Businesses give Goodwin Square proposal a mixed reaction

Staff writer

Downtown Williamsburg visitors may have been surprised to see a 12-by-19 foot video screen set up in the middle of Colonial Williamsburg’s P3 parking lot as they strolled among the shops in Merchants Square Thursday afternoon.

The LED display was set up as a demonstration of one of the many changes that could soon come to the lot behind the Blue Talon Bistro. Colonial Williamsburg has asked the city for permission to demolish the 48-spot parking lot and build a new pedestrian plaza — Goodwin Square — in its place.

The plaza would include a play fountain for children, outdoor seating and a 12-by-19 foot video screen. Jeff Duncan, Colonial Williamsburg’s vice president of real estate, said it would be installed between the Shoesters building and the building that houses Williamsburg At Home and Morgan Stanley.

At the demonstration — on site just for the day — the video wall cycled between a baseball game and promotional videos for Merchants Square and Colonial Williamsburg. At an Architectural Review Board meeting earlier this month, Duncan said the video display would be accompanied by speakers set up around the plaza, and would be a place where Merchants Square visitors could gather to watch movies, sports and other events.

“The plan is, when Merchants Square is open for business, this (video wall) would be running all day,” Duncan said at the meeting.

Business reaction

The pedestrian plaza is planned to go in at the site of the P3 parking lot, which has vehicle entrances off North Henry and North Boundary streets and is surrounded by shops and restaurants including Blue Talon Bistro, Ocean Palm and Blackbird Bakery. Colonial Williamsburg would keep eight parking spots in the plaza if the plan is approved, Duncan said. The majority of those would be handicapped parking spots.

Duncan said construction on the project could begin as early as January 2019, if approved by City Council, and would take about four months to complete.

Although the plans could add a modern gathering space in the middle of Merchants Square, some store owners and managers near the lot have mixed feelings about it. Some said they were happy to see Colonial Williamsburg turn the lot into a gathering place for shoppers, while others said they were concerned about the loss of parking.

“We’re looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a positive thing for the city,” said Ralph Youngs, owner of the Merchants Square Baskin-Robbins store.

Ashley Jones, manager of Ocean Palm clothing store on West Duke of Gloucester Street, said the plaza could bring more shoppers to the group of stores tucked away from Duke of Gloucester Street, but that the loss of parking spots would be a drawback.

“I think that a lot of people will now not want to come down just because of the parking situation, which is going to hurt us,” she said. “If there are going to be events in the courtyard, I think that could bring people in and make them realize that there’s more shops down here.”

Jones said she disagrees with the idea to install a video wall in the plaza, and would rather see Colonial Williamsburg put in a loop for cars around Goodwin Square for customers to easily pick up or drop off items at stores.

“We already do that right there on Prince George, we show movies every other Sunday, so why move? I think it’s kind of cute how you have the road and it’s blocked off,” she said. “At this point, Williamsburg is going to do what they want to do, and you just have to start thinking out of the box with how to get people to come to your store. I know it will affect a lot of customers for us.”

Diane Burden, manager of French Twist, said the addition of more outdoor events and festivals near the shops would bolster business.

“I think they’re going to make it more festive back here, and I will say that it’s helped our business when they have events like the Jazz Festival and the art shows going on,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know that we’re back here, we feel like we’re off the beaten path a little bit, so I think that if anything, to bring more traffic back here would help.”

She said the loss of 40 parking spots could be detrimental to older Merchants Square shoppers who are used to parking in the lot, but that most cars who utilize the lot belong to employees of nearby stores.

“They’re complaining because they’re getting rid of the parking, but the parking isn’t being used by customers,” she said. “Every time we park there, it’s taking away from the customers that are coming to shop in your shop.”

Duncan said the addition of a car loop would create a safety hazard and that the goal of the project is to pull pedestrians away from the popular Duke of Gloucester Street and toward shops closer to Prince George Street.

“Today it’s just this parking lot, but when we’re done with it, it could be pretty attractive,” he said.

Next steps

Plans for the proposed Goodwin Square will now go before the Planning Commission for a public hearing on Nov. 14 and would be presented to City Council for final approval in December.

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

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