City leaps at chance to rework 3 streets

Posted: May 23, 2013

The Winchester Star

Pictured are two conceptual designs considered by the city for new street routes at National Avenue, Piccadilly Street and East Lane.
An aerial of the area at the intersection of East Lane and Piccadilly Street as it exists. The properties the city has proposed buying are marked with their street number. The streets would be realigned under a city plan to enhance this area.

WINCHESTER — For decades, a three-block area of National Avenue (Va. 7), North East Lane and East Piccadilly Street has featured two 90-degree turns.

So why has the city decided that now is the time to spend well in excess of $1 million to buy 11 properties, demolish the structures on them and reconfigure the streets? Because, Jim Deskins said Wednesday, conditions will never be better.

Deskins, the executive director of the Winchester Economic Development Authority (EDA), said that earlier this year, some of the properties were in foreclosure and most of them are vacant.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said of the chance to acquire the properties at reasonable prices while most were not in use. “Some people have jumped in and gobbled them up at these foreclosure sales. But an opportunity presented itself, and [the city and EDA] moved as quickly as we could.”

City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to advance an ordinance authorizing the acquisition of six of 10 contiguous properties that extend from 221 N. East Lane (a separately platted part of a duplex) to 216 E. Piccadilly St. A seventh parcel, 247 E. Fairfax Lane, is included in the mass purchase.

Negotiations continue for the four remaining properties along that route — 228 and 236 E. Piccadilly St., which are in various stages of foreclosure and are controlled by a bank and a person — and 219 and 221 N. East Lane — both owned by the same couple.

Deskins said he “would hope” that sale agreements can be reached with all three owners.

“Clearly,” he said, “it is evident now that the city has decided that it’s going to move forward with this project.

“I think the reluctance by some of [the owners to sign sales contracts] is how do they know the city is going to go forward with this project? Tuesday’s decision should help with the negotiations.”

Leases to be honored

City Manager Dale Iman said Winchester officials want to avoid having to take over the remaining properties via eminent domain, but it might have to be used.

“I’ve been through enough negotiations to know when you reach an impasse,” he said. “When we reach an impasse, then we’ll look at other options.”

The EDA became part of the process because it could respond to the situation more quickly than the city, Deskins said. So with the councilors’ support, it began negotiations to try to get the properties under contract before the buildings were leased.

Only three structures on the 11 properties — including the Corner Store at the corner of Piccadilly and East Lane — have tenants now, Deskins said. Efforts will be made to insure that leases up to a year in duration are honored.

The city won’t allocate funds to realign the street until at least fiscal year 2015, he said, but it will demolish structures on the properties it buys and seed the lots.

“We don’t want,” Deskins said, “to sit around owning boarded-up houses.”

The wraps were taken off the project Tuesday night because of the time it will take for required City Council actions to be approved.

The EDA’s contracts with the five owners who have agreed to sales call for the council to have approved the funding for the purchases on or before June 19 and for the EDA to adopt a purchase resolution on or before June 26.

Discussions with property owners began in February or March, Deskins said. Since March 8, four of the lots have been bought by three different owners.

The $934,000 needed to pay for the properties under contract is expected to come from bonds that would be issued in FY14. City Council included $1 million in bond funding for the project in its budget for that fiscal year, which is slated for approval at the panel’s June 11 meeting.

The total current assessed value for those properties is $1,070,000, according to city real estate tax records. The properties not under contract have a total assessed value of $470,000.

Iman said the money for those purchases probably would come from city reserve funds.

“The first thing we need to do,” he said, “is get the properties under contract so we know the amount needed.”

Safety issues

Though the area has its drawbacks, the number of vehicle crashes from 310 National Ave. to 210 E. Piccadilly St. is relatively low. Winchester Police Department data indicates that seven crashes — mostly hit-and-runs — occurred there in 2012.

But Lauren Cummings, spokeswoman for the department, called the area “a major traffic safety concern.”

The two blind corners at the 90-degree turns are problematic, she said, and National Avenue’s conflicting intersection with one-way East Fairfax Lane often causes confusion. The area draws considerable pedestrian traffic, with the Corner Store, Timbrook Park and the Timbrook Public Safety Center all in the area, and police don’t know how many times pedestrians come close to being struck by vehicles.

Cummings said tractor-trailers occasionally get stuck while trying to negotiate the turns, and a few years ago a truck hit and brought down the front porch of a house there.

The department, she said, endorses the plans.

“We see the changes,” Cummings said, “as the city being proactive before a major incident occurs.”

Deskins agreed, saying the street “is not adequately configured to handle the traffic that comes through the City of Winchester” and should be corrected.

“This area,” he said, “whether there’s a high number of accidents or not, has two 90-degree angles in the course of a block for (Va.) 7 traffic, and that’s problematic. It’s even more problematic when you have the public safety building right there, and the park right there.

“Over time, that’s not going to get any better.”

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com