The BizSense Crystal Ball: Things to watch in 2021

An aerial rendering of the proposed $2.3 billion GreenCity development. (Courtesy of GreenCity LLC)

It’s time again for BizSense to dust off the ol’ crystal ball and peer ahead to ponder what’s to come for the Richmond business scene over the next 12 months.

These are big picture, yet hyper-local items that have regional repercussions. We’ll let others try to predict the broader unknowns, such as when the COVID vaccine might allow life in and around Richmond to return to some semblance of normal.

Fair warning, we’re not clairvoyants — you’ll notice there was no mention of a pandemic when we published our list of things to watch last year.

Here we go:

So long Navy Hill, hello GreenCity

The $2.3 billion arena-anchored GreenCity development is proposed to span 200 acres at the former Best Products site in Henrico County, an alternative to the ill-fated Navy Hill proposal in the city. While county supervisors and administrators embraced the project with an announcement in December, it remains to be seen how the plan will be received by the general public, particularly county residents with homes nearby.

Next steps include the purchase of a 110-acre assemblage known as Scott Farm, owned by Bill Goodwin’s Riverstone Properties, as well as transferring the county-owned Best site to the Henrico Economic Development Authority in late January. Rezoning applications would be filed around then, kicking off a three-year process to assemble and prep the land. Initial development would start in that time, with the arena planned to open in 2025.

(Correction: The developer, GreenCity LLC, would purchase the Scott Farm land, not Henrico County as was initially misstated here.)

A rendering of the proposed Southside casino complex. (Courtesy of Pamunkey Indian Tribe)

The odds on a casino

An RFP for a resort and casino development was issued by the city just prior to the end of 2020. Interested parties are now on the clock to submit proposals and locations, ahead of a planned voter referendum in November.

The would-be casino license is already being coveted by at least two groups. The Pamunkey Indian Tribe already publicly announced its desire to build a casino and resort on the Southside, while a mystery out-of-town buyer may be eyeing one for Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Expect more competitors to join the race as the RFP plays out.

Seeing as the City Council and many residents couldn’t get behind a big idea like Navy Hill, it’s worth watching whether they will support a casino within city limits.

A map of the proposed redevelopment by VCU.

Baseball and Arthur Ashe Boulevard

The topic of baseball has been on this list in previous years, but never has the prospect of a new stadium to replace the Diamond had more tailwinds behind it than now. All signs point to a new ballpark spearheaded by VCU and embedded within its efforts to create an athletics village around Arthur Ashe Boulevard and Hermitage Road. The university still has some land left to acquire and ABC must move out of its Hermitage HQ before any noticeable change can occur.

But should those pieces all fall into place, it could finally unlock the development potential of the 60 acres the city owns along Arthur Ashe around the Diamond.  Word on the street is that the city expects to issue an RFP for that assemblage early in 2021.

The shuttered Richmond Coliseum has attracted more homeless encampments. (Jonathan Spiers photo)

What about the Coliseum?

With GreenCity in play, the future of the shuttered Richmond Coliseum and other city-owned land beside it is put in a new light. If GreenCity gets a green light, city administrators have said they would not fight to keep a regional arena in Richmond, and that would leave one less option for invigorating development of that part of downtown.

A Coliseum-specific small area plan remains in the works, with additional community meetings to be held in coming months. The city is aiming to complete the plan after the holidays, with potential adoption in the spring as an amendment to the recently adopted Richmond 300 plan.

The so-called Coliseum Area Framework Plan would inform a formal request for development proposals that could also go forward in 2021.

Much ado about malls

Malls have been on this list each year for several years now, an indication of the slow but steady evolution (some may say demise) of Richmond’s legacy retail centers.

Perhaps the most interesting one to watch in 2021 will be the fate of Stony Point Fashion Park. The Southside mall already was losing tenants and shopper traffic prior to the pandemic. Those downward trends can’t have improved since March, leaving questions aplenty. Can Stony Point be turned around or reinvented in some way? Will open-air malls find renewed interest in the wake of the pandemic? Will Stony Point as we know it be converted into something entirely different?

While Short Pump Town Center remains the region’s most stable and popular mall, the loss of Nordstrom in 2020 was a blow to the Henrico shopping center. Its owners said at the time of Nordstrom’s departure that they had some interesting alternatives in mind. We’ll have to wait to see if any of those bear fruit this year.

Over at Regency Square, Thalhimer and Rebkee have the old mall well on its way to a new life as a modernized mixed-use development. But there’s still plenty of space there left to be transformed, including the JCPenney building and the other empty spots in the mall’s interior.

Like Regency, Virginia Center Commons is headed in a new direction at the hands of Rebkee, Shamin Hotels and Henrico County. Work on that property should get going in earnest this year, although the pandemic is a wild card for a project that involves a convocation center and major concentration of retail space.

The entrance of Carytown Exchange. The land in the background is where the development’s Cary Street-facing storefronts will rise. (BizSense file)

Carytown evolving

Staying on the topic of retail, the massive Carytown Exchange development is already changing the look of the western edge of its namesake neighborhood. That comes in the midst of shifting retail trends and a pandemic that caused other tenants to exit Carytown in 2020. BizSense readers have expressed their concerns about the district retaining its character and charm. What else might look different there a year from now?

Green Leaf Medical’s medical cannabis production and dispensary facility at 2804 Decatur St. (Courtesy of Green Leaf)

Cannabis industry blossoms

Rarely to do we get to witness the birth of an entirely new industry (at least the legal version of it). But that’s what we’re in the midst of with legalized medical cannabis here in Virginia. Richmond now has its first massive grow operation on the Southside and related retail dispensaries are in the works. Taking it a step further, Gov. Ralph Northam has indicated his desire to expand legalization for recreational use. If that passes, only the regulatory framework of such a sea change will show us how much of a green rush we can expect.

Evictions

The economic damage from the pandemic is well documented, but it’s the damage that hasn’t occurred yet in the form of deferred evictions that hovers overhead like a storm cloud. Commercial and residential landlords and others higher up the food chain have shown (and in some cases been forced to show) incredible restraint and patience in not evicting tenants that defaulted on their leases during the pandemic. If the virus lingers, can that patience continue? If landlords ultimately say some must go, is the economy strong enough to backfill those spaces?

Restaurants

Richmond has lost dozens of restaurants during the pandemic. At least two questions come to mind: Did social distancing cause a culling that thinned out an overly crowded flock for good? Or will some restaurateurs who bowed out since March look to make a comeback when things reopen?

The future of office space

The future of whether and when Richmond employers choose to bring their full workforces back to their offices could have ripple effects from downtown and into the suburbs. The unknown will linger until companies feel they can safely make the call and whether they see cost savings and efficiencies and other benefits in letting some work from home permanently. Their decisions could affect big blocks of office space and the nearby retail that’s typically supported by daily office workers.

CoStar is buying the downtown Richmond office building it shares with WestRock. (BizSense file)

When will downtown regain its mojo?

Pockets of downtown Richmond have been a relative ghost town since the COVID shutdown began, and turned more desolate in the wake of the protests and related vandalism this summer. The lingering pandemic isn’t helping. While it makes parking easier, something still feels off. Even Venture Richmond has been running an ad campaign trying to remind folks that downtown is open for business. There’s no doubt the liveliness will come back when VCU and downtown offices return full force to in-person activities. But it’s the “when” that remains the big unknown.

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Michael Dodson
Michael Dodson
14 days ago

Great article. Carytown picture though could have been from the other side (or from the entrance sign looking west) as Carytown Exchange has started building the storefronts along Cary Street. And building the retail shells very, very fast. It is nice to see them going up. PS the return of all downtown office works that would be a never; like retail habits, working habits have changed.

Bruce Milam
Bruce Milam
13 days ago
Reply to  Michael Dodson

There has been a flurry of activity in the downtown office towers recently with the relocation of D.C. and NYC firms scoping the City for space at much lower rates. Richmond is going to have a net positive overall when this pandemic shakes out.

charles Frankenhoff
charles Frankenhoff
12 days ago
Reply to  Bruce Milam

are we that much on DC and NYC (especially) radar now? I know you are in a position to know, and I’ve been curious when that would happen, we are still very cheap comparatively

Chris Crews
Chris Crews
14 days ago

FWIW, the last decade has been pretty kind to Willow Lawn, and the landlord, Federal Realty, has done a ton of work to keep it vibrant, both pre- and post-pandemic. I think one ingredient to the success was incorporation of events and attractions other than a wall of storefronts.

Eric Bader
Eric Bader
13 days ago

Stony Point has so much potential though. I like what they’ve done in recent years with their landscaping.
I think they would do well to go further with their outdoor spaces and unused parking spaces to make it a more appealing place to shop in.

JORDAN TUCKER
JORDAN TUCKER
6 days ago

I could care less if downtown ever regains it’s “mojo”. It never will for me, and I have not spent a dime in the city limits since May. Then you re-elect Stoney???
Wow. The residents of the city have not learned much over the last 40 something years.