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Downtown meetings kick off

More than 100 people interested in the future of Suffolk’s downtown came out to an opening session Monday evening to have input on the city’s Downtown Initiatives Plan.

Benchmark Planning, a consulting firm hired by the city to help craft the plan, is holding sessions all week to gather public vision on the future of the downtown core.

“We like downtown,” said Cara Angeli, who just moved to the Lakeside neighborhood last year. “We think it has a lot of potential for growth.”

Angeli said she attended Monday’s meeting because she “just wanted to see what people had to say.”

The meeting was standing-room only in the former All About Virginia & More store, and a handful of people attempted to listen from outside.

“I’m really thrilled to have this many people turn out,” City Manager Patrick Roberts said. “This is a good start.”

Brian Donahue, a Riverview resident, said he attended because he is interested in the future of Suffolk.
“I want to hear about the plans and the vision for how the city can help to spread that,” he said.

Citizens could view maps depicting data such as land value, traffic volumes, new housing developments, crashes involving pedestrians, what land is owned by the city and more.

During the program, Dan Douglas, director of urban design for Benchmark, shared statistics, challenges and focus areas for downtown.

The focus areas include making streetscape improvements, creating better connectivity for cyclists and pedestrians, identifying a place for outdoor events, identifying sites for market potential, exploring impediments to uses and activities that are desirable downtown and changing perceptions about safety and parking.

Douglas said a quarter of the land area in the downtown core is devoted to parking lots, and that doesn’t include 115 on-street parking spots.

“You don’t have a parking problem,” he said. “You have a parking perception problem.”

Changing perceptions about safety is another challenge, he said.

“If you can’t get it to where people feel safe, none of the rest of this list matters,” he said.

Creating a community-scale public gathering space and holding events there is also another way to get more people into downtown, he said.

A frequent perception about downtown Suffolk is that it’s “dead,” Douglas added.
“We think one of the reasons is you don’t see people on the street,” he said.

Outdoor dining is one way to combat that, and it’s one thing downtown Suffolk does not currently have that some people feel it should. This week, a handful of restaurants, including Baron’s Pub and Harper’s Table, are trying out the concept in concert with the downtown visioning meetings.

Monday’s session also featured four downtown residents or business owners talking about their ideas and experiences with downtown.

Mia Byrd, a downtown resident, suggested advertising in empty spaces, creating lighting, having events and bringing in a coffee shop.

“One of the things I’m trying to do today is spark creativity,” she said.

Eurnicka Artis, the owner of EA Tax Service and former owner of Oasis Lounge, spoke about her challenges running the businesses. She said code requirements were confusing when she was trying to open Oasis, and the business ran into problems with noise complaints from neighbors.

“We ran into some problems because we were surrounded by apartments, and I don’t think too many of them understood what urban living is,” she said. She was even sued by one of the tenants, she added.

“We tried to get creative,” she said. But within a year of opening, the business had to close.

Ralph Nahra, a downtown real estate investor, also gave ideas including fountains and sculptures, lighting and façade enhancements.

He also suggested a “Shark Tank”-like program that would give private investment to business startups if they locate in the downtown core.

“We need to inject a spirit of achievement in our future Suffolkians,” he said.

There are plenty more opportunities this week for public input. Citizens can visit 120 N. Main St. from 1 to 5 p.m. or 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The evening session on Thursday will be a closing session.

A draft plan is expected to be available this fall. For more information on the process, visit downtownsuffolk.org.