Archive for the ‘Urban Planning’ Category

The Daily News Leader staff changed the title, but my letter to the editor was published in today’s paper. I wrote this letter about The Centre at Staunton because the press was only covering the economic and monetary issues associated with the development. I wanted to ensure that other concerns (i.e. cultural, environmental, aesthetic) were brought to the discussion so that the development that gets built successfully caters to the needs of the City of Staunton and its residents.

I recognize that the property in question is privately owned and the owners are entitled to develop it in any manner that is deemed appropriate by local zoning laws, but I wanted to point out that the general public will experience some of the positives and negatives that the development will bring. Thus, we should have a voice in how it is designed.


Earlier today Lauren Fulbright of the Daily News Leader reported that the Frontier Culture museum is negotiating a lease agreement with Petrie Ross Ventures, an Annapolis-based development firm, to build a shopping center on 40 acres of land owned by the Museum.

The new development, if it passes several stages of approval, will be called the Centre at Staunton. The property in question is situated along Route 250 and next to the Sheetz gas station. Eight and a half acres of this land has already been leased to a company called Awasawa, which plans to build an artisan center on the site. The DeJarnette Center is also located on this parcel (a historic landmark I have discussed many times in the past), and it sounds as if the development firm will have to knock it down to make room for their mixed-use development with “retail, banking, restaurants, theater/artisans center, museum and hospitality.”

Translation: big-box stores, chain restaurants, and parking spaces.

I’m not shocked by this announcement because the Frontier Culture Museum, including former Mayor John Avoli, has tried to entice other developers to purchase this parcel of land. According to Fulbright “the museum spent three years negotiating with a company called Dierman/Regency to put a retail center on the site, the deal fell through about a year and a half ago.”

However, I must say that I’m disappointed in this news for several reasons:

  • The DeJarnette Center will be demolished: I’m an advocate for historic preservation, smart growth, adaptive re-use, and infill development. Historic buildings, including the DeJarnette Center, can teach us about the past, and help us find ways to build a brighter future.The DeJarnette Center may have a sullied reputation, but its architecture is astonishing and unmatched by anything we build today. Plus, the building has already been constructed (although it could use a few touch-ups) and the infrastructure is in place so the developers and the City don’t have to spend additional money on new materials and utilities. The developers want to build a hotel on the property — why not leave the DeJarnette Center and turn it into an attractive and unique hotel? Just look at how attractive the Villages at Staunton will be!
  • The new development will mar the entrance corridor: Local officials for the City of Staunton have been working on an Entrance Corridor Overlay District that will restrict the types of development that can occur in the City’s entrance corridors. The Overlay District is intended to beautify the City; protect cultural, scenic, and natural resources; and promote sustainable development. The Frontier Culture Museum is situated along Route 250 and Interstate 81, one of the biggest corridors in the City. This area is already dominated with big-box retailers and chain restaurants. The open green space on the Museum’s property served as pleasant reminder of the area’s rural character, and it was a great entrance because it clearly delineated the City’s boundary. Tourists and motorists knew when they were leaving the County and entering the City. The new development will blur this line and deminish the land’s ascetic values.
  • The development will pull business away from Downtown Staunton: The Centre at Staunton? First of all, we’re in the United States not the United Kingdom. We say “center” not “centre.” Petrie Ross Ventures completely ignored the local (actually national) vernacular. However, they were very clever in their attempt to use British terminology to disguise the fact that they are adding to Staunton/Augusta County’s sprawl and haphazard commercial strip. The “Centre at Staunton” is laughable because it is not located in the center of the City, and if this development is built it will only draw business away from the City’s center, its historic downtown. The development should be called the “Periphery at Staunton: On the outside looking in.”

The City of Staunton is fortunate to have a vibrant downtown district with beautiful buildings, thriving businesses, and a strong sense of community. It takes decades for areas like Staunton to develop organically, and once it’s gone it’s difficult to replace. City officials, local residents, and developers should make stronger efforts to protect this unique area. If I could impart one message to Petrie Ross Ventures and the City of Staunton it would be: Grow in not out. We should try to reinforce the City’s urban core while conserving the periphery.

Plus, in a time of rising gas prices doesn’t it make more sense to develop more walkable communities?

I will write more on this issue later in the week once I’ve had more time to examine the developer’s proposal and think about the pertinent issues.

At the 76th Annual Meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors, presidential hopeful Barack Obama talked about the future of urban development in America.

Barack said that “we need to strengthen our cities. But we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution. Because strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America.” [quote not in YouTube video]

The New York Times quotes Obama as saying that the federal government should provide aid in building and repairing the roads, rail networks, electrical grids, water systems and telecommunications networks that stitch together metropolitan areas.

Barack, where you reading my blog last week? I said the same thing: “Cities are the solution as compact and walkable urban areas are the most sustainable forms of development.”

Barack, you keep trying to win me over. First you played basketball with the North Carolina Tarheels, then you rode your bike around an urban Chicago neighborhood, and now you’re apparently reading my blog (that’s a laugh).

What’s next?

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has created a Farm-to-School program to get more locally-grown fresh fruit and vegetables into the diets of school teachers, students, and employees. The Farm-to-School program will bring farmers and schools together in a common goal to attack the problem of childhood obesity and provide better nutrition through consumption of fresh produce. The agency has created a website to match farmers with school food service directors.

Currently, Virginia schools spend approximately six million dollars on fruit and vegetables. The Farm-to-School program will open the door for more of that money to go to Virginia farmers so that they can sustain their agricultural operations. Todd P. Haymore, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner said that “this is a win-win situation for Virginia’s children and for Virginia’s farmers.”

The Buy Fresh, Buy Local movement is growing in Virginia, and the Farm-to-School program will only bolster it. However, I would like to see the program take the local food initiative a step further. The program should provide funds for schools to create community gardens. The gardens would be on school grounds, and students, teachers, parents, and members of the surrounding community could help grow the crops and harvest the produce. The community garden would be interactive classrooms for the students as they could learn first hand how to grow food and eat healthy. Furthermore, the gardens would give parents, teachers, and community members the opportunity to socialize and participate in school-wide activities.

Where would they put the gardens? How about on top of the schools’ roofs. Ever school I’ve ever been to has had a flat roof — perfect for green roofs. So, why not combine a green roof with a community garden. The students could learn about food and green technologies, and the schools would benefit from nutritious produce; healthy, active students, faculty, and employees; and energy savings.

Remember, you are what you eat.

On June 20 Monocle Magazine released its list of the Top Ten Most Livable Cities in the World. In order to devise this list Monocle Magazine identified the components and forces that make a city not simply attractive or wealthy but truly liveable. Monocle wanted to look “beyond the recycling bins and congestion charges to see what makes for a liveable city… Tolerance, punctual transit, plenty of sunshine and the ability to get a drink in the wee hours all count for something.”

Here is a list of the actual metrics used:

  • International, long-haul connections combined with a well-managed, thoughtfully designed airport
  • Murder rates and domestic burglaries
  • State education and health care
  • Hours of sunshine and average temperatures
  • Communications, connectivity, tolerance and the ease of getting a drink after 1:00 am
  • Cost/quality of public transport and taxis
  • Strength of local media
  • Availability and range of international print media
  • Access to nature
  • Amount of green space
  • Key environmental initiatives

Now, here is the list of the Top Ten Most Livable Cities in the World.

  1. Munich
  2. Copenhagen
  3. Zurich
  4. Tokyo
  5. Vienna
  6. Helsinki
  7. Sydney
  8. Stockholm
  9. Honolulu
  10. Madrid

Why do these cities have in common? They’re not located in the continental United States (sure, Honolulu made it but its basically its own country in the middle of the Pacific Ocean).

New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and even Portland failed to make the list. I’m guessing the crime rates in most American cities kept them out of the Top Ten. What can we do to make our cities world-class? More comprehensive public transportation? Stronger environmental initiatives? Better leadership?

All of the above and more…

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine stopped by Staunton today at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center to address the attendees of the Virginia United Land Trust (VaULT) conference. The Governor mentioned that land preservation was one of his top priorities as Governor, if not THE top priority (early childhood education is another major priority along with transportation and health care). Governor Kaine talked about his goals for land preservation in Virginia and the need for a strong private/public partnership in order to accomplish these goals. Kaine has pledged to preserve 400,000 acres of land during his term, and he was confident that Virginia can accomplish this goal under his reign. Additionally, he recognized that the state’s land preservation and conservation efforts must continue after his term is finished in order for the state to protect its most important historic, scenic, and natural resources.

The VaULT conference is a three-day event, and the conference includes a number of tours and field trips around Staunton. This year’s VaULT Conference has drawn land preservation advocates from across the state, and the participants are attending a series of seminars and workshops to learn the ins-and-outs of land conservation.

This TED Talk features New York Times food writer Mark Bittman. Mark Bittman is a bestselling cookbook author, journalist and television personality, and in this talk he weighs in on what’s wrong with the way we eat now (too much meat, too few plants; too much fast food, too little home cooking), and why it’s putting the entire planet at risk.

The bottom line: we need to eat less meat, less junk food, and more plants. We don’t need meat to survive, and we certainly don’t need junk food. We need to reform our agricultural practices and eating habits so that we can return to a more natural and healthy way of living.

Trees are the lungs, water filters, and air conditioners of our cities as they clean the air, purify surface water, and cool urban heat islands. According to the article “The Power of Trees — Investing in Natural Capital” by a Virginia Tech research group, trees provide more than $400 billion in stormwater, air quality, and energy benefits every year in the United States.

On a smaller scale, a large tree in your front yard can save you about $29 in summertime AC costs, absorb 10 pounds of air pollutants, intercept 760 gallons of rainfall in its crown, and clean 330 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Furthermore, trees are good because they…

  • Increase property values
  • Enhance aesthetics
  • Make us feel safe
  • Block bursts of wind
  • Provide wildlife habitats
  • Have a traffic calming effect
  • Decrease aggressive behavior
  • Reduce stress
  • Provide a space for children to play
  • Create buffer zones
  • Provide shade
  • Increase community pride

So, plant a tree and reap the rewards!

A conservation easement is a land preservation agreement between a landowner and a governmental or non-profit organization that places permanent development limits on a property. The terms are negotiated between the landowner and the conservation organization, but generally the landowner continues to own, use, and control the land.

An easement can be used to protect family farms, wildlife habitats, water resources, undeveloped land, historic sites and scenic vistas. Furthermore, easement donors are eligible for local, state, and federal tax benefits.

This morning Lauren Fulbright of the Daily News Leader reported that an investment firm is in the process of purchasing the old Robert E. Lee High School and Guardian Angel Catholic Regional School on Churchville Avenue in Staunton. Octagon Partners wants to purchase the facility, and the reported asking price is $1.6 million.

In the past Octagon Partners has purchased historic buildings in Culpeper and Charlottesville and has used these structures for office space, commercial entities, and residential dwelling units.

Personally, I’m excited about this news. I’m a big proponent of reusing existing structures and preserving historic resources (see my posts on the DeJarnette Center and Western State Hospital). It’s always good to see old landmarks preserved and put to good use — especially in a historic town like Staunton.

So, what should the developers do with the old R.E. Lee High School? At first glance, I think that the campus would be perfect for an upscalehotel. The campus is extremely beautiful, it has plenty of large rooms perfect for hotel suites, and it is within a short walk of Staunton’s burgeoning downtown. However, I don’t think that there is much demand for hotels in Staunton, and the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center is the pride-and-joy of the City. The next logical development is either office/residential or just residential. The Old YMCA and the Villages at Staunton are prime examples of successful up-scale condominiums in Staunton, and I think the R. E. Lee High School could be just as successful.

Another question facing the developer is what to do with the large green space in front of the school. The actual school building sits on a hill, and at the base of the hill is a large field that was once used for football and is now used for pickup soccer games. I think the developers should either keep it open to the public (and impromptu soccer games) or turn it into a community garden (either landscape or edible). The success of the local farmer’s market and the new push for local food might make a community garden a major attraction for the renovated site.

Nevertheless, I’ll look forward to see how this project progresses in the future.