Property purchases in council’s sights

Posted: June 22, 2013

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — The City Council is expected to decide next week — two weeks earlier than anticipated — on whether to allocate the first $1 million toward a proposed downtown gateway improvement project.

A special council meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, prior to the panel’s regular work session.

One of the two agenda items is a public hearing on an ordinance that would approve spending at least $1 million to purchase 11 properties in the National Avenue-East Lane-Piccadilly Street area so street changes can be made to straighten and beautify a major entranceway to the downtown area.

The councilors are expected to vote on the ordinance after the public hearing.

“Things like this often have been talked about, but not executed,” Council President John Willingham said on Friday. “We need to continue to move forward so people can have confidence that we’ll do what we say.

“This will improve safety and enhance a gateway to downtown and that’s good for the city, especially since we’ve just invested so heavily in our downtown.”

At the special meeting, the councilors are also expected to vote to appoint Minh Le to the city School Board as a representative for Ward 3.

On May 21, the council voted unanimously to advance the gateway-improvement ordinance.

A first reading of the ordinance was held this month.

Normally, the public hearing and vote would be held at the July 9 regular council meeting. Willingham said he did not know for certain why it was moved up, but he thought it might have to do with sales contract terms.

Six contracts were executed on March 22. Each gave the Winchester Economic Development Authority, which negotiated the agreements before conveying them to the city, a 90-day study period.

City Manager Dale Iman and Jim Deskins, Winchester’s economic redevelopment director, were not available for comment on Friday.

The ordinance to be considered on Tuesday authorizes the purchase of nine of 10 contiguous properties that extend from 221 N. East Lane (a separately platted part of a duplex) to 216 E. Piccadilly St.

Another property — an undeveloped parcel at 247 E. Fairfax Lane — is included in the mass purchase.

The only property for which a sale agreement has not been reached is 236 E. Piccadilly, which houses The Corner Store.

The total purchase price for seven of the properties — those under contract on May 22 — is $934,000. The ordinance added three parcels to the under-contract list, but copies of those sales agreements are not included in the public agenda packet available on the city’s website.

Councilor Evan Clark said the proposed project is part of the efforts to improve downtown Winchester.

He called it “very serendipitous” that so many properties in the small area happened to be on the market — most in foreclosure actions — at the same time.

“We’re trying to make downtown more user-friendly,” said Clark, whose Ward 2 includes the project area. “That’s why we made the downtown streets two-way. The two-way streets and realigning of National Avenue just make sense.”

The expected total cost of the project has not been made public, but will exceed $1 million. In addition to property acquisition, the city government must pay to demolish buildings on the properties and build the new roadway.

Most of the properties are vacant. Because it will be at least a year before funding for the street project is available, tenants with one-year leases should not have to worry about being forced to move before their lease ends.

General drawings depicting a new, straight street connected with side streets and a new street with a roundabout have been generated by city staff members.

The expected total cost of the project has been discussed in closed sessions, Willingham said, but he could not immediately recall the figure.

However, he said the councilors agreed that cost was “reasonable for what the council is trying to do in regards to improving the safety of the corridor and improving the gateway.”

Clark said he has not received direct constituent comments about the plan to eliminate the corner, but overall remarks have been positive.

“The thing I’ve heard from folks in town is that they’re excited we’re going to streamline that travel route,” he said.

“People have talked since I’ve lived here about being baffled that one of the major thoroughfares to downtown was routed like that. For trucks in particular, it’s ridiculous.”

Willingham said people have made similar comments to him.

“I’ve heard from a number of people who have operations that draw tourists, and they’re very excited because it’s a straighter, cleaner entryway,” he said. “A lot of people in the downtown area have said they’re really excited about it.”

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com