Take time on college decision

Published 7:49 pm Saturday, April 2, 2016

Two different updates appearing in this week’s editions of the Suffolk News-Herald illustrate the importance of careful planning to the future of this city, along with the great challenges city officials face when they set out to plan what sorts of developments should be allowed in any particular part of Suffolk.

With construction speeding along on the new Obici Place development on North Main Street, economic development officials are working hard to identify partners for the retail and commercial portion of that development.

Builders are in the midst of erecting the 224-apartment complex that will be the main component of that development. Suffolk officials have said the Waverton Associates apartment complex is expected to be complete in August or September. Officials hope the commercial aspect of the multi-use development will be under construction by the end of the year.

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Downtown, in an unrelated effort, another developer, with the backing of a group that has taken the name “Friends of Suffolk,” has submitted letters to City Council and to Chancellor Glenn DuBois of the Virginia Community College System seeking support for a community college location along West Washington Street.

Developer Ralph Nahra and others say a downtown college location would increase enrollment over the levels at the existing, remote location in Suffolk of Paul D. Camp Community College. They also believe such a facility would become an economic engine for the downtown area.

Both developments have met with their share of skepticism from the community. In the case of the apartments, folks were worried about the traffic impacts on an already busy road, and in the case of the college, there are concerns about parking, about the potential impacts on neighboring communities and about whether a college is the best way to improve the economic climate downtown.

In both cases, the developers have worked from a set of assumptions that are hard to deny. Suffolk has a short supply of apartments available for rent, and high rental costs here are a symptom of the problem. The city also has a demonstrable problem getting folks to shop and eat downtown, and its enrollment at the Hobbs campus of Paul D. Camp could be described as anemic, at best.

But in the cases of both the apartment complex on North Main Street and the downtown college campus, city officials are not just tasked with answering whether such facilities are necessary. They’re also responsible for considering whether the proposed sites are the best places to put them.

In the case of the apartment complex, the deal is done, and it was done quickly — too quickly, in the eyes of many who watched the process. City Council would do well to assure that committing to a downtown college campus isn’t done without ample consideration of all opinions and evidence on the matter.