DOWNTOWN Fredericksburg’s small-town historic character adds to the city’s quality of life and economic vitality. Ensuring that new development complements this character is an important goal of the city.

Yet sometimes words are not matched by actions. The Vakos Co.’s William Square project is a case in point.

The Vakos Co.’s request to take over Douglas Street was the first time the public had a chance to comment on the largest development project at the gateway to our small historic downtown.

In the past, the city had robust community engagement that, while messy on occasion, resulted in an award-winning parking garage and boutique hotel. In the case of William Square, the discussion was limited to the permanent street closure issue.

In fact, if it was not for the street issue, there would have been no formal public engagement process. The project is “by-right” and the established process allowed limiting the discussion to the street closure. Instead, it should have been expanded to include the entire project. Such a dialogue would not have impeded the project.

City Council did have the opportunity to be involved in the project. However, in 2016 the council majority sold Vakos an “alley “on the project site for $23,500. A recommendation to hold off on that transaction until a project was on the table for discussion received no support.

As a result, instead of becoming a partner in developing the project, the city became a spectator.

At the Planning Commission meeting on the Douglas Street issue, members tried to get details on the project and its impact on downtown traffic and parking. But information on the project was not forthcoming, as the applicant was not prepared to discuss details. Questions on the project impacts were not considered relevant to the street closure issue.

Due in part to this lack of information, the commission voted 6–1 against recommending the street closure.

At its next meeting, a council majority overturned the Planning Commission‘s recommendation and approved the closure of Douglas Street based on information that had not been presented to the Planning Commission. A recommendation to present the new information to the Planning Commission for reconsideration was passed over.

The responses to questions about the project impact were the same: the project is “by-right” and/or the questions were not relevant to the street closure. Staff did acknowledge that the project plans were still in the works and that there was no specific commitment to parking.

At a meeting hosted by the Vakos Co. two weeks after the council’s first vote, some additional information was made available in the form of architectural drawings of some of the buildings. This brought about new questions.

However, these questions and others related to the project’s impact on traffic, parking, and future plans for the entire project remained unanswered. At this point, public involvement was over.

Three meetings were held in less than a month and a vote was taken in between. The questions and concerns expressed during the first meeting still remained unanswered after the third.

There will be new development downtown. It is also understood that there are costs and timing issues associated with development that need to be considered. But those considerations should not trump the city’s goals. This needs to be made clear early on in the process.

Public engagement is important. A thorough public process helps build consensus. A number of groups can assist in ensuring a successful project for all involved. The Mary Washington Preservation Department, the National Park Service, and the Clean & Green Commission have valuable expertise to bring to the table.

Discussions should not have been limited to the Douglas Street issue. The public should expect a more thorough explanation of the project and its impacts on traffic, parking and the downtown’s historic character.

To ensure William Square fits our downtown goals will necessitate more information, and more city involvement.

Matthew Kelly is an a Councilman, At-Large in the City of Fredericksburg.

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