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With the market for motel-style rooms dwindling and the need for affordable housing options growing, hotelier Doug Pons saw an opportunity to address two problems at once.
Pons has transformed about half of the rooms at Quarterpath Inn on York Street into studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments, all with a price point between $725 and $1,125 per month – a rent range officials say the city needs more of within its borders as an option for the area's hospitality workers, college students and young professionals.
The Flats of Williamsburg, with its 47 apartment units, main office, laundry room and auxiliary room, celebrated its grand opening and ribbon-cutting Friday with the support of City Council members and other community leaders, including Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance President and CEO Karen Riordan and Williamsburg Mayor Clyde Haulman.
"This is an experiment. Doug and his family deserve a lot of credit for going out on a limb for this. ... The need for affordable housing is almost overwhelming," Haulman said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. "I can't thank [Doug and his family] enough for taking the risk and doing this. I know it's going to be a success because we know the demand for this type of housing."
Pons, who also serves on City Council, said he knew his business needed to adjust to a market that no longer favored his type of motel. To him, using the space for apartments was the next logical step for the motel.
"The exterior-style, outdoor pool, unlimited breakfast type of offering is no longer what the tourist is looking for. I needed to do something," Pons said. "If you own a square building, you can make it a restaurant or a daycare or countless other options. There's not much you can do with this layout except have people sleep in it in some form."
To tear down and rebuild the property would take the resulting apartment units out of the affordable range, Pons said.
Concerned over the potential loss of property, city staff initially recommended against his special use permit request to convert the hotel rooms. City Council delayed its vote on the matter, directing city staff to look into the state of affordable housing options.
Staff came back with a plan for a new zoning designation that would allow hotel-to-apartment conversions – no more than 100 rooms in the city – through an application process. Pons applied for the zoning designation, which was approved in May 2015 on a 4-0 City Council vote with Pons abstaining.
"The configuration of hotel rooms, particularly how Doug has turned many of them into [studios], is going to naturally set a lower price point," Haulman said. "We set the limit at 100 rooms, but if this property is successful, and I really think it will be, the city should certainly look into allowing more."
If Pons and The Flats of Williamsburg find success with the new configuration of rooms, Haulman said he hopes James City County and York County consider enacting a similar ordinance to address affordable housing in the region.
"Homelessness, transition housing and affordable housing, those aren't single jurisdiction problems," he said. "Those know no boundaries. Our hope is by doing this and having a success, other communities will look at it and follow suit."
The new zoning designation is one of several approaches the city has taken in the past few years to transition aging properties into uses more appropriate for today.
City Council has approved the purchase of several dilapidated motels in the Northeast Triangle – which is the area of Merrimac Trail, Capitol Landing Road and Second Street – and Midtown, or the commercial area along Richmond Road.
The city bought the Super 8, across from the Williamsburg Shopping Center on Richmond Road, earlier this year. Plans for its redevelopment have not been determined. Last year, the city bought and demolished two motels on Capitol Landing Road; one of those properties is up for sale.
In the summer of 2014, the city sold the former Lord Paget Motel on Capitol Landing Road to Copper Fox Distillery, which is slated to open this spring.