Urban Development Projects: Can We Trust Their Promises?

By Caroline Packard – Energy Data Manager

Sustainable Investment Group (SIG)

photo of a urban development plan sketchAs cities grow and the urgency for sustainability and climate action escalates, the true cost of large-scale urban development projects becomes a pressing question. Are these ambitious endeavors enhancing our cities in harmony with environmental and community needs, or are they jeopardizing our collective future? Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to examine the impacts of such developments.

This blog will focus on the proposed Richmond Grand Casino & Resort and the GreenCity initiative. By examining the casino’s potential impact versus the eco-friendly aspirations of GreenCity, I seek to highlight the importance of investing in sustainability and green building. This comparison not only sheds light on the divergent paths urban development can take but also emphasizes the need for projects that prioritize both the health of our planet and the prosperity of our communities.

What’s beneath the surface of expansive city development projects?

As a Richmond, VA resident, I was surprised by the aggressive campaign towards developing the Richmond Grand Casino & Resort in the south side of the city. Signs lined the roads for months, canvassers made three too many rounds through my neighborhood; all leading up to a multi-district-wide vote last November. Learning that this was the second attempt at establishing the casino – after the first vote was rejected – tremendously piqued my interest.

Supporters of the 250-room hotel, a 55-acre park, and $30 million development voted in favor of the 1,300 permanent jobs that were promised, offering opportunities to the city’s middle and lower-class communities. It would also provide revenue and entertainment to the surrounding area, as Richmond’s population is quickly outgrowing its downtown music and theater venues.

Those in opposition argued that South Richmond – consisting predominantly of lower-class, Black residents – would be exploited by this massive development; and the city is better off promoting locally based developments and community organizations.

While researching the casino project, I decided to take a closer look at the site chosen for the multi-acre buildout. At first, I was glad to see that the casino would overtake the location of Philip Morris’s Marlboro Manufacturing Center, a 150-acre operations center for the largest cigarette-producing facility in the world. In their heyday, the manufacturing center had a capacity of 140 billion cigarettes per year, and offered guided tours (free pack of smokes included) to visitors. Widely known to Richmonders, this factory was once defined as a risk to human health and the environment by the EPA and has been involved in multiple pollution lawsuits since its opening in 1973.

Initially, I viewed this as a great opportunity for brownfield remission prior to the casino’s construction in this area. Brownfields are defined as previously developed urban sites that are perceived as contaminated and are preferable for new construction versus undeveloped greenfields. As I looked closer, however, I found the following statement on the Greater Greater Washington Website:

“Renderings of the proposal largely cut out the industrial uses that surround the site. Neighbors include a chemical factory, the Phillip Morris factory, and various coal & gas-fired power plants. Nearby runs a ‘hazardous liquid pipeline’ — perhaps the reason why the proposed parcel for the casino is also in the 90-95th percentile for proximity to hazardous waste, according to the EPA.”

It seemed as though – while quietly promoting the project’s feasibility and sustainability – the casino developers not only glossed over the site’s toxic history, but also failed to consider the effects on the surrounding community. It worried me that this oversight would continue to encourage environmental discrimination in the area, as clean-up was never prioritized in these South Richmond communities and would only be covered up by the casino. I was determined to vote “no casino” based on this missed opportunity for brownfield remission and the hypocrisy of the developers to promise low-income employment while risking workers’ health just by clocking in.

The casino was rejected once again, with 58% of voters deciding against it.

What’s the better way?

I wanted to see if any other brownfield construction projects were happening around the city, and if those projects were any better than the proposed casino..

Twelve minutes north of downtown, GreenCity – an “eco-district” development that has only been in the works since 2023 – will include office space, retail shops, over 2,000 housing units, two hotels, and a 17,000-seat arena with extensive park space. I love to see the promotion and implementation of mixed-use green neighborhoods nearby!

The Green City project is set to transform the site of BEST Products Plaza and Scott Farm into a vibrant, sustainable development. BEST Products Plaza, previously the headquarters for BEST Products, encompasses an area featuring 305,000 square feet of office space, expansive surface parking lots, and recreational facilities. The site also includes significant stretches of undisturbed, wooded areas that contribute to its potential for an eco-friendly redevelopment.

Adjacent to this, Scott Farm presents a mix of agricultural, residential, and wooded lands, offering a diverse landscape for the project. Unlike the Philip Morris site, chosen for the casino development and burdened by its environmental controversies, both BEST Plaza and Scott Farm are not publicly recognized for having troubled environmental pasts. The Green City project benefits from the relatively unblemished environmental records of BEST Plaza and Scott Farm, offering a stark contrast to the complex issues associated with the Philip Morris site and setting a solid foundation for eco-friendly redevelopment.

GreenCity’s approach, with its focus on eco-friendly practices and adaptive reuse, sets a compelling example of how cities can evolve sustainably, sparking curiosity about what other projects could follow its lead.

What should we look for in a project?

Successful brownfield redevelopment hinges on several critical strategies:

Tactic 1: Site Assessment

Conducting a comprehensive site assessment should be one of the first steps for any new development. This foundational step enables developers to identify and mitigate potential environmental hazards early in the process.

Tactic 2: Remediation Strategies

The site assessment paves the way for step two, devising effective remediation strategies. This part ensures the site’s safety for any future occupants. Engaging the community at this point can be extremely beneficial. Transparency about remediation efforts not only fosters trust but can also bolster public support. For a project like the casino, this may have been the difference between winning and losing the vote.

Tactic 3: Commitment to Sustainability

Lastly, a steadfast commitment to sustainability — through energy-efficient practices, responsible landscaping, and purchasing eco-friendly materials — during and after construction maintains the site’s environmental integrity for years to come. Here, GreenCity stands as a prime example, particularly in its adaptive reuse of an existing structure, which highlights a significant reduction in the carbon footprint compared to new construction.

I hope to see this type of thinking with new projects all around the city, especially in low-income areas. It can be refreshing to remind ourselves that investing in sustainability and green building just makes sense for our physical and community health!



Voters Reject Casino Development Plan

Richmond Grand Resort and Casino: Developers ask Richmond voters for a second chance, promising new jobs and tax revenue (wtvr.com)

Must-See RVA! — Philip Morris Manufacturing Center – RVAHub

Grand Resort or truck stop casino: What land use tells us about Richmond’s gambling referendum – Greater Greater Washington (ggwash.org)

Henrico green-lights $2.3B GreenCity project – Virgi nia Business


Caroline P headshot | SIGCaroline Packard is a dedicated Energy Data Manager within the Energy Star Department at Sustainable Investment Group (SIG), specializing in the intricacies of ENERGY STAR certification across a broad spectrum of properties. With a robust background in biosystems engineering from Clemson University, emphasizing ecological processes and sustainability, Caroline merges technical expertise with a deep commitment to environmental stewardship. Her career at SIG, evolving from an intern to a pivotal role in streamlining certification processes, highlights her ability to foster innovation and efficiency within green building scopes. Reach out to Caroline here.


Richmond, VA


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