THE largest downtown development project ever proposed in Fredericksburg’s long history will apparently proceed without turning the 1000 block of Douglas Street into a “pedestrian promenade,” as previously requested by Vakos Cos. affiliate William Square.
We would ordinarily object to handing over a functioning city street to a private developer. But in this particular case, because the new development would be located on a long-vacant site near the old Free Lance–Star building, and would reportedly include a 98-room hotel and two apartment buildings that would generate a lot of foot traffic, it made a certain amount of sense to reroute traffic and use the vacated street as an outside public amenity.
What didn’t make sense was the way the City Council handled the process.
On June 26, the Planning Commission voted 6–1 against approval of the Vakos project because commissioners said it conflicted with the city’s Comprehensive Plan by reducing already scarce on-street parking and changing established traffic patterns. They also said that vacating Douglas Street between William and Amelia streets would set a bad precedent for future development.
But these legitimate concerns were ignored by the City Council, which voted on July 9 to ignore the Planning Commission’s recommendation and approve the Vakos project anyway.
On July 24, city staff and representatives from Vakos held a public meeting belatedly seeking residents’ input before the council’s second and final vote, then scheduled for Aug. 13. However, at this point, it seemed pretty obvious that this was merely window dressing on a done deal.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Council members were informed by staff after the fact that city assets—including streets—could not legally be given away without a two-thirds supermajority vote of the council. That would have been nice to know before the first vote.
Had council members taken the time to address the Planning Commission’s objections, or even waited for the city attorney to review the request for a pedestrian promenade instead of rushing to approve this massive project, they might have spared themselves some embarrassment.
As it happened, Vakos withdrew its request for the Douglas Street right-of-way, and announced that it would not appeal the Planning Commission’s decision either. “We have not come to this decision lightly, but after carefully listening to the concerns of area residents, we believe that this is in the best interest of the City and our projects,” Vakos President Bill Vakos Jr., and Tom Wack, head of Wack General Contractor, stated in a letter to City Manager Tim Baroody.
And because the Vakos project is a by-right development and does not require any rezoning, according to the city manager, the company can now proceed to construction without further council approval. Any leverage Douglas Street gave the city to help shape the downtown project is gone, a wasted opportunity. And it’s too late for council members to go back for a redo.
The same unnecessary rush-to-judgment was also on display when the council voted to reverse last year’s decision to keep what was thought to be a slave auction block on the corner of William and Charles streets. The vote to remove the block came before the Architectural Review Board was asked to weigh in—and before historians and archaeologists examining the stone concluded that it was more likely a signpost instead.
Next time, the council should keep the old proverb about how “haste makes waste” firmly in mind.