Planning ahead: City moves forward with Arts District

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January 31, 2011

11:34 PM

In response to citizen concern over lack of information, Williamsburg City Council members met with residents Monday night for an informational meeting to discuss details of the proposed Arts District ordinance.

The city council had originally scheduled a vote on the ordinance for early January, but it then tabled the decision until Feb. 10 to allow more time for residents to become familiar with the plan.

“Many were concerned that they didn’t have the time to see the ordinance and read the ordinance in detail,” Williamsburg Mayor Clyde Haulman said. “This really is a chance for citizens to ask staff about the Arts District and get answers to their questions.”

The meeting, attended primarily by residents of the proposed district, featured an informational presentation by city Economic Development Director Michelle DeWitt, which was followed by an informal question-and-answer session.

“I think it was great,” DeWitt said of the meeting.

Haulman shared a similar opinion of the session.

“Most people went away feeling like their questions were answered,” he said. “It was good to pause and have this kind of meeting for people to get their questions heard — or to vent.”

Such positive sentiments were not unanimous, however.

During the open discussion, residents shared concerns about the ordinance changing existing zoning laws, discouraging non-creative businesses from operating in the district, or invoking eminent domain. Council members addressed these issues, assuring homeowners that their properties would not become subject to any drastic changes.

“This changes nothing,” Haulman said of the area’s zoning regulations.

Some residents were hesitant about the goal of the ordinance overall.

“I think maybe people will come [to the Arts District], maybe they won’t,” resident Stewart Goddin said. “What is the vision here? We don’t get an answer to that — I’m just still not convinced.

Others still said they were dissatisfied with the meeting itself.

“I don’t think [the City Council members] were very prepared,” Pam Blank said, armed with a three-page list of questions she had compiled with other input from area residents.

The Arts District will, if the ordinance is adopted, cover an area between Richmond Road and Lafayette Street near the Williamsburg Shopping Center. The area was one of five considered, chosen for its proximity to downtown Williamsburg and an increased number of vacancies.

“This is a very important mixed-use neighborhood in our city,” DeWitt said. “It has quite a bit of charm. This is an attempt to revitalize it.”

The city hopes to attract young professionals engaged in “knowledge-based jobs,” a large category that includes occupations ranging from sculptors and painters to software designers and film producers.

To do this, Williamsburg will offer qualifying new and existing businesses small tax rebates and discounts on business licenses over a five-year period. However, incentives for property owners are limited only to the increased appeal to potential tenants.

According to DeWitt, the success or failure of the district is up to the private market.

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