CNUdc Interview Series: Jim Epstein
In 2012 Catherine Vanderwaart interned with CNUdc, and she interviewed several of our active members. Read about the great work they do and their thoughts about DC.
How did you get involved in your current work?
My main job is chairman of EFO Capital Management, managing assets for the family office. Management oversight includes monitoring portfolio managers, bonds, real estate, private equity, estate and tax planning. It’s given me an opportunity to see lots of different businesses, and it’s been a very valuable high-level perspective on the world.
I worked in downtown Los Angeles briefly, around 1980. My dad had been working with a group who had been involved with real estate in Washington DC. They did the restoration of the Oviatt Building at 6th and Figueroa, a classic art deco building, (with genuine Lalique glass in the lobby) and The Fine Arts Building at 7th and Figueroa, which is Romanesque revival. That’s when I got interested in architecture. Later we got involved with other office buildings and mini-warehouses.
How did you get involved in new urbanism?
One of the deals my dad did in 1978 was buying a tract of land called Clevenger’s Corner, out in Culpeper County, VA where Routes 229 and 211 meet. The county was rethinking where they wanted to concentrate development and this was the county’s primary site outside of the town of Culpeper. The Inn at Little Washington, one of a very few Michelin three-star restaurants in the US, started around that time out about 20 miles further down the road. The Inn was unique then because it developed relationships with small artisan farmers to get the ingredients they needed. They were decades ahead of our times in the local food movement.
So we had 125 acres between Warrenton and Little Washington, right in the designated growth area as defined in their Comprehensive Plan. The plan called for concentrating growth in village centers and to preserve the rural and agricultural nature of the region around those centers. It was a nice vision, but unfortunately the zoning regulations in place did not allow the achievement of either one of those goals. The commercial zoning addressed strip malls and typical suburban subdivisions allowing 1 to 5 acre lots. And since most developers follow the path of least resistance, the pattern of development in this location was most likely to follow the same strip mall and suburban model imbedded in the zoning regulations. In the early 90s I was approached by someone who wanted to buy 10 acres at the intersection for a strip mall. I said no because I did not want to see yet another strip mall marring the beautiful Piedmont landscape. At the same time I was intrigued by a place I had heard about called Seaside, Florida that had a different form of development.
I went to Florida in ’93 or ’94 and did my first New Urbanist workshop with Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. I met Bob Gibbs, Walter Kulash and many others who are now the rock stars of the New Urbanist movement. In retrospect it was an amazing group of people. I drank the Kool-Aid, and took new urbanism hook, line and sinker.
So in ’94 and ’95 I was trying to get Clevenger’s Corner rezoned, teaching everyone in Culpeper County about mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented communities, showing them their existing towns and downtowns as examples though talks and a two day charrette. The level of resistance was pretty strong especially around the idea that there would be greater density in the designated village center. We got the 10 acres at the intersection rezoned with a “village” layout, but it never got built. While some opposed any kind of development, the county is counting on having development occur in this location. My hope is that a New Urbanist village design will provide a worthy model for a different pattern of development.[if gte vml 1]><v:shapetype id="_x0000_t75" coordsize="21600,21600" o:spt="75" o:preferrelative="t" path="m@4@5l@4@11@9@11@9@5xe" filled="f" stroked="f"> <v:stroke joinstyle="miter"/> <v:formulas> <v:f eqn="if lineDrawn pixelLineWidth 0"/> <v:f eqn="sum @0 1 0"/> <v:f eqn="sum 0 0 @1"/> <v:f eqn="prod @2 1 2"/> <v:f eqn="prod @3 21600 pixelWidth"/> <v:f eqn="prod @3 21600 pixelHeight"/> <v:f eqn="sum @0 0 1"/> <v:f eqn="prod @6 1 2"/> <v:f eqn="prod @7 21600 pixelWidth"/> <v:f eqn="sum @8 21600 0"/> <v:f eqn="prod @7 21600 pixelHeight"/> <v:f eqn="sum @10 21600 0"/> </v:formulas> <v:path o:extrusionok="f" gradientshapeok="t" o:connecttype="rect"/> <o:lock v:ext="edit" aspectratio="t"/> </v:shapetype><v:shape id="Picture_x0020_3" o:spid="_x0000_i1025" type="#_x0000_t75" alt="http://www.cnudc.org/Images/interviews/Clevengers_Corner_Aerial.jpg" style='width:408pt;height:215.25pt;visibility:visible;mso-wrap-style:square'> <v:imagedata src="file:///C:\Users\OKLAK0~1\AppData\Local\Temp\msohtmlclip1\01\clip_image001.jpg" o:title="Clevengers_Corner_Aerial"/> </v:shape><![endif][if !vml][endif]
Have you worked on any other new urbanist projects?
After we put the Clevenger’s Corner project on ice, I got involved in another project called Belmont Bay in Woodbridge, Virginia, just off I-95. The county had given us a tremendous amount of flexibility, which was great. They gave us an overall density of about 10 units per acre, a wide variety of housing types to be arranged and located as we wished, and very high limits on offices and retail. As a result the market ultimately determined what got built, not zoning. We primarily built townhouses and condominiums based on New Urbanist principles. Ten years later our part of the development is pretty close to completion. It came out pretty well I think, but time will tell if the rest of the development that our firm does not control holds to New Urbanist principles.
Now I’m back to working on Clevenger’s Corner.
How did you get interested in the local food movement?
I’m a firm believer that builders committed to New Urbanist principles have to think about both the hardware and the software of the communities being created. We need to look not only at the physical arrangement for its form but also for its ability to foster human interactions, enable new ideas and new businesses to form and to create a vibrant human community. I started looking at the software side of the community I was envisioning, asking, “What’s the biggest economic driver where Clevenger’s Corner is located?” The answer was local food. The handful of farms that got their start decades ago with the Inn at Little Washington had multiplied and diversified with the growing interest and demand for local, healthy food. In about 2004 I began to envision Clevenger’s Corner, located in the heart of this artisan farm region, as the village center for this industry. The plans for the village included a family version of the Inn featuring locally grown food, containing an oversized commercial kitchen where local farmers could upgrade their produce into products and sell it in a market located next door to the restaurant. There is also significant agro-tourism in this region with Clevenger’s Corner at its hub. Inside the market I can see a large map of the area identifying the location of all the different types of farms in our food shed where people could visit wineries, pick-your-own farms and see the bison, lamb, ducks, etc. I believe there is also an opportunity to get the food grown and raised in these local farms to our city tourists through a glorified CSA or farm club based in Clevenger’s Corner. I can see farmers markets and seasonal food festivals in the village green that we purposely located at the highly visible intersection.
I also came to believe that open space preservation is also only as good as the laws passed by elected officials in that year. What will preserve the agricultural landscape in the long run is making farming economically viable and an integral part of the local economy.
How did your new venture, Blue Ridge Produce, get started?
In January 2010, I started working with Jim Slama of FamilyFarmed.org to do a feasibility study of the local food system in the Northern Virginia Piedmont Region. The study was published in August 2010. The study showed that demand for locally sourced food was off the charts. There were a number of small scale aggregators/distributors focused on the farm-to-family system of getting local food to local families and the farm-to-restaurant system getting local food to upscale restaurants, but there was no one addressing the local food system at the wholesale level where the unmet demand was greatest. On the other hand we weren’t sure about the supply side at scale. The area around Clevenger’s Corner didn’t have a lot of large scale farms big enough to work with a wholesaler, but we surmised the larger farms existed further afield.
During the feasibility study I was introduced to Willow Run, an industrial site with two large warehouses, lots of office space and 80,000 square feet of greenhouses. Shortly thereafter I met Mark Seale, a serial entrepreneur who had started and sold a green dry cleaning business and had moved on to opening Simply Fresh, a produce retail outlet in Charlottesville. He knew many of the local farmers, and he’d been dabbling on the side in produce wholesaling. At this point Mark and I realized we had all the elements to make a run at actually starting a wholesale aggregation business located at Willow Run. So after the feasibility study was completed we turned our attention to building the financial model, negotiated to buy the Willow Run property and eventually opened for business in May of 2011 when we made our first sales to Whole Foods. The whole thing has progressed at breakneck speed, but so far (knock on wood) all the pieces have fallen into place with very few glitches. It’s been challenging getting the big accounts, but we’re working with, or in negotiations with, Sysco, U.S. Foods, Aramark, Chipotle, Keany, Sweetgreen, Whole Foods and Harris Teeter, among others.
What do you think of the work being done in DC right now?
DC is an interesting place for a whole lot of reasons. Many cities grow up with distinctive neighborhoods, like Baltimore or San Francisco. DC, because of its height restrictions, spread out those neighborhoods. With the coming of the Metro, it’s been a huge opportunity to expand those distinct neighborhoods around the transportation hubs. The city has done a really credible job, and I’m very pleased. With Zipcar and Capital Bikeshare, I see the opportunities for new neighborhoods to thrive.
The city of Arlington, where I now live, is a national model for how to concentrate very high density development along transportation corridors while preserving the old neighborhoods just a few blocks away. The development and implementation of form-based codes is also a national model. As urbanists, we can be proud of what we have accomplished in this region, but we must remain ever vigilant. It is slow, but the greater public is coming around to appreciating what we stand for.