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New plans could change face of Charleston

Kenny Kemp
The long-empty Stone & Thomas department store in downtown Charleston is one of eight buildings that have been identified as ripe for redevelopment in the city's new comprehensive plan.
Kenny Kemp Charleston's new comprehensive plan states that the privately owned building at 178 Summers St. has been "significantly neglected and underutilized" and is ideally located for development, with retail space on the first floor and residential or office space above.
Kenny Kemp A new school soon will replace JE Robins Elementary on Charleston's West Side and the existing building is considered prime for redevelopment in the city's new comprehensive plan.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In two weeks, City Council members are expected to adopt two plans that could change the face of Charleston over the next 10 to 20 years.

The new downtown redevelopment and comprehensive plans, more than 18 months in the making, were written by a pair of consulting companies after many meetings with a local steering committee and several public open houses.

Residents can read or download copies of the detailed plans at imaginecharleston.com under the "Exhibits" tab.

City officials haven't waited for the plans to be officially approved, though, said Planning Director Dan Vriendt.

"We did the urban agriculture ordinance," he said. "That was something that came up in the process, kind of like low-hanging fruit."

Approved by the council July 1, the ordinance sets out formal rules for what some folks have already been doing -- raising egg-laying hens or honeybees and planting community gardens.

In addition, engineers are drawing up final plans for a pair of east/west bike lanes along Kanawha Boulevard from Magic Island to Patrick Street, another Imagine Charleston concept unveiled at an open house last year. Construction could start next spring.

"We kind of feel like we've started taking action on this [plan]," Vriendt said. "The bike lanes -- that's something you can see." Changes in city code, like the urban agriculture rules, are less visible.

The comprehensive plan -- required by state law -- replaces an outdated 1996 version. The previous development guide for downtown, known as the American Cities plan, dates back to the early 1980s, when the opening of the Charleston Town Center mall was about to reshape retailing patterns.

The final versions of the new plans incorporate comments and suggestions the consultants gathered in June, after the release of draft versions. Besides an evening public meeting on the West Side, the consultants met with the steering committee's technical committees -- neighborhoods and land use, mobility and infrastructure, quality of life, downtown business and downtown livability, Vriendt said.

"At the public meeting there was some feedback, but most came from the subcommittees," he said. "None of it is big-ticket items, mainly clarifications."

One notable addition to the comprehensive plan is a list of eight key buildings considered ripe for redevelopment, called "signature implementation opportunities."

Several are vacant, like the Staats Hospital building on West Washington Street that West Side Main Street hopes to buy and rehab, and the long-empty Stone & Thomas department store downtown. Also included are JE Robins and Watts elementary schools, soon to be replaced by a new school.

The list also includes the building at 170-178 Summers St., at the corner of Brawley Walkway, which is privately owned and partly occupied. According to the plan, the property "has been significantly neglected and underutilized" but "is ideally situated for mixed-use development with retail space on the first floor . . . and residential or office space on the second floor."

Listing such sites in the plan can help promote redevelopment and make the properties more eligible for grant funds, Vriendt said.

"We did have people talk to us about different buildings around town that would be eligible for a grant," he said. "We had a couple of people ask about buildings, and we added some. This is an area where we can add buildings if we know a building is becoming vacant. That's one of the things we want to do, and do frequently. We want this to be a living document."

The planning department, which provides staff support to agencies like the zoning board and planning commission, will use the new plans frequently, Vriendt said, as will other groups across the city.

"Whenever we do cases before the Municipal Planning Commission, like re-zonings, we make sure they're consistent with the comprehensive plan," he said. "It helps us make recommendations.

"A lot of times, we'd look at the [old] plan . . . things had changed so much, especially along Corridor G, where things have changed dramatically since 1996.

"I think the Strong Neighborhoods Task Force will start to look at this action plan, looking at things they can do. The community development area of the Charleston Area Alliance, they have an interest in this. I think they'll be taking some things up.

"CURA [the Charleston Urban Redevelopment Authority], there's some things in there that will help guide CURA."

The downtown plan meshes with CURA's efforts to revive the Downtown/Old Charleston Urban Renewal Plan, which expired in 2008, said Jim Edwards, the group's director.

"The new downtown plan will be the template upon which CURA can develop a new urban renewal plan for downtown," he said. "I believe this will simply be a matter of putting the new downtown plan into the urban renewal plan format -- not developing yet another plan.

"The significance of adopting a new downtown urban renewal plan is that it will allow CURA to spend its funds, its time and energy on downtown redevelopment. Today, CURA cannot do this. While downtown has made considerable strides in the past 20 or 30 years, there is much still to be done, especially outside the Capitol Street corridor, where the dominant use is surface parking lots.

"Specifically with a new downtown plan, CURA can, for example, provide façade grants, can incentivize building rehabilitation and can help with infrastructure improvements, especially visual improvements, such as pedestrian streetscapes," Edwards said. "Most of downtown still has rather unattractive old sidewalks without street trees or pedestrian-scale street lighting."

A public hearing on the two plans will be held at a special meeting of the Municipal Planning Commission at 3 p.m. Wednesday in the conference room of the City Service Center, 915 Quarrier St.

The council's Planning Committee will consider the plans at 7 p.m. Sept. 30 at the same location, and the City Council is scheduled to hold a final vote a week later, at City Hall.

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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