Illustration by Jon Krause
The trend driving downtown Richmond’s development and, many would say, its resurgence, could be summed up with a single sentiment: Build it, and the young professionals will come.
Developers and members of the Richmond business community gathered in January for the downtown development forum at the Altria Theater. Speakers touted about 50 ongoing and recently completed projects totaling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investment in Shockoe Bottom, Manchester and Broad Street. The event, held by Venture Richmond, highlighted renovations, as well as new residential and commercial construction that’s changing the complexion of the city’s core.
“Everyone wants a downtown where people live, work, play and grow, and that’s what we’ve been seeing in the last few years,” says Lucy Meade, director of marketing and development for Venture Richmond.
In 2000, about 6,000 people lived downtown. By 2010, nearly 15,000 people resided in the area, according to census numbers. By adding the number of certificate of occupancy permits issued through 2012, the Richmond Region Planning District Commission estimates that number has risen to about 18,500. The estimate could be conservative, Meade says, because it doesn’t count the thousands of new units completed in 2013 or underway in 2014.
The influx of young professionals downtown has fueled the multifamily development boom for the past decade, says developer Brian White of Historic Housing. The firm has invested roughly $400 million to renovate or build about 2,000 apartment units in the city in the past 12 years.
In that period, historic tax credits enabled countless conversions of vacant industrial buildings and factories into lofts and flats. In turn, downtown’s nightlife, and street-level retail shops, art galleries, restaurants and startups, are seeing a resurgence.
Perhaps out of wariness of the housing market, White says, more young people in Richmond have opted for leasing long-term apartments instead of buying a house. “We’re seeing more people say, ‘I don’t want to be burdened with that.’ ”
A 2012 Federal Reserve study showed the percentage of 29- to 34-year-olds who got a first-time mortgage from 2009 to 2011 was half the rate of 10 years earlier. It fell from 17 percent to 9 percent.
White predicts the market for more upscale apartment rentals, meant to feel like condominiums, will grow in popularity if the trend continues. All signs indicate it will, he says. “To heck with the counties. I want to see more people moving downtown.”