Get downtown plan approved

Published 9:12 pm Thursday, May 17, 2018

City leaders love to say that downtown Suffolk does not have a parking problem — it has a parking perception problem.

There is plenty of parking, they say. People just don’t know how to get to it, aren’t sure whether they’re allowed to park in certain places or think it’s too far to walk if they can’t park right in front of their destination.

The same can be said for downtown as a whole. Downtown Suffolk is a great place, as many residents and businesses can attest. It just has a perception problem.

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Folks not in the know, which includes almost everybody from outside of Suffolk, don’t even realize that Suffolk has a downtown with great shops and restaurants — or if they do, they think it’s Harbour View. Conversely, almost everybody from outside of Norfolk knows about the renovated Waterside. Everybody from outside of Virginia Beach knows about Town Center. Downtown Suffolk suffers from a lack of promotion as a destination.

People who do come downtown find an area that can sometimes seem deserted or unsafe, especially at night. They encounter out-of-shape sidewalks and aren’t sure where to park if there’s not a spot right in front of their destination.

The new Downtown Master Plan recommended for approval this week by the Planning Commission aims to help address downtown’s perception problem as well as its actual problems.

The plan by consultant firm Benchmark Planning proposes three big capital projects — a new library square, a festival square and a new mixed-use residential area.

There are also multiple improvements that will make downtown more approachable and accessible, both in perception and in reality. Bigger, better-looking sidewalks are planned, as are other streetscape improvements.

For the plan to be successful, items both large — like the new library square — and small, like improving the sidewalks and providing al fresco dining space, will need to be completed to bring downtown to life and make it worth living.

Of course, approval of the Master Plan doesn’t mean the projects will actually get done. That will require a City Council, over multiple years and multiple elections, that is willing to provide funding and push the plans forward. Completion of the plan won’t happen next year or even five years from now, but there should continue to be meaningful progress every year.

City Council should approve this plan when it arrives in chambers next month and then get started seeing it to fruition.