City Eyes Master Plan For Downtown With Community Input

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August 03, 2021
City Eyes Master Plan For Downtown With Community Input
DNR 8/3/21

For some, the thought of urban development might conjure images of slick-talking businesspeople bulldozing beloved community sites in favor of a high-rise apartment or parking lot.
There was a different picture at the #DreamDowntown pop-up events from July 23 to 25, which are part of Harrisonburg’s urban development plan, Downtown 2040. The city of Harrisonburg and Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance are partnering in a community-based approach to urban design in an initiative called Harrisonburg Downtown 2040. This initiative has touched the ground through a steering committee, a virtual map and multiple pop-up and town hall-style events.
“At our #DreamDowntown pop-up events, we did one outside of Pale Fire where people were walking around with beers, another one outside of Magpie Diner while people were waiting to eat and the third at Court Square aiming to catch people after church on Sunday,” said Andrea Dono, executive director of HDR. “The events were highly interactive. We had people that stayed for over an hour engaging with us.”
Organizers said some common changes people wanted to see were making walking spaces wider and reducing truck traffic on Main Street.
At the pop-up events, there was an activity where people could design their own street using templates that represented bicycle lanes, sidewalks and other features.
Downtown has seen bright days in the past. Retail giants including Sears once made downtown a retail center, drawing economic activity. With the construction of the Valley Mall, there was a mass exodus of retail from downtown and much economic vitality went with it.
“The mid-90s were definitely a low point for downtown,” said Brian Shull, Harrisonburg’s economic development director. “There were lots of vacancies. One of the first assignments on my desk in ‘98 was related to development.”
Shull said Harrisonburg follows Virginia Main Street, a program of Main Street America and National Main Street Center. These organizations approach development from a community-based standpoint and have a dedicated planning staff.
Dono said the latest initiative started with City Manager Eric Campbell.
“Since HDR was established in 2003, we’ve been looking at the idea of implementing a master plan for downtown,” Dono said. “When Eric Campbell became city manager in 2018, he asked us what our master plan was for downtown.”
Interface Studio is the consulting group that the city is partnering with for the project. The studio’s principal, Scott Page, called it a community-based urban design firm, and said the team is taking a grassroots approach to brainstorming the vision for downtown. The studio is working with the city to build a comprehensive plan for downtown, which will be presented after research concludes in the fall.
“I started out at one of those big development firms. I didn’t really like what I saw, so I started Interface Studio. We don’t just build a plan and say, ‘See ya,’” Page said. “We plan out steps for every action item for the city to take, considering the existing infrastructure and all of the data we collect. There’s an advantage to having an outside organization come in for a project like this. We have no biases, and we can come in and gather data on what the people who live here really want for their downtown.”
Past development projects have gone on at the expense of communities such as the Northeast neighborhood, a historically Black area. Page said previous projects were also misguided.
“The projects were misguided in that they assumed downtown should be car-centric,” Page said. “They were racist in that they were built on top of existing Black neighborhoods.”
The steering committee for the initiative is made up of a cross section of the Harrisonburg community, including leaders from businesses, the Northeast Neighborhood Association, church ministers and more.
“The role of these leaders is to link our initiative with all of the communities in Harrisonburg,” Page said. “We want these leaders to talk with their community groups and then report back to us so we can build an inclusive plan.”
Page said the group is “in the data collection phase right now.”
“There will be more pop-ups, and we are posting a virtual version of the previous pop-up activities in the coming weeks so anyone can engage with them,” he said. “We will then take some of the most popular ideas and return to the community in the fall to see if we understood people correctly and if they still like the ideas. We will continue to refine from there, getting feedback from the community every step of the way until we have a comprehensive plan.”
Once Interface Studio delivers a comprehensive plan, the city will take over and implement it as is feasible.
“There will probably be items financed by the city’s budget on the comprehensive plan,” Shull said. “It will go to City Hall at that point to be put into practice.”