Downtown changes afoot

Published 10:41 pm Friday, October 3, 2014

Big changes are afoot in downtown Suffolk, which was the topic of a good part of the second day of City Council’s retreat last week.

The largest of those changes is the new downtown library, on which construction is anticipated to start next year, Buildings and Capital Programs Director Gerry Jones told the City Council.

But the new building won’t be just a library. It is proposed to house meeting spaces, a genealogy center and, if everything can be worked out, a higher education component.

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“Public libraries today are different than they used to be,” Jones said. “They serve a whole host of functions.”

While discussions are continuing with Paul D. Camp Community College about having classes and resources at the location, the city is moving ahead. It has put out a request for proposals for design services to develop documents that will be used later in the process.

City leaders say the Morgan Memorial Library, which is located in an old furniture showroom, has outlived its usefulness.

“(A library) is not a dark government building where you check out a book,” Deputy City Manager Patrick Roberts said at the retreat. “It is a conduit for civic engagement.”

Roberts also said city leaders hope the new library will “continue to stimulate evening activity in the downtown.”

As for the current library building at 443 W. Washington St., a couple of blocks west of the new library’s site, Roberts said the space could be used for additional parking for the new municipal center — which is directly across the street — with landscaping to enhance the space. A stormwater management pond is also likely there, he said.

On the other side of Washington Street, city officials are looking for opportunities to bring a new look to some commercial buildings in the 300 block of East Washington Street.

The buildings are within sight of the Health and Human Services building and are directly across the street from The Lofts at East Point, a private mixed-use project.

“When you get to this intersection, you’re getting mixed signals,” Roberts said. He said the city has talked with the property owners about sidewalks, landscaping and siding that might improve the look of the area, at least in the short term.

“There are boundless, endless opportunities to do this downtown,” Roberts said.

Kevin Hughes also talked about downtown parking during the presentation.

“We are very confident that the existing parking conditions in that area are ample,” Hughes said, citing a study his staff conducted that found about 48 percent of downtown parking spaces are available, on average, throughout a typical work day.

“We need a parking problem in downtown Suffolk,” he continued. “That’s commerce. That’s development, and that’s what we want.”

Even so, Hughes talked about ways the city could create more public parking spaces. The city assessor’s office on East Washington Street could soon give way to more parking, since the staff has moved into the new city hall building. The building has a number of structural issues, Hughes said.

“It might be ready to go by itself, to be honest with you,” Hughes said.

The former bus depot in the Cherry Street lot on South Saratoga Street is another possibility, Hughes added.

He also said the city is looking at six different lots, owned by six different owners, on North Saratoga Street, located behind commercial buildings that front on North Main Street.

“I can pretty much guarantee that somebody who doesn’t have permission is parking here anyway,” Hughes said.

A parking garage, which would cost millions of dollars for little return, isn’t the answer to downtown parking, Hughes said.

“The economic conditions are not in downtown to support that kind of investment,” he said.

Councilman Charles Parr said one solution could be to provide better signage to direct people to parking spots and let them know where they can park.

“We need good signage that says, ‘Parking,’” Parr said.

“When you’re living an urban life, you have to be ready to walk,” Mayor Linda T. Johnson said. “As long as it’s well lit and safe and signage is good, that’s the city life.”