Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Colonial Williamsburg hits snag on Merchants Square video wall, but gets good news from Planning Commission

The screen was set up in the P3 parking lot in Merchants Square in October to demonstrate what guests may see if Colonial Williamsburg's plans come to fruition. (WYDaily/ Andrew Harris)
The screen was set up in the P3 parking lot in Merchants Square in October to demonstrate what guests may see if Colonial Williamsburg’s plans come to fruition. (WYDaily/ Andrew Harris)

Colonial Williamsburg wants to create a public plaza in downtown, but their plans to place a permanent big screen is being met with resistance from the city.

The City’s Planning Commission weighed in Wednesday on Colonial Williamsburg’s request to change the P3 parking lot in Merchants Square into a pedestrian-friendly public plaza.

The plans entail removing 40 parking spots and adding grass, seating and a water feature to the block bounded by Duke of Gloucester, North Boundary, Prince George and North Henry streets.

In plans submitted to the city, the foundation described the plaza as a “festival marketplace” that will host live music, theatrical entertainment and other events that will add to the vibrancy of downtown.

As part of their plans, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has asked the city for permission to set up a permanent 12’x19’ LED video wall in the plaza.

“While the plaza is very important to our plans for Merchants Square, we consider the video wall to be an integral component of the project,” Jeff Duncan, the foundation’s vice president of real estate, said before the commission.

Planning Department staff recommended approval of the plaza – with conditions, including the denial of a permanent video wall. Staff recommended a temporary wall that could be set up no more than 15 times each year for a length of no more than three days at a time.

The area is zoned as B-1 Downtown Business District, and according to meeting documents, the district is intended to promote “harmonious” developments and maintain a pedestrian and commercial environment of the area.

A report prepared by planning staff and included in meeting documents indicated the size of the screen would not work with the surrounding plaza and businesses. Colonial Williamsburg also planned to run advertisements for events, which would not be permitted as doing so would classify the video wall as a sign. Electric signs are not allowed in the area.

While staff and the commission took issue with the video wall, there was support for the plaza as a whole.

“It will be a welcome addition to Merchants Square. I think it’s one of the better ideas relating to the downtown vibrancy plan,” Commissioner Andrew Edwards said. “I do agree with staff that the digital screen is a bit out of character, regardless of size.”

During a public hearing about a dozen residents came forward to weigh in, with some expressing overall support and others lamenting the removal of parking.

The Planning Commission voted 5-1 in favor of Colonial Williamsburg’s requests, but modified staff’s recommendations – instead recommending a temporary screen to be erected up to 25 times each year.

Duncan said the conditions would allow them to move the project forward and demonstrate the screen’s function before asking to have the 25-event limit lifted.

“This will give us an opportunity to test that, and come back to the city with something at a later date on a permanent basis,” Duncan said.

The screen was set up in the P3 parking lot in Merchants Square in October to demonstrate what guests may see if Colonial Williamsburg's plans come to fruition. (WYDaily/ Andrew Harris)
The screen was set up in the P3 parking lot in Merchants Square in October to demonstrate what guests may see if Colonial Williamsburg’s plans come to fruition. (WYDaily/ Andrew Harris)

City Council will vote and provide a final determination on the proposal at a future meeting.

Colonial Williamsburg’s proposal included three separate requests. First, they requested a text change to the zoning ordinance to allow for the removal of downtown parking spaces with a special use permit, and another text change to add a public plaza to the downtown zoning district in conjunction with a special use permit.

Colonial Williamsburg also asked the city to grant the necessary SUPs to remove the 40 spaces from the P3 lot and build the plaza.

Commission Vice Chairman Jeffrey Klee recused himself from the discussion because he is an employee of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

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