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Plan unveiled to revitalize Charleston

By Laura Reston

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Today, parking lots have replaced some historic buildings in downtown Charleston, many thoroughfares no longer have a strong pedestrian presence, and vacant storefronts dot the urban landscape.

Dan Vriendt, director of the Charleston Planning Department, hopes to reverse the trend.

On Thursday afternoon at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Vriendt unveiled a draft of the "Imagine Charleston" plan -- a bold proposal to reshape and revitalize the city.

Consultants from LSL Planning and MKSK have spent the last 18 months conducting countless focus groups and interviews that they condensed into the plan revealed Thursday.

The plan addresses four central issues -- neighborhood and land use; transportation and infrastructure; quality of life; and the downtown.

According to Bradley Strader, president of LSL Planning, Charleston needs vibrant neighborhoods and better housing options to attract a variety of inhabitants.

Craig Gossman, a lead planning consultant with MKSK, agreed that housing should be the top priority as the city considers revitalization.

"We really feel very strongly that Charleston's housing stock must be elevated," Gossman said.

Strader wants to make more apartments and homes available for renters. These houses could attract seniors, who need homes with wide hallways and fewer stairs, and students, who might gravitate toward low-rent apartments downtown or near the ballpark.

"We have to think of rental housing in a positive way," Strader said.

Strader also argued that the city should alter existing land use patterns.

Today, Charleston has too much land devoted to commercial establishments, Strader said. That policy has left vacant storefronts throughout the city.

Mixed-use housing could ease that problem, Strader said.

He envisions downtown retail establishments that house people on the second or third floors. The proposal would increase population density downtown and encourage pedestrian traffic and nightlife, Strader said.

Consultants also proposed several plans to provide new modes of safe and convenient transportation.

Strader suggested that the city should narrow the four lanes on Kanawha Boulevard, remove the middle barrier, and add two-way bike paths. The narrower lanes would slow down traffic and create a more pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare, Strader said.

Strader added that the city could also implement a similar plan on Virginia and Quarrier streets.

Gossman agreed.

"We need to think about pedestrian needs instead of just the fastest way to get through downtown," he said.

Suggestions to improve the quality of life included adding new farmers' markets and grocery stores that sell fresh, affordable foods.

Strader said that the city could also work on fitness and community health by adding more green spaces, sidewalks, and bike paths.

Gossman elaborated on specific proposals to revitalize downtown Charleston.

According to Gossman, poorly implemented urban renewal projects have left some downtown areas dingy and unappealing.

He pointed out that high property costs, high labor costs but low rent costs often discourage developers from building new housing downtown. Furthermore, empty parking lots occupy space and discourage foot traffic, he said.

Gossman outlined ways that "Imagine Charleston" can combat these problems.

He hopes to use local resources to redevelop downtown Charleston, make use of Charleston's impressive history and location, embrace a distinct identity for downtown, treat that downtown "urban core" as an important Charleston neighborhood, and establish a "professional urban core management authority."

Such proposals would yield an immediate return on investment and they have already placed Charleston on track to become a "world-class destination," Gossman said.

Consultants have posted the full "Imagine Charleston" plan online at www.imaginecharleston.com. The public can comment and offer feedback over the next two to three weeks. Consultants will incorporate suggestions into a final proposal for the Municipal Planning Commission and Charleston City Council.Reach Laura Reston at laura.reston@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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