek business park at the northern end of 288 in Goochland County?

"Right now it feels very good for everybody," says Gary Johnson, professor of urban studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "But what will it look like 20 years from now?"

Chesterfield faces the most immediate challenge, Johnson says. It must figure out how to control development to prevent the 288 corridors from becoming massive residential neighborhoods. Historically the bedroom community for the region, Chesterfield must find a way to resist the pressure from landowners to sell out quickly to developers, Johnson says. Traditionally, the market for residential housing develops much faster than the market for corporate offices and industrial parks.

"We go through this over and over again," says Johnson, who doubts the county is up to the task. "I'm not real optimistic that we are going to control land use around 288."

The county already suffers from a disproportionate ratio of residents to businesses, which creates a tax-revenue deficit, because residents pay less in taxes than business owners do. That means less money for schools, police, public utilities and other services. And in the short term, at least, the trend promises to continue.

Within a couple of miles of 288's main interchanges, there are thousands of acres of land zoned residential. And there are more than 5,500 single-family houses just waiting to be built around 288, along with another 3,000 apartment units and condos. The county is behind the bulldozer.

Kelly E. Miller, chairman of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors, says the county has a good, strong plan for maintaining a proper balance of businesses to residents along the 288 corridors, and he is confident the county won't waver from that plan. "I think they are adequate to ensure orderly development," he says of the measures.

The idea of restricting property development, however, tears at the heart of laissez-faire Republicans such as Miller. At what point do zoning restrictions infringe on a property owner's basic rights? "I'm a firm believer in private landowner rights," Miller says. "It's a hard line to walk."

Kirkland A. Turner, director of planning for Chesterfield, says the plan has recently been amended to help the county brace for the surge in development in order to protect 288's corridors for "intense commercial and light industrial uses."

But it won't be easy. Consider: By 2020, VDOT anticipates more than 80,000 cars a day will travel the stretch of 288 from Powhite Parkway to U.S. Route 60.

"There is going to be an immediate demand for new homes," Turner says. "Certainly the property owners are ready to sell it, realize a profit and do something."

The enormous amount of traffic expected on 288 should send a warning to the city of Richmond, Johnson says. For starters, there will be a sharp increase in competition for economic development. "The level of competition for office space locations, and warehouse locations and light industrial locations just got much more competitive," he says. "It's going to be very difficult for [Richmond] to compete with the large office parks."

John Woodward, Richmond's economic development director, agrees that Richmond has its work cut out for itself. While 288 will help the region, as a whole, attract new development, the city will be forced to aggressively build on its assets and make it as attractive as possible to locate a business within the city limits. The city already boasts the highest business taxes in the region.

Woodward says the city has to focus on marketing the advantages of working downtown — where else can the CEOs of two major companies run into each other on the sidewalk? — and its many cultural amenities.

"We need to hustle more," Woodward says. "We must grab every advantage there is and run with it."

Aside from business development, perhaps the bigger, more long-term issue for Richmond is remaining relevant with today's younger suburbanites, many of whom are growing up with no need to cross the city line. As Secretary Clement so enthusiastically professed at the ribbon-cutting last week, "288 is now essentially a western bypass around the metro Richmond area."

For years, Chesterfield and Henrico counties have been luring jobs and residents away from the city of Richmond. And now, for the first time, there is a main artery that connects the two counties and doesn't touch Richmond.

"The city has to keep on its toes," Clement says. S

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