By David Durham
On December 8, 2021, the Fredericksburg Planning Commission voted unanimously (with one member absent) to recommend approval of various changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan associated with the small area planning process for Area 1, the portion of the city west of I-95 (including the Central Park and Celebrate Virginia South developments among others). It is expected that City Council will begin its consideration of the proposed Comprehensive Plan changes in January, 2022.
The proposed changes represent an attempt to create a vision for the medium- and long-term transformation of Area 1 from the late twentieth century retail dominated, car focused environment in existence to a more modern, mixed-use environment with a more diverse and healthier ecosystem of land uses accessible via a variety of modes of transportation (transit, pedestrian, bicycles, automobiles, etc.).
A major factor in this hoped for evolved development ecosystem is a new vision for parking. In the short term, Central Park will continue to be primarily accessed by automobiles, so the existing surface parking inventory will remain vital to the health of the businesses located there. However, it has become obvious that the built parking infrastructure is significantly more robust than is needed.
As with anything in land use, decisions that support certain beneficial outcomes usually have negative societal implications. This is the normal give and take of development. In this case, the existing sea of asphalt is a major contributor to the poor health of Hazel Run with consequences downstream for the Rappahannock River and the Chesapeake Bay. In addition, Central Park’s development is out of step with the character of the remainder of Fredericksburg. Rather than an appendage that is a world apart, the desire is to make all of Area 1 a part of Fredericksburg. As such, the vision is for Area 1 to transform over time into an urban form rather than its current suburban form.
During the Area 1 Small Area Plan development process the Planning Commission and the city’s Planning Division staff focused on this issue. We created a committee to engage with Central Park and Celebrate Virginia South property owners to understand their perspectives on the future of their properties. During those engagements, it was passed that because of retail stores heavy reliance on Black Friday for their annual sales. As such, despite their light use throughout the year, the vast Central Park parking lots must stay as they are to handle the volume of cars that pack the shopping center on that day.
With all this in mind, on November 26, 2021, I ventured out to Central Park to make some Black Friday observations. The following photos were taken at approximately 1:00 pm in the parking lots that service the southern portion of Central Park (i.e., the Hobby Lobby, Old Navy, Lowe’s, PetSmart, Ashley HomeStore, Best Buy, Office Depot big box store section).
As you see, even on the day of the year that without question requires the greatest level of parking availability, these massive seas of asphalt were dramatically underutilized. There’s no photo of the Target and Barnes & Noble parking lots because they were essentially full.
Now, this is no scientific study. There are many variables at play including time of day (I chose midday), strength of the retail sector (reportedly, 2021 nationwide Black Friday in store sales fell 28% from pre-pandemic (2019) levels), etc. But, for me, this exercise validated the effort of the Planning Division and the Planning Commission to establish a new vision for Area 1 and Central Park in particular. I do hope that Fredericksburg residents will review the draft changes including the “Regulating Plan: South End” portion that includes an exposition on a medium- and long-term vision for what is termed “Central Square.”
In combination with improved multi-modal transit infrastructure, this vital portion of the city is poised to redevelop into a more vibrant and connected part of Fredericksburg and I hope you will engage with City Council to let them know you support this vision.
David Durham is Chair of the Planning Commission for the City of Fredericksburg.