Colonial Williamsburg withdraws Goodwin Square plan

Staff writer

Colonial Williamsburg will take its proposed Goodwin Square project back to the drawing board.

In a news release, the city announced the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has withdrawn its application to build a public plaza on the site of its P3 parking lot, located behind the Blue Talon Bistro in Merchants Square.

The proposal was scheduled to go before City Council at its meeting Thursday. There, the board would have considered requests for two special-use permits to allow for the demolition of the 48-spot parking lot and the construction of Goodwin Square.

CW cited public concern about the loss of parking spaces and the idea of the 12-by-19-foot video screen originally proposed for the plaza as reasons for the withdrawal. In the release, Colonial Williamsburg Vice President of Real Estate Jeff Duncan said the city’s recently enacted parking plan was also a factor.

“We decided to step back for a while to see how the city’s parking plan implementation goes before we explore again the feasibility of the pedestrian plaza,” he said. “While we remain excited about the concept of the public plaza as an attractive gathering place, we support the city’s efforts to make parking easier downtown, thereby providing a better experience for all who visit.”

The city began to implement a seven-phase plan to improve parking downtown in October, when council authorized a change to the city’s parking violation fee schedule. The strategy was informed by the findings of a study carried out by Walker Parking Consultants, an Illinois-based firm the city contracted in 2016 to find ways to modernize the city’s parking regulations.

The study identified the P3 parking lot as a high-demand lot due to its proximity to Duke of Gloucester Street and several shops and restaurants. The parking lot allows one hour of free parking, and local residents and nearby business owners have called it one of the most popular lots in Merchants Square.

“If those parking spaces had been removed now before we had a chance to review how phase one of the parking study was going, there still would have been questions about handicap parking spots and short term spots,” said council member Barbara Ramsey.

Downtown character

Goodwin Square was proposed to include outdoor seating, a children’s play fountain and room for outdoor events and festivals. Eight handicap spaces would have remained in the plaza.

“Should the foundation decide to go ahead with the project in the future, they will have to refile their request with the city’s Planning Department and start the approval process from the beginning,” said Carolyn Murphy, director of the city’s Planning Department.

City Council members said the project would have supported goals for downtown vibrancy and increased walkability detailed in the city’s recently adopted Goals, Initiatives and Outcomes document, but recognized the concerns community members had about the plaza.

“The plaza concept fits into the city’s Downtown Vibrancy Plan, but the loss of centrally located parking was a concern,” Vice-Mayor Doug Pons said in the release. “We appreciate the extra time to see how our parking plan implementation is working.”

Council member Benny Zhang said he was still weighing the positive and negative aspects of the proposal, but would have considered the parking study and the character of downtown Williamsburg before making a decision on the proposal.

“My analysis — and this is personal to me — given that this is the downtown character that we’re dealing with, I’m going to be scrutinizing the proposal more intently, just because our downtown character is perhaps one of the most significant perspectives that we need to maintain,” he said.

Council member Barbara Ramsey said she would have supported the proposal had it appeared before Council at next week’s meeting, but would not have been in favor of the video screen.

“I think the strength in it was to create a placemaking area; a place for people to gather and to extend the downtown,” she said. “I appreciate them taking the time to look at it holistically and consider the comments that were made during the presentation to Planning Commission.

“I’m glad that they are postponing to be sure that they present the best plan when it does come back again to Planning Commission and City Council,” Ramsey said.

The project appeared before Planning Commission last month, where the board approved the proposal in a 5-1 vote. Jeffrey Klee, the commission’s first vice-chair, recused himself from the discussion and abstained from voting, as he is a Colonial Williamsburg employee.

At last month’s Planning Commission meeting, board members said the loss in parking could be offset by nearby lots, and the plaza would bring more visitors downtown. Despite their support, they agreed the video wall would be a step too far.

“I’m a little surprised,” Planning Commission Second Vice-Chair Andrew Edwards said in response to the news that the application had been withdrawn. “It’s too bad. I kind of liked the idea. I suspect it’ll come back again in a revised form.”

Edwards said he agreed with the public comments against the video screen planned for the project at last month’s Planning Commission meeting, but ultimately supported the proposal

“I sympathize and I agree with the folks that came forth and said ‘I’d love to take my children here, but I get them out of the house so they don’t have to look at a screen,’ and I really resonated with that,” he said.

Design concepts for Goodwin Square were also approved by the city’s Architectural Review Board, and the Economic Development Authority granted the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation $130,348 as reimbursement for a portion of the P3 lot demolition costs.

The grant would have been given to Colonial Williamsburg once the project was completed, Economic Development Director Michele Mixner DeWitt said at the meeting.

Although plans for Goodwin Square have been scrapped for now, other changes are still on the horizon for Merchants Square and the rest of downtown Williamsburg.

The city’s comprehensive plan, which sets new land-use and zoning regulations and serves as a five-year road map for the city’s long-term goals, could allow for more housing in downtown areas, including the P6 parking lot and the Peacock Hill horse pasture — both owned by Colonial Williamsburg.

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

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