Fredericksburg’s Small-town Fetish and Economic Inequality

Looks like something out of Norman Rockwell, doesn't it?

Looks like something out of Norman Rockwell, doesn’t it?

The city of Fredericksburg has 28,000 people and is the fastest growing municipality in the state of Virginia, and it is the hub of a region has over 300,000 people, which is also the fastest growing the state.  Nevertheless, many of the city’s residents, especially its downtown residents, insist on thinking of it as a small town.  Residents of the old part of the city might possibly be forgiven for mistaking it for a small town; it was a small town for most of its history, and the built environment and residential distribution of the downtown reflect that history.  Fredericksburg can often feel like a small town, even if the diminutive old city is really the hub of a large and growing region.  The scale of the buildings and the patterns of land usage are village-like, and the relatively minuscule downtown population (compared to the whole area) and its relative isolation from the newer regions of sprawl beyond the interstate make the social experience of downtown Fredericksburg feel decidedly intimate in a small-town way.  I get that the “small town character” of Fredericksburg is a large part of its appeal, but the overzealous commitment of downtown’s residents to preserving that “small town character” contributes significantly to Fredericksburg’s extreme income inequality.

See, that’s another thing about the city of Fredericksburg: it is a microcosm of modern America in small-city form because its population suffers from a high degree of income inequality, especially for a city of less than 30,000 people.  According to this study from the University of Wisconsin, using data from 2009-2013, the city of Fredericksburg had an income inequality ratio 5.1, mean that the household income of the 80th percentile of the city’s residents is more than five times the income of the 20th percentile.  What’s important is that this ratio is much higher than any other place in northern Virginia; no other city or county in the Virginia portion of the DC metro area has a ratio that’s higher than 4.3.  That means income inequality is 18.6% worse in Fredericksburg than the next-most unequal jurisdiction (the city of Falls Church), and approximately 25% worse than the average of Northern Virginia.  It’s also higher than Virginia’s statewide ratio, which is 4.8.  Even if it has “small town character,” the city of Fredericksburg’s income inequality ratio is more typical of a big city than small town America, which typically has a much smaller gap between rich and poor.

Chart courtesy of towncharts.com.

Chart courtesy of towncharts.com

A recent line of analysis, most prominently pursued by Matt Yglesias (both online and in print) has demonstrated an important link between income inequality, rising housing prices, and increasingly strict zoning requirements that prevent the development of new housing.  Here are a couple of great explainers, as well as a related article by Jon Chait, but the gist is this: the economy generates high-paying jobs in geographically uneven ways.  Some places have more high-paying jobs than other places, so workers naturally flock to those places.  This in-migration to economically vital regions drives housing costs up, as demand begins to outstrip supply.  In a normally functioning market, this imbalance would incentivize developers to build more housing to take advantage of the high prices, leading to increasing supply, leading to an eventual evening out of housing costs.  But in many desirable locations, established residents have crafted zoning codes that fit their interests at the expense of newcomers, which generally means preventing increased density because of fears about crowding, parking, shadows, and loss of “feel.”  These zoning policies distort the market, making it hard to add new housing and new density, which causes housing prices to spike.  This phenomenon is most obvious in big, urban economic powerhouses like New York, San Francisco, and DC, but it is evident in Fredericksburg, too.  Just check out the chart to the left.  Fredericksburg is more expensive than the US on average; its cost index is 130.5, where the national average is 100.  But look at that chart; by far the largest contributor to that high cost of living is the cost of housing, which is 184.2!!!  It’s expensive to live in Fredericksburg, and most of that expense is housing.  This high cost of housing is a direct contributor to Fredericksburg’s extreme rate of income inequality.  There are good jobs here, but poor people can’t afford to live here in order to take advantage of them, and if they do, they end up spending a disproportionate percentage of their income on housing, making them, in the evocative phrase of our generation, “house-poor.”

And here is where we return to Fredericksburg’s fetish for “small town character.”  This obsession with thinking of Fredericksburg as a small town, or more precisely, with attempting to keep it a small town, contributes directly to this high cost of housing, which contributes directly to the high cost of living, which contributes directly to Fredericksburg’s extreme degree of income inequality.  The city can’t build enough housing to keep up with demand because it has a confusing and overlapping patchwork of zoning requirements and historic designations that slow down new development and prevent increased density, meaning housing supply can’t keep up with demand.   More importantly, downtown Fredericksburg has a large and engaged population of residents committed to seeing these codes enforced (and even tightened).  The result is a gilded downtown of rich people cheek-by-jowl with poverty, with the middle class largely banished to the outlying counties.

That's potentially a lot of new housing.

That’s potentially a lot of new housing.

This tendency of Fredericksburg governance and Fredericksburg residents has been on full display in the past couple of weeks.  On November 10th, City Council put serious roadblocks in the path of two downtown residential developments that would make significant strides towards increasing downtown’s housing supply.  First, it tabled discussion of development Ed Whelan’s Mill District project, which would add 138 new housing units to downtown’s stock, on the site of abandoned industrial buildings and gas stations.  Residents in attendance at the meeting were opposed because of the project’s interference with recreation trails, but more tellingly, they were concerned about “bring[ing] too many renters” and “overwhelm[ing] existing neighborhoods.”  Both of these concerns are typical of the entrenched interests of existing residents at the expense of newcomers.  Increasing the number of renters would be a very good thing for decreasing Fredericksburg’s income inequality, and “overwhelm[ing] existing neighborhoods” precisely the kind of vague concern about “feel” that is a used to keep housing supplies low, housing costs high, and new residents out.  Apart from the recreational and environmental concerns about the development, which could be easily fixed in a goodwill negotiation with the developer, this project is unequivocally a good thing for fixing Fredericksburg’s pernicious inequality problem.

I’m not the only one who thinks so; this letter to the editor supports the project as well.  But it does so “as an alternative to further residential development in the heart of downtown that some say is destroying our small town character.”  To my mind, that’s surrendering the war in order to win the battle.  We need to get over Fredericksburg’s “small town character” if we’re going to do anything meaningful about its income inequality.

Courtesy jonproperties.com

Courtesy of jonproperties.com

A second development was derailed at the same meeting, and I’m more ambivalent about the second one.  Developer Mike Adams bought the historic National Bank Building, proposing to turn the structure into a restaurant and offices, and to build 8* 7 townhouses on the former bank’s parking lot.  The city’s Architectural Review Board approved the project by issuing a “certificate of appropriateness,” but in an unprecedented move the City Council voted to suspend that certificate, stalling the development.  It’s far from clear that City Council has the power to take this action, and indeed, the developer is suing the city, arguing essentially that City Council changed the rules in the middle of the game, denying the developer due process.  It’s unclear who is in the right, legally speaking, but City Council took this risky step as a direct result of pressure from downtown residents who thought that the development was, you guessed it, out of keeping with Fredericksburg’s “small town character.”

I’m more cautious about the National Bank project than I am about the Mill District project for a couple of reason.  First, these townhouses are going to be priced the high six figures or the low seven figures, so they aren’t going to contribute directly or immediately to lowering Fredericksburg’s housing costs.  Sure, they increase supply a bit, but such a small and expensive development isn’t going to do much about Fredericksburg’s income inequality, at least not in the short term.  Second, the development incorporates a very important historic structure, and as an historian and general old-building buff, I’m obviously highly in favor in treading very, very carefully when increasing density around such a structure.  But no one is talking about tearing down anything old; indeed, the developer appears to be promising a sensitive adaptation and reuse of the historic structure … something that is common in downtown Fredericksburg, and which contributes enormously to its appeal.  The new stuff is going to be on the parking lot, and the parking lot sure isn’t historic; indeed, big parking lots in the center of old cities like Fredericksburg are an unfortunate 20th century innovation.  So replacing the parking lot with housing isn’t going to destroy any history at all, as long as it’s done sensitively.  In fact, it’s going to repair Fredericksburg’s historic street fabric, which wouldn’t have had parking lots in it before the 1920s.  Done carefully and correctly, this project will make a small contribution to decreasing Fredericksburg’s income inequality and a small contribution to repairing the streetscape of the historic district.  I would like to see the city proceed but with caution, which can only be done in cooperation with the developer, not from the other side of a lawsuit.

The city of Fredericksburg is likely to remain Northern Virginia’s most unequal municipality for the foreseeable future, but we won’t began to even make a dent in this inequality if we don’t get over our fetish for “small town character” and realize that we are a city, with urban economic and demographic dynamics at play.

 

* thanks to Rene Rodriguez for the correction.

21 comments

  1. TOM BYRNES says:

    Absolutely brilliant. Spot on Will.

  2. Joseph White says:

    Mr Bynes steered me to your blog, and I find if very enlightening and spot on!

  3. David Beiler says:

    Don’t know if you’re a willing stooge of developers or just a dupe, but you obviously miss the central point that the F’burg region is really just an overgrown exurban bedroom for the DC metroplex and has nothing organic about it. Greater density here just means more lunacy of transportation wastefulness. Providing access and opportunity for lower strata to engage in this is hardly a favor to those who can least afford it. It is — to tailor a trendy aphorism — like handing a 16-year-old boy the keys to the car and a quart of 151.

    BTW, the Spotsylvania BoS rules today on a proposed rezoning for 2,600 more units (largely apartments and townhouses) near Massaponax. Ain’t holding my breath on those developer yes men.

    And, oh yeah, Tom Byrnes: still a lobbyist for the Silver Companies?

    • Will says:

      Hi David, I’m hardly a dupe of the developers; if you read my body of work, you’ll see that I’m pretty skeptical about capitalism generally. And I work disagree about density and Fredericksburg’s traffic woes. More people living downtown, who can commute on the train and run most of their errands on foot, means *less* traffic, not more. Especially when compared to huge sprawling developments in Spotsylvania, whose residents must drive everywhere for everything, all the time. Our traffic problems arise because not enough people live downtown.

      • Danny says:

        I disagree Will. When you add more population to any city it adds* to the traffic. There is no way you can possibly think that adding something somehow lessens something else… If you have more foot traffic, you have more pedestrians on the streets. More pedestrians on the streets means more..traffic. Assuming that if everyone just lived downtown the area’s traffic would somehow be better not only doesn’t make any logical sense, it’s asinine.

        • Will says:

          The probably with your argument, Danny, is that it assumes that pedestrians and drivers take up the same amount of space on the street. They don’t. A lot more pedestrians can use the streets of Fredericksburg without them feeling crowded. And pedestrians don’t require parking; when they into a restaurant or into their apartments, they are using zero street space, rather than *the same amount of space as when they are moving*, which is really what a parked car is. Indeed, if you took 1,000 residents who live out in the counties but who regularly come downtown (as many do) and made it possible for them to live downtown without using a car, you would see a marked *decrease* in traffic downtown, because they would no longer be driving and parking on the streets to get to their destinations.

  4. Sherry Roberts says:

    Will,
    Wow. Your article is very insightful regarding the burg. As a former resident of Caroline street I felt the area was stagnated and did not encourage businesses. I find the issue of income disparity in downtown Fredburg to be quite interesting. Why are abandoned buildings, and shuttered businesses better than positive growth? Many residents wrote letters that were published in the Free Lance Star questioning the need for the walking/bike trail. They cited the idea as a waste of money. Now it is a source of pride for the community. Good growth is needed in Fredburg.
    We felt we had to move from our beloved Caroline street to be able to provide better public education for our child. If the money is downtown then why are the schools preforming so poorly? (question for another Will blog)

    • Will says:

      I don’t know if I’ll be addressing that question, Sherry, because I don’t see much real evidence that the schools are performing poorly.

      • Sherry Roberts says:

        I saw this article after we had moved-http://wtop.com/virginia/2015/08/2015-sol-tests-best-and-worst-local-school-systems/

        Also-Walker Grant-is ranked according to SOL scoring (take that how you will) at 232nd/414 schools in VA
        James Monroe was ranked 286th/ 322
        Layfayette Upper Elementary is currently 820/1091.
        You can see the school report cards on http://www.doe.virginia.gov/statistics_reports/school_report_card/

        • Will says:

          As an educator, I am deeply skeptical that those rankings, which are based on No Child Left Behind standardized tests, tell us anything at all about “success” or “failure” of a particular school. Mostly they tell you about the socioeconomic status of the parents, and the percentage of classroom time spent teaching to the test.

  5. Rick Pullen says:

    You’re missing some major points. Fredericksburg has the highest percentage of renters of any city in Virginia. That’s a big reason for the income disparity. Not long ago, the city had more apartments than Spotsylvania.
    Look at the class sizes in the city schools. Ten years ago when my kids were in school, they started at more than 300 students in grade school and that number dropped to half of that by high school graduation. Why? Young families start out in city apartments and rental homes, and then move out of the city to find affordable housing as their families grow. So you’re mixing a lot of young families with richer, more established property owners.
    The new million dollar homes in the city are so few (fewer than two dozen) that their affect on income disparity is minimal.
    Zoning in the city started around 1979. Fredericksburg is like every other historic city when zoning came in long after the city was built out. It’s a hodgepodge. There is no way around that. That is why you have historic zones, etc. It has also driven most of the new housing to west of U.S. Route 1 in much of the area that the city annexed in the early 1980s. Part of annexation included all of Spotsylvania’s subsidized housing. That also contributed to the income disparity.
    So a lot goes into what you are talking about. And no, you are wrong about encouraging more renters. It is not the answer. The answer is more homeowners.

    • Will says:

      I certainly agree that the answer is more homeowners. Actually, the answer to income inequality is to convert renters into homeowners, not to displace renters with homeowners. And the way to get more homeowners in the city is to increase the supply of housing, with developments like the ones discussed in this post (which are both targeted at owners, not renters). Limiting the supply of housing *prevents* the growth of homeowners in the city.

  6. Kevin Brown says:

    Great article Will. Just saw it through friending Tom Byrnes. You referenced my FLS editorial. I stand by my support for smart development while maintaining a small town feel. Thanks for posting about this very important issue. Looking forward to hearing more. Kevin

  7. Miss Spence says:

    It is a very interesting point you bring up about income inequality in the downtown core of Fredericksburg. Thank you for bringing to light the growing economic disparity at the city’s core. However, I don’t think it is accurate to blame preservation zoning or to tie this inequality to the presence of historic overlays.

    In the case of the mill district proposal, I heard no complaints from the preservation community. But I did hear support. Many preservationists were pleased that in the announced intention to use historic tax credits – a great benefit of preservation zoning. In the matter of the “brownstones” behind the historic bank, those properties are not very affordable when the developer will ask $600-700k per 3800-sq. ft. dwelling. Inefficient use of available space might also be added to your list of complicated reasons behind income disparity, no?

    Historic preservation could actually relieve the income inequality by retaining and saving some of the smaller houses and older apartments we already have. And I agree with the previous comment made re: the overwhelming amount of rental properties here and the astronomical amounts landlords charge for rent of downtown spaces. In the short time that I have lived and worked here, I have noticed that wages are not in keeping with the rising cost of living here.

    Ultimately, I think it’s a shame that the historic district isn’t larger to help prevent more super-sized townhouses and million+ condos from popping up in every ounce of open space in the downtown core. Preservation isn’t the problem, but I believe it can be part of a smart (and environmentally responsible) solution.

    • Will says:

      Like I said in my original post, I think you have a good point when you argue that new housing costing more than half a million dollars isn’t a direct way to address income inequality, because in itself it isn’t affordable housing. The Mill District proposal is more obviously useful in this regard, given that the price points will be lower. But I would also reiterate the point I made in my original post, which is that an *overall* increase in supply is necessary to keep housing prices down across the board. Building more million dollars houses downtown will help prevent those millionaires from bidding up the prices of Fredericksburg’s existing, more modest housing stock, which is very useful in terms of keeping downtown housing affordable for middle class people.

      And I would sharply disagree with your point about preservation, because in no case is anyone proposing tearing down older, smaller houses in the historic district. The Mill District is being built on abandoned commercial and industrial land, and the George St. townhouses are being built one a parking lot. I am in agreement with you on the value of preservation in retaining the city’s existing modest housing stock, as well as in retaining the city’s desirable character. I would oppose new development that destroyed housing that was currently in use. These projects, however, don’t do that. They add without taking anything away.

      And you’re right that a lot of Fredericksburg’s historic housing stock is modest in size, and therefore suitable for middle class and affordable housing. The problem is, is we don’t allow for *at least some* “super-sized townhouses and million+ condos” to built, the rich people who want to live downtown will buy those modest historic houses, making them unaffordable to anyone but the rich. So as you can see, those “million+ condos” play an important role in addressing income inequality in the city of Fredericksburg.

      • Miss Spence says:

        If you haven’t noticed people actually have been demolishing historic smaller houses downtown… No, demolition is not called for in the two projects you highlighted – but I didn’t say that either. I was speaking towards a general trend, as I thought your piece was also doing – as I have watched many smaller houses disappear, in and outside of the official district, often as a result of neglect – intentional or not, doesn’t matter.

        Recent examples of lost housing stock include 401 Sophia, 1407 Caroline, three properties in the 1300 block of Charles since 2007 and, recently, a great turn-of-the-century dwelling on Winchester Street that is currently being replaced with two larger (and more costly) new dwellings… Of course, many of the new houses going up on Winchester and that end of Amelia are actually outside of the district overlay, but this is area has its own history and charming historic buildings as well.

        Also, contrary to your rebuttal, I also think that there a fair number of comfy, upper-middle and upper-class-priced condos currently available in town or soon to come on the market (the Murray School condos which sell in the 300s and up to 400s; the old hospital condos on Sophia that are around the same price; Amelia Square townhomes starting in the upper 600s up to 1m+; the new Park Place condos from developer Mike Adams – set to be in the 1m range, yes? – and Whack’s proposed Liberty/Amelia Street project, just to name a few). Then there are a number of 400k to 1m+ houses on the market regularly downtown as well… So I don’t think that sector of the market is depraved of options.

        I just don’t think its accuratet to blame Historic Preservation policies for patterns of income inequality in our community. Inherent in any historic city is a great diversity (building type, size, style, purpose/use, and ditto for its residents). Preservation policies do NOT prevent new construction or infill from taking place, but they do necessitate greater consideration and awareness of the surrounding environment. These policies can (and should continue to) keep super-sized, out-of-character development in check so that we all might (continue to) benefit from the welcoming pedestrian-scale of our historic downtown and its traditionally designed neighborhoods.

        …And perhaps its worth repeating: I heard many historic preservationists praise the new Mill District project from the outset. The developer’s plan to use historic tax credits and the conscious choice to employ an architectural design that visually breaks up the size and scale of the new construction are great things. This is a good example of what can be done to leave lasting contributions to the array of architectural forms and urban amenities here.

  8. Mike Ditka says:

    While I found your post to be well written I think that the underlying issue pertaining to income inequality in the area is due in part to the region NOT having a robust job market that pays high wages particularly in tech which seems to have been a catalyst further north on 95. A majority of the high paying tech jobs in the region (do any exist in Fredericksburg proper?) cater to the former military sect in Stafford w/ proximity to Quantico (i.e. tech jobs that require security clearances). This is a different beast than what is available closer to the beltway (Fairfax, Loudon, DC, MD) where there is a plethora of high paying tech jobs. I know that there are some things in the pipeline from a regional perspective (i.e. Lidl’s facility in Spotsylvania) but when we look at tech jobs (programmers, analysts, business analysts, project managers, etc.) if you live in Fredericksburg you will either have to commute north or south (Richmond). I think that if this sector can grow locally then it will help to adjust the income inequality gap that you had mentioned.

    Also, while I can agree that housing is expensive in the FXBG region it is still much more affordable than (Fairfax, Loudon, Prince William, etc.) overall as a native Chicagoan, I find that the price of housing in Northern Virginia is ridiculous as a whole but with that being said, when it comes to renting I get a far better value here in FXBG living in an upscale apartment community than what a comparable apt. community up north would cost (about $250-300+ less monthly).

    • Will says:

      I have no argument with your observation that Fredericksburg is still affordable compared to points farther north. The point of my post, though, is that if we want to prevent Fredericksburg from turning into Alexandria (i.e. a historic playground only available to the wealthy), we need to take steps to *keep* Fredericksburg affordable, which involves increasing the supply of housing where people want to live, including downtown.

      And again, while I agree that there may be fewer high-paying tech jobs in Fredericksburg than in northern Virginia, there are still a lot of them for a town of Fredericksburg’s size, which helps contribute to the high cost of housing, again compared to towns its size that are not called Alexandria.

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