Ideas flourish in downtown meeting

Published 10:00 pm Friday, June 30, 2017

After a full week of conversation about the future of downtown Suffolk, one thing remains clear: There’s a lot of work to do.

But government officials, hired consultants and citizen participants alike were pleased with the amount of engagement that happened this week across four days of planned meetings where citizens discussed ideas with consultants, who in turn proposed a variety of improvements large and small that could make downtown a better place to live, work and play.

“You should congratulate yourself for your passionate interest in downtown,” said Dan Douglas with Benchmark Planning. Hundreds of people participated during four evening sessions and three afternoon drop-in sessions.

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“How fortunate we are that people really want to see something happen downtown,” Councilman Tim Johnson, who attended Thursday’s closing session, said on Friday. “I think people are ready to hook in and make things happen.”

The consultants had three big project suggestions — one on East Washington Street, one in midtown and one on West Washington Street.

On East Washington Street near its intersection with Hall Avenue, the consultants suggested renovating a row of dilapidated commercial buildings, including the former Phoenix Bank building, into apartments. Behind the apartments would be a park, playground and parking area.

Behind the courthouse, they suggested a park with a stage, amphitheater, storage area for chairs and such and vending.

“This is a stab to move the farmers’ market into the heart of downtown,” said Kris Krider with Benchmark Planning.

On West Washington Street, a “green square” is proposed with a new library on one side and “live-work” units, for sole proprietors such as lawyers or accountants, on the other side. On the side opposite the street could be an incubation kitchen, a makerspace with 3D printers and the like, or perhaps a commercial kitchen that could be rented.

The three proposals included no new retail space, the consultants noted. They estimated about 75,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space currently sits vacant in downtown and suggested focusing on filling what’s available before building more.

The consultants also suggested narrowing the driving lanes on North Main Street to make a wider sidewalk for pedestrian traffic and outdoor dining areas for restaurants.

Smaller proposals included seating areas scattered throughout downtown with amenities such as movable seating and outdoor ping-pong tables, new trees planted along sidewalks, crosswalks at ideal locations, wall murals and more.

Those in attendance were excited.

“I am excited about downtown and what these people are bringing forward,” Councilman Johnson said. “We need to do something to really broaden our horizons downtown. I honestly think you’re going to see this City Council jump on it.”

Downtown property owner Ralph Nahra said Friday he thinks the three specific areas proposed by the consultants are good starting points.

“I believe in the big picture and how you bring more people downtown,” he said. “I think we’re still missing that magnet to draw the people. The council participated in this, and I hope they will act on the recommendations, because everybody is ready for something downtown.”

Linda Bunch attended Thursday’s meeting to ensure arts and cultural aspects were not ignored in the project.

“I thought the consultants were very open-minded about ideas,” she said. “I thought their concept of trying to target these three areas rather than try to take on the whole downtown in one fell swoop makes it feel more doable.”

She said some business and property owners in downtown are still frustrated with how long it takes to get things done, especially if a project needs to go through the Historic Landmarks Commission.

“I’m hopeful overall,” she said. “One of the things I’m most impressed with was the number of citizens that showed up. I think that has got to send a message to the city folks that people do want something to happen.”

The consultants’ final plan is due to the city sometime in the fall, at which point the opportunity for more public input will be available. In the meantime, more information is available at