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The recent sale of the Williamsburg Shopping Center and demolition of the Super 8 motel across the street will provide opportunities for economic rejuvenation for Williamsburg’s Midtown.
The City’s biannual Goals, Initiatives, and Outcomes for 2017-18 list Midtown — the area surrounding the intersection of Monticello Avenue and Richmond Road — as a region ripe for redevelopment. As stated in the GIOs, the city hopes to, “Pursue the vision for Midtown as a pedestrian‐friendly shopping and entertainment hub based on vertical mixed‐use.”
According to Williamsburg Vice-Mayor Scott Foster, “vertical mixed-use” means commercial centers with a variety of businesses on the ground floor with residential and office spaces above.
“As for how it would look, anything that happens on this parcel has to be appropriate for Williamsburg,” said Foster. “If it is dense residential over commercial, it has to be done in a way that complements, not copies, what makes Williamsburg Williamsburg. The shopping center has some great, longtime tenants, and they will be vital to shaping a redeveloped center.”
Williamsburg Economic Director Michele DeWitt said Tribe Square and the shops and apartments along Prince George Street, between Henry Street and Armistead, in the city’s downtown could be urban models for a redeveloped midtown.
“When we say ‘urban’ that’s what we mean. Three or four stories, nothing like Manhattan,” said DeWitt.
However, the new owners of Williamsburg Shopping Center — Broad Street Realty, LLC — will have the ultimate say in what is done with the property. At the moment, BSR has not released their plans for the shopping center.
“They are the property owners and they can do what they want with the property,” said Mayor Paul Freiling. “We are certainly willing to help them. If they want to keep it in its current configuration they have every right to do that. I hope they’ll be aggressive in courting tenants.”
Both Freiling and Foster said the city will have much more room for input if the new owners decide to redevelop the shopping center as opposed to courting new tenants while leaving the structure largely the same.
Freiling said he would like BSR to consider redeveloping the shopping center in a way that would allow residents to “do all the things they need to do in their life” in one spot.
“The Williamsburg Shopping Center is [currently] based more upon a suburban model, large tracts of parking around a commercial core,” Freiling said. “People are encouraged to park, shop, move their car and park again. Although it’s within walking distance of where many people live, it’s not walkable. If you come out of any particular store, there’s not a clear and inviting pedestrian path to get there.”
Councilman Benming Zhang said he too would like to increase the walkability of Midtown, and even work to connect the area with downtown through wide, multi-use pedestrian sidewalks along Richmond Road.
“If we can develop Midtown in a way that really connects to the downtown planning area, that would be a tremendous benefit to the city as a whole,” said Zhang. “I think with the Super 8 and the Williamsburg Shopping Center, eventually they will complement each other and define what the Midtown planning area will be.”
Freiling said the city may consider waiting “a little while” for BSR to announce plans before deciding on a development project for the former Super 8 property, in the hopes that the two properties can be developed in a manner that will complement one another.
Freiling said that he would like to see midtown include retail outlets that appeal to the younger demographic, as well as an outdoor gathering space for festivals. He added that a parking deck may make sense in midtown as well.
Zhang said he believes there is potential for restaurants and coffee shops with patio seating in the shopping center. Zhang, Foster and Freiling agreed that there is also room for a cooperative project between the city and the College of William and Mary in Midtown, possibly involving the arts district.
“I think we have to move beyond the traditional commercial model, where there is a sea of blacktop parking in front of whatever structure it serves,” said Foster on what he hopes a redeveloped Williamsburg Shopping Center will look like. “If we brought the structures to the street front, abutting wide sidewalks, with parking placed in a way that was intuitive, but not obstructive, I think we could create a sense of place and an attractiveness that would make the property successful in attracting visitors, residential occupants and businesses.”
Freiling said he remains confident that no matter what is done with the Williamsburg Shopping Center, Midtown will be better off as a result.
“The important thing to remember is that whatever the new owner decides, it will be a better complement to the community than the iteration of the shopping center over the last couple years,” Freiling said. “You will have a vested ownership that wants to make the most of the commercial potential of the property.”