GRTC Connects: The Pulse – Scott’s Addition to Rockett’s Landing

by | Dec 31, 2020 | RICHMOND POLITICS

The twelfth and final installment in a monthly series in which a hometown Richmonder who has spent over a decade abroad explores the many different neighborhoods accessible by GRTC bus lines to discover the ways transit connects us all.

Scott’s Addition:

When out-of-towners tell you they had a great time in Richmond recently, they almost always mean they spent a day bouncing among the bustling breweries of Scott’s Addition.  Few corners of the city better encapsulate the rebranding of the former capital of the Confederacy into the hipster mecca of the South — a place where cold brew, BBQ, and coworking spaces comfortably cohabitate. As easy as it has become to lampoon Scott’s Addition for its status as frat boys’ drunken playground of choice, the area’s rapid transformation from an industrial wasteland into Richmond’s hottest neighborhood proves our city’s vast untapped potential and the ways we can all too easily squander it.

General Winfield Scott inherited the original 600-acre estate from his father-in-law and Confederate Richmond Mayor Joseph Mayo in 1818. The four-time failed presidential contender and presiding officer over the removal of the Cherokee sold off the parcel in 1890, triggering the neighborhood’s first residential development. The expansion of the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad and its Acca yard along the area’s perimeter altered the course of Scott’s Addition in a decidedly industrial direction.

A 1927 zoning ordinance locked in the area’s industrial designation, leading to a proliferation of plants and factories done up in surprisingly chic architectural styles, including Mission Revival, International Style, and Art Deco. The Hofheimer Building is a prime example of the era’s surviving beauty, which earned the neighborhood a historic designation a decade and a half ago. The construction of I-95 and I-195 to the area’s north and west, respectively, isolated Scott’s Addition, leaving it largely forgotten for half a century.

The long-neglected nature of Scott’s Addition and its core location made the area a prime target for redevelopment as Richmond swung into its post-millennium renaissance. Upon that clean slate, developers have spent the last decade building breweries, apartments, breweries, offices, and breweries. The 2017 Pulse Corridor Plan and associated upzonings on Broad Street accelerated the growth, fostering Richmond’s best modern example of transit-oriented development — jargon to describe that people like to live where it’s easy to get around by bus. That’s not to say that developers aren’t still building parking decks as high as the apartment buildings they aim to serve.

This sometimes overwhelming infusion of new businesses, residents, and vitality reflects our region’s untapped potential; however, the growing pains have been pronounced. In a neighborhood teeming with people, Scott’s Addition is surprisingly dangerous to traverse on foot due to the one-way streets drivers speed down and the 60 stretches of missing or inadequate sidewalk. The fact that the area’s only parks are a private wine garden and two communitycrowdsourced greenspaces is embarrassing.

Given the failings so far, especially the lack of a single affordable housing unit, it’s understandable that the plans to create a “Greater Scott’s Addition” were met with mixed emotions at their debut this summer. Under this vision everything north of Broad, west of Lombardy, south of I-95, and east of I-195 will be merged into an oasis of amenities, mixed-use development, and new destinations. The nods toward more housing, a new crescent park, and complete streets are all positive, but the devil will be in the details of implementation.

It’s far easier to cite the shortcomings of the Richmond 300 master planning process which produced the Greater Scott’s Addition Conceptual Plan than it is to demand the city do more to address our housing crisis over the coming years. Of the 53 parcels Mayor Stoney proposed be handed over to affordable housing developers during the recent election, not a single one lies within Greater Scott’s Addition.

If Richmond’s growth is to continue, then it must become more inclusive. A new state-level Lower Income Housing Tax Credit could help. Removing parking minimums on new housing would reduce the costs of new construction and produce more apartments with lower rents. The question is whether the city’s leaders are willing to make such minor changes, let alone the bigger items that need addressing if the rest of Richmond is to grow along with Scott’s Addition.

The Ride:

For this last installment of GRTC Connects, I offered readers the chance to ride along. Roughly twenty of us gathered in front of the Blanchard’s on Broad back in March — just a couple weeks before the pandemic pushed writing this series to a back burner. We took a tour of Scott’s Addition together, coffees in hand. Along our half-hour ride through the heart of the city to Rockett’s Landing, we enjoyed the best transit Central Virginia has to offer.

Richmond’s award-winning bus rapid transit (BRT) — a style of bus acting like a subway — serves as a glimpse into what the future of mobility in RVA could be. When the Pulse was first conceived in 2016, the plan was for not just one BRT line but six. Short Pump, Ashland, Mechanicsville, RIC Airport, Petersburg, and Midlothian would have all become termini on a truly regional BRT network, crisscrossing localities to boost connectivity and reduce congestion.

In this light, the Pulse’s detractors have a point. High-quality transit shouldn’t just serve the city’s busiest corridor. All corners of Greater Richmond deserve the fast, frequent, and reliable mobility that the Pulse provides. While ridership on the Pulse during the pandemic is 41 percent lower due to VCU going virtual and the drop in commuting, the rest of GRTC’s routes are at 94 percent capacity. One of the best ways we as a region can honor our essential workers is to invest in their connectivity and build out comfortable and convenient new BRT routes across the region.

The idea may sound unrealistic in an era of pandemic-induced budget cuts, but the money exists in the form of the Central Virginia Transportation Authority (CVTA). The entire construction of the Pulse cost just $62 million. The CVTA is projected to bring in $170 million annually for Greater Richmond to spend on upgrading its transportation systems.

Improvement could start small but equitable. There’s no reason the Pulse ends in Rockett’s Landing and doesn’t continue the extra mile to serve Fulton — a transit-starved majority-Black community. The addition of a Sauer’s Garden stop between Scott’s Addition and Willow Lawn could help folks move to an up-and-coming area without having to buy a car to get around.  

A North-South Pulse route from Ashland to Petersburg would prove a tougher challenge, but tying together our region’s six most important localities (Hanover, Henrico, Richmond, Chesterfield, Colonial Heights, and Petersburg) would be a coup for residents’ mobility. If we pull it off, a decade from now folks could seamlessly live, work, and play in all corners of Central Virginia without having to worry about parking, insurance, or how to make their car payment.

The plans for a six-route regional BRT network have been sitting on the books for years. All we need to do is fund them.  With the CVTA’s as yet untapped millions already rolling in, it’s time for Central Virginia to double down on the vision of better mobility, less traffic, and a climate-friendly future made possible by robust public transportation. Everyone deserves a Pulse.

Rockett’s Landing:

At the opposite end of the Pulse lies an equally young and growing urban neighborhood, but that’s where the similarities cease. Scott’s Addition may often give off an exclusive air, but Rockett’s Landing feels like a gated community without the gates. After alighting from the Pulse, one must cross the city border via an overly large parking lot before reaching any homes, restaurants, or human life. Could there be a better metaphor for entering Henrico County?

Exactly 400 years before Varina’s first-ever New Urbanist community sprouted up here, Captain Christopher Newport ended his exploration of the James with a landing along these same shores. The area didn’t grow into a bustling trading town until 1730, when Robert Rockett began operating a ferry service across the James that was so well used, it was once considered the busiest inland port in America.

As the Civil War erupted, this riverfront community was converted into Richmond’s first line of defense against Union forces. After the Confederates torched and abandoned the Portsmouth Shipyard in 1861, both banks of the James transformed into the official Confederate Navy Yard, hosting ironclad warships and submarines alike. Just a few years later, however, Rockett’s Landing would suffer the same fate, as Southern soldiers burned its ships, shops, and homes before fleeing to Danville. When Lincoln came to the fallen capital following the defeat of the Confederacy, he docked in Rockett’s with the ruins of Richmond still smoldering in the background.

In the wake of the war, Rockett’s Landing reverted to serving as a sleepy port. By the 1920s, Virginia’s growing network of railroads had lured most freight shipping away from the area. The rise of the interstate sapped the last life out of the port, allowing for its conversion into an industrial zone in 1970. The decline of large-scale manufacturing over the following decades left this corner of Henrico empty and ready for redevelopment.

Walking through Rockett’s Landing today, one can tell the area was rebuilt according to a large-scale, developer-driven master plan — the result of a secretive effort to turn Richmond’s former dock into a gold mine. Each successive set of housing feels like a new row of massive Lego blocks, aesthetically crisp though lacking in architectural charm. The only historic structure left is the old water tower, anchoring the modern construction to the area’s past.

With just two restaurants, few public spaces, and no other storefronts or amenities, this community of nearly 37,000 can come across startlingly like a ghost town. While life in Rockett’s Landing may frequently feel more like a senior living community, that’s no reason to scoff at the dense development Henrico has fostered. Although each townhome and apartment comes with bountiful parking out front (the rows of parked cars somewhat detracting from the area’s charm), where else in Greater Richmond has so much transit-oriented housing been built in such a short period of time?

With countless further apartments, condos, and even $1 million townhomes in the works, that growth isn’t dying down anytime soon either. If anything, the rise of Rockett’s Landing will be roaring ahead throughout 2021 and beyond, thanks to the nearly 20-acre Fulton Yard development Richmond and Henrico jointly approved last year. With an average median household income of $57,066, the “village” isn’t even so far out of line with the rest of the region ($45,117), but it’s not exactly affordable to average folk either.

The astonishing growth of Scott’s Addition and Rockett’s Landing over the past decade proves Greater Richmond is ready to grow and shed off the shackles of its past. The question these two neighborhoods raise is: where is that growth inclusive of low-income people? Scott’s and Rockett’s have both mastered the art mixed-use development, but not mixed-income. From new low-income housing tax credits to community land trusts, we already know what tools we need to build our way out of our housing crisis. Do we have the political will to use them?

Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon

Wyatt Gordon is a born-and-raised Richmonder who holds a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor's degree in international politics from the American University in D.C. Wyatt is an urban planner and community organizer working to foster safer, more sustainable cities and greater civic participation in local government.

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