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Richmond’s urban sprawl threatens the environment. Taxing land may rein it in

Parking lot
Behind the Jefferson Hotel in Monroe Ward lies an entire block of surface-level parking also owned by the hotel that's valued at around $3.5 million. (Photo: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

Richmond’s urban landscape, home to about 1 million people, sprawls for over 500 sq. miles through three counties and four cities. That level of urban sprawl is nearly unique to the U.S., where average density around cities is lower than all but one peer nation.

As a result, Americans drive more per capita than any other country, according to a 2012 federal report. Even compared to Australia, where people drive the second most miles per capita, U.S. drivers log nearly 60% more miles. 

All that driving has a number of negative environmental effects. Most famously, the emission of exhaust particulates including carbon dioxide worsen the greenhouse gas effect that contributes to global warming. But, Science Museum of Virginia scientist Jeremy Hoffman says sprawl-induced driving poses risks even without gasoline-powered engines.

“By expanding outward, you are creating a higher need to drive around,” Hoffman said. “Regardless of if it’s an internal combustion engine running on gasoline or it’s an electric vehicle running on battery power, they’re still both emitting non-exhaust particulate matter.”

In fact, while a switch to electric vehicles may decrease carbon emissions, it would likely increase the emissions of non-exhaust pollution. In order to accomodate long-distance trips, EVs need large batteries that make them heavier than gas-powered vehicles, meaning wear on and the subsequent pollution from tires and brakes is made worse. 

“Even if we switched everybody over to an EV right now, we would actually potentially see a reduction in our air quality related to these non-exhaust emissions,” Hoffman said.

squares representing physical size of uranized areas

Outside of the increased need for driving, urban sprawl has greatly damaged environmental habitats throughout Central Virginia. The pockets of development that define suburban Richmond segment land that formerly housed wildlife, cutting off routes they use to move around. 

“Biodiversity loss is a huge impact of this kind of land-use change,” Hoffman said. “In fact, that can actually exacerbate problems we have with particular nuisance species like types of mice that eventually carry ticks and spread tick-borne illness.”

Essentially, urban sprawl creates forested areas large enough to support mice but not big enough to sustain foxes, their natural predator. Mice populations thrive under the scenario, meaning there are more vectors through which humans can become infected. Between 2004 and 2016, mosquito-, flea- and tick-borne illnesses tripled in the U.S.

The paved surfaces needed for the parking lots and roads required to sustain low density cause other environmental problems, too. They retain heat throughout the day and then radiate it back into the air at night, which can be seen through thermal imaging.

And they help degrade the quality and safety of the James River. When rain falls directly onto the ground, the ground, as well as the plants that live in it, absorbs some of that water, acting as a sort of filter. Paved roads, however, work like a funnel.

“These surfaces are impervious. So what does that mean? That means water can’t get through them. They’re opaque to water, and so they funnel that stormwater directly into the sewer system,” Hoffman said.

Stormwater runoff carries pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers as well as tire and brake wear, into streams that drain into the James River. And in Richmond, paved surfaces are contributing to the leakage of raw sewage into the James. 

Richmond’s sewer system handles both its waste and stormwater and is one of the oldest in the state. Hoffman says that during intense wet weather, something that’s becoming more common due to climate change, the system overflows into the river. The funnel effect is strongest near the Fan neighborhood and downtown, made worse by a proliferation of surface-level parking, originally built as people moved into surrounding areas. 

There are a number of reasons why Richmond’s population is dispersed into the deciduous forest that surrounds the city’s core: white flight following the integration of public schools, exclusionary zoning, and the American cultural identification with the automobile all play a role. But zooming in on how Richmond’s downtown area has developed under those pressures gives a clue about one way the city could address excessive parking and promote greater density. 

Monroe Ward is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and was home to some of the wealthiest Richmonders around the turn of the 20th century. When those wealthy Richmonders fled the city midcentury, urban decay set in and many structures in the formerly thriving neighborhood were destroyed, leaving in their wake empty lots that largely remain today. 

Apartment building
New apartment buildings, such as Martix Midtown picture here, have begun to pop up on some Monroe parking lots, but several blocks remain. New housing in the area tends to cater to the needs of students at nearby Virginia Commonwealth University. (Photo: Connor Scribner/VPM News)

According to a 2019 article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 25% of the neighborhood’s land was covered with surface-level parking lots. City Council voted that year to ban surface-level parking lots in the historic neighborhood, but existing lots were not required to be developed. While some lots have given way to new apartment buildings, many remain, including several blocks owned by companies belonging to William Goodwin Jr., who’s widely believed to be the wealthiest person in Richmond

Goodwin, through Riverstone Properties and Historic Hotels of Richmond, owns nearly $24 million worth of land in the city, primarily near downtown, that’s currently being used as surface-level parking. Also gobbling up a block’s worth of Monroe Ward, valued around $3 million, for surface-level parking are the Commonwealth Club, an all-male social club which didn’t accept a Black member until 1988, and Downtown Richmond Building Associates II, which purchased the block in 2005 with “plans to redevelop the property.”

Commercial surface-level parking throughout the city marked in yellow

Why has parking come to dominate some of the city’s most valuable land per square foot? 

Economists say it’s partially to do with the way we tax property. 

In Richmond, like most U.S. cities, taxes are levied against the entire value of a property,  including the value of the land as well as any developments built on it. That tax scheme discourages the building of high-value developments, like many experts say are needed to provide adequate, affordable housing, because they come with an equally high tax bill. 

On the contrary, it encourages landowners to leave lots, especially those closest to downtown where land values are highest, vacant or hardly improved. But some economists say the problem has an easy fix: if a tax on buildings discourages development, do away with it and only tax the land a property sits on. Since the supply of land is basically fixed, it can’t be restricted in response to a tax increase. 

Instead, says Massachusetts Department of Taxation economist Kiwhan Choi, the price of land falls. 

“The extension of urban area is itself not a bad thing, but if it is too much or not efficiently, that’s a problem,” Choi said. “The land value tax provides incentive to develop urban area in a more compact way… Also, it helps to reduce land value.”

In a research paper published in 2015, Choi created a computer model that simulated what would happen to an urban area based on Atlanta, Georgia if it switched to a land value tax. Based on those simulations, Choi and his coauthor wrote that a land value tax would help to decrease the price of housing and increase urban density.

Richmond has the authority to switch its tax system, thanks to a 2020 law passed by state Sen. Jennifer McClellan. And, according to Choi’s research, it would be feasible for a locality to fully replace property tax revenues with a land value tax. Localities in other states have also tried “split-rate” taxation, where the tax rate on land is higher than the rate on improvements but improvements are still taxed, something also allowed under the 2020 law.

A switch would be most beneficial for residents, especially those who live in high-density, multifamily structures, but that doesn’t mean single-family homes bear the burden. 

“Homeowners wouldn't be losers when switching to land tax from property tax. Because even if tax rate on land increases, at the same time tax on improvements (structures) will decrease,” Choi wrote in an email. 

Owners of vacant or hardly improved properties bear a far greater tax burden instead, encouraging development or sale. 

 “Landowners who have not used their land efficiently would be losers due to land value taxation,” Choi said. “Other than those, I think everyone else would be a winner in my opinion.”

The entire city bears an opportunity cost when these lots remain as parking. They could be parks, helping to absorb water and alleviate sewer overflow, multifamily housing units, improving affordability in the city, or storefronts that provide opportunities for new entrepreneurs. 

The value of downtown Richmond’s land has increased dramatically over the past 15 years. For example, the lot that lies at 401 E Cary St., which takes up the entire block for parking, has increased in value by nearly $2 million, or just under 60%, since 2006.

No one person alone can increase the value of their land; the increase is generated by all Richmonders. Yet only landowners reap the economic benefits. Taxing land may help the entire city benefit from their collective work.