Fifteen miles south of Richmond lies Brandermill, awarded "Best Planned Community in America" by Better Homes & Gardens — in 1978.
The 4,000-home neighborhood on 2,800 wooded acres is still a popular place to live, but many people say it's time 35-year-old Brandermill had a face-lift.
"Brandermill is known for its open space, for its amenities," says Andrea Epps, a nine-year resident and member of the Brandermill Community Association. "But that amenity package is 30 years old."
The association signed a contract in September with designforum, a local community-design company, to help the neighbors create a master plan for revitalizing Brandermill, which has 13,000 residents. "We have a vested interest in the revitalization and keeping things up to par," says Michelle Swanson, who has lived there for 14 years in two different houses. "There is a lot about Brandermill that is definitely worn down. It is not as up-to-date in some areas as it could be, particularly the commercial property."
After spending a month studying the community, including touring bike trails, parks and neighborhoods, designforum associates interviewed landowners and held community meetings, which will continue through the spring. Some of the ideas thrown out include a trolley service and a boutique grocery store, while others have more humble goals.
"Our task as designers is really [to work] with the community to make solutions of their current situations. We are really taking the approach of allowing the community to really and ultimately plan their future. We have basically led them through a process," says Andrew Bleckley, an associate at designforum. "It's a very dynamic process of planning and very hands-on for the community."
About 300 residents came to the first two meetings in the fall, where they divided into groups, brainstormed and presented their personal goals for the neighborhood to the group and designforum staff.
"It was so exciting to see so many of us sharing the vision of a community that would be a little bit more updated and vital," says Swanson, who attended both meetings.
"We encouraged folks who attended to think long-term, to think of the impossible," says Joel Bradner, president of the Brandermill Community Association. To some, the "impossible" was a Trader Joe's or a niche grocery store and shops. But to others it was a public transportation system.
Swanson's table was one of the groups that threw out the idea of a trolley service. "Wouldn't that be convenient?" she says, adding that it would foster more of a village feel. "I used to think of it as a young mom here … how beneficial that would be for the community as well. Maybe we could reduce the amount of car accidents on the road."
Epps says several community members hope to add one-of-a-kind shopping options. "They did mention bringing in commercial users … a grocery store that is not already in the area like a Whole Foods," she says. "There was no other place they wanted to copy; there is a general sense of wanting to create a truly unique sense of place."
But like many community meetings, participants had different visions of what the neighborhood's future should be. June Rayfield has lived in Brandermill for 28 years and enjoys its beautiful, woodsy feel — a view that leads her to oppose building shops in the neighborhood.
"Brandermill is between Hull Street and Midlothian," she notes. "We don't need bright lights and shops and all. We have that outside our front gate. This is one of the nice things here; you can actually see the stars. You cannot see them in other areas. It is just a really nice setting that we'd like to protect."
Bradner says many common goals were revealed in the brainstorming process, such as improving the features that already set Brandermill apart from other communities. The Swift Creek Reservoir is a high priority to many residents, as are other natural attributes. The Rev. Gordon Mapes, senior pastor of the 1,100-member Brandermill Church, has heard his congregation discuss the importance of maintaining the walking trails and the waterfront, where the community can gather.
"We need to protect our amenities, the trees and the Swift Creek Reservoir because it is our drinking water," Rayfield says, adding that she thinks additional staff members should be added to enforce the community's covenants. "We need for people to take better care of their homes," she says. "Not all of them are in disrepair, but some of them are."
Swanson said other more simple suggestions were made, including increasing the number of paved trails and making them more wheelchair-accessible, as well as updating neighborhood signage.
To others, such as Epps, the main goal is to achieve "a unified, cohesive sense of place. No matter where you enter Brandermill — when you are in Brandermill, you need to know you are in Brandermill," she says.
Ideas from the meetings will be pooled and included in a draft of the Brandermill Master Plan, which will be presented to the community this month, Bleckley says. After more input and adjustments, the final document will be ready in late February or early March. Although the trolleys and stores will have to wait, the community association will act immediately on some "low-hanging fruit," less expensive and smaller changes, Bleckley says. Bradner adds that larger and more expensive items may wait until 2010, when the board establishes a new budget.
"The ultimate goal of the plan will be a product of the people that participate in the process. The more people that participate in the plan process, the better the plan will be," Epps says. "It is not an individual plan, it is a community plan."