A flight to walkability and Richmond
Photo by Nicholas Upton
In times of confusion or upheaval, investors recommend flights to quality—financial moves that tend to have less upside, but are safer and more predictable. Boiled down even further, it’s the difference between classic and trendy. For retailers rightly scared by this ongoing retail apocalypse, allow me to offer a timeworn salve: compact, walkable downtowns.
With ominous retail news as a literal backdrop on the airport TVs as I flew to Richmond, Virginia, I came to spend a few days in an old-school city that has found itself suddenly landing on “best of” lists from coast to coast. From everything I read in advance—breweries, distilleries, killer Southern cuisine and scads of old buildings converted to new uses—I was unusually excited to get into town.
I had the good fortune of staying in what has to be the coolest hotel in town, The Quirk, just outside the central business district on Broad Street, one of Richmond’s main drags.
From this urbanist’s eyes, it was one of the most promising neighborhoods I’ve seen in ages—and the opportunities for franchised businesses are seemingly endless.
Just outside the front door of my gorgeous hundred-year-old hotel that used to be a dry goods store, Broad Street is a the perfect real estate case study for neighborhoods on the rise: close proximity to the heart of downtown and nearby Virginia Commonwealth University campus, historic sites and cultural attractions within walking distance, little galleries and cobblestone alleys that drew me down several new paths, and notable bars and restaurants in every direction.
Broad Street isn’t perfect and it’s nowhere near fully developed, which is what makes it so interesting from a business perspective. Extending northwest from downtown near the Fan District and toward the Carytown and Scott’s Addition neighborhoods, the corridor has a ton of vacant storefronts. They are not numerous enough to make the area feel downtrodden, but the ideal amount to envision how dramatic this street will feel when it’s fully transformed. Your brand could have a slice of the pie.
The aforementioned transformation is coming fast. As this issue goes to press, the new Pulse bus rapid transit line is opening as part of a citywide overhaul of its entire bus network. Signs all over town announce new bus stops coming soon, part of an effort to connect new student housing, a booming downtown, and all the neighborhoods along the way that are attracting young professionals priced out of D.C., New York or Philly. By housing costs alone, a salary (or two) stretches much farther in the former capital of the Confederacy.
Richmond City Hall towers over a downtown that’s quickly redeveloping with history everywhere you turn.
Between art galleries, chef-driven restaurants, movie theaters, coffee shops and countless local retailers, it’s easy to picture the addition of child- and pet-focused franchises catering to this city’s new residents, as well as fast-casual food options and home renovation-focused franchises that could make a mint with all the remodeling happening down every side street.
After a few days of aggressive pedestrianism, I discovered Richmond’s original happening district is Carytown, a uniquely urban retail neighborhood that evokes New Orleans.
Think old storefronts, eclectic architecture, random street art and buildings butting right up against their neighbors. This is compact walkability at its best, but city development officials tell me West Elm is coming soon—meaning Carytown, with no vacancies to speak of, is transitioning to a higher end neighborhood that will naturally push independents into other parts of town.
I couldn’t and didn’t resist the urge to post my entire trip on Instagram. The more I explored, the more I felt an almost frantic drive to see everything I could in my three days in this fascinating city. I skulked my way around downtown and the gorgeous Virginia State Capitol that Thomas Jefferson based on the Maison Carrée Roman temple in France. In the car, I drove the length of Monument Avenue and pondered what should be done about all the Confederate monuments that—removing their bloody context—give the city a unique vibe.
Between interviews and meals, I also visited the Virginia Museum of History & Culture whose collections contain fascinating artifacts from America’s earliest days, as well as its most wrenching lows—some still being written.
Good and bad, that history is everywhere you look in Richmond, from plaques on the walls of notable buildings to placards on sidewalks marking who died, was born or lived right in this very spot. Truly everywhere I went had something to see, and this city’s compact layout, grand boulevards and colonial architecture are more in style than ever—classic, never trendy.
Pilgrimage to city hall
Fully worked up and looking for some business context, I walked over to city hall just down Broad Street. I met with Maritza Pechin, Lucy Meade and Justine Mulholland, each part of the city’s economic and community development arms, and happy to share the good news happening on all fronts.
With Google Maps and Pechin’s office windows as our guide, they pointed out the opportunities and challenges in a city that’s being reborn at a breakneck speed. Houses are selling in a frenetic flash, once-grand retail corridors are being renewed with hipster this and artisan that, and Richmond is quickly on track to regain its status as a major American destination.
Compared to New Orleans, Richmond has fewer historic restrictions, but my gracious city hosts underscored that franchisors and franchisees would likely need to be open to adapting their templates to new mixed-use buildings or historically protected older buildings that tend to be smaller than suburban power centers can offer.
I asked about the glassy office towers rising near the James River, and Meade said several major employers including Capital One and CarMax have recently committed to bringing hundreds of new high paying jobs to town. Those fat paychecks, they confirmed, will be putting newfound pressure on the Broad Street corridor, Old Town Manchester and Church Hill, where Patrick Henry famously exclaimed, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” 240 years ago.
Before setting me loose with a few final recommendations before my flight back home, they brought me up to a 360-degree observation deck on city hall’s 18th floor. It’s free, open to the public and affords an incredible view of the river, hills, downtown and far west end where Broad Street and its shiny new bus line stretch toward the horizon.
You can’t visit Richmond and avoid being taken aback by its history, our collective history. Nobody’s predicting the suburbs will empty en masse once malls start closing, but there are countless reasons old cities are flocked to and revered. There’s something much bigger than available vacancies and hip, walkable neighborhoods in the best old cities.
If your brand is looking to move or diversify beyond the suburbs, most of which are in for a rocky few years, there’s no better place to look than downtown. For your investment’s sake, make it a nice old one—and don’t forget to take some pictures.
Tom Kaiser, pictured on opposite page, is senior editor of Franchise Times and writes about urban tales in franchising in each issue. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org