I changed up my Monday night meeting schedule and went to the Planning Commission meeting instead of City Council. If you want to learn or influence new development in the City BEFORE it comes in front of City Council – the Planning Commission is where it’s at! There is usually time for public comment, just like City Council.
Who is the Planning Commission?
The Planning Commission is an appointed body of citizens to advise City Council and the City Manager on changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, including new development, streetscaping, special exceptions, re-zoning, etc. Planning Commission meetings happen on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month at 745 pm and they are also recorded for future viewing.
Tonight’s agenda included two items of special interest to me – the West Broad Small Area Plan and a W&OD park plan.
West Broad Small Area Plan
First on the agenda was the West Broad Small Area Plan. Small Area Plans may not be widely known across the City. A small area plan is a high level vision document that guides the City and potential developers on re-development possibilities in the City’s commercial areas and meant to be used to supplement the Comprehensive Plan. We need plans like this so any proposals that come forward are not done haphazardly and can true back to a holistic vision of the City. It is a guiding document only – it does not mean everything that’s envisioned will happen!
The West Broad area is the 4th of 8 sectors identified (also called POAs = planning opportunity areas) where a small area plan has been drafted. The West Broad POA encompasses Rt 7/ Broad St from the W&OD bridge to Little Falls St. and is adjacent to about two-thirds of the City population – it’s a big area with a lot of impact! In fact, most of the recent economic development has occurred in this corridor.
While there were many concerns voiced by citizens and the planning commissioners about specifics of the plan (height of certain buildings and the location of a public restroom off the bike trail at corner of Grove/West)- and I do share some of them – I did want to call out the positives I saw to balance out the discussion. Overall, as a resident who lives on S. Spring St, half a block from the West Broad POA, I liked many of the concepts and hope this spurs some smart re-development of the area. This corridor has a ton of under-utilized parcels that could use updates and without such a plan, we really could end up with hodgepodge of bad projects. Some specific concepts that I liked: identification of specific redevelopment opportunities (examples: Stratford Lodge, the 900 block of Broad St. across from St. James), step downs and set backs that transition into residential areas, pocket parks, consolidated surface parking to reduce curb cuts, and thoughtful pedestrian improvements that better connect north and south parts of the City. Approval was deferred tonight, so another Planning Commission review is planned in September. It will be up for review and adoption by City Council later in the fall.
W&OD Park Master Plan – the W&OD is a park?
The second agenda topic of personal interest is the W&OD Park Master Plan that was discussed during the working session after the formal PC meeting adjourned. “The W&OD Park is often referred to as the W&OD Trail, but the Park has the potential to be known for much more. With 16 acres of land inside the City, the W&OD Park is the second largest park space in the City, second only to the playing fields at George Mason High School and Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School.” Being a weekly user of the W&OD, I’ve seen the amenities along the trail that many other jurisdictions have. We need a way to welcome W&OD users into the City, more wayfinding signs, benches and seating areas, and some distinguishing landmarks. Improvements to the W&OD add to environmental and recreation benefits, but also would better connect citizens to the commercial areas across town.
Some specific proposals in the W&OD Park Master Plan that I liked: separate bike and pedestrian paths; plazas along the trail that could include bathrooms, benches, water; public art space; removal of invasive plants, and community gardens. A phased implementation was proposed, primarily using grant money.
I look forward to more discussion on both of these topics!