Fighting Blight 

Faced with aging suburbs, Henrico and Chesterfield counties are shifting to an urban approach.

As Henrico has aged, and newer suburbs move further west, the county has seen many of its older commercial and residential corridors experience the kind of urban decay once relegated to the city. So it has been experimenting with tax incentives and easing zoning restrictions to encourage developers, business owners and residents to redevelop areas many have left for dead.

Marlles, for example, is working with the owners of the L.A. Grill to get a permit for outdoor seating in the front of the restaurant. Current zoning restricts such a thing.

“We’re trying to provide flexibility,” Marlles says.

Henrico has worked with older communities for years, but the focus is becoming more intense. The planning department has essentially split in two. Marlles transplanted 21 people across the hall from the planning department, which now has 43 staffers, to focus on community revitalization.

Chesterfield has taken similar action. In early June, Chesterfield moved Jacobson, the county’s planning director for the last 18 years, into a new position as director of revitalization. His new job is almost identical to Marlles’ — he’s focusing on ways to encourage redevelopment in aging corridors.

“Much of the county is dealing with how to maintain what we have,” Jacobson says. “We’re reviewing what our strategy is.”

That both counties have created departments to tackle revitalization signals a shift not only in resources, but political philosophy. Most of the counties’ zoning ordinances and planning districts were designed more restrictively to control and manage new residential and business development, not encourage it.

It’s a step in the right direction, concurs Morton Gulak, associate professor of urban planning at Virginia Commonwealth University. The restrictive nature of the zoning ordinances needs to be revisited to encourage redevelopment, he says.

“It’s very mature that the counties are recognizing the full range of development that has occurred in the counties,” Gulak says. “These older suburbs are 50 and 60 years old — they’re the same as inner-city urban neighborhoods now.”

Says Jacobson, “We have to change that perception” that these older areas aren’t worth the money. “You just start over.”

Jacobson’s first pet project is Cloverleaf Mall. In mid-April, the county decided to work with a development group from Baltimore, Chesapeake Realty Ventures, to rehabilitate the 65-acre mall site in eastern Midlothian near Chippenham Parkway. Cloverleaf, once an anchor for a strong retail corridor, has been in decline for more than a decade.

Jacobson is working with the developers to explore financing incentives. One idea is tax-increment financing. Mall and surrounding property owners would agree to pay additional real-estate taxes that help finance improvements in the corridor. He envisions the site becoming a mix of retail, offices and even some housing.

A plan for redevelopment will emerge sometime in the fall, Jacobson expects. If it works, it should help jump-start more improvements around the mall. “If we can redevelop this site, the private S

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