Planners green-light downtown plan

Published 10:15 pm Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Suffolk’s Planning Commission voted unanimously to recommend a new Suffolk Downtown Master Plan for approval during the Tuesday afternoon meeting.

The city hired Benchmark Planning to assist in putting together the plan, which included plans for a new library square, a festival square and new mixed use residential area.

Jason Epley, president of Benchmark Planning, presented the new Suffolk Downtown Master Plan.

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Benchmark Planning focused its efforts on the 160 acres of the downtown area, and they did so with input from city officials and the public as well as their own research and analysis.

The proposed library square would encompass where Morgan Memorial Library currently sits across from City Hall. The plans and renderings included a multi-building structure, with the main library anchored in the center.

In the plans, Epley focused on having the “library of the future.”

“Libraries are changing. They are not what they used to be,” Epley said. “You are looking for an experience, not just to read a book.”

Epley laid out three options for the focus of the new library — a focus on education, a focus on small business and a focus on living. All of these would leverage additional development and partnerships surrounding the area, according to Epley.

With a focus on education, Epley suggested having a magnet school, a museum, a technical school or community college.

The other two options — small business and living — featured the additional buildings being focused on shared work spaces or residential opportunities.

The parking lot behind the courthouse would be the location of the proposed festival and market square. The parking behind the courthouse is underutilized during evenings and weekends, according to Epley, and this would provide a space for festivals, live music, holiday events and markets in the downtown area.

The plan showed the possibility of street vendors and an outdoor dining area or beer garden on the promenade.

They acknowledged the parking concern people may have with a festival area behind the courthouse. Only 44 spaces would be affected by the concept, but the parking at the Commerce Street lot would help absorb spaces lost, according to Epley. Their plans also suggested moving the city assessor’s office and bulldozing the building to accommodate more parking.

The plan would not affect the parking spots set aside for judges and law enforcement.

East Washington Street was a focal point for the mixed use residential and historic rehab in the proposed master plan.

Proposed is a public and private partnership to spark redevelopment in the area, and roughly 142 residential units located across from the Social Services building.

Beautifying the streetscape on North Main Street was also proposed to encourage new retail and restaurants as well as foot traffic.

Major improvements would include managing the paving and landscaping not only to prevent injury but also to make the space look beautiful. Doing so would encourage more foot traffic in the area and the possibility for outdoor dining, according to Epley.

To make outdoor dining possible, Epley suggested narrowing North Main Street to give an additional four feet to the sidewalks. This would make each lane 11 feet wide, while the parking spot would only shrink by three inches.

City Council will vote on the proposed Suffolk Downtown Master Plan at 7 p.m. June 20.