With public’s input, first master plan for downtown begins taking shape

A draft downtown master plan debuted earlier this month at a public event at the Turner Pavilion. Photos by Eric Gorton

By Eric Gorton, senior contributor

The closed gas station on the southeast corner of West Market and South Mason streets should be turned into a pocket park. Something needs to be done to attract pedestrians north of Court Square. And murals should be added to the abundance of blank wall space on buildings.

Those are some of the comments city officials and consultants have received since March, when they asked for the public’s input on how downtown Harrisonburg should develop over the next two decades.

More than 450 comments were submitted on an collaborative map, where people could use “pins” to highlight spots that were special to them, to make suggestions for improvements or to make comments on things that need to be fixed.

City officials and consultants, hired to help guide the process and create the Harrisonburg Downtown 2040 plan, also held pop-up meetings at various locations this summer — attended by more than 150 people — to gather input and collected additional suggestions from surveys distributed at restaurants and online.

Brian Shull, the city’s economic development director and the Harrisonburg Downtown 2040’s project manager, told The Citizen in April, “We don’t want just a handful of people dictating all those decisions; it really does need to be a community’s decision. Downtown is such an important component for this whole city and county region, so we want to make sure people take ownership in that.”

Andrea Dono, executive director of Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, said city residents came through. “Everyone who’s engaged with us has been really excited about, first of all, being asked and also being listened to. I think our community is one that definitely has a culture of wanting to be involved and really wanting to be a part of something.”

Conceptual drawings of some of the changes that could be coming were on display Friday, November 19th at Turner Pavilion, including one showing Main Street narrowed to one lane with wider sidewalks on each side. One commenter suggested Main Street be closed through downtown and turned into a pedestrian mall.

Other ideas included redeveloping the Water Street and Elizabeth Street parking decks, which could lead to more housing and businesses; and replacing the parking lot adjacent to Turner Pavilion with a park.

The goal for the master plan, Dono said, is to make the center of the city a destination for visitors, investors and businesses while also boosting the quality of life for people already living and working in Harrisonburg.

“We want to make sure more people have more things to do downtown and when they come here, they enjoy the heart of their community, they spend more money, they have great experiences and they feel pride in their community,” she said.

Kirsten Moore, owner of Magpie Diner downtown and one of more than 30 community members who served on a steering committee that assisted in the process, said in an email, “I feel like the consultants very quickly picked up on the pain points downtown — train and truck noise, traffic speed, pedestrian and bike issues, beautification needs, parking, green spaces, etc. and that was encouraging in the sense that they ‘got it’ right away. … I like everything about the plan from simple and effective solutions for Liberty Street and the park project to bigger ticket items like parking decks and feed tower murals.”

The next step in the process will come Dec. 14 when representatives of the primary consultant, Interface Studio, a planning and urban design practice based in Philadelphia, give a virtual presentation to city council.

City spokesman Mike Parks said the council will need some time to review the plan before taking any action.

Moore said she feels good about the way the plan has come together. “The community conversations reiterated so many of the same themes so it feels like we’re all advocating for the same vision of downtown instead of twenty different versions of it. It gives me hope that since we’re all essentially on the same page, maybe things can move forward.”

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