Density can be a dirty word in Williamsburg.
In 2007, the city’s comprehensive plan proposed to raise downtown density restrictions from 14 to 22 units per acre through a permit process to attract new businesses. Intense opposition from a vocal resident group called “Stop-22” pressured the Williamsburg City Council into dropping the proposal.
Nearly four years later, density may be back on the table — albeit on a case-by-case basis.
“From a staff perspective, we see more people living downtown as a good thing,” Williamsburg Economic Development Director Michelle DeWitt said. “Saying that, we live in a democratic society.”
Although controversial, allowing exceptions to the city’s density restrictions could provide an outlet for economic development in targeted areas.
In the case of Tribe Square, an exception was made to accommodate the 14-unit student mixed-use building. Currently, the city allows 10 residential units per parcel of land.
“New zoning eliminated the 10 unit per parcel max, but 14 units per acre remained,” Planning Director Reed Nester said.
The city also granted an exception to allow four students to share individual units within the complex, Nester added.
According to City Councilman Scott Foster ’10, Tribe Square would not have been economically viable had the exception not cleared city council.
“Providing exceptions for density in focused areas downtown could really provide an impetus for redevelopment,” he said.
Between the arts district, the Capitol Landing Road focus group and overtures to the Williamsburg Shopping Center, Mayor Clyde Haulman set economic redevelopment as a top priority for this year. Few would argue attracting new businesses to Williamsburg is not a good thing, especially considering that 12 percent of the city’s commercial space is vacant. In the proposed arts district, the vacancy rate is 18 percent.
Increasing the population of downtown could lead to greater economic vibrancy and vitality, DeWitt said.
“Ultimately, you need a critical mass to make an area viable for retail,” Haulman said. “There isn’t that critical mass anymore.”
According to Nester, some of the city’s older developments exceed the 14 unit-per-acre limit. The city grandfathered those developments when it adopted the limit in 1991.
City council and staff will begin work on a new comprehensive plan in 2012. While broad changes to the density limit may be off the table, determining how density can be manipulated to spur economic redevelopment in struggling areas of the city remains a part of the discussion.
“I would anticipate density being part of the discussion,” Nester said. “Whether the plan will have any recommendations on density, I can’t say.”
Ultimately, the question of density is part of a broader determination of how the city wishes to identify itself, Haulman said. While he does not anticipate high-density redevelopment will threaten the city’s bucolic reputation, it could provide a decidedly more urban, business-friendly environment.
“The real question is, what kind of downtown do you want? If you want the type of services where you can just walk downtown, there’s a tradeoff,” he said. “The sense I’ve gotten from people in the community is that when it’s a specific site or plan, they’re OK with it.”