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City should seize this chance for workforce housing

The proposed development for Midtown Williamsburg is a major step forward for our locality.

The shopping center, built in the 1950s, has slowly atrophied over the past decade, and the current plan will pour more than $100 million in private investment to revitalize that portion of the city. Improvements will include new roofs, new signage, new and updated buildings, additional green space and improved streetscape.

Importantly, given the abundance of presently available retail space, it will reduce — not add — the amount of retail space from 250,000 square feet to less than 130,000 square feet. The downsizing of retail space by more than 100,000 square feet is also accompanied by the developer’s efforts to retain and prioritize local business, such as Sals, by providing them with prime locations overlooking a pedestrian plaza.

Such an investment will dramatically upgrade a portion of town that has slowly been falling into neglect, and I’m thankful for the vision of the city and the developer.

But not every plan is perfect.

Yes, the colors may be too bold, but that is an easy design change. I am more concerned about proposed housing. My issue is not with the number of units. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that such mixed-space planning (retail on the bottom, residential on the top) is critical to increasing the density necessary for vibrant spaces, as well as a necessary preparation for the projected changing demographics of the city. Supporting some students is also wise, as it will drive future student growth toward midtown instead of overly taxing residential neighborhoods.

But with all these benefits, I would also like to see greater consideration in providing affordable housing.

In the latest National Citizen results survey, Williamsburg scores the lowest, by far, on Availability of Affordable Quality Housing, with only 36 percent of residents having a positive view of the city’s efforts.

In response, the city’s 2017/2018 Goals, Initiatives and Outcomes document states that one goal is to “explore increasing residential density and infill housing within the Downtown and Midtown areas to retain and attract workforce and professional talent.”

The current housing plan is focused just on students and young professionals, not families or workforce, and is a critical missed opportunity.

This is a chance for the city to look for ways to address workforce housing needs in partnering with the developer. I hope they take advantage of this once in a generation opportunity to not just revitalize the shopping center, but also to better support the workforce that will be needed to support its operations.

David Trichler


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