Downtown needs a New Town

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February 24, 2007

1:38 PM

A couple weeks ago, some friends and I went to New Town to see “Hannibal Rising” and, although I wholeheartedly suggest you don’t see that movie, I do recommend you check out New Town. While it does feel vaguely Hollywood-esque with the faux windows that line the streets, the place has a lot to offer on any night of the week.

p. But, New Town is a bus ride away for most of us, and what’s more, when Williamsburg had the opportunity to add vitality to its own downtown scene, it was bullied into a compromise by what amounted to an angry mob of voters. Now that it appears students are getting the right to vote, we’ll have the chance (the duty?) to elect officials who’d favor livening things up a little closer to home.

p. But let’s step back for a moment to see what makes New Town great. It’s built on the “new urbanist” concept that says people are happier living in neighborhoods which combine housing, shopping and business. This allows them to get to a variety of places on foot — no need to hop in the car. Evidently, planners were getting tired of the cookie-cutter subdivisions and strip malls that defined urban sprawl.

p. On a more practical level, New Town gave us options as soon as we arrived: the movie theater, the pool hall and many affordable restaurants, all within walking distance from one another. The big problem, though, is that New Town’s a bus ride away — it’s in James City County rather than in Williamsburg. Instead of integrating new buildings downtown, New Town was forced to spring forth fully formed, like some architectural Athena. In fact, ten minutes from my house back home, a similar development sprouted out of what had once been a soybean field. Its name? New Town. Funny, that.

p. It’s important to remember that, despite New Town’s appeal, it fails to add appreciably to student life because it’s far away. Developers should not be blamed because they’d just as happily build downtown, but their opportunities are being curtailed by Williamsburg regulations. I’d be selling city officials short, however, if I didn’t mention their approval of a New Town-ish plan near Yankee Candle, but again, it’s too far away.

p. It may surprise you to learn that the city’s recently approved plan includes measures to add vibrancy to the downtown scene by converting some vacant lots off Armistead Street and by the Law School to newer, denser housing developments. Right now, when all the tourists leave Merchant’s Square after dark to do whatever it is tourists do at night, it’s obvious most of the area shuts down, unlike New Town.

p. Even Mayor Zeidler agreed that the lower residential population downtown might have led touristy businesses to replace the more practical ones. More to the point, did you know there used to be a drug store in Merchant’s Square that sold things a student would actually want to buy? If Williamsburg had pursued this development plan to its fullest extent, there might be a different set of businesses downtown, like those that draw a lot of us to New Town on the weekends.

p. December’s city council meeting, however, made it seem that we’ll never know. A coalition of incensed citizens strong-armed the council into a compromise by booing opposing speakers, telling them to shut up and shouting at council members. In the end, the compromise plan was even more conservative than the one recommended by the planning department — the same planning department that finds four students living in the same house unacceptable.

p. In my Feb. 9 column, “Appreciate the College,” I referred to “the entertainment vacuum that is Williamsburg.” Well, maybe as registered voters, we can start to have a voice at those same city council meetings, a voice perhaps, that will someday make Williamsburg a much more exciting place to live.

p. __Andrew Peters, a sophomore at the College, is a Staff Columnist. His columns appear every Friday.__

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