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City unveils downtown revitalization project

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - New bike paths, improved green space and updates to residential housing, among other ideas, are all part of Charleston's proposed new comprehensive redevelopment plan and downtown redevelopment plans, which were released to the public on Thursday.

The plans are essentially a "road map of where the city wants to go," said Dan Vriendt, director of the Charleston Planning Department. The new plan will be the basis for actions the city takes, from zoning to private-public partnerships to capital improvements.

The downtown plan is really a chapter in the city's comprehensive, or overall plan, but is detailed enough to be its own document. Vriendt compared the comprehensive plan as a "20,000-foot view" of the city, while the downtown plan is a "10,000-foot view."

The last comprehensive plan was developed in 1996, and the last downtown plan was written even earlier. The point of the latest plan is to provide the city and all city departments with a general list of priorities and projects the city should undertake and/or encourage.

Craig Gossman, a principal with MKSK, a Columbus, Ohio, based consulting firm that helped write the new plan, said housing is the biggest issue facing Charleston.

"Charleston's housing stock must be elevated," he said.

The plan calls for housing improvements, including new "infill" housing, which generally refers to new housing projects for lots on which a building doesn't currently exist. Those would be built by private developers, of course, but would be encouraged by the city in the current plan.

The construction of rentals shouldn't be discouraged, either, said Brad Strader, president and managing partner of LSL Planning, another consulting firm associated with the plan.

"Younger generations are not as sure that owning a home is the right thing," he said.

Gossman said in meetings the consultants had with Charleston residents, some of the biggest changes requested for downtown and elsewhere in the city were "bikeability," walkability, and the improvement of sidewalks. The plan addresses those concerns.

For cyclists, the plan includes a new, two-way bike path along Kanawha Boulevard completely separate from vehicle travel lanes and from sidewalks used by pedestrians.

Gossman said the section of path from the Patrick Street Bridge on the West Side to Magic Island is already in its design phase in partnership with the West Virginia Division of Highways.

Biking corridors also are to be established along Virginia and Quarrier streets on the East End, although there won't be designated bike lanes because those streets are too narrow.

Making it easier for people to walk to destinations is also addressed in the plan, particularly for the more urbanized downtown, East End, West Side and Kanawha City neighborhoods. Mixed-use commercial and residential corridors in each of those neighborhoods are planned.

The plan for the downtown area calls for more housing and infill buildings with the goal of increasing the number of people downtown after the work day and providing a neighborhood where residents can walk to a wide variety of businesses.

"How does downtown truly start to become a neighborhood?" Gossman said.

Slack Plaza and Brawley Walkway should be upgraded to tie in better with both downtown and the Charleston Town Center mall, which Grossman said is a very important retail hub for the area. In terms of sales per square foot, he said, the mall is one of the highest-performing in the Midwest.

There are problems separate from the plan that need to be addressed, Gossman and Strader said.

For example, Gossman pointed out that in Charleston, the cost of purchasing real estate is high, but rents are generally low, making investment less attractive than in other areas.

Strader said he noticed that more positive outlooks are needed to help promote the city. If visitors see negative attitudes from residents, he said, they are less likely to return or invest in the city.

The plans are about 90 pages each, and can be viewed online at www.imaginecharleston.com by clicking the "Exhibits" link.

The public is encouraged to comment on the plans during the next three weeks either through the website or by calling the Charleston Planning Department. After that, the plan will be revised and go to the Charleston Planning Commission, and then city council, for approval.

Contact writer Matt Murphy at Matt.Murphy@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817.

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