City advances arts district plans

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May 13, 2010

9:23 PM

Williamsburg City Council advanced a proposal for the construction of a new arts district in the city Thursday, although no concrete plans have been established.

In a presentation at Thursday’s council meeting, Economic Development Authority chair Monty Mason discussed the results of a citywide focus group on the viability of an arts district.

“I think it’s important to begin discussing the report through what it is not,” Mason said. “This is closer to the beginning of a finite effort than the end.”

Williamsburg Mayor Jeanne Zeidler M.A. ’76 established the Core Group on the Arts and Creative Economy in January to examine the possibility of an arts district in the city. The city also hired the independent firm ArtSpace, which specializes in developing residential space for artists, to assist in the group’s research.

According to the group’s report, an arts district could be sustainable and beneficial to the city.

“Given the City’s existing strengths, resources and zoning, an arts district in the City of Williamsburg has the most potential to be an area where artists are encouraged to live and work, with spin‐off private businesses like art galleries, studios, coffeehouses, bakeries, cafés, delis, entertainment venues, and neighborhood retail establishments locating and expanding in that area,” the Core group said in its report. “The City’s role will be to encourage artists to live and work in an area, to assist in the creation of a hub that will attract and retain businesses, and facilitate opportunities for anchor activities to occur in the district.”

After examining potential sites for the arts district, including the area around the High Street development and the downtown area near the Matthew Whaley School, the Core group recommended developing the area along Lafayette Street and Richmond Road, between Monticello Avenue and Casey Field.

City of Williamsburg Economic Development Director Michele Mixner DeWitt said that the location was ideally suited due to its proximity to the high-profile tourism areas like Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary.

According to DeWitt, the new arts district could also be beneficial to the city’s established entrepreneurs.

“This could increase revenue for existing businesses,” she said.

In addition to its positive recommendation, the Core group listed three “next steps” in the planning and development of the arts district. First, the city should examine the existing properties along Richmond Road and Lafayette Street to maintain their unique characteristics. Second, the city council should adopt a rezoning ordinance with the potential of tax incentives to encourage artists and businesses to move into the district. Lastly, the city should partner with Colonial Williamsburg, the College and the Williamsburg Visual Arts Center to explore mutual benefits.

“We want to retain creative professionals and attract creative professionals to Williamsburg,” DeWitt said. “This is supposed to be a place where artists are encouraged to live and work.”

Councilman Paul Freiling ’83 said that, while he supported the project overall, the Core group’s report was vague.

“These ‘next steps’ seem fairly general,” he said.

Zeidler said that the group’s report was a preliminary step in a larger process.

“This is part of our long-term strategy, and it needs to be done carefully,” she said. “We have to understand what can work here and not just copy at something.”

After Mason and DeWitt’s presentation, council members approved moving forward on the group’s recommendations. The city will now look into establishing a committee that would draft a new zoning ordinance to facilitate the arts district’s progress.

“I think there’s great interest and excitement for this concept, but it’s a concept without a shape,” Zeidler said. “ I think [city council] has a consensus to move forward on these next steps.”

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