Sunday, July 15, 2012
Be part of Roanoke's future
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From the RoundTable blog
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Have you been downtown lately? Exciting things are happening:
>> New restaurants are opening (Fork in the City, Cuban Island), old favorites are returning (Billy's);
>> Carilion and Virginia Tech continue to invest and expand, bringing more students to Roanoke;
>> The Market Building renovations are complete and are now home to more than 10 restaurants and businesses;
>> Elmwood Park improvements continue on time and on budget, as do those taking place at Center in the Square;
>> Developers continue to rehabilitate historic buildings, breathing new life and bringing new bodies into buildings that have been neglected and vacant for decades (consider West Station or the Patrick Henry Hotel);
>> Residential apartments (and the demand for them) are up more than 300 percent.
One way or another, despite anemic economic conditions, private-sector investors have spent more than $100million downtown over the last three years, and they continue to find opportunities.
For those of us who choose to make Roanoke our home ,this trend is exciting. For the first time in decades, I want to go downtown. I want to see a show at Jefferson Center. I want to go to the symphony. I want local food. I want to shop at the City Market. I want to live downtown, to walk to work, to go to local restaurants and the Taubman, to be a part of the now infamous Tuesday night rides. (For those of you who don't know, dust off your old bike and come downtown next Tuesday evening at 5:30 and we'll show you.) I want to be outside, to hike the greenways, the Blue Ridge, to be in the valley, to be in the mountains, to be downtown.
For those of us who have grown up and lived in Roanoke for many years, it is impossible not to be somewhat suspicious of these trends. Can you believe people live in apartments on Campbell Avenue east of Interstate581? How about Sixth Street Southwest? What about parking? Is downtown safe? For many of us who have watched the shifting contours of downtown, this change is still difficult to believe. I have harbored these doubts; I have been that skeptic.
But unless and until you come downtown, unless and until you try it on a Friday night, you will never believe. Roanoke today, downtown today, is a different town. A better, stronger, more inviting town. It is still our town in the mountains, but it is impossible to deny the energy that now courses through its streets.
About six months ago, a group of us (both come-heres and been-heres) began to get together to talk about downtown. We come from different walks of life, represent different demographics, different professions, different genders, but we have one thing in common: a deep and sincere commitment to downtown. For us, the question is simple: How do we keep this momentum going? How do we build on the successes of the Market Building and Elmwood Park? How can we help?
We began with the people we found downtown, interviewed people on the street and talked to the businesses and the farmers. We met with the chamber of commerce and groups like Downtown Roanoke Inc., Center in the Square and the Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau. We studied other cities like Roanoke, the ones that work (Bellingham, Wash., Ithaca N.Y., Providence, R.I., Chattanooga, Tenn.) and the ones that don't. We tried to identify those things that were most important to us about Roanoke (the music, the greenways, outdoor recreation, the City Market), and we tried to think both imaginatively and strategically about how urban planning works and how we, as a community, might reinforce and build upon the fragile, if successful, changes taking place downtown.
As we began to distill those conversations, several themes began to emerge:
>> Growth and demand in downtowns across the country follow strategic investment in outdoor and pedestrian-focused areas;
>> Roanoke has very few of these type parks or pedestrian oriented spaces;
>> The City Market, our history and our heritage make Roanoke unique and give it that character that we love.
These themes encouraged us to think boldly about Market Square, about both its past and future. The plan you see here is a sketch, a starting point, to expand a conversation that began between a few to include all who care about the future of downtown. As we begin that conversation in earnest, we wanted to introduce a few points we think are important to any new design of Market Square:
>> Moving to a more pedestrian-oriented, dynamic flexible space offers numerous possibilities for expanded exchange, both economic and social (think outdoor dining at the Weiner Stand, a drop-off zone for kids visiting Mill Mountain Theatre or an outdoor concert series).
>> While this design does eliminate 24 parking spaces (did you know that there are more than 4,500 free parking spaces downtown?), it improves traffic flow while maintaining automotive access to the 300 block of Market Street. Any new design should create a safer experience for both pedestrian and vehicular users (have you tried to back into one of those spaces lately?).
>> Short-term parking is an important part of downtown retail sales. We believe any successful plan for Market Square should be part of a bigger conversation about reintroducing short-term parking solutions into the matrix of downtown parking. The problem is not that we have too few spaces, but rather how we use those spaces that we do have.
>> Any new design for the farmers' stalls should accommodate that which works about the current configuration (allowing trucks to back into the stalls) while offering more points of sale and more total square footage for display. This is about expanding and improving the market and the market experience and not compromising the legacy and heritage of that which makes our city unique.
>> Introducing canopy and green space to the heart of downtown not only provides shade, color and character but helps reduce storm water run-off and improves water quality.
>> While removing the canopies along the south side of the site and replacing the current asphalt with pavers does change the current configuration of Market Square, so too does it open up retail spaces to the pedestrian, provide needed visibility, a meaningful identity and expand possibilities for outdoor dining. Not all change is harmful.
We hope that this plan proves the beginning of a conversation about downtown — about our downtown. At any given moment, two paths lie open to a city: It can move forward, pushed and pulled by those who care, or it can stagnate, stall and fail, forgotten by those who have already left.
Become part of the conversation, like us on Facebook, come see what's happening, come downtown. Welcome. Be part of the future, be part of downtown.