Good news for downtown

Published 9:07 pm Wednesday, May 11, 2016

It wasn’t the college campus that many in downtown Suffolk seek, but an announcement during Suffolk’s State of the City address on Wednesday nonetheless represents very good news for the city’s central business district, and it’s news that could directly influence those who are still on the fence about a downtown community college campus.

During the Wednesday event, hosted by the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Linda Johnson announced the planned development of 165,000 square feet of redeveloped commercial and residential space on the outskirts of the downtown area.

The plan calls for renovations and new construction at the site of the former Golden Peanut Co., situated by the intersection of South Saratoga and Wellons streets. With an expected investment of more than $30 million, the Monument Companies and Sensei Development would transform the site by creating 290 new apartments. They would also create office and retail space to make the site a true multi-use development.

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The 10-acre site dates to the 1890s and includes a former peanut storage and processing facility, Johnson said. In the 1920s, the company employed as many as 300 people on the site, she added. In recent years, it has fallen into disrepair. The companies’ plan for it could turn an eyesore into a downtown gem.

But even more important than the curb appeal created by the new development for those entering the downtown area from the south will be the new residents it brings to the area. The relatively low density of residents in the central business area has been a sticking point for those who might consider building everything there from supermarkets to shoe stores.

And Suffolk’s greatest housing need right now is apartment space, as the city boasts one of the highest occupancy rates in the region, a fact that tends to drive up the prices for any that become available.

This is all good news for those who are bending the ears of local and state officials in their effort to convince them of the suitability of the West Washington Street corridor for a community college campus. Especially considering the tight budgets state legislators have worked with in recent years, the only way the Virginia Community College System is likely to move Suffolk’s Paul D. Camp Community College campus from its current location on Kenyon Road is if it has a strong indication that Suffolk enrollment would rise significantly by doing so.

For that effort to succeed, the city needs to add as many new residents to the downtown area as possible.