Construction on the Midtown Row mixed-use development is underway and city boards are exploring ways to spur economic vibrancy downtown, but Williamsburg’s commercial hotspot in waiting could be a stretch of Capitol Landing Road between Merrimac Trail and Bypass Road.
The road is in the northeast corner of the city and is an entrance corridor into Williamsburg from Interstate 64 and the Colonial Parkway. That made it a popular area for tourists in past decades, according to city Economic Development Director Michele Mixner DeWitt, when it was one of only two entry points into the city along with Richmond Road.
But Capitol Landing Road’s popularity began to wane in the 1970s after interstate exits were added closer to tourist destinations such as the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center and Busch Gardens.
“Obviously, the number of cars that are going through Capitol Landing Road and that whole corridor has decreased, so my predecessors in council have developed steps over the years to revitalize that particular corridor,” said City Councilman Benny Zhang. “We believe that it still has great potential to connect to main thoroughfares like I-64 and get visitors to come to the city through another route.”
By purchasing and repurposing vacant buildings along the road and creating incentive programs for new and existing businesses, city officials hope to re-invigorate the area in coming years.
Steps toward economic development
The city started to take steps to re-invigorate the road in late 2016, when City Council designated it the Culinary Arts and Hospitality District. Council members hoped it would encourage the development of restaurants and micro-breweries along the corridor, but not much has happened in the ensuing three years.
Although Bodega Rio Bravo, a convenience store at the corner of Capitol Landing and Merrimac Trail, will relocate further down the road, DeWitt said no new restaurant or hospitality-related businesses have opened along Capitol Landing Road since the Culinary Arts District designation was enacted.
Rick Wasmund, owner of Copper Fox Distillery, said he was drawn to Capitol Landing Road as the site for his distillery’s second location because of its proximity to I-64 and the Colonial Parkway. Although his business has steadily improved each year since he first purchased the six-acre former hotel in 2015, he said the city’s Culinary Arts District designation had little to do with it.
“We work hard to drive our business, so I’m not expecting the city to do a lot,” he said. “I think that it’s important to keep taxes low and to keep things competitive, but we’re not looking for the city of Williamsburg spending to make or break our business.”
Zhang said the lack of recent developments along the corridor can be chalked up to other large-scale commercial projects such as Midtown Row that have come to the city in the intervening years.
In 2016, council also approved the creation of a Tourism Zone along the city’s Northeast triangle, which includes Capitol Landing Road. DeWitt said the Tourism Zone designation is a state program that allows localities to encourage economic growth by providing tax incentives to businesses that would help attract tourists by opening or relocating in that part of town.
“It helps spur economic growth in the area, and we’re really still laying the groundwork for prospective and existing businesses to take advantage of those uses,” Zhang said. “It’s important to consider that things don’t happen overnight.”
Mayor Paul Freiling said the Culinary Arts District and Tourism Zone designations were a first step toward revitalizing the area that the city is now ready to follow up on.
“You have to start somewhere, and we had a broader vision of what we wanted that corridor to become,” he said. “When Midtown Row really got going, it took attention from Capitol Landing Road, so it just shifts the timetable a little bit.”
The city also purchased the White Lion Hotel and the Country Hearth Inn in 2015, two Capitol Landing Road motels that have since been torn down. More recently, it bought the former DMV building and nearby shopping center at the corner of Capitol Landing and Merrimac Trail. About $300,000 is budgeted to demolish the property in the coming fiscal year.
By purchasing and demolishing the vacant properties, Freiling said the city is laying the groundwork to bring in developers with projects that are in line with the city’s vision for the Culinary District.
“We knew we had some older motel and hotel properties in the city, and these were on a corridor that we have identified as important for revitalization,” he said. “What we didn’t want to happen was someone else to buy (the property) and hold onto it for the next 10 years, and for it potentially to be underutilized.”
Streetscape redesign could help
Although the Culinary Arts District designation has led to underwhelming results so far, officials say coming streetscape redesign and roadwork projects could make a difference.
The current draft of the city’s capital improvement plan for the next fiscal year shows plans to redesign Capitol Landing Road by reducing the number of lanes from four to two with a center turn lane. The reduction would allow the city to add bike lanes, landscaping and wider sidewalks, which DeWitt hopes will improve walkability and bring more foot traffic to nearby shops and restaurants.
“When streets are wide and large, cars just want to drive through the, and they don’t see it as a destination,” she said. “Right now it’s a four lane road, but people feel like they just want to … get to I-64. We want to redesign the road to make it a place that people want to to stop and stay.”
About $4.3 million is budgeted for the work between fiscal year 2020 and 2021. Freiling said the city will seek public input for the Capitol Landing redesign in a series of meetings later this year. Residents and businesses will be invited to share their thoughts on how to make the corridor more bike and pedestrian-friendly.
Zhang said he hopes to see Capitol Landing Road become an area of the city with a vibrant restaurant and live-entertainment scene.
“What we really see is a big corridor with different restaurants, entities and live entertainment in a way that’s a little different from the rest of the city,” he said. “It’s exciting because this particular corridor, in its own sense, could be a reflection of how council is going to be envisioning the future of the city.”
Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.