Affordable housing, economic development and the future of the Arts District were among the major topics of a discussion at a public forum on the future of the City of Williamsburg.
More than 50 residents of the city and neighboring municipalities turned out to the Williamsburg Community Building for the forum, which was part of the city’s annual Goals, Initiatives and Outcomes process. The GIOs set the city’s aspirations and strategic objectives for the next two years.
The forum was divided into two parts, the first of which involved a series of survey questions. Attendees could respond to questions instantaneously by using an electronic clicker, which tallied answers for analysis by city officials. Some questions were repeated from the last GIO process, while some were new additions.
Based on the responses, attendees identified three areas as particularly important for the city going forward: improving transportation, offering more arts and cultural attractions, and providing more affordable housing. Those responses differed from the answers collected during the previous GIO process in 2013, when a plurality of residents selected “other,” indicating an issue that was not listed in the provided answers.
Twenty-seven percent of attendees identified affordable housing as the most significant issue facing the city, but votes were divided on how to achieve that goal. More than 60 percent of those in attendance said the city should encourage private development of low- and middle-income housing or use inclusionary zoning to require a certain number of affordable units in housing developments. About 30 percent said the city should develop more owner-occupied developments, like on Strawberry Plains Road, or promote existing affordable housing neighborhoods. Four percent said the city should expand public housing.
More than 40 percent of residents selected K-12 education as the core service the city most needed to give its attention, maintaining its position from 2013. To pay for those services, 84 percent said expanding and diversifying the city’s tax base was the most viable option.
Nearly 90 percent of attendees identified business and professional services and tourism and visitation as the keys to Williamsburg’s future economic health, maintaining the trends from 2013. Similarly, about 90 percent of residents saw expanding cultural and arts events and expanding sports tourism efforts as ways to increase economic vitality, even if both required new construction.
The surveys also addressed particular Williamsburg neighborhoods and specific actions the city could pursue in those areas. More than half of attendees identified the downtown/midtown region as an important area for redevelopment, and nearly a third said so for the Northeast Triangle.
Residents were divided on how best to pursue redevelopment, with about 25 percent supporting each of the four listed answers: continuing Prince George Street style developments, increasing unique shopping and dining opportunities, increasing residential options and better connecting areas of downtown.
More than 50 percent of attendees said the city should focus on maintaining Williamsburg’s entrance corridors to protect the city’s distinctive character. Residents identified several strategies for doing so, including improving informational signage, adding more underground wiring and promoting building façade improvements and hidden parking lots.
The second part of the meeting was spent on an idea tree activity. City staff placed posters on the walls outlining each GIO subject area, and residents placed sticky notes on the areas they considered to be the most important with ideas on how to achieve those goals.
Several students from the College of William & Mary said affordable housing and student engagement with the community were key areas for city improvement.
“Residential housing is a main goal, affordable housing in the city,” said Henry Longley, a senior at the college.
William & Mary sophomore Jacob Shinan said a more vibrant city economy would benefit both residents and students.
“I think we need to bring in more business and professional opportunities for young people,” Shinan said. “A lot of students leave after graduation, and there’s a brain drain that really hurts Williamsburg. They could make it a great place for a lot of people to stay, make it a portal with things like internships and professional jobs.”
Blake Miller and Claire Gould are both young professionals in the city. Although both represent the interests of 20- and 30-year-old residents through nonprofit organizations, different issues drove them to attend the public forum.
“It’s important for people in their 20s and 30s to come out,” Gould said. “Williamsburg isn’t just retirees and students.”
Miller said addressing homelessness in Williamsburg was an important — and often neglected — issue.
“The tenor and shape of the questions and responses painted an idealized picture of Williamsburg that focuses on increasing our visibility across the nation and tourism rather than fixing the structural needs of its citizens, rather than increasing revenue and wealth,” he said.
Tonia Herrin lives in James City County, but said her connections to the Williamsburg arts community drew her to the forum.
“I think the whole corridor outside of downtown doesn’t represent and present the reality of what we have,” she said. “There’s no venue in Williamsburg proper to display the totality of what we have.”
Herrin also said the city could do more to promote the mental health and wellness of the area’s teenagers.
Mayor Clyde Haulman said the forum would provide valuable data and input into the GIO process.
“Looking at the questions from last time compared to this year, we can see the consistency and we can see the movement in public opinion,” he said.
Vice Mayor Paul Freiling and Council member Doug Pons agreed the forum would give city staff direction during the GIO process.
“This is one step in a larger process,” Freiling said.
The GIO process will continue throughout September and October. A draft version of the 2015-2016 GIOs is expected to be ready by early October, with final approval made by the Nov. 20 State of the City address.
Members of the public can provide input on the GIOs by answering the surveys from Thursday’s forum on SpeakUpWilliamsburg.com.
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