WHETHER you call it a “village,” or “downtown,” or “main street,” the idea is generally the same: Give people a place where they can live, shop and maybe even work without getting into a car. A place that is distinctly local and offers a sense of tight-knit community where there had been none before.
Around here, there’s Ladysmith Village and Spotsylvania Courthouse Village, both of which were broached in the 2000s and continue to develop today. At the discussion and planning stages now are the Villages at King George Crossroads and Downtown Stafford.
For each of the localities that are looking at such a plan, there is well-founded trepidation. Is this something we want? Will it succeed? Is it going to change the way we live for better, or for worse?
Sometimes people look askance at such plans because they are generally the brainchild of a developer who may be pitching the plan in visionary terms as the lifestyle of the future, though everyone knows the primary objective is to make money.
While the planned town idea may sound foreign to the community for which it is proposed, the concept itself is far from new. The trend has its roots as a backlash to the push into the suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s when people—including developers—realized the automobile or public transit could deliver them from the loud, busy city where they worked to a quiet, comfortable community they could call home.
As tiers of development extended to these far-flung areas, it was perhaps inevitable that shopping centers, malls and eventually planned towns and cities would follow sooner or later. Cities like Reston, which got its start in the early 1960s, and Columbia, Md., a few years later, aimed to bring the benefits of organized, urban-style development to rural and suburban localities without the downsides that trouble older cities.
In recent years, Reston has been rated among the best places to live in Virginia and in the United States.
The much smaller scale Ladysmith Village, developed initially by Jay Jarrell and his Ladysmith LLC partners and now Newland Communities, has grown into the town center that was envisioned, particularly with a library, YMCA and elementary school now part of the mix. Approved for 3,170 housing units on 780 acres, it rolled with the punch of the economic downturn and is recovering nicely. The big, old-style clock in the town green is as iconic as a symbol can get in less than 20 years.
Spotsylvania Courthouse Village, developed by William Vakos III, has the advantage of proximity to the county’s seat of government and supplements county office space. Being close to Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield ties it to local history. Planned for 1,500 housing units on 300 acres, it also has continued to grow after weathering the downturn. Brick apartment and office buildings with classic architecture enhance the setting, while ground-level shops provide an inviting restaurant and retail environment.
In King George, a rezoning request for a 110-acre mixed-use development with 450 housing units, restaurants, stores, offices and an urgent-care clinic is about to go before the county Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission. Villages at King George Crossroads would be along State Route 3 a short distance from the King George Courthouse.
Density is a legitimate concern when such projects are proposed for a small town/rural area, but as described, build-out would be gradual and take about 10 years. As King George continues to grow—no choice there—it makes sense to address it in a forward-thinking way.
In addition to welcoming the public’s thoughts and doing their own homework, county officials would do well to draw on the experiences of Caroline and Spotsylvania counties to help them know what to expect if they choose to create a town from scratch.
That applies as well to Stafford County officials, who are gathering ideas for Downtown Stafford, a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development across from the courthouse. They envision a museum-anchored community with single- and multi-family housing, street-level retail shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.
These projects aim to provide counties with appealing, identifiable town centers in addition to their courthouse communities and Bowling Green in Caroline. For so many years, Fredericksburg has served as their hub for commerce and culture. Not that there’s anything wrong with being Fredericksburg-centric, but there’s something to be said for wanting a bit of small-town charm of your own—certainly unique, if not historic.
Decisions on projects such as these will have a lasting impact and should be reached only after a deliberative and collaborative process involving county officials, developers and the public.