Council may backtrack on mall surface design

Posted: January 5, 2013

The Winchester Star

Heavy equipment operators from HRI Inc., based in State College, Pa., drive their excavating equipment Thursday in parade fashion on Cork Street as they traveled from City Yards to the Loudoun Street Mall. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — Just days after a major utility project on the Loudoun Street Mall began, it appears as though the above-ground plans for the project might have to be revised.

At Thursday’s Old Town Development Board (OTDB) meeting, City Councilor Ben Weber told board members that the council is holding a special work session at 6 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the mall redesign. Councilors could decide that the plans should be changed.

At issue is the planned placement of planters in the center of the mall area to create a serpentine path for pedestrians. Because the fire lane down the mall would come close to some buildings, the space in front of those buildings could not be used for restaurant cafes or other purposes.

City Manager Dale Iman said councilors are concerned that the design could limit future uses for the buildings.

“This is not a liability issue,” he told board members. “It’s more of a fairness issue.”

The city has contracted State College, Pa.-based HRI Inc. to replace underground infrastructure along the pedestrian mall, install a new walkway and add some ground-level amenities. The project’s $7.1 million cost includes $700,000 for public bathrooms, gateway entrances and a splash pad water feature.

It’s the first major renovation since 1974, when four blocks of Loudoun Street were closed to build the mall.

The serpentine design was questioned at a December 2011 committee meeting by OTDB Vice-Chairman Stan Corneal, who owns three buildings on the mall. Corneal, a commercial real estate agent, said the pattern could affect the marketability of some properties.

“You’re getting into a potential lawsuit if somebody claimed it was a legal taking,” he said, “if they couldn’t lease to a restaurant that wants an outdoor space.”

Corneal’s comments were included in a Winchester Star story about the meeting. In March, two months before City Council gave the design its unanimous approval, he was the only OTDB member to vote against approving it in part because he objected to the serpentine path.

Iman said more concerns were raised at a Dec. 5 open house about the mall project. Plans call for planters to be placed in the center of the mall area in front of Patton’s Furniture, Runner’s Retreat, Old Warsaw Galleries and Dollar General.

He added that some trees had been placed in potential cafe spots, including in front of Patsy’s Pastry Pizzas, but were relocated.

Board member Scott Dawson said he originally favored a straight path down the center of the mall, which is what existed before work crews began the construction project on Wednesday.

But he said he was convinced that while the encroachment of a fire lane might make a building less attractive to a restaurateur, it could make the space more desirable for a retailer because it would bring pedestrians closer to the storefront.

Iman, however, said retailers also should be allowed to use the public space in front of their buildings.

Dario Savarese, special events promoter for Old Town Winchester, said the serpentine design also could affect the number of mall exhibitor spots available for future events there.

Board Chairman Lauri Bridgeforth said making the design changes will add “minimal” cost to the project, but the exact amount hadn’t been determined as of Thursday.

She said she supports the change if it’s thought that the proposed design would “prohibit future businesses.”

The board’s Design Committee members plan to have new standards for fencing, furniture and other features that might be incorporated by businesses into mall public space at their storefront once the utility project is complete.

Iman said those requirements should be finalized as soon as possible because it will take at least two months for City Council to approve the ordinance governing them. He said some businesses have begun ordering new furniture.

The board members also established Feb. 7 as the date for a retreat. No time or location has been announced.

The meeting marked the end of the first day on the job for Jennifer Bell, the city’s new downtown manager. Her salary is $68,000 annually.

Attending the meeting at Rouss City Hall were Chairman Lauri Bridgeforth, Vice-Chairman Stan Corneal and board members Kim Burke, Scott Dawson, Cory Garman, Melinda Kramer and Rick McClendon. Board members Brenda Adams and Marilyn Finnemore were absent.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com