Richmond developers are looking east these days, and in a big way.
The drivers? There are big tracts of undeveloped land to the east that have been rural pretty much ever since the first colonists headed up the James River to the falls at Richmond — stretches of land that are surprisingly close to downtown and the metro area’s other big employment centers.
The main highway connection to Richmond is fast and slated to expand. And the idea that you can live in a subdivision that feels like the country has growing appeal.
Mixed-use development proposed at Bottoms Bridge in New Kent
In New Kent County, where officials have been working for years on the infrastructure needed for big growth in population, planners are reviewing nine major residential or mixed-use proposals.
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Eastern Henrico County’s Varina area has also become a hotspot for development.
But the response there has been more measured. Its residents want to maintain the county’s rural character. Varina’s rolling green hills are adjacent to the James River. It is home to a popular bike trail, affordable houses and large residential parcels, and they are all a short drive from downtown.
Its residents do not want strip malls, car dealerships and office buildings. Or, as the signs along Route 5 say: “Don’t Short Pump Varina.”
“Everybody who’s relocating to Richmond says they want to live 20 to 25 minutes away from work, but there just aren’t that many places left,” said Todd Rogers, an owner of the Rogers-Chenault Inc. development and real estate firm in Mechanicsville.
He has proposed subdividing a 237-acre stretch of woods between New Kent Highway and a stretch of wetlands at the headwaters of a tributary of Black Creek. It is land that is owned by the estate of a Sandston family, a bit up the road from Quinton, and 3 miles from the Bottoms Bridge interchange on Interstate 64.
Two major housing developments are planned for eastern Henrico. The Arcadia development will feature 750 single-family houses, town houses and condominiums near the intersection of Willson Road and Route 5. The project has received a good deal of pushback from local residents.
Dry Bridge Commons, at Dry Bridge Road and Route 60 near the airport, will have roughly 1,000 single-family homes and town houses and a Wawa convenience store. The concept received little opposition.
They are the largest developments planned for eastern Henrico in a decade, said Tyrone Nelson, a member of the county’s Board of Supervisors.
Eastern Henrico is not suddenly seeing new interest from developers, Nelson said. Developers have long wanted to build there, but county leaders have rejected those proposals because they did not meet the board’s expectations.
What makes the Arcadia development different is that some of its homes will be designated for affordable housing.
Jessica Wakelyn taught English in Shanghai, China, for four months. That was enough time for her to realize she wanted to take her husband and three kids somewhere quieter with cleaner air. They arrived in Varina in 2018.
Her house sits on an acre, but she is close enough to walk to Food Lion or bike to the elementary school. At the pool, everyone knows everyone.
“It seems like a magical shire,” Wakelyn said.
The Arcadia project risks overrunning the streets with traffic and overcrowding the schools, she said. She does not oppose all development in Varina, unlike some of her neighbors. She wants developments planned responsibly and in a way that will preserve Varina’s beauty.
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Aileen Rivera agrees. Growth is fine, as long as it is smart growth. Rivera has lived in Varina for 25 years and opposed the Arcadia project. She circulated a petition that gained about 800 signatures.
She worries the new neighborhood will have more houses than the county’s comprehensive plan calls for and will be too dense. The county said part of the development devoted to offices does not count toward the density number.
She also worries the price tag of the houses — estimated in the upper $300,000s — will be unaffordable.
“People in Varina, they want smaller homes, affordable homes. They want to be able to garden, go outdoors, go biking,” Rivera said.
The rural life
Over the county line, New Kent’s Bottoms Bridge area is becoming a busy place — and a big part of the draw is to live in a country place that has many of the features of a suburban neighborhood.
On the other side of I-64, behind the Food Lion and the recently opened Cooper’s Tavern, tucked in behind the Dunkin Donuts, are the more than 300 homes of Patriots Landing, developed by East West Communities, the Midlothian firm behind River’s Bend, Woodlake and Brandermill.
“I love it here,” said Patricia Morris, who moved in two years ago from upstate New York.
“We followed our children,” she said, pausing before walking with a friend down one of the development’s wooded walking trails.
“Everybody is so nice; there’s hiking, things to do.”
About a mile down U.S. 60 from Patriots Landing, the big homes in the Five Lakes project surround the Brookwoods Golf Course fairways.
“We’re seeing a lot more traffic,” said Tim Cockrell, Brookwoods’ head PGA professional. “I think all the golf courses are.”
Roads are busier, and new businesses are cropping up, like the restaurant and taphouse and new winery that recently moved nearby, he said.
“They wouldn’t come here if they didn’t see the possibilities,” he said.
The water and sewer utilities that service them and Patriots Landing are not the usual features in the kind of rural Virginia county New Kent was not too many years ago. The Virginia Beach developer of the Castleton homeowners association project near Henrico’s White Oak Village and the Rolling Ridge subdivision at Route 288 and U.S. 1 hopes to tap into them with its play to turn 117 acres of vacant land in New Kent County into a mixed-use, planned community of single-family houses, town houses and commercial space.
Virginia Beach-based Boyd Homes, developer of the Castleton community near White Oak Village and the Rolling Ridge subdivision, is proposing 145 town houses, with four models of between 1,500 and 2,000 square feet and 145 detached houses of between 1,400 and 3,000 square feet for Liberty Landing, according to the developer’s filings with the county planning department. The town homes are expected to sell for between $276,000 and $360,000 and the detached houses for between $395,990 and $455,990.
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In addition, the developer plans 60,000 square feet of commercial and retail space to be developed on a bit more than 16 acres of the site.
That portion of the project would include medical and general office space, with the office space likely to house insurance agencies, lawyers and financial planners, as well as stores and restaurants.
Mixed-use developments have been a fad for several years, though they can sometimes be slow to get off the ground, Virginia county officials farther down the Peninsula have noted.
New Kent’s comprehensive plan has designated the area for what it calls “village” land use — homes on smaller lots meant to provide more affordable housing, relatively small stores, professional offices and companies that provide services, such as hairstylists.
Boyd Homes will reserve nearly 31 acres as open space with bike and walking trails, a picnic area, park space and a play area, as well as a community clubhouse and pool. An additional nearly 32 acres of wetlands and open land would remain undeveloped.
When completed, the project is expected to generate some $19.9 million in additional revenue for the county over the next decade, while services to it would cost New Kent a bit more than $5 million.
And the Terry-Patterson Companies of Virginia Beach hope to slot in a 12-building, 216-unit multifamily project, with clubhouse and pool, between the northwestern end of Patriots Landing and the ramp onto I-64 East.
Land prices and affordability
Jackie Denny, who moved to New Kent six years ago when she wanted to stop renting, said land and land prices in the largely rural county were a big attraction.
“It is sort of country, but it is growing,” she said. “I guess it means we’ll get more stores and restaurants.”
When she and her husband decided to build a house, land prices made the decision to head east an easy call.
“The same house in Henrico would cost $30,000 more,” she said.
Low land costs mean developers can build and offer homes for a bit less, said Rogers, the developer from Rogers-Chenault Inc. in Mechanicsville.
“Homes are very expensive in Hanover; the (comprehensive plan, the county’s long-term land use, transportation and utilities plan) limits development to 20% of the county,” Rogers said. He referred to the plan’s designation of 22% of the county’s area as its suburban service area, where it expects 70% of future development to occur. The suburban areas are meant for single-family homes on 1/3- to 2/3-acre plots.
For Hanover, maintaining a rural feel is a key goal of the pending revision of the long-term plan, which looks to tackle the challenge of affordable housing by allowing accessory dwelling units and focusing on age-restricted housing and mixed-income senior housing projects.
In New Kent, in addition to lower-cost land, “the county is very pro-growth,” Rogers said. “They’ve been planning for growth for years.”
New Kent just opened its third elementary school last year; it has added a new fire station recently.
“I think one example is Buc-ee’s,” Rogers said. The Texas-based convenience store chain, which has developed a cult-like following since its 1982 founding, plans to open its first Virginia location — a 74,000-square-foot store with 120 fueling positions, 557 parking spaces, 24 Tesla charging spaces and 10 bus/RV parking spaces — off I-64 at Exit 211.
“But they’re going to open in 2027, when improvements to the interchange are done,” in response to the county’s efforts, he said.
Still farther east
Meanwhile, bulldozers are clearing ground and work crews are staging big concrete pipes at Exit 211 for an 800,000-square-foot, $185 million distribution center for AutoZone, which the national auto parts firm said will be its largest. It will employ about 350 people. Food Lion recently built a supermarket at the intersection of New Kent Highway, Route 249 and Airport Road, between two large proposed subdivisions and closer to a node of existing and planned subdivisions than its Bottoms Bridge store.
Part of what makes that happen is that North Carolina-based developer David Guy and his GS Companies set aside for improvements at Exit 211 some 14 acres from their Farms of New Kent planned unit development on the other side of I-64 from AutoZone.
GS, which developed the 4,600-acre Stonehouse mixed-use community in Williamsburg, is seeking to subdivide two more sections on a 1,156-acre tract where it planned to eventually have 300 houses and 100 resort cottages anchored by a golf course, vineyard and winery.
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The firm is also getting set to start on a fifth section on some 606 acres, where it eventually plans to have 1,450 homes. It has an additional 340 acres for single-family homes and vineyards. Yet another 340-acre tract is slated for offices and stores as well as 270 homes, and 78 acres are proposed for a village to include about 200 homes, plus a commercial area of no more than 150,000 square feet.
Sandston developer Mathew Starr is looking to subdivide two tracts, totaling 468 acres, near the Bottoms Bridge exit into 238 lots. One is right on U.S. 60, about 2 miles east of Five Lakes; the other is a couple of miles up Old Roxbury and Airport roads.
Two exits to the east, off Courthouse Road, Starr plans to subdivide an additional 176-acre tract into 92 lots.
Those lots will be across Courthouse Road from the 2-decade-old Brickshire golf course development, which lies behind Colonial Downs. It brought a big new chunk of tax money to the county and is now home to 900 families. Northern Virginia developer Kentland Investments wants to subdivide a 1,612-acre tract to the south of Brickshire into 200 lots.
Growth means new demands on public services — that third school and new firehouse in New Kent cost money.
“My taxes went up 28%; how do you think I feel about growth?” said Patricia Ankrom, who moved to New Kent 40 years ago to open a horse farm.
Even with new stores and restaurants and the VCU Health System’s emergency center at Bottoms Bridge, Ankrom still needs to make trips into Richmond. Meanwhile, people in the still largely undeveloped eastern regions of the county see little benefit and still need to travel to Williamsburg or Newport News for shopping and health care.
“The development is all bunched up here,” she said, taking a break from the New Kent Quilters session at the Quinton Community Center. “This is where the water and sewer is.”