JUST ANNOUNCED: Jason Cale Band will be playing our Best Of event! Grab your tickets now before they are gone!

EDA revisits ideas at how to bring more housing downtown and make it more vibrant

rarriaza@vagazette.com

The city’s Economic Development Authority talked about ways to fine tune its ideas Wednesday on how best to increase housing density in the city’s downtown, and how to spend money from the city to make downtown more vibrant.

The discussion followed Monday’s City Council work session, where EDA chairman Adam Steely presented the board’s recommendations on how it will spend $150,000 this fiscal year to improve vibrancy.

As part of those plans, the board also submitted a letter to the city’s Planning Commission encouraging it to explore ways to increase housing density in the city’s downtown during its comprehensive planning process. The letter was drafted by EDA member David Trichler.

Steely said it was important to narrow the EDA’s focus to specific areas downtown that it saw as strong candidates for redevelopment. Areas earmarked for possible housing development included the Blayton Building on Scotland Street, Colonial Williamsburg’s P6 parking lot at the corner of Francis and S. Henry Streets and Peacock Hill in Colonial Williamsburg. Michele Mixner Dewitt, the city’s economic development director, said City Council has also expressed interest in adding more mixed-use and residential options around the Blayton Building.

Peacock Hill — a four-block area bounded by Lafayette, Prince George, Boundary and Nassau streets — exists as green space and could be a prime option for redevelopment, Steely said.

“It presents a great opportunity there because strategically, it’s already surrounded by other dwellings and businesses,” he said. “This is strategic, long-term thinking, but that would be a big piece of property that I think has enough space to become something unique.”

Jeffrey Klee, the EDA’s Planning Commission liason, cautioned the board against some of the potential hurdles both in the city’s zoning ordinance and a lack of support for developing Peacock Hill from some city residents.

“At the last work session for Planning Commission for housing, we got some negative feedback about redeveloping Peacock Hill; it was perceived as welcome to have some green space right in the heart of the city,” Klee said. “We ought to think about it, but don’t treat it as something that would be an easy win. I think there’s a lot more discussion that has to happen with a lot of different people before we can make a recommendation.”

EDA Vice-Chairman Rick Overy said that it’s important to note that the discussion was still in an early conceptual stage, and did not yet take city zoning restrictions into account.

“This is entirely speculative at this point,” he said. “It’s meant to convey a sense of the type of properties rather than any individual properties.”

More vibrant downtown

In it’s presentation to council on spending the $150,000, the EDA proposed putting $50,000 into a grant program to enhance existing downtown events, $60,000 for placemaking elements such as string lighting and a pop-up retail and food pavilion, and $40,000 toward staffing and legal costs for the creation of a downtown businesses association.

At Monday’s meeting, City Council members requested more information about the placemaking and downtown business association proposals, but agreed to vote on the $50,000 event-grant portion at its regular meeting Oct. 11.

Steely said Council was most hesitant about the suggestion that string lights be installed above two blocks of Prince George Street between North Henry Street and Armistead Avenue. Mayor Paul Freiling said he didn’t think installing overhead string lights on poles would be aesthetically pleasing.

As an alternative, Steely proposed placing lights on trees along the same two blocks of Prince George Street, which he said would cost less and allow the EDA to use the excess funds to purchase new planters and benches.

Steely said the goal for downtown lighting is to start on a small, two-block radius, but offer high-quality lights that could be expanded in future years. He suggested that string lights could still be installed on a temporary basis in the future, which would allow residents and city officials to get a better sense for the concept without having to keep them up permanently.

“We would have an opportunity for everybody to see what we were talking about and have a proof of concept, and find out if that aesthetic is what we want for downtown,” Steely said.

The EDA is expected to get pricing estimates for the tree lights from a contractor, and would return before City Council at its November meeting to make another request for the funds.

Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette
52°