New park now part of downtown master plan

Published 8:30 pm Monday, November 1, 2021

City Council unanimously approved changes to the downtown master plan to incorporate the new location for a festival event site.

The changes are needed, according to the city’s business development manager Deanna Holt, because the city recently acquired property along South Saratoga and West Washington streets that it will use as part of a new Festival Event Park.

Council was first briefed on the festival event site during a September retreat and adopted the changes at its Oct. 20 meeting following a public hearing.

A staff analysis of the changes proposed to the downtown master plan said the new property will allow the city to have a larger event space closer to shops and restaurants.

The original courthouse site behind North Main Street, which had been known as Festival and Market Square in the plan, will turn into a smaller site known as Courthouse Park, which will be used for smaller performances and events, such as a beer garden or an art show, Holt said.

“The city would like to maintain this area as the Courthouse Park and continue to use it for events like we do with the Taste of Suffolk and any other smaller events that we may have throughout the year,” Holt said.

The Festival and Market Square concept was designed to address a need that had been described in the downtown master plan for a location the city could use to host festivals, live music events and create an area to attract residents and visitors to downtown. The space at the southern end of the parking lot behind the courthouse was to have a stage used for live events and part of the parking lot would be closed off with portable barriers, allowing people to bring chairs and blankets to sit on.

“One of the problems with this concept is we would be taking away parking during the events,” Holt said, “and secondly, people would be sitting and standing on a paved surface, which gets extremely hot during the summer months.”

The city would also have been using the parking lot for parking during the week when events were not scheduled. The new Festival Event Park would add parking to downtown, Holt and other city officials have said.

The city’s purchase of downtown property came following an Aug. 4, 2020, tornado that moved through parts of the downtown area along South Saratoga and West Washington streets. It heavily damaged a building on the site, which was later demolished.

The new Festival Event Park project has funding through the city’s Capital Improvement Program and Plan, with $150,000 set aside for the current fiscal year 2022 for a festival/events venue and Market Hall. An additional $250,000 is slated for fiscal year 2023 and $300,000 for fiscal year 2024, but council will have to approve those amounts when it approves subsequent CIPs.

The notable changes to the downtown master plan, according to the staff report, include updating a section on short-term redevelopment opportunities to include the new event site and a new description of Courthouse Park.

It also adds Festival Event Park as a new event site and updates the description of the courthouse site to be known as Courthouse Park. The updated plan updates related depictions of the two locations.

“Because of circumstances with the hurricane and the tornado that came through, we now have this opportunity to move this to this area, which I think is a much better area for them for the festival park,” said Councilman Donald Goldberg.

The downtown master plan, first adopted in June 2018, is a component of the city’s 2035 comprehensive plan. That plan was adopted, Holt noted, to address key issues in the core downtown area.

The Planning Commission unanimously recommended the changes to the downtown master plan at its Sept. 21 meeting, and no one spoke during the public hearing before council adopted the amended plan.

“This is a very, very welcome addition to our downtown master plan,” said Mayor Mike Duman. “And it is unfortunate that several buildings were destroyed by weather conditions, but I guess they say there’s a silver lining to every cloud, and I am more than excited to see this project come to fruition because it does provide a permanent venue with some green space that will be able to be utilized by all our citizens, even if they’re coming downtown just to visit.”