Planning Commission considers the future of city parks, downtown Williamsburg

Staff writer

The city’s neighborhoods and whether to allow more housing developments downtown were major topics of discussion at Planning Commission’s monthly comprehensive plan meeting Wednesday.

Carolyn Murphy, the city’s director of planning and codes compliance, said she was looking for the board’s guidance before city staff drafts the chapter on neighborhoods and housing in the upcoming comprehensive plan. The document will set new land use and zoning regulations and serve as five-year plan for the city’s long-term goals.

Discussions about downtown housing were spurred by recommendations for added residential density downtown in a vibrancy study commissioned by the city’s Economic Development Authority. The report suggests adding more housing in downtown areas including Colonial Williamsburg’s P6 parking lot and at Peacock Hill, the horse pasture located between Scotland, Prince George and Nassau streets.

The consulting firms that developed the study suggested converting the pasture area into a townhouse development that would retain the same name. While some Commission members suggested the area could be re-zoned to allow for residential development in the future, others said losing the green space would make the area less unique.

“The likelihood of us having another horse pasture pop up somewhere is pretty slim, so let’s hang on to what we’ve got unless there’s a really good reason to get rid of it,” said board member Greg Granger. “It’s a gem that needs to stay there, in my book.”

The board also discussed allowing development in Colonial Williamsburg’s P6 parking lot, which is at the corner of Francis and South Henry streets. The downtown vibrancy study suggests a mixed-use commercial and residential building could take its place.

“If we want to support other parts of the downtown vibrancy study, this is a parcel that needs to be in play and something that we are willing to look at,” Commission Chairwoman Elaine McBeth said. “To me, the block is in play and it allows us to see proposals as they organically develop.”

Murphy said city staff expects to return to Planning Commission with a draft of the neighborhoods and housing chapter of the new comprehensive plan in February.

Parks and Recreation master plan

More bike paths and walking trails, child-friendly splash pads and an expanded recreational center could be on the horizon for Williamsburg public parks.

At the meeting, Planning Commission heard a presentation from Art Thatcher, project consultant for GreenPlay LLC, who walked the board through the final draft of a strategic master plan for the city’s parks and recreation department. If approved by City Council, the master plan will provide a road map for the city’s parks and recreational development goals during the next 20 years.

The recommendations were developed using community input, Thatcher said, which was gathered through three focus groups, five meetings with area stakeholders and a public presentation earlier this year. The consulting firm also mailed surveys to 3,000 randomly selected Williamsburg homes and received 441 responses, along with an online survey that received 302 responses.

Across the three focus groups, Thatcher said the top priorities identified by participants include an expansion to the Quarterpath Recreation Center, the addition of play fountains to public parks and an aquatic center to be built in collaboration with the College of William and Mary.

Thatcher said the 10 parks owned by the city are well-maintained, but need to be updated and made to comply with ADA regulations.

“There is an aging infrastructure within the system,” he said. “You can get multiple experiences within the parks, so there’s opportunities for play, walking and active recreation, but there really aren’t any cutting edge recreational uses such as splash pads or destination playgrounds or activities that draw users into those facilities.”

He said other, larger-scale improvements could be made to increase the level of sports-driven tourism in Williamsburg. These improvements include the addition of a fourth softball field to Kiwanis Park, building a second gym in the Quarterpath Recreation Center and non-traditional sports facilities, such as an outdoor pickleball complex.

While the board was receptive to the recommendations, McBeth wondered if all the suggested changes are necessary, given the number of services offered at nearby James City County parks and by other local entities, such as William and Mary.

“That cross pollination is totally there, so while everything you have here sounds really fantastic, do we need all of that given that the county and the college are doing what they are doing?” she said. “It seems that this is very standalone.”

Thatcher said he expects to present a final master plan to City Council in December or January.

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

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