Planners debate road impact

Published 10:29 pm Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The city’s Planning Commission got its first official look yesterday at a $325 million warehousing center proposed for the Route 58 corridor.

Planners met in a work session with officials from the CenterPoint project to talk specifics about what could be Suffolk’s biggest project ever.

The details were not new, however, as similar presentations have been made to the City Council and to the residents living along and near the Route 58 corridor.

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While the information was not fresh, the commissioners’ opinions were.

Commissioner Alvin Copeland opened the question-and-answer period that followed the presentation by the Chicago-based company’s representatives. He worried that the project does not consider the residents living along Route 58, and the problems they already face as a result of heavy traffic.

“I don’t hear you saying nothing about residents at all,” Copeland said. “…It’s going to take them two hours just to get to Wal-Mart.”

Dave France, an engineer with Kimley-Horn and Associates, argued that Route 58 traffic is a problem already, and it’s going to continue to be a problem with or without the center being built there.

But, he said, with CenterPoint bringing in “high quality development” to the corridor, officials have been able to engage potential funding partners with VDOT, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the ports to make alternatives — such as widening Route 58 — possible.

According to a Hampton Roads Planning District Commission study released this summer, the growing traffic burdens on Route 58 between the downtown bypass and Holland will soon make it unsafe if changes are not made.

Ultimately, the roadway would need to be widened to six lanes or the bypass would have to be expanded beyond the corridor, the HRPDC study concluded. Estimates show widening the road would cost more than $90 million, and extending the bypass would cost well over $200 million. The city currently does not have funds for either option.

“Nobody was at the table before this project was online,” France said.

CenterPoint has proposed building a $325 million warehousing center off Route 58 to help handle the growing container traffic coming from the ports and through the region.

According to reports, the center would work directly with the Port of Virginia, and will bring about 2,000 jobs to the city.

As expected, most of commissioners’ opinions involved concerns about Route 58 – not the project itself.

Commissioner Ross Boone said he was concerned he would be doing the citizens of Suffolk a disservice by building a center before they would know how to fund the improvements necessary to support it.

Then, he confirmed with Vince Mastracco of Kaufman and Canoles, the company’s local law firm, that no federal, state or city money had been pledged to this project and that only CenterPoint had invested in the project.

CenterPoint executive Bob Harbour eventually responded to Boone by saying it can’t be a one-way street, and that partnerships are necessary to make change happen.

“We all have to get in the boat together to solve (Route 58),” he said.

Commissioner Ronnie Rountree agreed and seemed personally moved to take whatever action necessary to get CenterPoint to Suffolk.

“We can’t (get the money for Route 58),” he said. “We’re going to have to have some help.… If it takes real, wet tears, I can produce some.”

The project needs rezoning approval from the city, a process that would put it before the Planning Commission at least once more and allow the public at least two opportunities to comment on the plan.