One problem that Waynesboro has with regard to its plans for revitalizing its downtown-business district is “the fact that we don’t have buildings,” downtown businessman Len Poulin said.
“But as I like to say, the biggest advantage that we have in rebuilding downtown is that we don’t have buildings,” said Poulin, a driving force in Waynesboro Downtown Development Inc., which has been working behind the scenes for the past three years to build support for a nine-figure redevelopment project that is increasingly being talked about as the next big thing in the River City.
Dubbed Riverfront Commons, the plan calls for the development of more than 1 million square feet of residential and commercial properties on 50 acres situated between Broad Street and Race Avenue in the heart of downtown Waynesboro.
The idea came from a seemingly simple question that WDDI leaders posed to themselves in 2003 – “if you had a blank sheet of paper,” Poulin said, “what could you do in that space?”
“The vision is to get smart about the lay of the land, to try to understand the dynamics of the hydrology, deal with the stormwater issues, because a part of this problem is a stormwater-runoff problem, rebuild the common area smartly so that instead of it forcing water into private property, it becomes a detention area that relieves some of the pressure, and then redesign Arch Avenue into a promenade,” Poulin told The Augusta Free Press.
The trick, of course, comes in the financing – and specifically, finding investors willing to pitch in shares of the estimated $100 million-plus project costs.
“That’s a ton of money – which is probably why they haven’t been able to get anything going,” Waynesboro mayor Tom Reynolds told the AFP.
Don’t be surprised to see the city being asked to take part in some way at some point in the future – with issues involving floodplain management and stormwater management playing key roles in what can be done downtown.
“The city is going to be involved. There’s no way this kind of thing is going to come to pass without something in the way of tax breaks and infrastructure improvements. Developers just don’t do this without some incentives being on the table,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, an urban critic and author of The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way, and Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown.
Gratz isn’t a big fan of expensive projects like Riverfront Commons.
“The kinds of projects that work better to regenerate and revive downtowns are things like the restoration of an old theater or the development of a farmer’s market. These bigger projects get a lot of attention, but ultimately, what they do is bring in chain stores that end up taking money out of your economy,” Gratz told the AFP.
“Unfortunately, the reality is that I’ve not met a mayor or city council or town council that looks at these kinds of projects with anything resembling a critical eye,” Gratz said. “If they did, they would see that this kind of thing is pretty standard. Everybody tries this, and the fact is, there are enough experiences of this kind of thing not working to know that this isn’t the slam-dunk that some try to make it out to be.
“All you have to do there is look to your west at what Staunton has done to get an idea of how to go about this the right way. Charlottesville is another example. Really, this is not rocket science,” Gratz said.
“Ask yourself – did they do one big project? No. Was what they did gradual, incremental, step by step? Yes. Did it take a long time? Yes. Once it got going, did the momentum stop? No. This isn’t hard. Just open your eyes, ask the questions. And be willing to work at it. Because there really isn’t a magic bullet,” Gratz said.
Poulin isn’t looking for a magic bullet.
“The window of opportunity for us is wide open,” Poulin said. “Albemarle County is seeing tremendous growth, and the board of supervisors over there is looking to control it, quiet it. Charlottesville is becoming cost-prohibitive to live. So if you’re one of these young professionals who’s going to work in one of the research companies over there, and want to live in a downtown environment, you’re not going to be able to afford a million-dollar condo. But you wouldn’t mind driving 30 miles and living in a more open type environment in Waynesboro.”
That aspect of the project caught the attention of William Lucy, a professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia.
“Projects of this size aren’t common in communities the size of Waynesboro. But the kind of project being talked about – a mixed-use residential and commercial development – is becoming increasingly common here in Virginia and nationally. And with Waynesboro’s proximity to the growing Charlottesville-Albemarle market, it makes sense to try to market to people who want to live in the Valley and commute to a job in Charlottesville,” Lucy told the AFP.
From a downtown-development perspective, Lucy said, “it helps to have a base of customers – and residential development can provide that base of customers for restaurants and shops and other retailers.”
“The new downtown is not a comparison-shopping downtown. It is specialty shops, it’s entertainment, it’s convenience,” Lucy said.
“In these kinds of mixed-use developments, typically what you see first is the residential development. That provides the base for the commercial development. You get young professionals who don’t mind commuting and baby boomers who are looking to put down roots somewhere before retiring. Developments that are attractive to these demographics have become increasingly popular in the past few years, particularly in the last year or two,” Lucy said.
Poulin foresees a growing synergy between Riverfront Commons and the historic Tree Streets neighborhoods located nearby.
“You’ve got historic homes in the Tree Streets, you’ve got modern apartments and condos downtown, you’ve got businesses, and all of the sudden, you get thousands of people here during the day, thousands of people in the evening, and what will happen after that is that restaurants will be fighting to come downtown. You’ll have theaters that will be fighting to open up downtown. There will be entrepreneurs springing up to find opportunities,” Poulin said.
“The market pressures are starting to come together. I think our time is near,” Poulin said.
And near might be nearer than you think.
“Keep your ears and eyes open. What WDDI has been doing is working behind the scenes marketing this project. There are people who have the means to do something and can see the vision of what we want to do here who are seriously considering at this,” Poulin said.